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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Issue 19 is another gap in my collection. A pity as it co-stars the poor old Scott Lang Antman, (may the Lord have mercy on him!)

So feel free to comment on that issue, if you like.
Psycho-Man is definitely “whacked out”! [And the “villain” from FF #10 is False-Face, BTW.]

I think the blandness of the Chaykin/Milgrom art is due to the fact that Chaykin was doing only layouts. His earlier work solo was is more dynamic than this.

I wish I would have known sooner you were missing issue #19. That one I would have re-read!

BTW, after today I’ll be away from the board for a week, but I’ll catch up to this discussion when I return.
You might want to take issue 23 with you. That's the last one I'm missing until issue 41-43.

Too bad I didn't give more advance notice. My poor communication skills have been noted by both my wife and my boss ...

I may take a break at 23 anyway, as the 2nd Karza War takes off around there. Or I may take a break at the end of that storyline, as that's closer to the halfway point, and another big change of gears in the direction of the series.

Yeah, I was expecting a bit more ooomph from early Chaykin. (Thank Dallan and Sepsis he dropped the 'Howie'...) I can't call myself a fan. The only work of his I've really studied was Black Kiss. (Wow!)

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.

I agree. Actually, human-sized people being menaced and treated as playthings by a powerful over-sized child is quite a well-used story idea in sci-fi and horror, but because its the Micronauts and a human child, we see the story from a completely different perspective, and it seems quite fresh.

I won't say its a hackneyed idea as maybe there are no new ideas, but Mantlo does a good job of dressing it up so that it seemed new! Which is what good comic book writers do most of the time anyway.

It's probably not a coincidence that Mantlo wrote about his heroes being menaced by a swarm of kids toys at the same time as he felt his own story was being derailed by the needs of a mass-producer of kids' toys.
The Micronauts

Issue 19 – Divided They Fall / Issue 20 – Enter:Ant-Man.



Images from www.comicvine.com

These two issues make up one story where the Micronauts realise they are back on Earth, deal with a demented yokel who mutates and commands insects, and have a fleeting encounter with the Scott Lang Ant-man.

Pat Broderick makes his debut as Micronauts artist here, and he is a good fit. His art is reminiscent of Neal Adams, though without that artist’s innovative page layouts. He's a good illustrator, bringing the characters expressively to life and a fine visual storyteller.

His realism adds to the fun of these issues, which begins with Bug finding himself on a farm and climaxes in a convenience store. As in Gulliver’s Travels, there’s something fascinating about seeing our everyday world made strange in this way.

That’s the good stuff.

At this point I have to declare Mantlo to be phoning in his scripts*. They really do seem only half-finished. Odd John is just a sad lunatic, whose mutated insects don’t seem like much of a threat. Only the fact that he mutates Bug and puts him in charge of them gets the Micronauts involved at all. At one point Ant-Man thinks that if he wasn’t Ant-man he’d have to fight them with only a can of Raid, but ... er... that would actually be a more effective way of fighting them than shrinking down to their size, and hoping that some one in a million chance will allow him to beat a swarm of monsters, each bigger and stornger than him. As it happens, by a million to one coincidence, the utterly unique and specialized formula that Henry Pym devised to change the size of human beings also counteracts Odd John’s mutation of the Microversian Bug and the Earth insects!

Egads, Bill! I read superhero comics all the time, so I have a high tolerance for unlikely coincidences and handy resolutions of threats, but, ....dude!



Mantlo’s lukewarm interest in the type of stories he’s being paid to tell shows at this point. I was really looking forward to seeing Ant-man interact with the Micronauts. Further, he could have worked well as a recurring guest-star. He would have made a great companion to them in our world and wasn’t even appearing regularly in any other comic at this time. Instead, he has a brief exchange with Biotron only, and that’s it.

A mini-bio In a later issue states that Broderick loved the original adventures of the Astonishing Ant-man, so Scott Lang is probably only here because the artist wanted to draw him, which would explain why his appearance feels tacked on and why he engages so little with the Micronauts themselves during the adventure. Ultimately he has to be there for a reason, and that's why the resolution of the mutant insect menace is so daft!

(The bio doesn't state whether Pat's parents actually christened their child Paterick Broderick, ... which would seem unnessecarily cruel.)

In the context of how genre heroes like our intrepid team were subverted and undermined in subsequent decades, it’s great that Mantlo has our heroes fight a bunch of animated dolls one month and then an army of insects the next. Despite their heroism and fighting spirit, it’s all they can do to escape the smallest threats. They only get away with their lives, not even fully resolving or understanding one situation before being thrown into the next. As much as I’d like to think that this is Mantlo being a visionary trailblazer, from his own testimony of losing heart in this phase of series, and the evidence of the current half-baked plots, it looks like these stories are just the result of lack of interest and application on his behalf.

Luckily, Mantlo had figured out a way to incorporate the type of cosmic space opera that he really wanted to tell into the Earth-bound stories mandated by the toy company. There are a few dumb stories of directionless heroes to go before we fully get back to where Mantlo wants to be, but next issue he starts planting the seeds of the next great arc.

*This seemed like a good metaphor to use here, but for all I know, every Marvel writer phoned in the scripts to the artist in this pre-internet era.
Odd John's name might derive from a novel of that name by Olaf Stapledon.
Luke Blanchard said:
Odd John's name might derive from a novel of that name by Olaf Stapledon.

Which I see coined the term 'Homo Superior'!

From the wiki description, the two characters have some similarities...
The Micronauts, Issue 21 - Say it with Flowers!

From issue 21, Mantlo gets around the narrative restrictions of having to set the Micronauts’ adventures in our world by starting a series of 5-page back-up strips called ‘Tales of the Microverse’. I’ll look at the first few of these in a separate post.

I didn’t mention it earlier, but all the issues up to now have only had 17 pages of story in them. That compares with about 21-22 in today’s comics. With the greater verbiage and denser content on each page in the comics of the Micronauts’ period, the comics don’t seem up to 5 pages shorter at all. However, with the back-ups now taking up the end of each comic, we only have 12 pages for each main story. This adds to the feeling of lightness and inconsequentiality that they have already been displaying.

Issue 21 continues on from the previous issue with Rann and Mari being dumped in a garbage truck outside the convenience store. Mantlo just can’t help translating his feelings about the current run of stories into actual plot elements. In this issue, the Micronauts literally become trash, and in issue 23 Biotron fights it out with a homeless man in a actual DUMP! The ongoing demands that a long-running pulp serial puts on writers often results in their subconscious getting a say like this.

The bad guy of the piece, Plant-man, is an extremely minor villain. I can’t think of another appearance of him. He seems to be exactly the kind of minor schnoz that would have given the Human Torch a headache back in his earliest solo adventures, but he’s probably too lightweight to pose much of a threat to modern heroes. Here he has the uninspired plan of getting into a relationship with a lady who owns a flower shop, so that he can get from there into the bank next door. He’s strictly small-time.

Which is not to say that he wouldn’t have a special place in some fanboys hearts.

Like mine, for instance.

Plant-man’s appearance means we have reached the first Micronauts story I ever read! The Micronauts were being reprinted in the UK at that stage in a short-lived weekly anthology title called Future Tense. It became a monthly with issue 36, and ceased publication at issue 41, which was very typical of Marvel UK. Also typically, it was a black and white anthology comic. Star Trek, Rom, and Adam Warlock all shared pages with our diminutive heroes.

I must have got my 9 year old hands on issue 7, cover dated December 1980. It contains the first half of the Plant-man story, which I remember well, but for the life of me, I can’t remember any of the other strips in that issue at all! I can’t recall reading any scene from the first Star Trek movie, and until today, I would have sworn I’d never read a page of Adam Warlock or Starlord. The Micronauts strip I do remember reading though – right down to where I was lying when I read it. It was so memorable partially because the tiny heroes were a striking concept, beautifully drawn by Broderick. His art looked pretty good in black and white.

Mainly it was because of one scene where Fawn comes back to her shop to find her new boyfriend suddenly wearing a green skintight suit and facemask. I could describe the scene, but instead, here it is!

plantman large

One thing about it that probably made an impression on me was that this was the first time I can recall a character in a comic really showing shock and surprise at seeing someone in a superhero costume as they would do in real life. Perhaps it was set off further by the workaday setting of the flower shop, established as Fawn’s home from home. The costumed supervillain seemed really strange set against such a normal background. It’s an early example of the ‘what if superheroes were real?’ approach that fuelled many a serious tale later in the decade, and it made an impression on me!

Fawn’s shocked question “why are you wearing that outlandish costume?!” has stayed with me too, down all the years, and I've never forgotten it. Ever since Stan Lee first scripted them, Marvel comics have been introducing young readers to a panoply of wonderfully obtuse words, and this scene was responsible for adding ‘outlandish’ to my vocabulary (although it was probably a decade or two before I actually used it in conversation!)

Another thing that struck me was Plant-man’s joy at transforming himself into his ‘real’ identity. Maybe he was a minor villain, but as Plant-man he felt complete and it was all he wanted to be. "Because, I am this costume, baby!"

The idea of becoming someone better and more powerful is one of the underlying attractions of superhero comics, and Plant-man here is an unusually explicit illustration of that. His exultation at transforming into his 'better self' (in his eyes) communicates itself in the story, and made a huge impression on me when I read it.

No doubt these things all made such an indelible mark because it was the first time I was seeing these concepts acted out. Certainly, they are tropes of superhero stories, but the advantage of writing for such a young audience is that some of the scenes you write will seem shockingly original to some of your readership, at least, and become part of their internal world.

I've been complaining a bit lately about Mantlo's work in these last few issues of Micronauts, but looking at this panel in isolation, there's still a lot of great things in evidence about his writing. That dialogue pops off the page. Right from Fawn's opening scream and incomprehension all the way through Plant-man’s swaggering misogynistic crowing. It’s a pretty great panel. Maybe some of it is down to Broderick’s perfect one-panel depiction of a woman whose entire emotional world has just imploded, but being part of such a fine collaboration is no bad thing....

I’m sure every comic fan has panels burned into their consciousness in a similar fashion, but my anticipation of seeing this very scene again was one of the reasons I decided to start reading the Micronauts all these years later.
Micronauts issue 22 – The Best Darned Burglar in the Whole Wide World!


Image from www.comicvine.com

So issue 20 had Ant-Man guest-starring, and issue 21 had Plant–Man. I was halfway expecting this issue to have a similarly rhyming co-star. Given the fun with the size differential and the nods to early Henry Pym adventures, I thought it might be Giantman. Then again, I don’t know if John Merrick exists in the Marvel Universe, in which case we might have had “Enter: Elephant-Man.”

Given the recurrence of "down-and-out" story elements, issue 22 might have featured Vagrant-Man. Continuing the Micronauts series of run-ins with incredibly minor foes they could have totally ignored Pissant-Man, or been mildly irked by Irritant-Man. They might have faced the discombobulating hairdo of Bouffant-Man, suffered the sulks of Petulant-Man or been confounded by the basic walking abilities of Ambulant-Man.

Instead of all these nonsensical foes, we get “The Best Darned Burglar in the Whole Wide World!” This turns out to be a sarcastically titled McDonalds employee who switches careers to rob the safe at his workplace. Even Pissant-Man would have been a more serious villain!

Mantlo really seems to be struggling here, or not really trying now that he’s started on the Microverse back-ups. The main threat comes from an 18 wheeled truck that Acroyear, Cicilia and Bug attack for no reason whatsoever. They have been on Earth before and even travelled on highways before, so they should have known what to expect. Because of their reckless sabotaging of the high-speed juggernaut, it crashes into the restaurant. A great carry-on for supposed heroes.

The face-off with the Juggernaut just reads like a reprise of the great moments on the highway in the Golden issues, but here the Micronauts aren’t running away from, or to anything. They just pick a fight with the truck because superheroes always have to be fighting…

In staggering defiance of all probability, the truck flying off the highway at high speed and crashing into a busy Mickey Dees causes precisely NO fatalities or injuries, not even to the hapless passengers, but does ensure the cops catch the Best Darned etc etc.

I’m speechless.
Micronauts issue 23 – Field Trip!


Image from www.comicvine.com

While lovebirds Rann and Mari were picking each other out of garbage trucks and Acroyear was causing 18-wheelers to crash into ethically dubious restaurants, Biotron starts scouring the rubbish tips of Jersey for spare parts to repair the Endeavour.

A homeless Afro-American, who’s portrayed in a borderline racist fashion, picks up Molecule Man’s ‘wand’ in mistake for his bottle of Thunderbird and becomes the reality-altering villain. Normally the possession of ‘reality-altering powers’ would guarantee winning every fight you’d go into, but the Molecule Man’s actions must be affected by the poor loser whose body he has highjacked because he's electrocuted and defeated. Molecule Man's persona goes back to being stored in his wand, the homeless guy (Vagrant-man?) gets knocked unconscious, and Biotron makes his way back to the Endeavour, where he hooks up with the rest of the newly returned team.

I really did jump into this series at the highpoint, didn’t I? I guess this is the Mantlo that caused eyebrows to raise when I started throwing the word ‘genius’ around. Ah well! Getting the story done on time, paying the mortgage and pleasing that group of readers who write in to say how much they loved the latest issue of Micronauts is no crime!

This issue has a bonus story, as well as another Tale of the Microverse. In the bonus story, Microtron goes looking for his mistress Mari, and its an excuse to visit each of the Micronauts in turn to see how they spend their downtime. When he locates Mari in Rann’s quarters, he finds that the little girl he’s practically brought up …isn’t a little girl anymore.

“Oh My! Oh My! Oh My!”

By the way, I did say earlier that I didn't have issue 19 or 23, but a made a detour to a comicshop I don't normally visit on Sunday and was pretty happy to find them. Luckily, I got the shyster there to half the price he was charging for them.

Wouldn't do to pay too much for these.
I consider #22 to be the absolute low point in the entire series. These reviews continue to be wonderful.
Mr. Satanism said:
I consider #22 to be the absolute low point in the entire series.

Its funny how such a negative statement can cheer a body up!

I've already read the end of the 2nd Karza War and the beginning of the search for the Keys of Maguffin, and they weren't bad at all. If I can just get through these issues...

The more I read of this run between the two battles with Karza (we should have a name for them too - perhaps The Garbage Issues?), the more I realise that Mantlo's text piece in the final SE was a veiled apology and an explanation of sorts for why they are so poor.
I do wish Mantlo had given his all to the "on Earth" issues- as I stated before, it's a premise that never gets old for me, and there's just so many unique ways you could approach the Marvel U when you're only a few inches tall! Since the Microverse is firmly set in the wider Marvel U proper, it didn't have to be the heroes battling insects or house cats over and over.

As the series proceeds, keep an eye on the size of the Endeavor when they do visit Earth. By rights, given their scale it should be about the size of, perhaps, a small endtable, but I seem to recall an issue where it's actually washed down a sewer grating. No consistency whatsoever, and even as a wee one I noticed this.

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