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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I actually have a very VERY hard time enjoying the annuals because of the artwork. Ditko is no Golden (and vice-versa, I suppose), and his art just doesn't suit the characters IMHO.
Mr. Satanism said:
I actually have a very VERY hard time enjoying the annuals because of the artwork. Ditko is no Golden (and vice-versa, I suppose), and his art just doesn't suit the characters IMHO.

Ditko is one of those artists I can't be objective about. I didn't really like his artwork as a kid, but his Spider-man reprints I read then were just great storytelling. And I enjoyed his Machine Man and Hulk stories back then, but see now that a lot of that enjoyment was down to the artwork I didn't think I liked at the time!

Now he's just been a part of my comics reading life for too long for me to stand back from his work. He is a master though, even if his later work looks more slapdash. It's not flashy, but it took a certain genius to make all those talking heads in early Spider-man comics look dynamic and visually interesting.

I've read the second Micronauts annual and seeing his artwork there was like having an old friend around for a visit!

It's certainly not polished though. His depiction of Muffin the dog in one of the info pages was like no creature I've ever laid eyes on!!
Thanks to Jeff and the Time Traveller for that look at the 1st annual. I'd really love to read it some day.

I wonder to what extent Mantlo felt obliged to include each and every toy. It was his freedom of interpretation that made this a great comic.
Issue 12 Part Two - Blood Feud!

The reminder of the issue works out the feud between Acroyear and his brother Shaitan. There is a fine sequence where Acroyear’s description of how his people became hard and warlike is intercut with the King rising from his throne to approach Shaitan. Actually the warlike background of the Acroyears may be an instance of narrative ‘negative space’ that readers of The Unwritten learned about a few issues ago. Phillip was right to compare Worf of TNG to Acroyear. It looks to me that Worf has some of the Acroyear King in him, and it’s very possible our toughest Micronaut influenced the portrayal of Worf, consciously or not. One example is that both have a stately manner of speech that doesn’t use many contractions. Both are idealised warrior figures. Acroyear is obviously the better fighter, because hardly an episode of TNG went by without some intruder on the deck getting the better of hapless ‘Security Officer’ Worf!

Viewers had a rich and detailed knowledge of Worf’s Klingon people from previous episodes of Star Trek, and knew well that although he was an idealised warrior, his warlike people were bloody-minded, aggressive bullies. The Acroyears are somehow warriors without us seeing who they fought or why they fought. Mantlo's script skims over the moral complexities of having a militarised society where the status quo depends on finding new foes to fight. Of course, we are shown that Acroyear, as the best of them, wants to find a new way of living, but the rest of the society gets off lightly. They say it’s impossible to hypnotise someone into doing what is against their interests, so perhaps the Acroyears submitted a little too easily to Karza’s ‘thoughtwash’? Becoming his warriors gave them a whole universe to fight on behalf of Karza!

Shaitan has been tried by the Acroyear court, but asserts that he has the princely right to challenge the verdict by blood-feud! So he and Acroyear are dropped on the Shattered Plains to fight it out. Acroyear has decided that should he beat Shaitan, he will spare his brother the death-sentence and banish him instead. Mantlo has drawn his characters with a few very broad strokes all along and during the fight Acroyear is noble, constantly trying to reach out to his brother and save his life, whereas Shaitan all along damns himself by admitting to his love of treachery and hatred of Acroyear society. All he wants to do is kill Acroyear. There is a small trace of psychological subtlety in that Shaitan has convinced himself that everyone hates him because he is uniquely an albino, which Shaitan may well have felt growing up, but Acroyear has long stopped judging Shaitan for his appearance, if he ever did.

In the end Acroyear accidently kills Shaitan while trying to parry his blow, and he curses the planet and its culture which has encouraged brother to kill brother like this. I’ve read a few issues from around 20 months later, and it’s great to see that Mantlo had a long satisfying arc mapped out for Acroyear at this point.

In the final panels a smiling Time Traveller looks down as Bug is deposited back on his homeworld, having been somehow saved from death in battle of Spartak.

Having now read all 12 issues, I have to restate how broadly and simply Mantlo has drawn these characters. Acroyear is strong and noble, Bug is roguish and happy-go-lucky, Mari and Rann love each other. All the Micronauts are incredibly brave and don’t hesitate to fly into conflict on each other’s behalf.

It's refreshing to read such simple and effective characterisation. All the above are great traits and behaviours, and it’s fun to see heroes acting them out. Escapist fantasies since The Micronauts tend to have very conflicted, self-conscious and hesitant heroes. Think of all the times Buffy has tried to lay down her responsibilities, and of how neurotic her companions are, often causing the horrors which Buffy fights. Look at how ambiguous the moral choices of the crews of Battlestar Galactica and Firefly are habitually shown to be.

I’ve compared the Micronauts with the Toy Story crew before, but the comparison is worth thinking about. Actually, I think there is quite a bit of Commander Rann in Buzz Lightyear. When I first saw Toy Story, it was clear that Buzz was based on the heroes of Star Trek and Star Wars, but I was confused at the time about where his glider wings came from. No space hero I could think of had them. Having now read The Micronauts, it’s hard not to think that that Rann is in Lightyear’s DNA somewhere, right down to his finding himself a small hero in a big threatening world.

In the text piece to the final SE, Mantlo talks about how he and the artists hated having to show the Micronauts battling for survival against the over-sized threats of planet Earth.

“I hated that restriction. I think it showed in the stories. Small heroes in a big world had never succeeded before. Oh sure, these heroes were different....strong, armed to the teeth, et cetera... but the fascination of pitting a hero against giant plumbing or Aunt Birdies pet parakeet grows old pretty fast.”

Toy Story refutes this assertion completely, but it also illiustrates what I mean about how our heroes have changed. Sure, the main characters in Toy Story masquerade as traditionally macho space rangers and gunslingers, but have to learn that they are fragile and almost completely ineffectual out in the real world. They are riddled with all kinds of insecurities and self-doubts. Whereas Rann learns that in all the cosmos only he has the Enigma Force power to beat Karza, Buzz has to cope with the realisation that he is nothing special and even confronts a whole aisle of Space Rangers just like him, except with even better extras! Our Micronauts, despite being mass-produced toys themselves, have no time for such existential worries. They charge in like true heroes and put their world to rights.

The chief scripter of Toy Story was Joss Whedon, whose love of certain Marvel comics from the Micronauts’ heyday is well documented. It’s practically certain that Mantlo’s tales of toy space heroes in a world of giants was a real influence on his script.
“I hated that restriction. I think it showed in the stories. Small heroes in a big world had never succeeded before. Oh sure, these heroes were different....strong, armed to the teeth, et cetera... but the fascination of pitting a hero against giant plumbing or Aunt Birdies pet parakeet grows old pretty fast.”

Except for me, apparently. I'll watch/read almost anything exploiting this premise, from The Micronauts to Honey I Shrunk Something Else Because I'm a Dangerous Doofus to the old Gordon Williams Micronauts novels (no relation).
Incredible Shrinking Man is a great movie, rightly a classic.
Kirby's early Ant-man was great fun too.

I haven't seen it in years but the Fantastic Voyage was a big deal in its day, and starred Raquel Welch.

Mantlo does seem to be dissing a good proportion of what made the Mironauts special with that sentence. That's their big 'differentiator' from the other space operas they were copying whose tradition they were in. That they were these little aliens running around the MU made them seem very exotic to me as a kid.

And that interaction with the MU also ensured that the comics reached a wider audience at the time, even though Mantlo had built in great ways it was competely cut off from the MU too.
Now that I think about it (and despite what I may have indicated earlier in this discussion), I would have been perfectly happy with the Micronauts set entirely in the Mircroverse. I did like those Michael Golden covers of the Micros interacting in the Macroverse, though; they remind me a bit of some of the old Ant-Man covers from Tales to Astonish. I really wouldn't have minded Golden Age-style "cover gags" every issue even if the stories were set entirely in the Mircoverse. Maybe some would have thought that deceptive, but I think it would have been a nice compromise, one which should have satisfied the Mego people as well.
The "tiny aliens in our world" element may have made Micronauts more accessible and interesting to younger readers.

Figserello could easily be right about the Micronauts and Toy Story, especially the glider wings.
I've been mulling over the first 12 issues of Micronauts. The visit to Earth was obviously mandated by Mego, perhaps against Mantlo's will, but Mantlo made it fit beautifully into the artistic structure of his novel-like plot.

The most basic plot is that the Micronauts become Homeworld's most wanted fugitives, they flee to the edge of the universe*, break the barrier, continue fleeing to the Florida everglades, via H.E.L.L, then return to Homeworld via H.E.L.L. again to challenge Karza.

This plot-structure is as simple as a boomerang's flight path. They flee for the very good reason that they haven't a hope in hell of beating Karza's empire, but even though they are brave and fearless, it takes the events on Earth to convince them that they have to take the war back to Karza. However, (the clever bit this!) notice how it is Marvel's embodiment of Fear itself - the Man-Thing - that the Micronauts must battle with before deciding that they have to go back and fight the good fight.

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing excelled at using these pre-exisiting elements of a comic-book universe as thematic devices, but Mantlo is using Marvel's 'raw materials' really well here, years before Moore's epic... and with a shambling swamp creature, to boot! It's great that the Everglades are near Cape Canaveral into the bargain. Artistic intent meets fictional and real-world geography to great effect.

*It only takes a panel or two for the Endeavour to make the return journey to the edge of the universe at the end of the first issue, but Rann's original journey took centuries! We're not really told about the upgrades that happened before Rann takes off again in issue #1!
Figserello said:
*It only takes a panel or two for the Endeavour to make the return journey to the edge of the universe at the end of the first issue, but Rann's original journey took centuries!

Perhaps he took "the long way" the first time.
I started re-reading the series via the Special Edition version, reading one (original issue) per lunch hour. I then come back to this thread for the appropriate review.
Jeff of Earth-J said:
Figserello said:
*It only takes a panel or two for the Endeavour to make the return journey to the edge of the universe at the end of the first issue, but Rann's original journey took centuries!

Perhaps he took "the long way" the first time.

Well, the series itself refers to Rann's ship's old-fashioned FTL drive being superceded by the hyperdrive system while he was away and we saw a panel of the hyper-powered ships zooming past the Endeavour while it 'trundled' along...

My guess is that once they started zooming about with hyperdrive engines, Rann's ship would have been just impossible to find. A real needle in a haystack. So they just had to wait until he made his way back home. (He was probably in the very busy shipping lanes close to Homeworld for the 20-100 years or so before issue 1, but everyone thought it was a laugh to let him snooze on...)

Doc Photo: I started re-reading the series via the Special Edition version, reading one (original issue) per lunch hour. I then come back to this thread for the appropriate review.

Glad you are enjoying it. Any commentary on the commentary adds to the fun. The SE issues are a bit special indeed. I'd guess they were big sellers back in the day. In a way, a whole new model of publishing comics was staring Marvel in the face when they brought the SEs out in 1984. The major cost on the stories had already been spent, so they could afford to touch up an already proven story with better colouring and paper, include little extras and redo the chapter beginnings and endings as needed.

Mantlo had devised a novelistic12-issue plot that anyone could jump into at issue 1 and follow through to the end without feeling they were missing something or left hanging at the end. It's only a few steps away from the publishing model of Tin-Tin and Asterix where you have a back-catalogue of high quality material continually in print.

Even when Marvel did start putting together collections of their back-catalogue, they were very choppy and just felt like a few middle-issues of a comics series thrown together. Marvel didn't really pursue comissioning work for monthly publication that would stand later as an accessible collection for Joe Public to enjoy. In the end their collections were for fanboys only.

DC's publication of stuff like Watchmen and DKR was just around the corner in 1984, but even they didn't pursue the huge market those books opened up with any enthusiasm. I wanted something like Dark Knight Returns after I read that, but had to settle for Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters, which, apart from the quality differential, felt only like the start of an ongoing series. Most of the narrative questions were unresolved at the end of it.

The market and positive mainstream commentary that Watchmen and DKR opened up soon drifted off when it became clear that the follow ups from Marvel and DC were so continuity heavy.

All of this opens up questions about royalties and ownership of properties, which makes this run all the more remarkable, in that it was 'twice removed' from the creators. Mantlo having relatively free rein to execute his vision and having one extremely talented up-and-coming artist doing all 12 episodes also make it feel like a complete work, though.

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