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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You know, this story does follow the two SHIELD volumes quite well. The first volume tells the story of Hydra under the leadership of Arnold Brown, the second tells of Supreme Hydra Baron Strucker, and the Micronauts shows Hydra under the command of Baron Karza. I had really forgetten the details of these comics!

The 2nd and 3rd issues of the original Skrull Kill Krew have Strucker back in America in charge of a horde of Hydra goons. It's great fun.

Micronauts - issue 29

To Sleep…Perchance to Dream.



Image from www.comicvine.com

A lot happens in this issue, partly due to the page count rising to 22 pages or so at some point in the last few issues.

It’s really an epilogue to the Karza/Hydra war. Explicitly so in the opening segment, showing Fury doing the honours over a military remembrance ceremony for the dead SHIELD and Microverse personnel.

Broderick does great work showing the large coffins arrayed alongside the tiny coffins, the Microverse battleships parked beside SHIELD soldiers standing to attention. Fury gives a great speech commemorating their bravery and sacrifice.

Mantlo seems to have Fury’s voice down perfectly. His closing line came back to me last night while watching a documentary about young Australian ‘Diggers’ in Afghanistan:

“That’s war – A helluva way to make a living!”

Again, we have Fury saying that the rest of the world won’t know about what happened here. Mantlo seems to be trying to keep any knowledge of his uniquely licensed protagonists away from the rest of the MU.

Then, after each of the characters get to recite their backstory again [roll-eyes], we get to the meat of the issue.

After all the coffins in the opening scene, we get yet another one. Once again, we find Commander Rann in a coffin-like contraption, seemingly dead, but rather far removed from his companions in a catatonic state. Doc Samson has been called in as someone with experience of dealing with the minds of submicroscopic people. Presumably the people of Jarella’s world in previous Hulk comics.

Having Samson turn up as the expert here goes a long way to making the Marvel Universe seem coherent and joined up. He’s not a flashy guest-star, but a very logical one. As well as his background in psychiatry, he’s been shown before to have ties with both the military and with superheroes.

Samson cites a then-recent book in explaining what’s wrong with Rann. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind was published in 1976 and must have been very popular with the comicbook set. According to wiki, ts theories have been used in Transmetropolitan, From Hell and Gaiman’s American Gods, and Hank McCoy can be seen reading it during the Dark Phoenix Saga. I can see why comicbook guys loved it, as it concerns a psychological explanation for the relationships of Gods and Men in ancient times and uses favourite old sagas and texts as examples.

In it Julian Jaynes asserts that when characters in ancient times heard the voice of (the) god(s), they were actually picking up messages from their right-brain as auditory hallucinations. ‘Bicameral’ means that the two sides of the brain were separate.

It’s disputed today, but there is still a lot of respect for some of the ideas, and certainly respect for the imaginative leap on the part of the author in coming up with it.

Richard Dawkins says:"It is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between! Probably the former, but I'm hedging my bets.”

Mantlo is of course writing a heroic epic in much the same vein as the ancient Homeric, Biblical, etc texts that Jaynes cites, so The Micronauts is full of heroes being contacted by higher powers like the Enigma Force, but I think his mentioning of this book is another clue to his own more agnostic worldview, which we have already seen in the virtual ‘ensoulment’ of the robot characters.

The relevance to Rann is that the trauma of sharing the Enigma Force with Karza when the villain was killed has shut down the connection between the right and left hemispheres of his brain. Samson doesn’t say why this is a problem when clearly old-time heroes like Achilles and indeed his own namesake, the biblical Samson, were able to function fine without their brains being joined up!

Whatever about Jaynes’ weighty tome, the work of popular medical speculation that Mantlo is really referencing is Fantastic Voyage. There’s something right about referencing this daft Raquel Welch movie, as it’s definitely another precursor to the whole Micronauts concept. Whatever is wrong with Rann, it can be cured by three of the Micronauts shrinking down into his brain and fixing it.

Or is that shrinking into his mind and fixing it?

The difference between Brain and Mind is an early lesson in any sophomore philosophy class, but they are interchangeable here. Visions and people from Rann’s memories exist in there with ‘cellular soup’ and the ‘dead wall’ between the two sides of his brain. Mantlo never lets sense get in the way of a good story. What the heck: they are all figments of his own mind/brain anyway!

Bug, Acroyear and Mari find that not only do the visions in Rann’s mind come from their own experiences, not his, but they were put there to trap them by Nightmare, the Marvel villain so shamelessly ripped off by Gaiman in his Sandman series. (Or homaged? I wonder has anyone ever asked him about it? Dagwan should tweet him...)

Speaking of influence/homages, I found this issue to have striking similarities to the last episode of Whedon's fourth season of Buffy. There, the team of heroes descended into a dreamworld where their lives were imperiled, and some of them, as Acroyear was, were gifted with visions of their place in the scheme of things. Even more notable was that the episode was placed at the end of a season where the storyline involved teaming up with a specialised branch of the US military to fight a half-man, half-machine evil despot.

Coincidence? Or something more? The answer lies somewhere in the cellular soup of Whedon's brain mind brain.

Acroyear’s vision-trap is the most interesting. Cilicia appears and accuses him of betraying their people, before stabbing him in the throat. He should be dead, but isn't because Nightmare was using his guilt to kill him, but it seems he doesn’t feel any guilt for what he did. The Worldmind communed with him and was willing to sacrifice itself so that the Acroyear people should leave harsh, barren Spartak and its warlike ways, and find a more compassionate way of living amongst the stars. This is something of a revelation. Acroyear has now become a warrior-turned-prophet in the traditional mould. He knows that the Worldmind instructed him to do, but will he be able to convince his people of the wisdom he’s been granted?

Instead of attacking Nightmare, who is trying to gain control of the Enigma Force, the Micronauts blast the ‘dead wall’ connecting the two hemispheres of Rann’s brain. Thus they remove the ‘trauma’ that was seperating them. The barrier between metaphorical and literal has long since collapsed too, but it seems right that it is his beloved companions who help him deal with his trauma! Nightmare is vanquished by the light of consciousness returning to Rann’s mind and further, the Micronauts see a carved pillar put in Rann’s mind, which will have great consequences for the next phase of their adventures.

The Dagon subplot comes to a conclusion too, when he reveals to the watching Microtron that he is a ‘construct’ planted by Karza to kill Rann. Microtron is as tough as any Micronaut and quuickly blasts him to bits with his chest-cannons.

Next issue: You demanded! You petitioned! You pleaded! Now you’ve got it! The Micronauts return to Homeworld!
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind was published in 1976

Huh! I remember covering this book in high school psychology, but I didn't know it was that recent! I remember being inspired to check it out of the library after seeing Hank McCoy reading it ("Interesting stuff, but more up Professor X's alley than mine.") but I didn't finish it.

I pulled out Mircronauts #29 and flipped through it but didn't finish that, either! Looks to be a transition issue, and you pretty much confirmed that. Doc Samson was one of my favorite supporting characters, but despite the cover blurb, I had complete forgotten he guested in Micronauts.

Next issue: You demanded! You petitioned! You pleaded! Now you’ve got it! The Micronauts return to Homeworld!

I wonder if that was the editor addressing Bill Mantlo...? :P
I hit the local comic con this past weekend with Micronauts on my wish list. The only issues I spotted were in the low 20's numbering, which you guys had noted were somewhat of a low point for the series, so I passed. On a positive note I picked up three early issues of Master of Kung Fu, the first two issues of the Englehart/Rogers Mister Miracle and four issues of the Rampaging Hulk B&W magazine - all for one dollar each! Best of all, I snagged a virtually new copy of the TPB Black Panther by Jack Kirby for a measly five dollars! I am set for Bronze Age reading goodness for at least a few weeks.
Sounds like a good catch, Doc.

It's true that the 'garbage issues' aren't as good as what's either side of them, but for the right price, they do encapsulate their era in a lot of ways. It depends how much they were asking for them. I paid a bit over the odds for the ones I got just at the time I was reviewing them, but thought I owed it to the thread to do my best to get a hold of them. I did know to bargain down the price on them though. The guy in the comicshop was a bit of a doofus. I picked a rough copy and a better copy of each issue I wanted to buy in case there was a big difference in price and brought tthem to him. He seemed to just pick the high prices out of thin air, so then I showed him that these 3 issues were in poorer condition than the other 3. So he brought down the price, but then didn't seem to care whether I took the good copies or the poor copies. (He still wanted $10 for Excalibur #1 so I left that there.)

I found the issues 14-23 an interesting study in how creators' interest and engagement can wax and wane, and into the pressures that must have been at work on longform comics creators at the time. Everything they do is a work in progress, with no chance to go back and revise if anything doesn't work. I'm sure Mantlo wanted to see if the team could work as aimless adventurers, or while split up, but once he'd done that and found that they didn't, well, it was done. The Scott Lang Ant-Man didn't get nearly enough appearances, so it was great to see him.

I joke about the 'Garbage Issues' but it's fascinating to see how much of Mantlo's feelings towards the project and his professional life at this time was there on the page. Did he identify with the 'Odd John' dementedly working with insect-sized creatures in his lonely workshop as a means to make the world take him seriously?

Those issues aren't Marvel's or Mantlo's, finest hour, but I'm glad I've read them, and I feel I understand the creators (and the industry) a little better having done so.
There is a very interesting letter in issue 29, which got me thinking about Marvel’s progress or lack therof over the last few decades, and my own changing feelings towards Marvel since the heyday of the Micronauts.

A Simpsons-esque ‘comicbook guy’, ten years ahead of his time, writes in to complain about the uncritical letters that are printed in the Micromails and sees fit to offer a contrary opinion.

To summarise: He says they are only toys: Star Wars rip-offs at that. The Micronauts aren’t as good as The X-men, to whom they are compared. They are one-dimensional: the good guys really good and the bad guys really bad, “which violates Marvel tenets...(!)”

His final paragraph begins “As it is, I have trouble getting really mad at a comic book because I can’t take them at all seriously.”

I especially love the now-familiar appeal to how Marvel comics were written when he was 12, but I’ll leave the reply to Mantlo. I’m guessing that the time and care Mantlo puts into providing honest and forthright replies on the letters page is a sign that he felt a special connection to The Micronauts and its readers. Perhaps I am mistaken and he answered the letters of all his comicbooks?

“You make some glaringly contradictory statements. First you say that comics are “trivial” but then say you will continue to support them. Why? Like those older and more vocal fans whom I will term “the fan elite”, you seem to take joy in disparaging a medium you apparently still enjoy. Like those fan critics, you appear to find pleasure only in that which you can attack. I am proud to say that most Marvel readers do not read my or any other Marvel mag to get such a feeling of negativity, but to be entertained, educated, and uplifted. Perhaps it’s the Innocence of children which “the fan elite”, getting older and more jaded, has forgotten.

The feelings of the “the fan elite” do not interest me. I write the MICRONAUTS for the entertainment of the majority of fans whose support comes by way of continued reading, and in multitudinous missives to “Micromails”. Why has “Micromails” published so few negative reactions? It hasn’t. Criticisms have accompanied compliments in the vast plurality of letters. What you are looking for seems to be downright negativity, and I’m proud to say that this magazine has never received such an unqualified pen until yours.

As for your comment regarding plagiarism.... untrue. MICRONAUTS was conceived and created long before I ever saw or heard of STAR WARS. I’m glad George Lucas and I think along similar lines. I’m glad we both aim to entertain. MICRONAUTS were toys into which I breathed life. The STAR WARS characters were cinematic creations given life from which a series of toys were created. I don’t see any problem, as long as both retain their integrity. I obviously believe MICRONAUTS has.

But I’m willing to entertain any and all criticism, David. I’m pleased to say that until your letter, such criticism has been constructive and coupled with praise.

-- Bill Mantlo



There’s such a lot that’s of interest in this exchange. I particularly love the way Mantlo expresses his heartfelt pride in what he’s doing with Micronauts. He always seems disarmingly honest in his replies. Mantlo was probably the archetypal fan-writer, and I certainly can’t imagine that the “professional” writers of generations earlier than him would have framed their defence in such open-hearted and personal terms.

The main reason I put it up here was to illustrate that the derisive, past-obsessed “fan elite” is not a new phenomenon, peculiar to our internet age. Notice especially that they were so common in Mantlo’s experience that he already had a group label for them.

The other reason I’ve included it is that it shows the writer has such a strong idea of the market he is writing for. I’ve remarked that Micronauts had hit the ‘sweet spot’ in terms of being a licensed property that the creators had more input into than the suits. Well, Micronauts also sits in a very distinctive place in comics history generally. Mantlo writes about the honourable work of entertaining and educating an up and coming generation, but the Micronauts feels like the last hurrah of mass-market comics for children. Issue 28 had the postal service circulation figures. Average total printed per month for the year up to April 1981 was 353,743, and the average total paid circulation was 166,602, which was probably around the number of people who actually read each magazine. I don't think Micronauts was at the top of the sales chart at this point, but any series today would kill for those sales figures after 2 years on the road.

The Fan-elite guy seems like a harbinger of things to come. Things that did arrive...

My personal feeling is that during the 80s Marvel comics really lost their way. For one thing, later toy tie-ins seemed to be much more cynical affairs than Micronauts/Rom. This is a real pity, since those two were some of the most original concepts at Marvel since the mid-60’s. I’ve come to the conclusion that Mantlo latched onto these two because on the one hand he could build them from the ground up and take them anywhere he wanted, but at the same time, he didn’t want to create a character for Marvel from scratch that he didn’t own.

Perhaps the toys allowed him the comforting thought that maybe he wouldn’t own them, but then again neither would Marvel. But it’s hard to attribute such a negative line of thought to Mantlo, given what I’ve read from him so far.

It seems to me that each generation of kids coming up like to have their own heroes, not their parents'/older brothers'. The industry breather before the late 50’s is probably one of the reasons why the first wave of Silver Age heroes took off like big guns. The novelty is also why the non-superhero licensed properties were so popular in the 70s. Tomb of Dracula, Fists of Kung Fu, Conan etc. It’s also one of the reasons why the snarling, pouch-sporting musclebrains of the Image era were so inexplicably popular.

But by my reading of superhero history, the likes of the Micronauts were the last really original concepts before a long fallow period which did give way to the Image ‘heroes’. However, Liefield and co's creations didn’t do much for American comics in the medium to long term, did they? I think that there are always new fans coming along. Otherwise, why do I see such a lot of appreciation for what’s been done countless times before out there? But the newbies are always outnumbered by the ‘fan-elite’ these days, who don’t really support brave new directions. (New directions, remember, “go against Marvel tenets”!)

I’m not sure what my point is here. I think that reading this series in the form of the old monthlies is digging up a lot of stuff that is in the back of my mind most of the time anyway. Weirdly, the lifespan of the original Micronauts covers pretty exactly the period from when I first got into comics up to when I first dropped them (1978 – 84), so I feel this rant belongs here, halfway through that period. I had definite reasons why I dropped Marvel comics at the end of that period. I could see quality dropping in the series I followed, and the endless need for new stories within very restrictive parameters was squeezing the characters into very strange shapes.

It seemed very logical to change over to 2000AD. One of the advantages that 2000AD had over Marvel was that stories could be set in any context, whereas Marvel comics had to be set in the one universe. There are problems setting the mutants in the MU, and Mantlo had problems tying the Micronauts into the MU, too.

Some facts are against my reading of Marvel declining in quality from 1982 onwards. This site shows that 1980-81 was a nadir for Marvel comics and sales increased throughout the 80s under Shooter’s leadership, so perhaps it was just my personal experience?

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of The Micronauts vol I, but I’m sure that it’s going to involve spotting various tendencies that put me off Marvel comics at the time. Micronauts is a somewhat special case in being so fresh and original, but this does highlight all the more what was going wrong elsewhere in the line. Further, Micronauts itself was a pioneer in the industry-wide move to the direct-sales model, so there are good reasons for tracing Marvel's wider fortunes in the progress of this one series.

Actually I’ve recently read an interview with Golden which showed that his excellent first 12 issues came about more despite Marvel’s standard practices rather than because of them. The self-styled “House of Ideas” really does seem like a poorly run cottage industry sometimes, which happened to have hit on these iconic characters along the way. We all owe it a probably undeserved loyalty because they did manage to get a few good stories out of certain individuals before alienating said individuals for life! So I’m actually kind of down on Marvel at the moment!

(Maybe I’m just kind of low generally these days and my response to everything, including the dear old Micronauts, is coloured by that…)

Sorry if this rant is quite shapeless. I just thought I’d mark the mid-point of this series with a few of my vague ponderings!!
Figs - your rant maybe shapeless but you hit some very good points. And thanks for posting the letter with Mantlo's response. The fan elite was probably just taking hold when Mantlo wrote those words, as the comic industry was faced with having to deal with an aging, and increasingly cranky fan base.
Interesting thoughts, Figs. I don’t really have anything to add, but your post was thought-provoking. Me, I’ve been thinking a bit about comic books licensed from toys as well as the comic books of Bill Mantlo. I had read that letter you transcribed before you posted it, and it got me thinking of another Mantlo creation that got a lot of hype back inna day, Cloak & Dagger. I do think you are being a little too critical of 1980s-era Marvel Comics.

A decade before Marvel got the toy-license for Micronauts and Rom, it strikes me that DC did a couple of “G.I. Joe” issues of Showcase as well as five issues of Captain Action. Here’s a Gold Key one-shot I came across recently which I found tangentially interesting apropos this discussion.


Speaking of Golden’s comments that Mircronauts #1-12 came about more despite than because of Marvel, you should read don McGregor’s introduction to Marvel Masterworks Black Panther (which shipped just yesterday )!
Oddly enough, I was flipping through the Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Update'89 and discovered that the vast majority of new heroes and villains had little or no effect for the last twenty years. Marvel will continue to mine its characters from the 60s and 70s since that's where the money lies amnd those are the toys today's creators want to play with.

Excellent example: Incredible Hulks: Enigma Force which features Arcturus Rann, Marionnette and Bug!
Ha! I bought that Microbots comic myself when I was planning on writing an article about the 'Nauts that never materialized. It's not very good, nor is it horrible, but the robots do look like a later series of Micronaut toys... the ones that were battery-operated and moved around on their own.
Here’s a Gold Key one-shot I came across recently which I found tangentially interesting apropos this discussion.

Fascinating! I wonder were they based on toys? They're even called Microbots the same as Biotron's little buddy! And isn't that interracial friendship pretty progressive for 1971?

Except one of them has no clothes on.

What's with that?

It got me thinking of another Mantlo creation that got a lot of hype back inna day, Cloak & Dagger.

I remember asking on the old board a few years ago about all those Marvel writers that just seemed to turn out the books month in and month out, and whether they had any themes and issues that stood out. "Your Moenches, Mantlo's and Wolfmans", as I put it. There were no takers, but I think it is interesting to consider their body of work. They aren't Moores or Morrisons, but I'm sure they put a lot of themselves into their work too.

Cloak and Dagger were a bit ambitious and ahead of their time. I didn't know they were Mantlo's babies. Very different from Micronauts too. I think Mantlo had real ambition about pushing what could be done in newsstand comics, but I have a feeling he was frustrated. Fashions move on too - who's in and who's out. 1985 was probably a watershed year for many creators. I don't think Mantlo stayed around long after that.

I do think you are being a little too critical of 1980s-era Marvel Comics.

I guess that overall, I’m just unhappy that the only way they found to go forward was an ‘ever decreasing circles’ model of recycling old ideas. Creators only give their best ideas and most enthusiastic work at the early stages of their careers before they realise that they won’t be properly rewarded for producing exceptional work or for creating great new concepts that would enrich and enlarge the MU. Micronauts isn’t proof that Marvel could produce fresh ideas so much as a rare exception that proved the rule. Look how popular they were, and original, as well as how of their moment they were. Marvel hasn't been very interested in producing that kind of product since the 60s.

I was amazed at Micronauts’ novel-like structure in the first twelve issues. It’s strong because they have a certain artistic integrity. Golden gives his version of why it came about:

MG: "Yeah…after the first 3 issues I got fed up with some the inherent politics of the time and by the fifth or sixth issue, I forget which one exactly, I just informed them I was gonna leave. And that was it. Then they decided, "well, if Golden's going to go, we need them to wrap up the storyline, and then he can go."

(From this very worthwhile interview)

So it was ‘because of the petty small-minded 'politics' (as Golden terms it) of the company that we got such a good run of comics! That was very disappointing for me to read that. He also asserts that after a few weeks working on Micronauts, he was told that they were 3 months behind on the schedule, even though he’d been assured they wouldn’t start printing it until a lot of it was in the can. He felt that bringing out the Micronauts was only about having something- anything - on the stands as far as Marvel were concerned.

I’ve seen the argument that superhero comics “aren’t James Joyce”, and “if you want art, visit a museum”, but its pretty rough that America’s largest comics producer had almost no interest in producing something with a bit of art to it. Something that had a vision and a pride in the artform, that would stand up on its own merits. Even superhero comics can be great if done well.

The parallel is in cowboy movies. At one time a very restricted and unappreciated genre. The story is that it took Stagecoach, brought out just when cowboy movies were on the wane at the time, to get people to look at the genre differently and see that it could be about more than just men shooting each other. There wasn’t a vision at Marvel for decades on end that showed they were interested in doing something a bit more than filling the racks every month.

Looking further on in the decade, Miller’s Daredevil is lauded as a fine piece of work and an example of what the Marvel system could do, but it was definitely produced despite, not because of the system at Marvel. They were amongst the lowest paid Marvel creators at the time and had huge difficulties telling the story they wanted to tell. Miller has said himself that part of his project was to bring over all the cool Spider-man villains because Daredevil had so few of his own. Notice it wasn’t about making up new ones. When she came along, Elektra was a great original creation, but the Marvel system is set-up to dissuade the creation of more Elektras, rather than encourage it. Elektra became one of the many bones of contention between Marvel and yet another creator just on the brink of producing outstanding, breakthrough work.

Miller’s Daredevil was also very accessible to people who hadn’t read many superhero comics before, so Marvel should have been studying what went right there, instead of trying to discourage similar projects. Marvel have produced very few storylines that I would confidently hand over to the uninitiated as good stories in their own right.

While DC were working on Watchmen, Marvel were working on Secret Wars. At the time I loathed it, seeing it as a barely concealed method of using superheroes to sell toys. Having read it in collected form since I can’t be as high-handed. It’s a good story, and definitely gives the public what they want. All those heroes together with a good reason to fight the baddies. It also has much of the same artistic integrity of Golden’s 12 issues of Micronauts: One creative team for the whole thing. It tells one full story with a proper beginning and end. Characters have arcs. You don’t really need to follow any other comic to enjoy it.

As with Micronauts 1-12, I’d have to say that Marvel didn’t seem to see that a new way of packaging and selling superhero comics was staring them in the face. It took them years to bring out the collected Secret Wars, and instead of working on more superhero comics that were collectable between two covers and accessible to ‘newbies’, their idea of capitalising on Secret Wars was to sucker the existing readership into buying interminable tie-in issues of Secret Wars II!

Marvel couldn’t see the future, and they couldn’t really change the context of the market they were selling to overnight, but they still didn’t do much to retain real talent and keep their artform in a good healthy shape. They never did work out a model for working constructively with ambitious and talented creators so that everyone would benefit in the long run.

The more I find out about how they operated, the more disappointed I am in them, that’s all.

Phillip Said: Oddly enough, I was flipping through the Essential Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe Update'89 and discovered that the vast majority of new heroes and villains had little or no effect for the last twenty years. Marvel will continue to mine its characters from the 60s and 70s since that's where the money lies and those are the toys today's creators want to play with.

Well, if the creators are effectively dissuaded from coming up with the kind of fresh and engaging concepts that Micronauts was when it came out, and they feel they have to take from Marvel’s back catalogue, you can’t blame them for wanting to play with the best toys in the box.

This has a strange further side-effect. I’ve pointed out a lot of ways Micronauts were ‘of their time’, and thus appealed to new readers very directly, but when you are using Spider-man, Fantastic Four and Captain America in your stories, its very hard make them feel contemporary. It’s just weird to see Clark Kent or Peter Parker tweeting or blogging or whatever.

It’s also partly reader-driven, but its hard to blame them for sticking with what they know. The magic of Micronauts was that there you had something new and contemporary that was also tied into the MU. Today, nobody's lawyers are up to sorting out new concepts that tie into the MU while still allowing the creators some element of ownership that all parties can live with.

Maybe it’s an ‘insoluble pancake’ (in the words of a particular Irish writer), but it’s still frustrating to see how it is warping Marvel's output.

Excellent example: Incredible Hulks: Enigma Force which features Arcturus Rann, Marionnette and Bug

Yeah, that’s a real example of creative exhaustion. Incredible Hulks. No new creations remember, so now we are just being served up combinations and permutations of what has been around for decades. The Micronauts were the Dogs Bits when they came out in 1978(!), but where are the new Micronauts for the Twenty-Teens?
Figs said:

I remember asking on the old board a few years ago about all those Marvel writers that just seemed to turn out the books month in and month out, and whether they had any themes and issues that stood out. "Your Moenches, Mantlo's and Wolfmans", as I put it. There were no takers, but I think it is interesting to consider their body of work. They aren't Moores or Morrisons, but I'm sure they put a lot of themselves into their work too.

Cloak and Dagger were a bit ambitious and ahead of their time. I didn't know they were Mantlo's babies. Very different from Micronauts too. I think Mantlo had real ambition about pushing what could be done in newsstand comics, but I have a feeling he was frustrated. Fashions move on too - who's in and who's out. 1985 was probably a watershed year for many creators. I don't think Mantlo stayed around long after that.

Well, Mantlo was really a go-to guy at Marvel. If a book did fall behind then they would have him whip a one or two issue story to allow the regular team to fill-in. Sometimes that lead to him becoming the regular writer of the series. Also, for Mantlo, he ended up being a full-time public defender in the late '80s, so  his comic book output declined after that, until his accident in 1992. (He was struck by a car while rollerblading for those who don't know and remains under 24 hour care).

Figs said:

He also asserts that after a few weeks working on Micronauts, he was told that they were 3 months behind on the schedule, even though he’d been assured they wouldn’t start printing it until a lot of it was in the can. He felt that bringing out the Micronauts was only about having something- anything - on the stands as far as Marvel were concerned.

 

After reading numerous articles in Back Issue this seems to have been some sort of weird modus operandi at Marvel  at that time. Some creators were continually told they were behind schedule, when they were in fact not. Now I don't know if Michael Golden was genuinely behind schedule or not.

Fascinating! I wonder were they based on toys? They're even called Microbots the same as Biotron's little buddy! And isn't that interracial friendship pretty progressive for 1971?

I don’t really know anything about it other than what my favorite comic book guide reference has to say about it: “After being cryogenically frozen, young Jeff Micron awoke in the future and faced a new world, accompanied by the microbots, indestructible working robots created by his father. Not much thought was put into this. The artwork was pedestrian and the actual microbots looked as if they had been designed by a five-year-old with building bricks.

It sounds like a hoot to me! I think I’ll order it soon.

"Your Moenches, Mantlo's and Wolfmans", as I put it.

Personally, I classify those three on entirely different levels!

I guess that overall, I’m just unhappy that the only way they found to go forward was an ‘ever decreasing circles’ model of recycling old ideas.

I think a lot of that depends on the editor. One ‘80s editor in particular (Mark Gruenwald?) instructed his writers to pull characters from Marvel’s toybox rather than cluttering it up with ones of their own. I think Gruenwald was also the driving force behind Scourge cleaning out that toybox.

…he was told that they were 3 months behind on the schedule…

Regarding Marvel’s business practices, Avengers #145-146 were fill-ins slotted in the middle of the Squadron Supreme/Roxxon Oil storyline, but I once read an interview with Steve Englehart who asserted the regular issues were ready and the editor just wanted to clear out these inventory issues. Then, years later, I read another article which refuted Englehart’s assertion, so who knows?

I’ve seen the argument that superhero comics “aren’t James Joyce”, and “if you want art, visit a museum”, but it’s pretty rough that America’s largest comics producer had almost no interest in producing something with a bit of art to it. Something that had a vision and a pride in the artform, that would stand up on its own merits. Even superhero comics can be great if done well.

I’ve maintained for a long time that my favorite comics from the Silver Age were those which transcended the form when hack work would have been perfectly acceptable; amateur work in the original sense of the term (something done for the sheer love of it rather than expected recompense).

The parallel is in cowboy movies.

I have a CD of 25 different versions of “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” from High Noon. One of them describes the movie as an “adult western,” the implication being that westerns were only for kids, the same way comics are perceived by many adults even today. I think it probably was Stagecoach (or another John ford film) that began to turn the tide of perception, but obviously even after more than a decade the western still had a way to go (as do comic books).

Looking further on in the decade, Miller’s Daredevil is lauded as a fine piece of work and an example of what the Marvel system could do, but it was definitely produced despite, not because of the system at Marvel.

One of the many innovations Frank Miller brought to Daredevil (one I don’t hear mentioned often) is his cinematic panel-to-panel choreography. If he was fighting, say, 5 thugs and an establishing shot put the one in the green shirt on his left and the one on the red shirt on his left, a chair behind him and a window to the side, his kicks and chops and thrusts would always be in the directions indicated. The thug to the right wouldn’t be shown going through the window on the left.

While DC were working on Watchmen, Marvel were working on Secret Wars.

Not quite at the same time, but I know what you mean. Secret Wars was what it was and it’s pointless to hold Secret Wars up to the standards of The Watchmen. It’s like comparing apples to telephones.

As with Micronauts 1-12, I’d have to say that Marvel didn’t seem to see that a new way of packaging and selling superhero comics was staring them in the face. It took them years to bring out the collected Secret Wars, and instead of working on more superhero comics that were collectable between two covers and accessible to ‘newbies’, their idea of capitalising on Secret Wars was to sucker the existing readership into buying interminable tie-in issues of Secret Wars II!

Good point!

The more I find out about how they operated, the more disappointed I am in them, that’s all.

I understand (and don’t disagree).

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