The beginning of the end of Mantlo’s Micronauts.
I had a lot of fun reviewing the first 50 issues of Bill Mantlo’s Micronauts comics, but as happens in many comics discussion threads, I dropped off along the way and never did get around to finishing the whole run. The discussion got a fair bit of reaction and support, and I’ve been feeling increasingly bad about leaving it up in the air.
So this is the first of a short series of discussion posts that should cover the final 9 issues of the series plus a rather high-profile, big-whoop limited series that crossed over with the X-Men, no less!
Mantlo’s run can be divided into 4 ‘acts’, each climaxing with a fateful high-stakes battle with Baron Karza, our tiny super-team’s perennial arch-foe. Kicking off in 1978, the highly-acclaimed first 12 issues were a rather fresh and original take on the old space-opera trope of ragtag team of warriors versus an all-powerful empire. The comics were a huge instant success, for which the contribution of artist Michael Golden can’t be under-estimated. He provided the excellent character designs and distinctive settings, and produced some fine comics storytelling.
The defeat of the dictator Baron Karza in issue 11 was followed by a series of issues that paled in comparison, and suffered from Golden’s departure as artist. However, things reached a respectable level of fun, drama and excitement by the mid-twenties. In these issues, Nick Fury and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. teamed up with the Micronauts to fight off an invasion into ‘our’ Earth by the armies of a revived Baron Karza who have allied with Hydra! All this in a Disney-esque amusement park!
Although Karza was defeated, the Micronauts then found themselves pitted against Prince Argon, a former ally turned ruler of the Homeworld empire. Argon had come to embody the principle of absolute power corrupting absolutely. This third act, in turn, climaxed with the revelation that Argon had been possessed all along by Baron Karza, who finally erupted from Argon’s body in all his malevolent glory.
The impressive extra-sized Issue 50 was an incredible sustained battle where many longstanding characters, heroes and villains alike, lost their lives. Mantlo had carefully engineered the lead-up to this landmark showdown by making it all part of his plotting that there was an accompanying rainstorm and it was set in a grand arena during a public ceremony. The Micronauts barely escaped with their lives, and Karza was left once more in charge of Homeworld, and its empire.
Looking at the whole series up to this point, The Micronauts had struggled to recover after Golden moved on from pencilling duties. It’s clear that the Marvel Method, used widely in this period, relied on good artists doing much of the storytelling and plotting. It’s no surprise that the Marvel Method first developed while comics legends Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were doing their best work for Marvel, but it does require artists of that calibre for the Marvel Method to result in great comics. It’s clear that Mantlo, for all my admiration of his work, did rely on a good artist doing a good proportion of the narrative heavy lifting, and The Micronauts suffered due to a lack of an artist as committed as Golden working well with the writer.
Pat Broderick did have a long stint as artist on the series (issues 19-34). His work is pleasing to the eye and much of the series is entertaining while he is on the pencils. The Micronauts seems to demand an intricate, almost baroque level of detail from the artist, perhaps to give the impression of a tiny, fully-realised miniature world, and Broderick’s illustrative style lent itself well to the ethos of the comic. However, it seems that Mantlo was increasingly unhappy with Broderick’s work, especially how Broderick often completely missed important plot beats that Mantlo was trying to put into the comics.
I should give special mention to Danny Bulanadi. He was inker from issue 23 right up to issues 51 and 52, under discussion here. Bulanadi’s work was always in sympathy with the detailed and ‘baroque’ approach that seemed to serve The Micronauts best. His embellishment gave a hard, realistic sheen to Broderick’s work and also, vitally, helped to bring a unity and consistency to the series when it was going through a variety of artists after Broderick left, some of whom seemed to supply only sketchy outlines. Bulanadi got a special editorial mention in a later letter column for his Trojan work keeping the show on the road during this rough patch before Guice came on.
This rather low-key panel is nevertheless a good showcase of Bulanadi's particular strengths. There's the level of intricate, baroque detail evinced in all the differently designed Acroyear helmets. Also note how the wood, steel and rock surfaces all have different textures.
Reading the first 50 issues, it’s fascinating to follow Mantlo’s waxing and waning enthusiasm for the project. It seemed to me that when his interest was ebbing, the team get split up, and wind up struggling through dumps and sewers, whereas when he becomes more enthusiastic and is working well with the artist, we get triumphs taking place in grand arenas and amusement parks, with snipers taking up positions in moving rollercoasters! (!!!??!!!)
Jackson ‘Butch’ Guice (rhymes with ‘nice’, we’re told several times) is the artist who guides the book through these final issues we are about to look at. In him, the series seems to finally get an artist fully prepared to do justice to Mantlo’s vision for the series. Bulanadi sticks around as inker for several issues to provide continuity when Guice takes over with issue 48. As well as providing his distinctive ‘Micronauts sheen’ it’s possible that Bulanadi improves some of Guice’s less slick early work. Micronauts was Guice’s first regular gig as an artist, and he was still quite young at this point, being in his early 20s. To my eyes there is a bit of a drop in quality when Guice starts to ink his own pages after Bulanadi leaves. There’s a certain assurance and slickness that artists develop as they continue working and it’s sometimes just not there yet with these first half dozen or so Guice issues. These are only nitpicks, however. Guice’s style really suits the series. He clearly gives everything to it, and it’s a pleasure to see how quickly he develops as an artist.
Looking back over the first 50 issues, it’s interesting to see the general shape of the series which Mantlo and his artists developed month by month, and to get an understanding of some of the challenges they faced getting the books out there on schedule.
Issues 48 – 50 were very strong, with a great extended trip into the Microverse at one point, and the bringing together of multiple strands of narrative to bring us to the showdown in the arena. Issue 50, which I reread lately, is something of a superhero version of the final chapter of Moby Dick, in how the calamity, death and destruction reaches such an epic crescendo.
This brings us to the issues we are now going to look at, which are much more low-key, and somewhat of a return to the Micronauts default level of storytelling. Issue 51 and 52 mainly concern another fateful encounter between the mighty Acroyear and the people he formerly ruled, collectively known as the Acroyears as it happens. Since Acroyear sacrificed their planet in order to destroy Karza the second time, way back in issue 28, they have been wandering refugees, looking for a new home and nursing a serious grudge. Sorest of all is Cilicia, their current leader: an ex-Micronaut herself, and Acroyear’s former lover. As is the way with these warrior races, Acroyear must prove himself and his honour against the current sovereign of the Acroyears, in a battle with his beloved.
This battle culminates in everyone realising that Cilicia is pregnant with Acroyear’s child. Gasp! This child will be the new ruler of the Acroyears, and unhappily for our band of fun-size freedom-fighters, this means that the mighty Acroyear people will sit out any confrontation with Karza, not taking sides until their projected new King is ready to rule them.
Micronaut comics of this era are noteworthy, because they are 34 pages long, rather than the usual 22-24 pages long. Given that, my main plot above might seem fairly slight for 68 pages! There are other things going on. A recently-aged Commander Rann has retreated to his quarters where he is trying to commune through meditation with the Enigma Force, the ‘soul of the Microverse’ and the mysterious Time Travellers, who dwell within it. He wants them to use their cosmic powers to aid the peoples of the Microverse against Baron Karza, but they are insisting on remaining above the fray.
We also see Baron Karza consolidate his power back on Homeworld, by sending as many people as possible to the Body Banks, to be converted into Dog Soldiers, and also by wiping out whole races of people who oppose him, such as the aquatic Mer-people that we last saw in issue 31.
Still, there aren’t a lot of plot points in each issue. Partly this is down to Mantlo adapting the rhythm of his stories to 34 pages, taking a bit more time to let things happen, and to allow the art team do their thing. Partly it is the custom in Marvel comics of this era for each major character to tell us everything about themselves during the course of their dialogue in each issue. So in every installment we get several panels telling us that Acroyear is the former King of a warrior race who has been banished for his role in the destruction of their home planet Spartak, and that Mari was a former pampered princess of Homeworld who has become a battle-hardened field-leader of a team of freedom fighters, to name but two of the cast. Apparently it was a requirement which the Editor-in-Chief of Marvel comics at the time insisted on, so we can’t lay the blame entirely on Mantlo. In his defence, he sometimes manages to slip this back-story into the conversations quite naturally, but other times it's quite annoying to see these people explaining their life story yet again to those who've not only heard it all before, but actually lived through much of it with them!
To be fair, these updates were very handy when I picked up issue 50 recently to start posting on these comics after a year or two away.
Notwithstanding how professionally they are produced, the main point to make about issues 51 and 52, is that there is a sense of treading water and returning to past glories. Specifically here, Acroyear’s fight with his estranged lover echoes the great gladiatorial battle between Acroyear and his estranged brother in Michael Golden’s last issue. This kind of return to past glories has happened before in the series, and for me show that some series may only have enough ‘story’ for a limited number of issues and shouldn’t necessarily be dragged on and on, just because there is a market for them.
The Micronauts, in particular, has its conclusion built-in, insofar as they are all about their battles with Baron Karza, and there are only so many times he can be brought back before their confrontations with him lose any excitement value they might have had. Mantlo just about gets away with Karza’s repeated returns so far, because he seems to have put a little thought into how to make it work, and to make each iteration of Karza work differently and illuminate a different facet of his themes. However, I’ll discuss that at more length in a later post.
Speaking of later posts, this is where I’ll end this one, but I invite you to join me next time for a look at issues 53 and 54, as the Micronauts go looking for allies in a weirdly familiar place.
Thanks for resuming, Figserello. Micronauts always seemed to be "its own thing" despite meeting so many of the 616 characters. Bill Mantlo sure seemed to have a personal interest in the tale and to have plotted in significant advance.
Having just now began to read the earlier posts, I noticed that you ask about the possible significance of Ray Coffin's speech at the close of #7. I don't know if they were even seen after that issue, but there is a subtle subplot in #2-#7 about how Steve feels is father distanced since his mother's death. It was not really mentioned much in those action-packed issues, but it is there, and I gather that Ray realizes that at some point after melding with the Enigma Force.
Thanks for the comment, Luis. Always appreciated.
It looks like Mantlo plotted each of the 'acts' or 'movements' that I identify above well in advance, and we get recurring themes, and intriguing build-ups and good character arcs within each of them, and all building up to strong climaxes.
Apparently the great first 'act' came about because Golden decided to leave around issue 6 and they made a conscious effort to tie everything up by issue 12.
Mantlo is known as the 'fill-in guy' on Marvels more mainstream booksbooks, where he produced perfectly fine one-off scripts that didn't connect too strongly to the ongoing continuity of whatever book it was. Occasionally that Mantlo shows up scripting Micronaut comics, but perhaps the series suffered when that happened
The Coffins were an interesting addition to the saga. They grounded the series as an ordinary Earth single-parent family.
They also tie in with the recurring inter-related themes Mantlo was weaving through the entire series of people being seperated from their families, being isolated from their loved ones and 'real lives' and losing themselves in outer space, or voyages of the imagination. Love and death, isolation and imagination.
Ray Coffin's name and occupation as an astronaut parallels Commander Rann's space voyages away from his family and responsibilities, in his Coffin-like stasis bed.
It would seem these themes may have been something that Mantlo himself was working through, being a young parent of growing children, who spent so much time voyaging away from them into the imaginative universe of 616.
Perhaps readers don't consciously pick up on this kind of imagery and thematic play, but I'd suggest they did on an unconscious level, and this is one of the reasons why the first 12 issues are so highly regarded.
I can't say how consciously Mantlo put this much sophistication into this series. Coffin is a heck of an unusual surname, isn't it? But all this is certainly heading towards the kind of literary complexity Alan Moore's superhero work is so celebrated for, and I'd like to see Mantlo get more praise for how much he is pushing the boundaries of superhero stories sometimes.
For what it's worth, Rann is once again seperating himself from his 'family' in these final issues, spending most of his time away from the team, meditating and trying to contact the Enigma-Force, while the beauteous Mari starts to look elsewhere for comfort and companionship. Again, that's riffing off earlier themes in a rather sophisticated way, and giving a unity to what would otherwise be a long sprawling shaggy dog story.
I was rereading the original thread myself, and I noticed that I mentioned that I was loving Acroyear's character and wanted to see where it was going. Well, I guess the encounter with Cilicia I discussed above is more or less the conclusion to Acroyear's arc, as far as his creator is concerned. The refugee Acroyears put everything on hold until the new King is born, and even then, they'd have to wait until the child reaches some kind of maturity before expecting proper leadership from him/her. On the face of it, it looks like Mantlo is writing them out of any of the storylines he might be projecting in the medium or longterm.
A weirdly inconclusive conclusion to Acroyears fine arc! Possibly Mantlo had something in mind to draw the Acroyears back into the story again further down the line, but it looks like his tenure on the series drew to a close earlier than he expected, and this is what we get. I still have to read the final two issues, but even if something is added in those regarding the Acroyears, there wouldn't be much room to add anything significant to that strand.
I suppose, if we looked at it philosophically, there's a certain truth to how Acroyear's struggles are left hanging in the air. In the real world, at some point, most parents come to the realisation that whatever they might acheive on their own merits, it is their children who will eventually have to continue the good fight beyond them, and deal with the unfinished business of their parents' generation.
To go back to the Coffins again, the relationships between parents and children, in all their complexity, has been a running theme throughout the series, and it suddenly erupts into Acroyear's arc here.