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)
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?