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.

 

Issue 1

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)

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MUST......OWN!  

 

I want them so bad, I'm sick!  I wonder what is the best way of ordering some of these from Australia?

 

Are they out yet?  Only 360 items of Force Commander being produced?  That's not many.

In regard to Captain Universe, was it Contest of Champions or Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe that first said that someone was CU somewhere on the planet at all times? I think that whoever was "possessed" had the power for 24 hours. Not really the Universe, more like Captain Earth!

I went through a mini Captain Universe phase when I posted the above and bought Captain Universe: Universal Heroes TPB at a discount.  I might get around to reading it some day.  Falloo Fallay!

 

The 24 hours idea might be fun, but some of the recipients of the Uni-power in the Spotlight issues might have had it for longer than 24 hours.  There was a cat-burglar who would have had his work cut out for him working his way from the bottom of a crime-gang's pyramid all the way up to the mob boss at the top in one night.

Before I get back to the final ten issues or so of Mantlo's series, I have been reading through this thread again.

 

As is no doubt obvious, I had read very little Micronauts when I started this thread, and knew even less about the toys, the comics, or Mantlo's work generally.  I asked a few a questions along the way, and did some thinking aloud as to what was going on in the series.  By way of a corrective to some of my 'posts from ignorance' earlier on, and as a way to review the comics we have read so far, here are some notes that I wrote as I read through the thread this time:

 

 

I am looking forward to this discussion and I hope you carry it all the way through to issue #59.

 

Hah!  As the monkey said after he left his tail on the railway track: "Not long now..."

 

  • Regarding current ownership of the properties, the rights to the toy Micronauts' concepts and images are owned by a company that specialises in owning such property rights.  According to an interview with Michael Golden, who has actually been involved in several aborted relaunches of Micronaut comics, they exercise their rights by laying down so many conditions that they effectively don’t allow anything to be done with the properties.  I can't really see how that could be a sensible way to turn a profit on their investment.  Strange.

 

  • By the way, Golden designed the characters – not Cockrum.

 

  • I wondered at one point about Adam’s age on that fateful Christmas of 1978, and how Mantlo could be his father as he seemed too young when Adam would have been born.  Mantlo – A Life reveals that Adam was Bill’s stepson.  (I also want to have a look at that book before I get back to the comics again.  It is a fine tribute to Mantlo's work and stuffed with interesting material on Mantlo's career and the contexts of his comics.)

 

  • That humans and machines are on a spectrum of sentience and ‘personhood’ seems to be a philosophical underpinning of the whole series.   A fictional world like the Star Wars one strongly denied this, with its spiritual basis of the Force.   In Mantlo’s Micronauts, we've discussed the robots, but note that even the inanimate, inorganic clay of Acroyear’s world has developed sentience.  The Worldmind seems to have grown from crystal structures that linked up like silicon on a circuit board.  Another example of the inanimate taking on aspects of humanity is the romance between Microbot and Nanotron, generally unpopular as it was...  Mantlo's attitude to the potential 'humanity' of Artificial Intelligence is another little theme that Micronauts has in common with Kirby's Fourth World comics.  As people start to be improved by ‘cyborg’ parts, and scientists coax computers towards sentience, Mantlo’s vision of this issue will probably be vindicated over the next couple of hundred years.

 

More to follow...

Yesterday's Endeavours

Sometimes there is a certain serendipity between the comics I read and what goes on in my ‘real life’. One such instance is that while in the middle of this readthrough, I’ve actually had an encounter with the Endeavour*.

 

 

I’m pretty sure that Mantlo named the Micronauts’ original ship after the one Captain Cook sailed around the world. The space shuttle Endeavour was also named after Cook’s ship. Actually, looking at the Endeavour’s wiki page, there are grounds for believing that the name of the shuttle was at least partially inspired by the Micronauts’ vessel...

 

The shuttle was named in a nationwide competition open to school classes in 1988. The name Endeavour was picked by one third of entrants. Perhaps fond memories of Commander Rann’s faithful vessel in their (or their older brothers’) Marvel Micronauts comics nudged their final choice?

 

There is a NASA book, readable online, called From Ship to Shuttle, which documents the naming competition. A quick use of the 'search' facility within the text shows up zero incidences of the word ‘Micronauts’, but I can see how NASA would want to leave out any mention of a brand name associated with plastic Japanese alien toys or trashy American comics! For one thing Geek culture wasn’t as ‘in’ when the book was written as it is now. It’s worth considering though, that school-age kids tend to be more knowledgeable about toys and superhero comics than about 18th Century British explorers of the Antipodes.

 

A replica of Cook’s boat was built for Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations, also in 1988. As well as the coincidence of that year, there are some deliberate ties between the two vessels. One of the metal pins from Cook’s Endeavour was taken up into space by its namesake shuttle and is now fastened to the main mast of the replica boat, completing a kind of circle. The captain of the replica exchanged letters with his counterpart on the Space Shuttle Endeavour before the launch of that space shuttle’s final mission earlier this year.

 

The replica is currently circumnavigating Australia, and is open to visitors when it docks. So I got to see it in May...

 

 

I hadn’t really registered, before looking these things up, that Mantlo spelled his ship Endeavor, with the US spelling, whereas the name of the space shuttle was spelled Endeavour in the UK fashion, after the original British naval ship.

Like the Micronauts themselves, space shuttles are part of the landscape of my childhood, which probably explains why I am giving them a whole post here. My teacher at school took the unprecedented step of bringing a television to school so that we could watch the first launch of the Columbia in 1981, so it was a big deal at the time. As any melancholic will tell you, all things must pass. The last flight in the shuttle program ended in July this year, and that era is now closed. The last mission was supposed to have been that of the Endeavour earlier this year, which would have been a nice poetic way to round off this post, but one more flight was then scheduled for the Atlantis.

 

Whatchagonnado?

 

*just not Rann's Endeavor.

Is that you posing in from of the Endeavour replica? At last, a face to go with the name!

One of the original 12 Constellation class starships in Star Trek was also named Endeavour .

I tried scoring some of those toys LJ posted about last month above, but the selection wasn’t great and they were definitely targeted at the collector market. I’d take mine out of the packaging and play with mine! Gave ‘em a pass.

I covered Captain Universe (old and new) a while ago on the “Marvel’s Cosmic Comics” discussion thread. (FYI)
http://captaincomics.ning.com/forum/topics/marvels-cosmic-comics

The confusion regarding who designed the characters probably stems from the the cover of the first issue and perhaps a general unfamiliarity with how comics are made. The same confusion surrounds the design of Spider-Man’s costume because Jack Kirby, and not Steve Ditko), drew the cover of Amazing Fantasy #15 (the published version, anyway).

Listen, I haven’t forgotten that I promised to write something up on Micronauts #48. There was a time earlier this year that I at least thought about it every single day. I’m still carrying a copy around in my briefcase and think about it every time I open it. Unfortunately, I’m a day away from stepping away from the board for a week or so for a little holiday. I won’t ask you to hold the discussion now that you’re in the mood again, but when you least expect it, expect it!

"At last a face to go with the name!"

Yeah I always imagined Figs looking like Lucien from The Sandman or an Irish Vision! ;-)

Yep, that's me.

 

Yes, when I was thinking about buying some Micronauts toys, I was wondering if I would open the packets or not...  A real dilemma!  I might look again at buying them.  They are quite expensive.

 

I covered Captain Universe (old and new) a while ago on the “Marvel’s Cosmic Comics” discussion thread. (FYI)

 

Ah yes, I was enjoying that thread.  I think I have Hulk Annual #10, so I should read that some day for some more Mantlo Captain Universe goodness.  BTW, I got Road to War of Kings out of the Library twice since the end of your Cosmic thread, but couldn't bring myself to read it.  I'm somewhat disenchanted with a lot of modern Marvel comics.  Reading all of Siege so closely showed me that current Marvel comics work within very narrow parameters, both creatively and ideologically

 

I haven't really been holding up this thread waiting for your comments on #48.  Just been doing other stuff.  I did want to review Mantlo's Micronauts work a bit before heading into the final furlong.  I won't be as interested in doing that once I've read all of them.  After these next few comments I want to do a quick look at Mantlo - A Life.

 

******************

 

I’m most looking forward to seeing how Mantlo resolves Acroyear’s arc.  Although there have been longeurs, particularly in the more recent issues we’ve looked at, Acroyear’s is a great story. 

 

I think Acroyear’s character in particular was something that Mantlo got very right with this series.  The annoying ‘fan elite’ comicbook guy in the letter pages was right to say that the depiction of him in such uncompromisingly noble terms went ‘against Marvel principles’.  Mantlo is much to be praised for using his comicbook story to present an ideal hero and leader, rather than a conflicted, compromised one with feet of clay.  People have been turning to stories for such admirably ‘unrealistic’ heroes for a very long time, and I think that, with Acroyear, Mantlo is drawing from a very deep well indeed.

 

Acroyear is suffering for his choices, but his choices are all the right ones, and it’s his people that are fallen, and who are wrongly judging him.  That’s a very interesting take.

 

I like how, as he has become more noble, his people seem to become more ignoble.   Philip said earlier on that Acroyear and Star Trek TNG’s Worf seem to have a lot in common.  The more I read, the more it would seem to be so.  Worf was something of a breakthrough character himself, so Mantlo is somewhat ahead of the curve here.

 

The closing of Celicia’s arc should be interesting too.  She seemed to be conscientious enough to stand by her man for a long time, but when we last left her, her ‘conditioning’ as a child of a militaristic quasi-fascist nation has gotten the better of whatever nobility that might have rubbed off from Acroyear.  I really have no idea how things will pan out between these warring Acroyear lovers. 

 

Which is a good place to have your reader as the final act of your epic begins

As I’ve already said, when I opened Micronauts #1 back in May 2010, I knew nothing about the Micronauts at all, apart from the few glancing encounters I’d had with them in my first phase as a superhero fan back when I was wee.  So I’m aware that much of what I wrote in the thread above was from a position of ignorance.  I’d have to say that that is a great way to approach this type of thread, as the fun is in the discovery.  The strange thing is, given how little I knew about Mantlo’s miniscule Marvels at the time, that I was still fairly confident that reading all the issues and posting about them would be an enjoyable and worthwhile ... “Endeavor”.

 

Still, just to balance out the ignorance of most of the thread above, I thought I’d introduce some better documented factoids, and some opinions of those involved, mainly taken from the Bill Mantlo tribute magazine, Mantlo, A life in comics.

 

First of all, in the letters pages of the early issues, which I;ve since seen, Mantlo comes clean about some of the influences that he drew on for his epic, and which I had guessed from the evidence.  Adam Strange is very much in Commander Rann’s DNA, and Strange gets a shout-out from Mantlo on one letters page.  Then Mantlo explicitly pays tribute to Kirby’s Fourth World, too in an acknowledgment that the Microverse’s Bug owes much to the Fourth World’s most famous Bug, Forager.  For some reason I love both characters, so its great to see them linked in this way.

 

In Mantlo, a Life, Golden confirms that the first 12 issues were plotted out in advance, in some detail.  Thinking beyond the monthly grind paid dividends as far as the quality of this run goes.  On page 23 we learn that Stan Lee and Jim Shooter were both extremely sceptical about the comic once they’d seen a rough draft of the first issue.  Too complex and too many strange new concepts for the kids, it seems.  They hated it.  On the one hand, maybe this illustrates how each generation’s great innovations and attempts to speak to their peers in their own way is misunderstood by their seniors, but on the other hand, maybe Shooter’s and Lee’s scepticism helped to ensure that issue one was as accessible and successful as possible.

 

Certainly, one of the real strengths I see in Micronauts, was that it brought fresh ideas and stories to the young people of its day in ways that were specifically theirs, rather than presenting them with some warmed-over variation of what had pleased their big brothers and even their parents.

 

As is common in the experience of talented artists in the comics industry, Golden had a tough time while he worked on his issues.  As well as the time pressures (and scheduling about-turns) that we’ve already mentioned, he was pressurised into making his art less “confusing”, and he adopted a more Kirby-esque art style from issue 7.  I hadn’t really noticed on my initial read-through, but I must look out for a change next time I read this series.

 

I wonder how much of the decision to use Kirby's style was Golden’s and how much was Marvel editorial?  It’s common knowledge that they presented Kirby’s work to all new artists as the Marvel style.  This was at the exact time Kirby quit Marvel for the final time.  They had no shame!

 

We are also told In Mantlo A life, that Mantlo himself loved seeing his little subjects done in the Kirby style.

 

I’ll look at what the magazine has to say about the post-Golden artists in my next post.  I was very surprised by what it had to say about Broderick, in particular.

I wonder how much of the decision to use Kirby's style was Golden’s and how much was Marvel editorial? It’s common knowledge that they presented Kirby’s work to all new artists as the Marvel style. This was at the exact time Kirby quit Marvel for the final time. They had no shame!

I would imagine the Kirby influence was more on Golden’s part than it was Marvel editorial edict. Was Marvel even still using Kirby as the gold standard by the mid-seventies when The Mircronauts debuted? Again, guessing here, but I would imagine that a title both Lee and Shooter were skeptical about was pretty far beneath editorial radar and the creators would have been free to do more or less whatever they chose to (much as Lee and Ditko were able to with Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15).

As far as I can tell, in the 70's, the "standard" look was John Buscema.

I always thought Michael Golden had one of the STRANGEST styles I'd ever seen at the time.

No doubt you'd have more knowledge of the bullpen of this period than myself, Jeff. The Mantlo magazine is worth a read and of course the money goes to a good cause. There's a ton of inside info from the various horses mouths, regarding Marvel in the late 70s. There seems to be quite a bit of original interviews done for it, as well as clippings from various fan-magazines of the time.  There is quite a bit of context that I am leaving out concerning Golden's switch to a different style. It seems to have been reluctant on his part, and motivated by time-pressures more than anything. As I say, it's worth reading in full.

I would have thought Lee and Shooter's skepticism would inspire closer attention and interference from them, rather than less. There was quite a bit, according to the magazine. Golden was disgusted and announced around issue 7 that he'd be leaving soon . The switch to Kirby-style wasn't exactly a happy, willling one for Golden.

I can see that times would have moved on in terms of the surface styles of comics, but I don't find it hard to imagine that old Kirby comics were pulled out now and then to illustrate how Marvel comics should work. The basics wouldn't change over time, in terms of engaging and dynamic layouts and breakdowns.

Kirby for punch, and Buscema for polish, as it were...

Yes, Golden's was a strange and individualistic style.  Almost European, even.  Was he some kinda communist, or what?   However, the first year of Micronauts was a blockbusting success, went down a storm with the readers, and rivalled X-Men for sales. Byrne mentions this success specifically in his long 'Comics Interview' piece I mentioned elsewhere.

Too bad Marvel had cooked the goose by the time they realised it was laying 'Golden' eggs for them...

 

Footbullets.  Lock and load.

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