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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Figserello said:
I think the first 12 issues are a special case, and worth looking at in as much detail as I can for now. Its a nuts and bolts "how to ..." lesson in building a superhero space opera from scratch and structuring a long-form story. Sure, you can develop this template, as creators have, and add more depth to the characterisations, and build in more flaws and failings into them, or you could work against the narrative conventions that we are seeing so effectively deployed here, but this is pretty much the baseline. Not all superhero space operas need exactly these elements to work, but in terms of pacing, pre-devised structure, emotional peaks and troughs, good chemistry amongst the team, etc, this one is like a manual.

Actually I have problems with "Original Saga" as this implies that it terminated right after issue 12, to be revived later, which isn't the case. Micronauts: Year One has a nice post-Miller feel to it, but I'm getting the impression that the events herein, with their breakneck pace, don't take longer than a week in-story, or two at the most! I'm still open to suggestions, as I think we'll be referencing these 12 issues a lot later on.

Thinking about the rest of the series, I'm hoping to do a post per arc rather than per issue, and I'm not aiming to go into as much detail. Looking ahead I'm missing 13-15, 19 and 23, so I might take it up to issue 20 or so before taking a break. I'd guess the first annual, which I don't have, is in there too, somewhere. I'm itching to see how Mantlo continued from the great ending of the ... ahem ... Original Saga.

Regarding the Star Wars robots, I always inferred that they were programmed to mimic human emotions but actually had none. “Softies” such as Luke, however, would tend to anthropomorphize them.

You have unique insights yourself! A hard existentialist might say that humans are socially programmed to mimic human emotions but actually had none... Being human means you fake it til you make it. Its an ...emerging property. Mantlo's story, so far at any rate, seems to follow this idea.

R2-D2's bravery and C3P0's cowardice seem to have a more complex basis than their original programming. But now we're in waffle territory*.

*Why do I feel I've just summoned the Baron?

I'm more of a pancakes fan, myself.
I am loving this thread! Please keep it up!

Interestingly, I just happen to be reading the Micronauts novel from 2002 right now. I didn't bother bringing it up because there was no real connection to the comics... That is, until today when I got to the halfway point of the book and suddenly realized that the author has basically set up an alternate/former timeline situation (not unlike the new Star Trek movie) where the reality (of his story) is in fact a poisoned/altered version of the "correct" timeline, which would be the comics! This is all very subtle (it has to be, since the author doesn't have permission to use the Marvel-created characters like Rann and Bug), but it suddenly became obvious when it dawned on me that the main character's name ("Ryan Archer") is remarkably similar to "Arcturus Rann", and that his father is named "Dallas". Arcturus's father was, of course, named "Dallan".
How about "The First Karza War"?
From Doc Photo: You have me primed and ready to re-read my Special Edition copies.

Good to hear! Glad I'm not just a voice crying in the wilderness. These comics are well worth appreciating all over again.

Looking back, some of Marvels most entertaining comics in the Seventies were those that largely avoided Marvel Universe ties, like Micronauts and Master of Kung Fu and Tomb of Dracula.

The more I find out about how superhero comics are produced, and all the restrictions surrounding them, it becomes clear that creators have to approach them in all kinds of ways to produce really good ones. Relative to ongoing superhero comics of the time, the Micronauts had the following advantages:

• Brand new and no continuity baggage.
• They are very much ‘of their time’, not created in the 40s or the 60s. Is it daft to think that the kids of the time could really embrace them as theirs, not their big brothers?
• Creatively under the control of one committed writer for virtually all of their adventures.
• With a whole universe virtually to themselves the writer could structure huge planet-scaled conflicts that didn’t need Earth to be reset before the next issue of Fantastic Four came out.
• The characters weren’t just created in the usual manner as superheroes that had a good set-up and then hope that good adventures could be milked from them indefinitely. A lot of them have their arcs, and their place in relationship to the other characters and within a very well-structured narrative. The Micronauts are not just characters, but elements in a story, who are of course perfectly suited to that story. Superheroes are often fitted into stories that don’t quite work. Iron-Man vs Cap is the most obvious recent example of that.
• Regarding the well-structured narrative, it was probably unusual at the time to envisage a 12 issue narrative that reads very much like a complete novel. The likes of Claremont had plotlines that took a long time to play out, but you never felt you were in the middle of something that was thought through to a real conclusion.
• As a new comic on the stands, both the connection to the toy lines and the similarity to Star Wars gave it a push so that helped it find its audience much more quickly than a new title normally would.
• Really, it has all the advantages of a great creator-owned property, but with occasional appearances by the Fantastic Four and Plantman!

Earlier Doc Photo post: Some twenty years later as I became increasingly disenchanted with current day comics, I began to search out Bronze Age series I missed the first time around. Based on enthusiastic reviews, probably on the old message board, I bought a couple of Micronauts issues on Ebay and was hooked. Fortunately my local comics shop had the complete Special Edition reprint run in-stock.

I guess my own story is pretty similar. I haven’t given up on current comics, but I view a lot of them very cynically, as they view us! Micronauts has a freshness, not least in the heroic attitude of Rann and his pals, which is pretty rare today.

I have heard again and again that the Micronauts were fondly remembered and still worth reading, so I jumped at the chance to try them out when I came across a run from #28 – 39 in my LCS. I haven’t look back since.

So that's at least 3 of us that found the Micronauts a 'guilty pleasure' long after we should have left childish things behind. I guess a good comic is a good comic...

I now consider the Mantlo/Golden run as one of the high points for 1970's Marvel

I’m coming around to that way of thinking myself… Not just good but extremely popular as well. Always good to see the two together.

By the way, I notice I’ve made a boo-boo in an earlier post. I said that Golden might have based the “Galactic Command Centre” on the “Interplanetary Headquarters” shown in that link. Well, it was more likely based on the “Galactic Command Centre” just below the Interplanetary HQ.

…Obviously.

You’re definitely on to something Mr Satanism. Probably no-one would publish or read a Micronauts novel in the 21st century if not for Mantlo’s great comics, so the novel’s acknowledging that debt.

Not financially of course! God forbid! Or your namesake forbid, even!

Let us know if they manage to fix that dodgy timeline!

I was going to write up the final issue of the Original Golden Year One First Karza War Saga this evening, but will instead spend some me-time away from the keyboard.

In other news, I managed to score all four copies of X-men and the Micronauts for 50c each during my lunchbreak.

…Which was nice.
I was going to write up the final issue of the Original Golden Year One First Karza War Saga this evening, but will instead spend some me-time away from the keyboard.

Good for you! Enjoy your brief respite but hurry back. We’ll be waiting!

I finished reading the SE yesterday and am currently in the midst of negotiating a special “guest lecturer” to handle Micronauts Annual #1 for this discussion since I believe you said it isn’t part of your collection. Regarding what to call the first arc, yet another name suggests itself to me. Marvel’s second volume of Micronauts was sub-titled “The New Voyages” so maybe the first 12 issues could be “The Early Voyages”…?

Speaking of the “Galactic Command Centre” and the “Interplanetary Headquarters,” I find myself looking at all of the sundry equipment Michael Golden has drawn and wondering how much of it came from that “refrigerator-sized” box of toys Mego sent Marvel. Quite a bit of it, I’d guess. Looking at the indicia of the SE I see registered trademarks for many vehicles and characters not mentioned by name in the series, such as: Hydro Copter, Repto, Antron, Neon Orbiter, Thorium Orbiter, Star Searcher, Ampzilla, Lobros, etc.

In other news, I managed to score all four copies of X-men and the Micronauts for 50c each during my lunchbreak.

Those fit in continuity between issues #57 and #58, BTW, if you didn’t know.

I just happen to be reading the Micronauts novel from 2002 right now.

Really! I didn’t know there was one (or if I did, I’d forgotten). Given the timing and the characters names you mention, though, I’d conclude this is a direct tie-in to Images’ Micronauts series, which launched in 2002 and featured Ryan Archer as Space Glider. (Come to think of it, “Dallas Archer” looks very much like Arcturus Rann after he’s aged later in the Marvel series.) I think Image had a definite disadvantage in comparison to Marvel because I doubt they had a refrigerator-sided box of toys to use as raw material. That, and although some “Image-zombies” would have picked up the series with no prior knowledge of Marvel’s Mirconauts, older readers could help but make a comparison to Marvel’s earlier and more successful series. Image’s first issue is dedicated to Bill Mantlo, BTW.

As I mentioned above, yesterday I read the Micronauts issues which feature Captain Universe. Marvel has a tpb collection of all of Captain Universe’s appearances, but there’s one missing. Back in 1994, as a lark, I sent away for of those personalized comic books in which my name, friends and home town were inserted into an adventure with the X-Men. It even came with my own trading card!

Hey, if Bob gets to be the White Lantern I get to be Captain Universe!
There is a small local comic convention coming up second weekend of July. I have been compiling a list of stuff to search out. Looks like I'll have to add the post-Golden Micronauts issues to my list.
As often happens, I set a particular reading project for myself (Micronauts #1-59, say), but now that I'm twelve issue in, I find myself thinking about Image's Micronauts series or Marvel's Star Wars series or Michael Golden's work on The 'Nam, Don't worry; I'm still in for the long haul, but this is why I often don't finish reading projects: I'm too easily side-tracked (and in cases such as this I usually follow my desires rather than my initial goals).
I finished reading the SE yesterday and am currently in the midst of negotiating a special “guest lecturer” to handle Micronauts Annual #1 for this discussion since I believe you said it isn’t part of your collection.

Exciting! From a brief look on the interwebs, the action takes place before Micronauts #1, but as you've found with your John Byrne Angel prequels, stories like this usually give away a lot of later developments. The original audience was assumed to already know what might otherwise be SPOILERS.

Looking at the indicia of the SE I see registered trademarks for many vehicles and characters not mentioned by name in the series, such as: Hydro Copter, Repto, Antron, Neon Orbiter, Thorium Orbiter, Star Searcher, Ampzilla, Lobros, etc.

That's actually another reason why the Micronauts are a bit special. Because they are adapted from a particular line of toys, the vessels and equipment all look a bit strange and have their own flavour. These designs had their own restrictions. (Had to be big enough to house the figures, but not so big that Santa couldn't afford them!) As you imply, later non-Marvel Micronauts probably just had standard sci-fi movie/comicbook tech.

But the clincher for quality, is that Mantlo was under no obligation to name all this stuff in-story. Thus no-one felt as if they were being 'advertised to'. The 'sweet spot' in licensed product comics again...

Those fit in continuity between issues #57 and #58, BTW, if you didn’t know.

Was wondering about that. As to eventually reaching them on this thread...

As often happens, I set a particular reading project for myself (Micronauts #1-59, say), but now that I'm twelve issue in, I find myself thinking about Image's Micronauts series or Marvel's Star Wars series or Michael Golden's work on The 'Nam, Don't worry; I'm still in for the long haul, but this is why I often don't finish reading projects: I'm too easily side-tracked (and in cases such as this I usually follow my desires rather than my initial goals).

I'm a bit like that. I really love starting things, but I'm less good at finishing them. I could probably put my hand on scores of prose books at home that I've started and enjoyed, but not finished. I've noticed that on most reading threads on this site (and probably other sites), an awful lot that is worth saying is said while looking at the first few issues, so commentary does dry up. As an aside, I was sorry to see Doc Beechler's PAD Hulk thread on the old board fizzle out rather early on in David's run, but we did discuss the whole series up, down and sideways at the beginning, so maybe there wasn't a lot left to say... (I've saved that thread though, and might restart it myself some day. I love that run.)

I've been trying to counteract that effect by using each issue of the Micronauts as a springboard to look at a different aspect of the series as a whole.

That's also why I'm thinking of going ahead in arcs rather than issues. (It does mean that I'll have to figure out what constitutes an arc while in the middle of things.)

I've surprised myself by sticking with* the Grant Morrison reading project so far. (Helped by Mark Sullivan's occasionally stepping up as topic leader and pace-setter.) That's taken a bit of discipline, but I definitely wouldn't be doing it if I wasn't enjoying it. Actually, one of the reasons I'll be taking breaks from the Micronauts is that I feel a bit guilty neglecting that ridiculously huge reading project. I'll have to jump into it again soon.

So the Micronauts is a bit 'secondary' in my priorities, but its great to see that a lot of people are enjoying the thread. So long as there is a bit of interest, I'll try to keep it going. I'm certainly looking forward to reading the rest of the series. (I got most of The New Voyages last week, too, but who knows if we'll get to that!)

*"hijacking and sticking with" is probably a better way to put it.
I have both of the Micronauts annuals and neither gives away anything of import, especially if you've already read up through issue 11.
It seems to have been published around the same time as issue #12, so we can slot it in here anywhere. I'm hoping to get issue 12 written up later, and then see how issues 13-15, and the first annual go.
Issue 12 – To the Victors Belongs a World!


Image from www.comicvine.com

The final issue of the First Karza War arc is in two halves. It opens on Homeworld, where we see the physical and political rebuilding after the successful rebellion. It’s a bit of comicbook realism as we see that freedom has come at a price. This is emphasised in the appearance of Argon and Rann, both recovering from injuries sustained in the last issue. Further, Rann finds out that Bug was lost in the battle.

The Dog Soldiers and “other supporters of the overthrown oppressor” are ushered before “the revolutionary courts.” It sounds very ominous for them, but Mantlo skips over the culpability of those soldiers who were ‘just following orders’ and indeed what the punishment should be for those who aided and abetted Karza.

Rann gets very upset at the news that Acroyear must return to his world and his people. Perhaps his judgement is impaired by his meds! It’s obvious that Acroyear, with a recently freed world and people to rule, can’t be haring around the Microverse with a band of explorers. Actually, this is one of the problems of continuing most genre stories of this sort. Why should the Prince and the Princess go on further adventures once they take up the responsibility of ruling and settle down to ‘happy ever after’. I’ve read issues #28-32 or so, and I can see that Mantlo has already laid the seeds for how Acroyear becomes a wanderer again, so he has thought around this problem.

Of course technically, Rann is the child of the last legitimate King of Homeworld, so he should really be the King now. But he really is an explorer at heart and it’s hard to see him bothering too much on that score.

With this talk of ‘revolutionary courts’ and the rebels pointedly calling each other ‘citizen’, as revolutionaries in France and possibly America referred to each other, recalls a phrase from Mantlo’s text piece in SE issue 5. He describes the Micronauts as ‘democratic to a fault’, whatever that means. For the most part Micronauts is a great synthesis of ancient fairytale and mythological narratives with 20th Century concerns. However, the way that no-one questions the right of royalty to rule the post-Karza society seems to be a bit of a blind spot. Of course no-one stood up to Karza as consistently as Argon, Mari and their royal family, so that probably gets them a pass. It’s a bit like the Spanish Royal family. Their King stood up to the army who wanted to replace Franco with another dictator in the 70s, and he is held in high esteem by the Spanish to this day, as someone who made a very useful contribution to their freedom.

The Micronauts is a basic template for this kind of fantasy, but creators have been working away at these little blind spots since the 80s. The rebels in Firefly lost the revolution, and live on at the fringes of a seeming utopian society. Only last night I watched an episode of Battlestar Galactica where Baltar had managed to sow discord in the ranks of the colonists by pointing out that though they were all on the same side, only some of the wealthiest families got to join the glamorous fighter pilots, or become rulers. (A great episode!)

There is a brief detour to Earth as the Time-Traveller checks in on the Coffins father and son, who are now enjoying a new closeness. He also sees the army finding a preserved Microversian mini-person amongst Prof Prometheus’ things. We then see a cigar-smoking figure sending an agent to ‘a certain party in New York’ with a package. It would seem to be Nick Fury sending information about the Prometheus Pit and the little cadaver to Reed Richards. I like how subtle this is, because although it does set up future storylines, it doesn’t detract from the great feeling this issue has of wrapping up the novel-like first 12 issues.

The reminder of issue takes us to Spartak, where Acroyear and Shaitan prepare to settle their fraternal tensions once and for all! I’ll deal with that in my next post, and look further at Mantlo’s text piece where he addresses where he took the saga from there.
MICRONAUTS ANNUAL #1:

The first annual tells three tales which not only occurred before issue #1, but the very day before issue #1. As Brad already pointed out, the annuals don’t “spoil” anything from the first arc but the first one does fit in well between the first and second arcs. Regarding today’s guest speaker, allow me to introduce, direct from the Enigma force… The Time Traveller! (Give ‘im a hand!)

Welcome to Inner Space! I am Time Traveler, emissary of the Enigma Force, and your guide to the following trio of tales! In the first story the players -- Commander Arcturus Rann and Biotron -- are known to you, their exploits having recently been chronicled on Earth!

Yet, there is still much that will be new to you -- revelations untold, players, like Galactic Defender, encountered before a time when sinister events in the Microverse conspired to unite a team of champions… the Micronauts!


This is a fairly inconsequential tale set 364,999 days into the 1,000 year voyage of the HMS Endeavor, presumably giving Mantlo the opportunity to work a toy into the plot he couldn’t fit elsewhere.

Commander Rann and the Endeavor were almost home, but they but they would soon discover they were not returning to the same planet they’d left 1,000 years before! Homeworld had changed from a virtual paradise to a living hell! The benevolent monarchy was weak, crumbling! The powerful Baron Karza -- master of the foul Body Banks, through which he dispensed life eternal to those who met his price -- had become the real ruler of Homeworld! But there were those -- like Princess Mari and Prince Argon -- who dared defy Karza! This is their story!

This story focuses on the Prince and Princess, shows the King and Queen killed, and shows Bug and Acroyear captured.

The final tale in this trilogy concerns two warriors from different worlds of vastly different temperament tossed together as a result of Baron Karza’s conquest of their respective home planets! Bug, an Insectivorid from Kaliklak, and Prince Acroyear, warlord of the stone world Spartak, had formed a firm, if unlikely, friendship!

It remained to be seen whether either would survive Karza’s Arena of Death!


Of course we all know they did, but this story gives Mantlo (and Ditko) the chance to introduce the Mego toys Terraphant and Hornetroid into the mythos via Karza’s “Arena of Death.” After reading the SEs, the abrupt switch to 30 year old newsprint was an abrupt shock. It would be nice to see Ditko’s art reproduced on nicer paper stock.

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