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.
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)
The last two of the four I mentioned are Disney films, and I haven't seen them since I was a kid. I hardly remember Babes in Toyland.(1) The Gnome-Mobile is a twee Disney comedy.
The And You Call Yourself a Scientist website has a review of The Devil-Doll, which I haven't seen. I have seen Dr. Cyclops but don't remember it well. If I'd thought of it I would have included Attack of the Puppet People (1958), which is a low-level 50s SF film, and tom thumb, a George Pal film I haven't seen.
(1) Babes in Toyland was an American operetta from the early 20th century. There are several movies of this title, with various relationships to the operetta. The Laurel and Hardy version isn't great until the march of the wooden soldiers at the end. The TV film, which I haven't seen, featured the young Keanu Reeves and Drew Barrymore.
Other stuff fans of "Little People/ Big World sub-genre might want to look for:
"The Micronauts" - unrelated series of three novels by Gordon Williams. Set in a near-future with some fascist overtones, the first one ends with several people shrunk down to bug size and stranded in someone's back yard. Never read the other two.
"The Micro-Buccaneers" - a feature in the short-lived Warren comic/magazine "The Goblin". The premise is basically that some Micronaut-sized pirates, in a ship that looks like a sailing vessel, decide to raid earth of all its "booty". The big gag? They seem completely oblivious to the fact that we're all giant-sized to them. Kind of juvenile (lots of jokes involving bodily functions) but definitely unique, and may well be a direct parody of Marvel's Micros.
Hence I've just remarked on it! :-)
Something else I stumbled upon while looking up Williams Micronauts books: JJ Abrams' projected Micronauts movie creeps forward another few inches through pre-production hell, (or should that be pre-production H.E.L.L?) From here.
Paramount pictures has hired Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese to adapt the Hasbro toy line Micronauts to film.
J.J. Abrams is already lined up to direct the film, and Brian Burk will produce alongside a couple of Hasbro executives.
Issue 49 – Keep the Home Fires Burning.
In this 30-page issue, we get 20 pages of Commander Rann making his way back to the Microverse in his new Bioship and 10 pages winding up the plotline of Mari’s attempts to foil Argon’s wedding to Slug (or the woman currently inhabiting Slug’s body, at any rate.)
As much as I have been enjoying Mari’s asymmetrical conflict with Argon’s regime, and the comicbook version of political realism that this storyline involved, her brother’s despotic reign and the whole context of what the Micronauts are fighting against becomes somewhat moot by the last page! So the major arc that Mantlo has been working on for the last half year are all wrapped up in the final 10 pages of ths comic. It’s a strange creative decision, given how Mantlo has been building up the wedding as the climax of the previous half dozen issues or more.
Put like that, the issue sounds unbalanced. On the contrary, this was the first issue where I really felt that Mantlo had got a grip on the 30-page comic form. These current issues are packed with incidents and ideas, but the extra pages allow the artist to spend a little time on them. Previously it seemed that Mantlo was just padding out 20 pages worth of ideas into the larger format, and he was still tied to the standard Marvel structure of basing most of the issue around the big fight – the standard Marvel gameplan I posited above.
Rann’s shrinking trip down into the Microverse is from a Marvel tradition of bizarre cosmic adventures depicted in a psychedelic style. Used here, it seems to be a holdover from the hippy era, when a certain trippiness influenced the art.
The Bioships journey down to the Microverse is actually really good comics. First of all, there is the fantastic spectacle of seeing something that is way outside our normal experience. What are comics for, if not that? Even though there have been several journeys between Earth and the Microverse in this series before now, this time Mantlo and his artist really try to work through what that involves and try to come up with entertaining ramifications of the concepts.
As this is a superhero book, I’m not necessarily looking for the scientifically accurate depiction of what such a journey might involve, but for the most entertaining possibilities of such a trip. As the ship shrinks it goes from being much larger than intermediate-sized worlds and lifeforms it passes to being seen as a direct threat to them and attacked as such and on down to being insignificant to them again as it shrinks. That’s quite a fun idea. Then Guice does a good job of depicting it, although he really is thrown into the deep end here on his first few issues. Guice has to depict thoroughly alien landscapes which change as the Bioship shrinks, and to boot, there is a detour to whatever otherworldly transcendental domain the Travellers exist in as well. It’s all very enjoyable and gets room to be developed properly. It’s starting to feel almost like a European comic, even!
Rann is told by the Travellers that they can’t intervene in the next great conflict, but that he will have to find the Enigma Force within himself. Suitably portentious.
It’s been quite easy to trace Mantlo’s waxing and waning enthusiasm for his Micronauts series over the previous 50 issues, and it is clear that we are hitting an upswing here. Perhaps Mantlo could see that he was about to head into the genuine final climax that all good stories - not just this one - demand. Issue 49 and 50 turn out to be an exercise in clearing the deck for the final 9 issues. Part of this is that we get a thoughtful ‘farewell’ sequence of Rann leaving Earth. In one ‘montage’ panel we get the more memorable characters and adventures that the Micronauts faced on Earth. Looking at them, it seems that they are the stories I found it hardest to get my hands on. Perhaps the appearances of characters like Doctor Doom and the Wasp did help them sell better when these issues first hit the stands and thus they weren’t as easy for comic shops to stock in the back issue era. There is certainly a sense of finality to Rann’s return to the Microverse this time, and it’s tempting to suggest that we are getting Mantlo’s own thoughts on his Earth-set Micronautsissues.
“We will always remember both the good and the bad, Commander -- but Homeworld awaits us” says Rann’s faithful Bioship.
(I know there is an X-Men crossover coming up, which will probably be set on Earth, but this sequence still feels like a farewell.)
On Homeworld, Mantlo has brought all his characters together in a huge arena, possibly the same stadium where the Micronauts first met up in issue one. Ostensibly it is for Argon’s wedding to Slug, but it is here that Mari will launch a direct attack against Argon to get public support for her rebellion. Sergio Leone, in his great westerns, went to some lengths to stage his climactic confrontations in sets that looked like bullrings or gladiatorial stadiums. He wanted to emphasise the showmanship of it, the spectacle and the life or death nature of the conflict and to give it more dramatic weight.
Mantlo is striving for the same artistic goals, but can simply set his scene in a massive gladiatorial arena, complete with huge crowds of spectators! This is another example of Mantlo naturally and almost instinctively doing quite clever things in this comic. It’s so natural a setting for a climax that the good craftsmanship involved in setting it up is almost invisible to us – and consequently Mantlo doesn’t get quite as much appreciation as he deserves.
The public wedding has been set up for several issues now, and also Mari’s attempts to sabotage the weather-control system. Thus, we get the equally artistically pleasing dark storm building as events come to a head. (Again, that’s quite clever, isn’t it?) Things start to spin out of the control of both sides in the conflict as this issue barrels to its shocking conclusion.
In the fight, Argon’s helmet is ripped off him and the Karza persona within him bursts forth from his shredded armour.
“The baleful Baron Karza rips free of the screaming husk of King Argon”, we are told. Comicbook prose as it should be.
Karza does great entrances, though, doesn't he?
Argon is the first victim of Mantlo’s clearing of the decks in these couple of issues. Before he is ripped apart, Argon does get to declare that he has been fighting to prevent Karza’s return. Like Mari’s psycho-analytically juicy conflict with her brother, Argon’s puzzling and dramatically intriguing conversion from freedom fighter to despot has now become a moot point!
The only thing that matters now is that Karza’s back!
I'm not sure I get your Hazel! reference. Are you speaking of the maid, star of a comic panel and TV series back in the day? (My parents had some collections of the comic)
...Ted Key's HAZEL panel is still running six days a week , incidentally ! :-) How old would he be now ???????????
Follow the link to Spidr-Man in the Memphis Commercial Appeal in the All-Purpose Newspaper Strips thread , when you get there click on the blue/purpl " Choos A Comid "click-on-able...........My folks had a World War II-era , flimsy paper , book of the panel dating from its SATURDAY EVENING POST dfays , a joke revolving around mentioning H. V. Kaltenhorn and all:-).........
I'm speaking of this Hazell. An ITV detective series in the UK 1978-79 or so. Whether you remember him or not will depend on your age (I believe you are based in the UK, no?) To be honest, although I might have seen his show repeated a few years after his heyday on afternoon telly when I was off school sick, he really came to my attention when I spotted this old annual in a second hand bookshop.
Having a UK hardback annual (there were two, dated 1979 and 1980) come out for it means it must have rated pretty highly in the Zeitgeist of the time. That he was all but forgotten, but had once been so popular as to merit an annual, really fascinated me. I didn't buy the annual, but it stuck in my mind and then I recognised the property in the list of Williams' accomplishments. It's the melancholia of it, I suppose. We are as dust in the wind, as So-Crates once said.
Anyway, he is only mentioned here because it's my thread and I felt like sharing! Perhaps he belongs here, as the TV series was contempronous with the Micronauts and they are now both part of the vanished world of the late 70s.
Hazel the Maid doesn't ring any bells with me, though.
I've been waiting for you to get to these issues. #49, if memory serves, was Danny Bulanadi's final one as inker. #50 was inked by Butch Guice. Think of it as the equivalent of Paul Gulacy inking himself. WHOA. In both cases, almost TOO "intense". Then, if memory serves (sure I could look it up so easy, but I try to keep m mind active when dealing with such utterly trivial stuff-- heh), Kelly Jones debuts as inker. I love the Guice-Jones team the same way I love the Kirby-Sinnott team. YEAH. It's THAT damned good.
Trying to avoid any plot spoilers. but... the X-MEN/MICRONAUTS mini came out the SAME 4 months as 4 months of MICRONAUTS. However, all 4 issues of the mini take place back-to-back, IN-BETWEEN 2 issues of the regular book. So I hope you manage to read it in the CORRECT order, which I didn't when they came out. the last issue of the mini leads into the NEXT issue of MICRONAUTS, which means the 4 issues that cae out at the same time as the mini should all be read BEFORE the mini. Now, I'm not sure you even have to read the mini at all... but if you're gonna, probably best if you read it in the right place. (I think it's between #57 & 58-- that's if, #58 was the CLIMAX of the end-run of the book, and #59 the epilogue.)
Yes, I looked it up. X-MEN/MICRONAUTS should definitely be read in between #57 & 58.
This is not mentioned at all at the GCD. (Somebody should make a note of it there.)
I may be wrong about the inks. They have Bulanadi listed for #50, 51 and 52. (Maybe I should dig out my comics.)
Taking this as an excuse to update my own index... I see Gil Kane did 6 issues in a row. I'd forgotten he'd done this book, but once I saw his name listed on a few, I could have just BET he did 6-- Jim Shooter had an incentive program where if someone did 6 consecutive issues, they got a BIG bonus!!! One way to combat people jumping on and off books all the time, and give readers some stability. (You know, with a better personality, he could have been an effective manager...)
I didn't know about the incentive program. I guess that was the carrot to go with whatever big stick he used to whip them into line. No-one mentions the carrots when they are saying how bad a manager he was... Someone stated elsewhere recently that Byrne and Stern left Captain America because they were about to lose a bonus because of a fill-in being projected. You've just explained what bonus they were talking about.
I like that we are slowly filling out the 'publishing contexts' of this series as we go.
Bulanadi inks #49 & 50 according to the credits. I can't find much fault with his work as it is on the page. Obviously making Kane, Ditko and Guice all look fairly similar does indicate he was quite overpowering, but I still like what I see. (But then, I'm not an artist).
When Bulanadi goes, I will miss your references to Rudy Nebres. Not that I'm familiar with Mr Nebres or his work, but his name sounds like a particularly suggestive and provocative Latin dance. :-)
I've only read up to the end of #50, so I'm not sure when Bulanadi leaves. I was going to read to the end (or at least up to the X-men tale) and then review 49-57, but #50 seems to draw a line quite conclusively under a whole phase of the story, and set up the next one, so I've stopped reading there for now.
I'll try to get up to #57 quite quickly. I have other fish to fry in 2012.