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)

Views: 8251

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Phillip said (quite a while ago!):Was Commander Rann named after Adam Strange's planet Rann?

Obviously the two space heroes are cut from the same cloth. Rann, with the fin on his helmet and flight pack on his back, is an update of the 50s space hero for the 70s, in the same way that Han Solo, with his waistcoat and low-slung pistols, is an update of the cowboy hero for the same decade.

Normally I'd only think that a writer was homaging someone else's work when that work has been out of the spotlight for a while. It's another kettle of fish to homage something that is an ongoing success while you do it. Then you are in satire/commentary territory. I see from this site that Adam Strange's last regular appearance was a string of reprints in Strange Adventures that ended in 1973. There were a further 2 reprints in Action Comics between then and 1975 and 4 more in 1976 in DC Super-stars..

Before that, Strange's last original adventure was "The Magic-Maker of Rann" in a 1970 issue of SA, and that was only the 2nd original adventure since 1965!

So Adam Strange was a much neglected relic of an earlier era when Mantlo began working on Micronauts. Especially when you consider that this was a time before collected editions sat on people's shelves. He'd been pretty much out of sight and out of mind for most of the previous 5 years.

Interestingly, perhaps due to Star Wars, or maybe the success of Micronauts itself, Strange starts to guest star in other books from 1978 onwards. He even appears in the Superman vs Muhammed Ali book, according to that website.

So I'd say Commander Rann's name is a tribute to DC's old-fashioned space hero. The kind of tribute that Mantlo guessed would only strike a chord with the old guard of comics fans, like himself.
Micronauts Issues 13-15

Alas, my recent good luck in acquiring a stash of Micronauts didn’t extend to these 3 issues. Fortunately 1980 was very much in the age of the lettercol, so by sifting through the contents of the letters pages all the way up to issue 20, I was able to figure out what happened in the immediate post-Golden issues. Yes, I know we are living in the age of google and the Grand Comicbook Database, but I thought I would honour this long-standing tradition of mine. When I used to get back issues, I would never be able to get a lot of them in sequence. I would wait until I had enough of them, and then read the letter columns of later issues to try to glean the plot developments of the issues I’d missed, before moving on to the next issue I had.

It was pretty hit and miss, but the letter writers generally covered the pertinent points, and gave me something to be going on with.

From those diligent souls who decided to put pen to paper back in 1979 I discovered: Issues 13 (and 14, I think) concerned Bug’s adventures after being set down on Kaliklak. His life there had been spent amongst thieves and criminal gangs. He had a run-in with a delightful sounding fellow insectivorid called Wartstaff, and Wartstaff ended up getting his antennae removed. Ouch! There he met his old flame Jasmine too, and from the contents of #17 persuaded her to accompany him on his voyages with the Micronauts.

"What could go tik! wrong, Jasmine? It'll tik! be a laff!"

The letter writers completely skipped over what the other Micronauts were doing at this time, which is a pity as the key question for me is how they decided to leave the reconstruction of Karza’s former empire and go wandering aimlessly hither and yon. Considering Rann, Mari and Acroyear were of royal blood, and, being largely responsible for the new dispensation, presumably highly influential people, this looks a lot like throwing off their responsibilities.

By this stage, Mantlo was answering the letters himself on the letters pages, and he comes across as an engagingly modest and self-effacing chap. He is very quick to admit to mistakes and he freely admits that he has no working sci-fi model of how moving up and down between the worlds might work.

All I found out about issue 15, the beginning of a 3-issue Fantastic Four team-up, is that the Microverse was contained on a slide in Reeds laboratory. One letter writer asks how it could also be down Professor Prometheus’ pit in H.E.L.L., not to mention that the Micronauts first entered our world in the Coffins’ back yard. Mantlo fesses up straight away that he doesn’t have an explanation for this.

To be fair, modern physics might have caught up with Mantlo. Isn’t it the case that scientists now believe that identical atoms can actually be in two different places at once? Well, there you go. Further, it seems that when you get even further down the submicroscopic scale to the level of strings (which may or may not exist), the rules of physics as we understand them shoot out the window anyway.

So anything goes!

From reading the issues I do have, it seems that the Psycho Man had made his way to our world, and stole back his suit form Reed’s laboratory. While the Human Torch went to H.E.L.L. and somehow ended up going into the Prometheus Pit, Reed and the rest of the team got into a handy shrink-mobile Reed had devised and entered the Microverse via the slide. Issue 16 must have ended with the Psycho Man attacking the Micronauts. How they bumped into him, I know not!

It’s not as if they hadn’t better things to be doing…

Next time I'll be commenting on comics I've actually read.
Regarding Jeff's comments above - the Special Editions are a treat. I really enjoy the behind the scenes info that Bill Mantlo presents in his text page forwards for each issue. As far as quality, I own issues 2, 3 and 5 in their original newsprint form, and there is no comparison to the quality of reproduction in the higher end reprints. I feel sorry for the artists working in the Seventies who had to contend with the terrible printing of their art - that era had to be a low point in comic book printing. The one attribute of the original editions that has it all over the Special Editions - the smell. Man, the old newsprint smell of those comics really flips the nostalgia switch.
Micronauts issues 16 &17



I’ve read up to issue 22 by now, and there's obviously a major change of gears after issue 12. From the point of view of character motivation, its hard to see why the Micronauts are travelling again, when Homeworld still needs them. Perhaps Mantlo sold it well in the issues I’d missed?

Even from the point of view of plot construction, the simplest advice from Hollywood is that your action heroes have to be either running away from something, or running towards something to make for a compelling script. Mantlo’s boomerang plot meant that the Micronauts were doing the former for issues 1-7 and the latter for issues 8-12, to great effect After issue 12, however, the Micronauts are pretty aimless, no doubt reflecting Mantlo’s lack of engagement with the edict from MEGO to have our heroes fighting the big things of planet Earth. That’s not to say these issues aren’t fun, but they don’t have the same intensity as the first 12, nor the feeling that we are in the midst of a well-structured epically mythic storyline.

No doubt the fans had been asking for a Bug solo adventure and more information on his background, so once that was out of the way, I like it that Mantlo touches base with Marvel’s first family. If the Micronauts are going to mix it in the MU for a while, its good karma to start where it all started almost 20 years earlier. It’s also a shout out to the series in which the microverse first appeared.

The Fantastic Four's journey to Psycho-Man’s ship is well plotted and their visit to the Microverse is a quite logical follow on from the earlier episodes with the Prometheus Pit, but the Micronauts seem to be quite arbitrarily thrown in. The plot seems quite off-the-peg too, with the heroes all being stored in glass tubes until they figure a way to escape and beat the baddie.

Psycho-Man is a strange foe. I’m not sure how being of indeterminate small size and walking around in the mechanical body of a giant ties in with his manipulation and harvesting of emotions. It’s just a crazy collection of attributes. The Hulk is about being strong and angry, the Leader has a big head and is clever and evil. Even Mister Fantastic’s elasticity is a reflection of his flexibility of thought. Most heroes and villains have a simple throughline between their powers and physical form. Plantman just controls plants. He doesn’t control plants and sing crippling arias!

So I have no idea what Psycho-Man is ‘about’! Golden, still on board for the covers, does some suitably over the top psychotic covers for these issues. “Death-Fugue of the Psycho-Man” is a great story title, even if it is only used on the cover.



A good thing about these issues is the consistency we see in some of Mantlo’s thinking. Maybe he hadn’t a clue about the why, but the how is thought through. When Microversians break into the MU through the barrier they grow to a certain size relative to humans (perhaps thumb-sized or smaller). However, when humans enter the Microverse through the barrier (by shrinking into the slide, as the Fantastic Four do) they become Micronaut sized. The surprise in issue 16 is that the Human Torch, having entered the Microverse via the Prometheus Pit, keeps his size relative to the Microversians. The only person we’ve seen enter the Microverse via the Prometheus Pit before was Professor Prometheus himself, and he too was encountered as a giant being by Karza.

I like it that a human who enters the Microverse via the Pit is the same size relative to the MIcroversians, as humans in the MU are to the Micronauts when our heroes travel there. Apart from emphasising the relativity of all things, I don’t think it means much. It’s just good to see the consistency applied, and Mantlo makes good weather with the Torch’s size differential. A huge Torch on a spaceship would use up the oxygen pretty quickly.

The final notable thing about this issue is the sudden, gruesome, off-panel death of Jasmine. I have mixed feelings about it. Of course I had less attachment to Jasmine having missed all her appearances before this, but killing her off in her fifth issue feels like she was made a Micronaut just so Mantlo could stamp her ticket. It does serve warning to the readers, Whedon-style, that nothing can be taken for granted in this fictional world.

Or perhaps Whedon dealt with his characters Mantlo-style? Getting rid of a seemingly central character so soon was probably quite an innovative thing to do in 1980. The makers of Star Trek TNG might have been taking notes, and Tasha Yar’s untimely death might be traced back to this issue of Micronauts?
The Psycho Man trilogy was my first encounter with the Micronauts, and I remember feeling rather cheated when jasmine was so quickly bumped off. The team could have used another female character at this point.

The two Bug issues do have some panels wherein we see the Micronauts leaving Homeworld secure in the hands of Argon and Slug, and there is at least a cursory explanation as to why they don't stick around. There's also some terrific stuff like Bug finally leading a raid on Karza's outpost on his world, only to have the dog soldiers calmly surrender, explaining that they have no quarrel with him, because the war is over.
Psycho-Man debuted in Fantastic Four Annual #5. In that issue he's revealed to be a sub-atomic man using a suit to operate in our world, which he means to conquer using his mind weapons. In Fantastic Four #76 the male members of the FF shrink down into his universe in pursuit of the Silver Surfer. In #77 the Psycho-Man transports them to a world which he controls and fights them several times, initially using surrogate bodies. After they beat him he zaps them with something that enlarges them again.
Thanks for the info guys.

Here's a question. Why does issue 16 above have a barcode and issue 17 has Spider-man's head? I thought that was to differentiate the comics bound for the newsstand from those meant for comic shops, but surely there weren't too many dedicated comic shops in 1980?
Getting back to Micronauts Annual #1 and Mantlo’s reticence to set stories on Earth, I get the strong feeling that Mego was the driving force behind the first annual. This is pure speculation on my part, but I can see Mego contacting Marvel (probably Shooter) demanding to see more of their toys in the comics. Shooter might then go to Mantlo with the edict and he might complain that toys such as Galactic Defender, Terraphant and Hornetroid didn’t really fit the narrative. The Annual might have then been scheduled as a compromise.

Luke did a good job relating the piecemeal nature of Psycho-Man’s origin, and I’ve noticed this sort of thing a lot with early Stan Lee collaborations, particularly with Spider-Man villains. Long before someone got the bright idea to shoe-horn him into the Avengers, Spider-Man fought mainly street-level criminals. Many of those Lee/Ditko and Lee/Romita characters have become jokes in recent years, but if one reads the original appearances, they were anything but jokes. They were serious threats and handled in a serious manner; it’s only the treatment of lesser writers that turned them into jokes.

Back on topic, I started reading <.i>Mircronauts with issue #48, then decided to pick up the backissues after reading the Special Edition. These days, whenever I discover an already-established series and decide to read the whole run, I’ll go back to the beginning and read the whole thing in order. But back in the ‘80s I would frequently buy chunks of backissues in reverse order. Consequently, the run of issues we’re moving into now were among the last holes I filled. They are also my least favorite.

I flipped through these issues last week trying to decide whether or not to re-read them for the purposes of this discussion and decided not to. I don’t know whether to blame penciler Howard Chaykin or inker Al Milgrom for the lackluster art, but this sequence represents the low point in the series for me. At least we still have Michael Golden covers.

Oh, about the bar code, you're right. the lack of barcode did have to do with the direct distribution, but whether or not those went strictly to comics shops, per se, I cannot say.
It sounds like Annual #1 also works against what Mantlo had set up in Micronauts #1. It felt like Karza had gradually worked his way into a position of influence over years, but from summaries of the Annual, it seems he just made his move the day before Rann arrived. One of the strengths of Mantlo's opening is that we feel that we've been thrown into something that has a long backstory.

It does seem 'tacked on' in any case, and each of the stories do highlight an otherwise neglected toy, so you are probably right, Jeff.

Annual #2 looks at the toys in a much more fun, sidelong way, and curiously, addresses the issue of Micronauts that weren't made by MEGO and were in the comic, rather than vice versa.

This run from 13 to about 22, has several fundamental faults in the core conception of it, even before looking at the execution. The Micronaut's aimlessness reflects the series own aimlessness at this point. But I really loved reading them. They are good fun, and from a 'hallowed period' of my own reading history, so I'm probably reacting to the context the Micronauts are having their adventures in as much as the adventures themselves.

I'll see if I can sell them to you in these posts...

Also, they smell great! Really good point there, Doc Photo!

I've got some back issues in reverse order too. I filled out my collection of Perez era Avengers, and then I'd work back to the Kirby-covered ones and then I got back as far as 150, or so. Now I'll just get the Essentials to close the gap with the early issues I have.

Luke did a good job relating the piecemeal nature of Psycho-Man’s origin, and I’ve noticed this sort of thing a lot with early Stan Lee collaborations, particularly with Spider-Man villains. Long before someone got the bright idea to shoe-horn him into the Avengers, Spider-Man fought mainly street-level criminals. Many of those Lee/Ditko and Lee/Romita characters have become jokes in recent years, but if one reads the original appearances, they were anything but jokes. They were serious threats and handled in a serious manner; it’s only the treatment of lesser writers that turned them into jokes.

I can see that Psycho-Man was originally introduced as a real threat to the Fantastic Four. Its not long since I reread those issues. Jasmine getting suddenly ripped apart in front of everyone shows that Mantlo is still using him as such. However, the core conception of this villain is still whacked out! It's wild and crazy. He's a tiny guy walking about in a giant purple and green suit with a light up remote control that says FEAR and DOUBT and HATE in big writing. The wonder to me is that the guy who created him was a middle-aged WWII veteran and not some drugged out hippy! This is in no way a criticism of Psycho-Man. One of the reasons I read comics is so that I don't have to do drugs! I got all the hallucinegenic craziness I need right here!

I think its FF#10 where we see Stan and Jack working on the next villain, just before Doc Doom bursts in. There are cartoony designs for a character called Funny Face on Jack's drawing board. I think Kirby is pointing out here, that he was always walking a fine line between 'joke' and 'serious'. 60s Marvel mined that seam just where the two met. It's what made the best of their comics great.

(The term 'camp' kind of straddles silly and serious as well. The campness of the 60s Batman show probably owes more to Marvel comics of the time than to DC.)

Spider-man's villains were the same. Obviously Doc Ock and the Goblin were murderous menaces, portraits of the real malevolence that exists in our world, but ... a guy with 8 arms, and another guy who dresses up as a cackling Halloween goblin?

Of course comics are worth taking seriously, but that doesn't say we can't acknowledge that they have a rich vein of absurdity and strangeness running through them. Particularly from the 60s onwards, they owe more to Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll than to James Fenimore Cooper and Victor Hugo.
About the (lack of) bar code.

There were indeed dedicated comic shops back then, but many of these comics also went to other non-returnable venues, like department stores. Thus, no bar code.

And I too have a great love for the issue between the Miconauts two biggest arcs. They were some of my earliest comics, so aimless or not they hold a special place in my black heart.
Micronauts #18. Child Eyes!


Image from www.comicvine.com

As this is the last issue drawn by the 'Howie' Chaykin/ Al Milgrom team, I suppose I should say something about the art. Of course, it is a bit of a comedown from Golden. ‘Lacklustre’, to quote our resident resident of Earth J. It relies much more on traditional grids of rectangular panels than Golden’s innovative layouts. The strange thing about it was how much it reminded me of Ditko's work. Something in the faces and the posing of the figures. Maybe it is more Milgrom than Chaykin as Howie only does layouts. Look at Rann's mouth at the bottom of p6 of issue 16, or the incredibly Ditkoesque Invisible Girl on p26 of that issue. Like Ditko as well, there's something rough about the way sci-fi technology is depicted. This artwork is often like Ditko, but with the 'camera' more in close-up to the action and the characters.

Apparently Milgrom drew a page introducing Chaykin in one of the issues I missed, which might indicate they had high hopes for the new artist. However, the editor doing all the hard work over Chaykin's rough layouts looks like a stop-gap measure while a more committed artist could be found.

It's an unusual role for an editor, but one would assume it ensured a close eye was kept on the actual content of the pages. A similarly handy role for an editor would be as the letterer, making sure all the fine print stayed on-message. This was the case for much of the UK Zoids strip, much to the chagrin of the actual writers. (I’ll get back to posting on that strip someday…)

Mantlo has already mentioned the central plot idea of this issue as something he wasn't invested in. Actually the Micronauts being attacked by the toys in a dollshouse isn't a bad idea, but it isn't developed at all. We never find out how the girl, Helen, animates her dolls, or what became of her. This being the MU she's probably a mutant, but the creepy undertone of the dollhouse scenes, and Laura's dispassionate cruelty, imply some kind of demonic powers too.

We've seen how important the various child-parent relationships were in the issues so far, but Helen's malevolent tendencies and the huge gap in understanding between her and her mother illustrates the dark flipside of parenthood. And then the concept of being trapped in a world where other people are just empty animated mannequinns taps into a very potent childhood fear. Intelligent children do wonder if everyone else is a thinking, feeling being like themselves.

Which is all to say that this story could have done with another issue to explore these ideas a bit more. It’s often said that talented writers don't understand what makes their own writing great, and Mantlo's lack of engagement here might be an example of that.

Jasmine gets a dignified burial in this issue. Rann buries her on his hibernation couch, subtly signifying his commitment to his new life with Mari and the Micronauts. Nothing like the death of someone close to crystalise one's priorities. Mantlo continues to hit just the right note of comic book seriousness with these characters. Acroyear touchingly consoles his friend Bug as best he can, and earlier he and Cilicia had stood as honour guard while Jasmine was being buried. They were acting as actual physical guards too, considering the funeral party might have been attacked at any time by a passing earwig or a territorial wasp!

Which brings us back to Toy Story and Whedon's other fallible, self-doubting, clay-footed heroes. Mantlo might not have liked writing the adventures of his tiny heroes on Earth, but he’d stumbled by chance on what Whedon and his generation would habitually do, to great acclaim, years later. The mighty Acroyears defending their friends from common or garden insects is a precursor of the kind of undercutting of heroic narratives that has been done more deliberately since.

That heroes confront life’s problems with macho strength, flaming swords and ray-guns is an idea worth questioning and in a way, ridiculing. Mantlo, with his unequivocally heroic, but often grossly outmatched protagonists did this without even realising it. Losers like Plant Man, or Odd John with his insect army wouldn’t be much of a problem for any other hero, but it’s all the Micronauts can do to escape with their lives. The Micronauts are hardly even noticed by most of the people involved in those later adventures.

It’s another example of Mantlo not realising the strength of the concepts he was bringing to life.
I really like issue #18. Pretend you don't know who the Micronauts are, and it comes across as a very weird, extra-creepy Twilight Zoneish tale.

Reply to Discussion

RSS

Welcome!

No flame wars. No trolls. But a lot of really smart people.The Captain Comics Round Table tries to be the friendliest and most accurate comics website on the Internet.

SOME ESSENTIALS:

RULES OF THE ROUND TABLE

MODERATORS

SMILIES FOLDER

TIPS ON USING THE BOARD

FOLLOW US:

OUR COLUMNISTS:

Groups

© 2020   Captain Comics, board content ©2013 Andrew Smith   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service