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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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).

I don’t think we’ve mentioned these aspects of Mantlo’s later life on this thread yet. The public defender part is such an unexpected path for a comics writer to pursue (up there with Steranko becoming an escape artist, in my view!) and then the accident is so sad. I’m sorry now that I didn’t pick up the tribute magazine that was released on Mantlo’s behalf a few years ago.

Personally, I classify those three on entirely different levels!

Considering Mantlo’s work has a lot more going on than he’s generally given credit for and Wolfman wrote Tomb of Dracula, I’m not reading great things about Moench between the lines there…

I think I’ve started to learn a bit about these usually unsung writers since I first wrote that request.

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 wonder was he just trying to save the naïve young fellas from future heartbreak and grief?

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).

It was a strange business model that they depended on sapping the enthusiasm of young fan-turned-professionals to keep the public pleased, while trying to give the professionals so little in return. So many of the great runs were turned in by creators early in their careers that were obviously stung by their treatment in the longer term. Moore’s artistic collaborators on Swamp Thing were treated pretty badly by DC at the time, too.

As for the Silver Age, I’d say a good third of Superman family comics were what I’d call ‘art’. There’s something timeless about them. But that’s getting off the topic even further than we are now. There is a difference in how comics were produced by the early ‘professionals’ compared to the later ‘fan-professionals’, or ‘amateurs’ as you termed them.

I’d say few comics get much love in the long term if there wasn’t real passion and enthusiasm in their making. Byrne and Claremont, for all their faults, obviously loved the Marvel Universe and loved playing in it. They pretty much remade it in their own image. If I can wax poetical for a moment, both found it a faithless mistress in the long run, however!

Mantlo seems to have been a fan who approached his work very like an old-time professional. The title of fill-in King speaks to that, and his workmanlike approach to getting the books out there, even when they could have done with a little more work – pace the Garbage Issues!

I have a CD of 25 different versions of “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” from High Noon.

One of my all-time favourite westerns/movies of all time! I was seriously toying with the idea of working a High Noon theme into my own wedding day, but it didn’t happen.

One of them describes the movie as an “adult western,”

Wha? How can a song from the film describe the film in movie-critic terms? Perhaps the sleeve notes?

One of the many innovations Frank Miller brought to Daredevil (one I don’t hear mentioned often) is his cinematic panel-to-panel choreography.

He’s much to be praised for this kind of thing, but comics must have been in a bad state if this was an innovation. It should be in the basic ground rules of action comics. The last time I read Ditko’s Spider-man, I realised he was doing this very well. A lot of the soap-opera scenes are just people talking but he gives them dynamism with a ‘moving camera’ around the talkers, and they are always in the same positions relative to each other in each frame. It’s probably a lot harder to do than it looks.

The most extreme example from the other end was one of the few X-men comics I picked up in the early 90s. People seemed to ping-pong around the room from panel to panel as they spoke to one another. Hell, one minute they were in a small office, and the next shouting at each other across a vast gymnasium. I was bamboozled. No wonder Marvel left me behind.

Secret Wars was what it was and it’s pointless to hold Secret Wars up to the standards of The Watchmen.

In most things I’m probably on good terms with my 12 year old self. A lot of the stuff he liked wasn’t that bad. He hated Secret Wars though, and having read it a few years ago, I’d have to disagree with him on this one thing. I’d even say it was about as successful at what it set out to do as Watchmen. (ie It was nearly as good an apple as Watchmen was a telephone!)

I touched on it already, but it does show what can be achieved when a tight creative team gets to produce something cohesive and complete using Marvel’s great characters freely and without editorial interference. This wasn’t the lesson Shooter the editor got out of Shooter the writer’s success with Secret Wars though!
My first exposure to Frank Miller was a Daredevil page reprinted in The Comics Journal circa 1985. My immediate reaction - he was doing a very nice Ditko swipe.

Regarding Doug Moench, he had a long, quality run on Master of Kung Fu that is comparable in quality to Wolfman's Tomb of Dracula work.
I don’t think we’ve mentioned these aspects of Mantlo’s later life on this thread yet.

There are three separate discussions on the old board from 2003, 2005 and 2008. Follow the links or simply do a topic search for "Mantlo."
I’m not reading great things about Moench between the lines there…

Actually, I think Moench is the best technical writer of the three, however I think his best work is to be found in Marvel’s black and white magazines rather than the color comic books (with the exception of Moon Knight). Because of their non-mainstream appeal, Micronauts, Moon Knight and Ka-Zar were the first three titles to be distributed to comics shops only.

Regarding Doug Moench, he had a long, quality run on Master of Kung Fu

Honestly, although I do now own it, I haven’t yet read it. MoKF is one of several discussions I’ve been considering after this one has run its course.

…‘amateurs’ as you termed them.

Actually I “borrowed” the term from Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs. :)

I was seriously toying with the idea of working a High Noon theme into my own wedding day

I actually did. I made a mix tape to play driving up the hill to Cathedral Rock in Sedona, AZ where Tracy and I were married (which included “Do Not Forsake Me”) and for the drive down (which included “We Have All the Time in the World” as sung by Louis Armstrong from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). But I digress…

How can a song from the film describe the film in movie-critic terms?

Sorry, this particular cut was from a radio show and was introduced by the host or orchestra leader.

The last time I read Ditko’s Spider-man, I realised he was doing this very well.

That’s true; Ditko excelled at this sort of “choreography” throughout his career.
Manhood for Amateurs

What a great title. Too bad its taken. I'm still looking for a title for my own autobiography...

wedding day... mix tape

I'm impressed! Good on you.

I have no opinion of Moench one way or the other, as I haven't read any of his sustained efforts. I think he wrote a few typically high-quality episodes of Batman the Animated Series, didn't he?
Manhood for Amateurs is a collection of articles and essays which previously appeared elsewhere. I didn't really realize the significance of the tile until the concluding essay, "The Amateur Family," in which he writes about his family of geeks. I have since abandoned the word "geek" for the term "amateur" to describe myself.

Here, OT, is what Chabon had to say about Doctor Who: "If you aren’t watching and loving the glorious new BBC incarnation of Doctor Who, geeking out on the mythos of Daleks and Time Lords and Cybermen, swooning to the polysexual heroics of Captain Jack Harkness, aching over the quantum transdimensional heartache of Rose Tyler, and granting yourself the supreme and steady pleasure of watching the dazzling Scottish actor David Tennant go about the business of being the tenth man to embody the time-and-space traveling Doctor on television since the show’s debut in 1963, then I pity you with the especial harsh pity of the geek."

I'm not sure about Moench and B:TAS but I wouldn't be at all surprised.
I'd like to add Rocket Raccoon to the list of "uniquely Mantlo" concepts (now that I've read it for the first time, 25 years after its release). Keith Giffen is credited as co-creator, but it was Mantlo who wrote the original series and who sheparded the characters and concept through to publication.
Jeff of Earth-J said:
I'd like to add Rocket Raccoon to the list of "uniquely Mantlo" concepts (now that I've read it for the first time, 25 years after its release). Keith Giffen is credited as co-creator, but it was Mantlo who wrote the original series and who sheparded the characters and concept through to publication.

I actually just bought that series out of a 50¢ bin like 2 weeks or so ago. It is now in my monstrous "to read" box.
Marvel did more than DC to advance adult, alternative and creator-owned comics in the first half of the 80s. Some adult material appeared in Marvel’s B&W magazines. Epic Illustrated carried adult and creator-owned material. Marvel published creator-owned work in its graphic novel series, and creator-owned titles under its Epic imprint.

It might seem that adult, non-superhero comics should be able to reach a larger audience than superhero comics, since adult content should increase the appeal of the material to adults, and superhero comics are today apparently mainly read by people who are fans of the genre. But it doesn’t work that way in practice. At least, it doesn't seem to be the case that very many American comics form items - comic books or books - manage to reach a large adult audience. Possibly I'm underestimating how well comics items sell in book form these days. Anyway, Marvel and DC’s superhero lines are a surviving part of the pre-direct market industry, which had to appeal to a general audience, primarily consisting of children.

Even when they don’t own the material, creators often invest themselves heavily in series they do for Marvel or DC. It makes sense to do so, as it can be hard to get gigs, and successful Marvel and DC titles sell much better than creator-owned Image or Dark Horse comic books do. (Some features, such as Usagi Yojimbo, presumably do much better in trade form.) I think a case can be made that creators do their best work when they get to take control of a title and shape it to reflect their own sensibility. But I’m generally unsympathetic to the notion that creators should have more freedom, because I think a lot of them would leave some quite tremendous messes behind them if they did.
I do sort of agree with the "tremendous messes" theory, but in these days of "continuity doesn't matter", I think it's worth the risk to have someone do something brilliant. Hey, if they ruin everything, just mopee it!
Regarding the Microbots comic, Jeff said:

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.”

That's funny. My copy of Slings and Arrows Comic Guide says this:

“Jeff Micron emerges from cryogenic freezing to a new world, accompanied by miniature indestructible robots allegedly designed by his father. This being the days before video and toy tie-ins, they actually look like they were designed by a three-year-old with building bricks. Dull.”

Who's cribbing who? Mine was published in 1997 (and has a beautiful Frank Quitely cover, but that's neither here nor there.)

I kind of agree with most of your points Luke. I did qualify what I was saying with mentions of the market they were in and the selling infrastructure of that market. One of my points was that often the powers above the writer and artist had other priorities than facilitating the production of the best comic possible. It would seem often their priorities were incredibly petty ones too. Dampening the enthusiasm of the Goldens, Sterankos and Moores, and souring them on working on Marvel properties was just shooting themselves in the foot. No-one would claim that Marvel haven't unleashed the footbullets with startling regularity.

Anyway, Marvel and DC’s superhero lines are a surviving part of the pre-direct market industry, which had to appeal to a general audience, primarily consisting of children.

To keep the focus on Micronauts, my point was that this was a very good series for children, which didn't talk down to them - sexual intimacy and the realities of war were very well handled in two subsequent issues, I thought. Because it was sincere, it is still a great read for us "Grups" (Those of us taking part in this thread, at least!) I suppose the idea that comics had to be 'mature' to be 'worthwhile' was another blind alley that the 80s led us down.

I can see that I'm mixing up subjective aesthetic value judgements with things like sales numbers and the collapse in monthly sales since the 80s in my argument, such as it is.

I do sort of agree with the "tremendous messes" theory, but in these days of "continuity doesn't matter", I think it's worth the risk to have someone do something brilliant. Hey, if they ruin everything, just mopee it!

I agree with Mr S's* line, but possibly less ruefully. Marvel has changed a lot since 1981. Quesada, as an artist himself, seems to have brought some kind of pro-creator ethos to Marvel. There seems to be a lot less grief from those working under him than under Shooter. Partly it seems to be that young creators are less naive going into working for the Big Two. The two concepts that tried to be a bit fresh in the last decade - Runaways and Young Avengers seem to have been based on some kind of gentleman's agreement that has worked out to the satisfaction of Marvel and the creators, if not always the readers.

I think readers will get a lot less uptight about continuity over the next 10 years. There are already a few straws in the wind. I'm slowly learning myself to let it go. "In these days of "continuity doesn't matter", I think it's worth the risk to have someone do something brilliant" Couldn't have put it better myself. Aren't they all imaginary stories, at the end of the day?

Continuity has its uses. At the moment I'm reading the "Dark Reign" books and the Brand New Day Spider-man books. The continuity that they are both set within, beginning circa 2004 and 2008 respectively really work in their favour. They are each overseen by a group of writers with a particular story to tell and themes to explore. They each work really well in telling chapters of a larger tale that build on what has gone before. Both get lots of knocks, but as inconsequential superhero fun, I find it satisfying. That's continuity working well.

These long-form stories show a great editorial trust in the creators and a commitment to the loooooong stories they embark on, rather than the continuous editorial switching and tampering and rug-pulling that went on in the 70's and 80s.

The idea that someone writing a comic now has to follow what happened in some duff rack-filler released in 1973 is madness. That's what leaves behind tremendous messes in my book.

*Can I call you Brad too? :-)
*Can I call you Brad too? :-)

Absolutely.

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