An in-depth, issue-by-issue exploration of Marvel's Micronauts comics, including background on the Mego toys, the publishing contexts of its 1978 - 85 run, as well as its place in the pop culture and some of its lasting influences.
Last Free Comicbook Day I managed to almost complete my recently started back-issue collection of Micronauts. I have almost all the issues up to the end of volume one and a few of volume two, but as Bill Mantlo wasn’t involved in volume 2, I’m not as interested in those. I think it’s great that the writer who created the comic series was able to tell the stories he wanted to tell for 60+ issues. (More or less – see later posts.)
The story is that Mantlo was inspired to create the Micronauts comic series at Christmas 1977, when he looked closely at some of the Micronauts toys his son had got. The Micronaut toy line was begun in 1976 by Mego, and Micronauts issue #1 was released by Marvel comics just before December 1978 with a January 1979 cover date. (30 years ago!) It was Mantlo who pushed Marvel to acquire the rights to the toys as he was convinced he could tell a great tale with the properties. Sadly, this meant that Mantlo’s perhaps best and most fondly remembered work is twice removed from him in terms of ownership of the ideas.
This is a good site that focuses on the toys rather than the comics, and will give you an idea of the raw materials that Mantlo had to work with.
The dates are interesting, because a lot of Micronauts is reminiscent of Star Wars, which was released in May 1977. Most similar is the major villain Baron Karza, who, with his jet-black armor and face-covering, grill-mouthed helmet, is incredibly similar to Darth Vader. A lot of the elements of the story too, are similar, beyond the rollicking space-opera/medieval fantasy feel. Baron Karza commands a galaxy-wide empire and our heroes are a minority band fighting what seems at first to be a hopeless rebellion. Further, just like Star Wars, the hope for the future lies with the children of the recently ousted royalty. (Princess Mari is even introduced wearing a kind of headdress that is an echo of Princess Leia's Apple Strudel earmuffs)
As the toys, the comic and the movie all came out around the same time, it’s possible that they were all thought up independently, but some of the plot developments in Mantlo’s tale must have been partially inspired by Star Wars. The series is ostensibly science fiction, but like Star Wars there is a force permeating the universe that functions much as magic would in a fantasy story. In Jack Kirby’s New Gods it was called the Source, in Lucas’s film, the Force, and in Mantlo’s comicbook space-opera it is the Enigma Force that binds the universe together and grants supernatural powers to those who can tap into it.
In many ways Micronauts is a much more successful attempt to do what Kirby was trying to do several years before. It is much more accessible and simple than the New Gods, which was off-putting to many. It’s a more kid-friendly New Gods with the corners knocked off it and the rough edges smoothed out.
Mantlo came up with a fairly original source of Karza’s political power, which has nothing to do with the toys. Karza is a former professor whose control of the body banks, where obedient citizens’ lives can be extended indefinitely, has given him power over the whole society. Fear of death is something fundamentally human, so it’s interesting to see it worked into this fantasy tale so overtly.
The main hero of the early parts of the story is Commander Rann, also known as Space Glider. He has been on an extended deep space voyage to the edge of the universe for the past 1000 years, so he serves as an excuse to tell the reader what has been happening in the meantime. His many years of suspended animation have somehow linked him to the Time Travellers, who are otherworldly representatives of the Enigma Force. His ship is very old-fashioned compared to what are used now in Karza’s empire, so what took him hundreds of years can now be travelled in a matter of days.
A helluva lot happens in the first issue. Prince Argon and Princess Mari are captured by Karza. In his prisons they meet Commander Rann, the mighty warrior Prince Acroyear and the roguish Bug. We also meet the robot pair of the tall, fastidious Biotron and the small, brave Microtron. (Hhhmmmm!)
Rounding out the cast are the mysterious shadow priests, the villainous Acroyear Shaitan, and the enigmatic Time Traveller himself.
At the end of the issue, the rebels, having escaped from the prisons, flee to the very edge of the universe and break through to the Universe beyond.
Issue one ends with the following: “Six fugitives breach the fabric of space and streak faster-than-light speeds towards.... EARTH!”
(1400 - 170512)
Well, before I jump into the Micronaut comics in the read pile, a few points.
Of course I have only been collecting back issues of Micronauts for about a year and only here in Brisbane, so my sample isn't very scientific. Still, it did strike me that there seems to be a lot of copies of 38-40 around, but 41-43 were impossible to get my hands on.
I wonder was this due to Marvel over-estimating how many copies of Micronauts they would sell by the Direct Market, as issue 38 was when that switchover began. Then they readjusted the numbers downward, only to realise that they were now selling to the barest minimum of core readers and needed to keep a few extra copies out there to bring in floating readers that might start collecting it? The alternative would be to have a continually dwindling readership for Direct Sales titles.
In any case, I'm sure Marvel were having trouble adjusting to the new sales model with its inbuilt flaws.
Then again, perhaps Doctor Doom, the Avengers and Mantlo getting the core story on track again back in the Microverse may all have meant that copies of 41-43 were snapped up. I know I'd love to read them!
Earlier Philip mentioned the Scott Lang Ant-Man's visit to the Microverse in Marvel Two-in-One. It was in issue #87 rather than #86, but I'm still astonished at Philip even hitting the ballpark at this remove! As it happened we were tidying up around my place and rearranging rooms lately and yes, Marvel Two-in-One #87 just happened to land on my bedroom dresser. I didn't even know I had it, and can't really guess why I bought it. It had been in a stack of Two in One's going cheap. I hadn't realised when I got it that it tied vaguely into the Micronauts and was set on a Microworld, so perhaps it was the appearance of Scott Lang that decided for me. I also got an issue starring the Vision, perhaps to see if he cries in it.
Two-in-One #87 - Murder on a Microworld - is a model of a certain kind of bread-and-butter Marvel superhero story that they don't make any more. Scott Lang's ants pass on the message to him that they happened to hear Reed Richards wishing to speak to Henry Pym. Once at the Baxter Building, he finds that the Thing has shrunk down into the microverse as a side-effect of one of Reed's experiments. Wotta revoltin' development!
Lang seems to be smart, but he doesn't have Pym's knowledge of 'shrinkology' - perhaps the word is 'ensmallmentisation' - and can't figure how to go about rescuing Ben. Reed's sudden brain-wave is pretty mind-boggling. He suggests Scott - get this! - release an even larger dose than usual of his shrinking gas! Huh?
This works, even though the degree of ensmallment we are talking about is a huge factor larger than what Lang normally shrinks to. Even by comicbook science, he'd need a tanker truck full of compressed shrinking gas....
Anyway, Lang shrinks to the Pearla's Microworld, rescues Ben and prevents an interstellar war before gettng the inhabitants to zap them both back to the Macroverse.
As well as the snappy plotting, I loved how this comic showed how joined up the MU was around this time. There are references to Reed's reducta-craft getting destroyed by Antrons in Micronauts #40, and to Henry Pym going underground after becoming a criminal in recent issues of Avengers, which also ties into the Wasp's complaints about him in Micronauts #42. The issue is from May 1982, synchronous with those two issues of the Micronauts.
I thought I'd mention the issue here, as a later Micronauts letters page suggests that Mantlo got some kind of inspiration from this story for an upcoming plotline in Micronauts. We shall see...
He (Reed) suggests that Scott--get this--release an even larger dose of his shrinking gas!
Actually that was how the first Ant-Man did in Fantastic Four #20. He shrank to ant-size, then shrank again proportionately, so forth until he entered the Microverse. Thus if Henry Pym was available, he could have helped the Micronauts return home!
So perhaps it was the appearance of Scott Lang that decided it for me!
That's why I loved books like Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-In-One, Brave & Bold and DC Comics Presents. It gave these "lesser" characters a chance to shine. After his debut in Marvel Premiere #47-48, Ant-Man II guest starred in Iron Man and The Avengers but no one was exactly clamoring for Ant-Man Comics, so this was as close as he got to the spotlight.
It was in #87 rather than #86...
I hate when I give out wrong info but I didn't have time to check out my indexes. Going by memory has its drawbacks! ;-)
but because this was an “emergency”...
I like your sense of priorities.
Actually that was how the first Ant-Man did in Fantastic Four #20. He shrank to ant-size, then shrank again proportionately, so forth until he entered the Microverse.
Well, if it happened in a Lee-Kirby comic, the comicbook science is unimpeachable. I take back everything I said.
Thus if Henry Pym was available, he could have helped the Micronauts return home!
The issue does say that Pym is lying very low and doesn't wish to be disturbed (He's disturbed enough as it is!) So it does explain quite satisfactorily why the Micronauts weren't able to look him up around this time.
I don't remember Ant-man being involved in early forays into the Microverse at all, but I'll have to go back and swot up my Essential Fantastic Fours.
I loved Ant-Man II's origin and reread it a load of times back in the day. Great art too. The down-on-his-luck single parent thing made him someone really different and ahead of his time, to boot. Too bad he never caught on. The single parent thing was also a hindrance, as we see in this issue of Two-in-One he had to arrange a babysitter before heading off on his adventure (from which he may very well not have returned!).
My Essential reading is stuck in the late sixties now, and I have to finish Daredevil and Iron Man's 60's adventures before I move on to the 70's stuff, but I'm looking forward to reading the Two-in One's when I get to them. Crazy old-school Marvel fun.
The first analyses why Karza works as such a chilling villain, and makes the politics of the Microverse very plain ie its Royalists vs Fascists!
The second compares the ending of the first Karza War in issue 11 with the climax of American Flagg by Howard ‘Don’t call me Howie’ Chaykin.
The blogger, Colin Smith, only got the first 12 ‘Golden’ issues, alas, so we won’t see any similarly insightful posts on the later Micronauts comics. He’s not the first commentator I’ve read who gave up after issue 12. Perhaps issue 11-12 was just too satisfying an ending to risk going back again? A lot of young readers then must have seen it in the wind that the comic was going to become a more standard Marvel superhero comic after this. It seems fashionable now, to say that one loves the early Golden issues, but to denigrate the rest of the run. This is a pity as the SHIELD/Hydra/Karza conflict in #24-28, and the Quest for the Keys to the Microverse in #30-35 are as good as anything Marvel produced in the 80’s.
Smith’s two pieces are very insightful and wise, and I’d have to envy him his ability to bring his argument together, and make his points so clearly. In comparison, I’m doing no more than thinking aloud as I go. In my defence, he’s had almost 30 years to ponder Karza and his downfall, whereas I only started reading Micronauts last May!
Micronauts #44-47 Worlds Apart
Frustratingly for me, issue 43 appears to be a pivotal chapter of the grand epic, as the team is split up once more. Subsequently, Rann, Microtron, Nanotron and Devil are stranded on Earth, trying to find a way back to the Microverse while dealing with Rann’s confidence issues and Devil’s ferocious animal side. Meanwhile Mari leads Acroyear and Bug in reviving the rebellion against her brother Argon’s regime. Issues 44-47 show how the two teams fare in their separate worlds but even by the end of issue 47 everything is still up in the air regarding their reunion and the rebellion. I’ve just chosen to discuss these issues together because I’m missing issue 48 (hint, hint) and thought to talk about these comics as a group rather than individually.
I’ll be dealing with each team separately, so the covers aren’t going to be in chronological order. Once again we are seeing Mantlo deftly manage what seems to be strictures imposed from outside the tale he wants to tell. Namely he has to have the Micronauts interact with the mainstream MU, its heroes and villains, and at the same time present the Micronauts whole raison d’être as rebel freedom fighters. This time he does it by splitting the team up so that one group keeps Shooter happy in the Marvel Universe, and the other gets on with the essential task of armed revolt in the Microverse.
In Micronatus #44, Rann's team has to deal with old adversaries Computrex and Professor Prometheus. This little episode turns on the strange ways humanity and machinery are often fused together in this series. Although Prometheus is no longer alive, Computrex can control the robotic parts of his cyborg body, and although we are told his brain is dead, Prometheus talks and acts as if he is enjoying capturing and torturing his old enemy Rann. It seems that some part of Prometheus personality has transferred to the cyborg remains.
Further, Computrex himself wishes to use Rann’s knowledge of the Microverse to journey there himself and use the technology of the Body Banks to give himself a cyborg body, rather than remain trapped in the stationary computers of H.E.L.L.
Rann is saved when Devil climbs out of the Prometheus Pit, now transformed into a darker creature and proceeds to tear apart, first Prof Prometheus himself and then Computrex. Unfortunately, Computrex gets his revenge in before he is completely destroyed, by causing the four Micronauts to be converted into light and beamed out of H.E.L.L.
By the kind of staggering coincidence that Marvel fans of the 80’s didn’t even blink at, the next issue, Micronauts #45 sees our heroes, in their light forms, being intercepted by a beam that X-Men foe Arcade was using to bring his mutant enemies back to his place for some fun and games. Each of the team end up in a different 80’s arcade game.
Although they can hold their own against each game’s enemies, it takes Microbot to analyse what has happened to them and effectively transform them from images on a screen, trapped in a game, into their previous flesh and blood/nuts and bolts forms. Typical of these comics, Mantlo is playing with very intriguing ideas here, but doesn’t develop them much. I was strongly reminded of the themes of being trapped in a virtual reality that Grant Morrison has used to great effect in The Invisibles, Sebastian O and elsewhere. Microbot’s deft analysis of the situation and recognition that the world he finds himself in isn’t ‘real’ is very like the realisation that occurs to Animal Man and other Morrison protagonists.
Come to that, the way Computrex had transformed them into pure light and sent them on to their next adventure is very like how Aquaman, Green Lantern and the Flash are sent back from Wonderworld as beams of light during the Rock of Ages arc of JLA. Even the way their light forms effectively become information within Arcade’s computer program is a precursor to Morrison’s JLA musings how light, information and energy can be interchangeable.
In Morrison's books the heroes find that the trap of 'reality' seems so real until they manage to get 'outside the game' and see it for what it really is. This is very fertile ground for Gnostic musings. In Micronauts #45, we see something intrigueingly close in concept. The games look like clunky 2D 80's computer games from Arcade's point of view, but within the games everything seems solid and 3-dimensional to our tiny heroes.
Mantlo doesn’t develop any of this, even though it would become a highly profitable avenue of speculation for the Wachowski Brothers in the decades ahead. However, these philosophical sideroads are undermined by the way Mantlo often conflates the physical and the conceptual. We saw this before in issue 29’s journey into Rann’s mind, where half the landscape was constructed of Rann’s memories and the other half was the grey pulpy mass of his actual brain. In this case, we have to ask, if the Micronauts are converted into light and trapped within a computer program (which exists only as code, remember, of which the game screens are only a representation), why would they then jump out of the monitors when they become solid again?
In any case, Arcade gets the fright of his life when the tiny hardnuts burst out of his consoles, so he hits the ejector seat and flies off. At the end of issue 45 our heroes are stranded on Arcade’s sinking hideout somewhere in the region of Bermuda...
I'll probably take a while getting through these 4 issues. Once I've done Rann's team I'll be going back to look at Mari's team on Homeworld. Mari's adventures are more like one whole story than Rann's episodic encounters.
I'm really looking forwrd to the final few issues once we get past issue 48.
Micronauts # 46 Adrift/Graveyard
In Micronauts #44-47, the adventures of Rann’s team bookend each issue, with Mari’s team at the ‘heart’ of each comic.
Here, we get a glimpse at the production pressures the creators may have been under. The whole issue seems to be called ‘Adrift’ according to the opening splash page, and then we cut to the middle Homeworld section without a new chapter heading or anything, but when we segue back to Rann in the Bermuda Triangle for the conclusion, it’s suddenly ‘Chapter Three – Graveyard’.
No doubt each monthly being about a 3rd longer than usual is causing headaches. On the letters pages we are told several times that the higher page count leaves the creators with no time to provide the requested Micronauts annuals.
The first chapter details Rann’s attempts to get his team to safety following the sinking of Arcade’s platform. Devil has now become the ‘enemy within’ as he attacks his team-mates when his ferocity periodically takes him over completely. Devil by name...
He is only calmed when Microtron plays a recording of the music Fireflyte used to play for him on Tropica. Tropica only appeared for one issue, but it had an intriguing society. We saw they were all obsessed with playing a game to the exclusion of all else. Devil’s current plight indicates that the whole society of Tropica turned on the interdependence between the Enigma-powered sprites and the otherwise savage Devils, and thus Devil’s gentle fun-loving persona is an unnatural societal construct of sorts. Mantlo does keep throwing out philosophically interesting little scenarios like this.
Devil’s swinging between his old self and a dangerous beast is getting a little tedious though. There is an element of Mantlo keeping him there just to add danger and drama when nothing else is going on.
In this issue, Devil goes crazy again after Microtron plunges into the sea to rescue Nanotron, taking the music that calms the savage beast with him.
As Rann loses the last three members of his team in quick succession, the arc he is on at this point becomes more clear. He is going through a phase of extreme self-doubt, losing faith in himself and his capabilities. Having to shoot Devil caps it all for Rann. He does it reluctantly, but decides that he must if he is going to rescue the other Micronauts and make his way back to fight for Homeworld’s freedom.
Although they are presented as happy, enthusiastic members of Rann’s team (at least initially in Devil’s case), I am probably not the only reader who has trouble accepting Devil and Nanobot as fully fledged Micronauts. Nanobot is visually very poorly designed. All the circles in her design and her one eye don’t add up to a good look for Nanobot. Devil merely seems like a poor man’s Beast, especially after he gets burnt a darker grey colour. Nanobot may be in it for the love of Microtron, but it’s hard to see Devil’s motivation for joining this danger-prone group. The ease with which Devil gets over the loss of his symbiotically attached ‘other half’ Fireflyte and leaves his idyllic homeland isn’t really explained well enough. Neither he nor Nanobot have the hardcore commitment to the cause that the original Micronauts had thrust upon them by their personal suffering at Karza’s hands.
It’s another vindication of the storytelling choices Golden and Mantlo made in the first 12 issues in having each of the characters individual histories and fates so bound up with the outworking of that initial arc. None of them were mere ‘passengers’, as Nanobot and Devil seem to be. Given the mechanics of ‘Marvel method’, I’m inclined to believe Golden had some input into how the characters were set up regarding their motivations. When we see that later characters internal lives don’t mesh so perfectly with the external story as before, we have to ask what is different at this later stage, and one answer might be that Michael Golden is gone...
That Nanobot and Devil come across as the Stuart Sutchcliff and Pete Best of the Micronauts is probably down to another aspect of the sterling work Golden put into the groundwork of the comic. Visually, all of the original characters were very ....Micronauty.
By which I mean that they all looked like they fit into the world of the Mego toys, as developed in a particular artistic direction. Of course, it helped that the original toys had distinctive features common to many of the models, like the chest ‘nipples’ sported by such diverse characters as Microtron, Karza and Acroyear. But even the specially created characters looked as if they belonged in this particular imaginative world. Marionette had the same streamlined contemporary sci-fi look as Rann, whilst Bug’s Insectivorid physique had the segmented look of the other jointed figures in the toy line. Indeed, Bug looks of a piece with actual toys that were added to the line after he was created. The comicbook Death Squad contains some examples of those new toys.
It’s hard to imagine the furry Devil or the non-angular Nanobot as actual Micronaut figures. Over thirty issues after he’s left, the comics are still presenting us with evidence of how wonderfully Golden applied himself to the task of creating a beautifully integrated imaginative world.
One of the reasons I separated my posts on Rann’s team from those on Mari’s was because I believed Mantlo was more interested in her attempts to kick start the rebellion on Homeworld than the Shooter-mandated adventures on Earth, and I wanted to get the Rann sections out of the way. As we draw to the end of these 4 issues however, I can see that Mantlo manages to make Rann’s story more engaging, and he finds a way yet again to elegantly dovetail events on our Earth with the destiny of Homeworld.
It all begins when Rann gets separated from his team halfway through issue 46. The scenes of his rescue by strange creepy Micronaut-sized creatures have an eerie power. The creatures themselves look a little like the Mars Attacks aliens with their big eyes and bulbous heads, although they don’t really have other proper facial features. Rann is carried unconscious through an overgrown ‘graveyard’ of airplanes and the corpses of their crews that have been lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Bizarrely he is taken to the skeletal remains of one dead airman that serves as a ‘cathedral’ to these creatures. They carry him through the skull’s jaw doorway and down into the rib-cage central chamber, where a hibernation couch awaits him similar to the one he slept in all those years while exploring the universe with Biotron.
Once again, Mantlo presents us with imagery of time-lost travellers, sleep, death and unconsciousness. And again, the hibernation couch is the link between those themes and Rann’s long voyage away from home, family and responsibilities. In case we missed the subtlety of these connections in earlier issues, this time the couch is placed right inside a giant dead body! As well as the thematic connection between the dead World War Two aviators and Rann’s title as a Space Glider, there is also the connection between the war these airmen left behind and the war Rann has been seriously considering abandoning at this point.
Amongst the dead men on the island, are airmen in both Allied and Nazi uniforms. Perhaps it is an indication of the depths of Rann’s existential despair. In the end it didn’t matter which side these airmen were on as the same dark fate awaited all of them. Mantlo masterfully uses all these details of Rann’s environment to show us where our troubled hero is psychologically. Rann’s strange procession to the couch is presented with the trappings of religion and reverence, adding to the power of this sequence.
What can it all mean? Find out in our next installment...
Jeff of Earth-J said:
I read issue #48 over the weekend, but I'm afraid my meager thoughts won't be as in-depth as your analysis of #46, Figs. I agree with everything you said and don't really have anything to add. I'll wait until I see your analysis of #47 before I post my thoughts on issue #48.
Does Commander Rann remind anyone of Vance Astro from the original Guardians of the Galaxy, not the New Warriors one? Their situations are similar, complete with emerging powers and long sleeps.