Mantlo and Golden’s MICRONAUTS

Issues 1-12

Now that the bloom’s off the rose a bit on this summer’s final outing of Star Wars and it can all be looked at with a bit of retrospect, there’s a need for a new fix. To me, it’s worth going back to that initial boom to scoop up stuff that’s been buried by over 25 years of imitators and johnny-come-latelys. In 1978, due almost solely to the success of Star Wars, science fiction experienced a renaissance in popular culture. It stuck after that to the point where we scarcely think twice about how prevalent it is. If you begin to take the current crop of science fiction for granted, though, there’s nothing so humbling than to look back at just how much came out in a three-year period after Star Wars in film, on TV, and in the comics: Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon (the movie and the cartoon)… and The Micronauts. Mantlo and Golden’s twelve issues together on Micronauts are some of the most fun space opera that you could hope for. Sadly, due to licensing issues, it seems pretty unlikely that these issues will ever see print again, but they should be easy enough to track down. All the issues in question were also reprinted in the four issues of Micronauts Special Edition in the mid-80s, which are convenient because there are fewer issues to collect. They’ll be worth your while if this sort of swashbuckling space action gives you a bit of a buzz.

How it All Began

Before the comic book, The Micronauts were a line of toys produced in the US by Mego, who also made Barbie-sized dolls of Star Trek, Planet of the Apes and the DC and Marvel superheroes in the ’70s. The Micronauts line began in 1976 — just prior to Star Wars — and were unique for their variant color schemes and interchangibility. Some of the toys (such as Baron Karza and Force Commander) had magnetized ball-and-socket joints, so their limbs could be switched around. The toys were very successful.*

A MEGO Micronauts ad, from the Mego Museum

A MEGO Micronauts ad, from the Mego Museum

According to an article he wrote for Comics Journal #40 in 1978, comics writer Bill Mantlo first found out about the toys when his son Adam received them for the previous Christmas. Mantlo was intrigued by the toys’ names and lack of background, and approached new Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter about the possibility of a Micronauts comic book. After some confusion about who would draw the book — Jack Kirby, George Perez and Bob Hall were all considered, but unavailable — relative newcomer Michael Golden (whose previous work included some back-up strips of Batman and The Demon, and a brief run on Mr. Miracle, all at DC) took the job. In a contemporary interview with British fanzine BEM, Mantlo explained: “[Golden], I, and [then-]editor Bob Hall began plotting the first twelve issues (yes, we plotted the entire epic, from Karza’s triumph to his downfall) at the start, so the Karza epic would be finite.”

*As with many things, this is only part of the story. Since this is about the Micronauts comic, I don’t feel the need (nor the qualification) to explain the Japanese origins of the toys, or their various incarnations. There’re sites around that will happily oblige, though…

The First Issue

If you’re a little confused by the summary of this first issue, it’s understandable. Though I’m trying to make it as lucid as possible, this is one of the densest comics I’ve ever read. But the pace calms down dramatically even next issue, and the information overload is supplemented enough in the following issues that whatever confusion you suffer now will pass. Trust me, and bear with it.

Micronauts 1

Micronauts 1 by Dave Cockrum and Al Milgrom

Right out of the gate, Micronauts jumps into the thick of the story. There’s a revolution on the microscopic planet Homeworld , and on the first page Crown Prince Argon and his sister Princess Mari are pursued by the Dog Soldiers of the Baron Karza, a black-armored scientist who has effected a complete overthrow of the existing monarchy of Homeworld. In order to protect his sister, Argon sacrifices himself to the Dog Soldiers (think stormtroopers in blue) while Mari escapes with the help of the mysterious Enigma Force, and one of its Time Travelers. Mind you, this is in the first three pages!

The story really begins a few years later (on the next page) with the arrival of the starship Endeavor on Homeworld. The Endeavor is piloted by Commander Arcturus Rann and a robot named Biotron. Together they’ve been “space gliders,” exploring the universe for the past millennium, discovering alien races and expanding Homeworld’s body of knowledge. The Endeavor receives far from a heroes’ welcome, though, as it lands to the drawn guns of a battalion of Dog Soldiers. Baron Karza’s been prepared for the return of Commander Rann, and wants him destroyed (for reasons that will come to light later).

Rann is thrown into the gladiatorial arena that entertains Homeworld, along with Bug, an Insectivorid, and Acroyear, deposed prince of the warrior Acroyear race. Rann is startled: these were races that he’d made the “first contact” with, but they were already on Homeworld and seemed very familiar with it now. It seems Commander Rann himself is now obsolete: new technology developed since his voyage began made it possible for Karza to find the same alien races and enslave or exploit them. Thus, Rann’s mission of peace has been subverted; Karza rules all the known universe. Karza’s great innovation is The Body Banks, a giant pit where the bodies of the poor are recycled so the rich are made more or less immortal.

Meet The Micronauts from Micronauts #1 Click for a larger version.

Meet The Micronauts" from Micronauts #1 Click for a larger version.

This is all the more distressing to Prince Acroyear, Rann’s cellmate, since his brother Shaitan has usurped the throne and brainwashed the once-noble Acroyear people into serving as Karza’s elite army.

Meanwhile, the Princess Mari has stayed alive and well, posing as a robot marionette controlled by the jester-robot Microtron. She’s involved in the resistance against Baron Karza, and along with Acroyear and Bug, she blows up the arena and frees Rann. The group make their way to the Endeavor, and with an army of Acroyears in tow, launch off of Homeworld and through a tear in the Space Wall, to whatever might lie beyond…
The first issue rockets by at an alarming pace, with names and events dropped casually to the degree that whenever a major plot point is referenced in subsequent issues they always refer back to this one. Wisely, the Powers That Be (likely editor Al Milgrom) thought to include a key to who the characters were in the first issue. I know it was useful to me, and I’ve included it to the left for you as well.

Mantlo caught flack for this as well. Mantlo explains in the BEM interview: “We […] produced the most convoluted first issue in the history of comics! Jim [Shooter] and Stan [Lee] were appalled! ‘What did you do? We can’t understand this?!’ they yelled. ‘And if we can’t understand it, how do you expect the kids to understand it?!’ they continued. Michael and I got extremely depressed, and began to try and simplify the storyline without sacrificing any of the sci-fi elements inherent in the book…”

The next issue places all of these strange characters and concepts in perhaps the most easily digestible setting you can hope for…

Earth!

Micronauts 2

Micronauts 2

To the chagrin of the Micronauts, when they breach the Space Wall they arrive on Earth, but dramatically smaller than they were — they’re all the size of action figures. A battle ensues with the pursuing Acroyear fleet that decimates the Daytona, FL backyard of Steve Coffin, an astronaut’s son who is anxious to befriend the Micronauts, and who even helps some in destroying the evil Acroyears.

The battle between the crew of the Endeavor and the Acroyears rages on over Daytona, and both the Air Force and the local police are called out to investigate the subsequent UFO sightings. Neither find anything, of course.

Micronauts 3

Micronauts 3

Meanwhile, Steve’s father, ex-astronaut Ray Coffin, sees some of the broken ships in the wreckage of his backyard, and realizing his son is telling the truth about what happened, decides to let his pals at NASA in on the discovery.

Here’s the problem: one of the Micronauts, Bug, got left behind in the shuffle, and as he hitches a ride with the Coffins to NASA, the Micronauts regroup and head back to the Coffiin’s house to gather Bug back up.

Through all of this, back in the microverse that Homeworld is in, Baron Karza has imprisoned Prince Argon, and has been using him in bizarre experiments at the Body Banks.

Micronauts 4

Micronauts 4

After two issues on Earth, issue 4’s “A Hunting We Will Go!” is set (for a while, at least) back on Homeworld for a longer time than the page or so that’s taken place there the past few issues. Baron Karza and his Dog Soldiers break up a pocket of the resistance, looking especially for a leader named Slug. Slug, it turns out, is a woman, and thus escapes detection from the Soldiers’ (literal) manhunt.

Slug is for many of these issues one of the most captivating characters because we see her so little, and she seems to be so strong-willed and spunky. Unlike Mari, who by now is crushing hard for Commander Rann, Slug’s carriage is of someone who means business. Her mission is to free the Prince from Karza’s clutches, and by God, that’s what she’s going to do.

We see Mari in action much more often — she’s a major part of the core cast — but I don’t buy that she’s the rough-and-tumble type of girl. Perhaps it’s her always-beautiful hair, in the style popularized by Farrah Fawcett-Majors*, or maybe it’s how her royal background makes her moments of strong-willed-ness seem more precocious than truly active and forward-thinking. I especially find it hard, as the romance between Rann and Mari develops, to really buy that the two characters are as fond for one another as their thought balloons tell us they are — the other characters comment on it, but even their arguments didn’t seem to be sexy bantering to me, but rather seem more irritated in tone. When in a few issues they express outwardly some feeling for one anther it rings much more true.

*One of the things that dates the book, as a sidenote, is just how 1978 it all is — ads for KISS records, for posters of the pin-up queens of television, and for memorabilia related to the aforementioned science fiction boom — all of it starts to become sort of overwhelming at a point. Sometimes, as when reading many “older” comics, a blind eye must be turned to the ads, lest they make the whole thing too silly.

The plight of Slug on Homeworld takes up only the first third of issue four, though, and soon enough we’re back following the Micronauts on Earth, where the Coffins have taken the downed Acroyear spaceship and Bug to NASA’s Human Engineering Life Laboratories, which (as the narrator points out) are shorthanded as HELL. In the heart of HELL are the laboratories of Dr. Prometheus, once the elder Coffin’s astronaut partner, until a space station mishap (channeling fears from Skylab?) injured him permanently.

Micronauts 5

Micronauts 5

The Micronauts catch up to HELL as Prometheus reveals he has a special interest in the fallen aliens: he’s apparently been aware of the Microverse for some time, and believes that they hold the secret to restoring his body. In a moment I found genuinely creepy (and years before The Terminator), Prometheus peels back his skin to reveal a robotic skull underneath: things just got bad for the Coffins. Dr. Prometheus has built within HELL a pit — The Prometheus Pit — that acts as a warp tube into the Mircoverse. He’s not tested it yet, but (presumably because he knows too much) he decides that young Steve Coffin would be a perfect test subject. Bug intervenes with all his might just as the other Micronauts burst in. They’re enough of a distraction that Ray Coffin is able to use the moment to knock Prometheus off balance — but in the process, both men are knocked into the Prometheus Pit!

Issue 5, pretty damned creepy the whole way through, thus ends with one of the greatest moments of genuine pathos in the whole arc: young Steve Coffin lies sprawled at the rim of the Prometheus Pit, numbly beginning to comprehend that his father very probably gave his life so that Steve could be spared.

During all of this on Homeworld, Argon escapes and makes his appearance: he’s been melded with his horse by Baron Karza into a freakish centaur. This is a bit of narcissism on the Baron’s part: he himself has the ability to turn into a centaur (as we see in an early issue), but can transform himself back at will. Unfortunately, Prince Argon isn’t so lucky. Argon breaks free the group of rebels captured in the previous issue as they’re led to the Body Banks, where they’ll be used as spare parts. It’s a set-up, though: Argon was allowed to escape to show off his new deformity, and thus as a means to discredit the rebellion. He is quickly recaptured, as is Slug, who has shown herself a shade too resourceful for the Baron’s liking.

Micronauts 6

Micronauts 6

The Micronauts portions of issue 6’s “The Great Escapes” feel to me like the later (1986) Disney movie Flight of the Navigator: Steve Coffin and his newfound alien friends break free of the HELL laboratories, chased by Prometheus’s robot guards, the NASA security force, and the local police. The Micronauts re-board The Endeavor and try as hard as they can to escape further detection with Steve by laying low at the Coffins’ vacation house. There’s a strange scene with the Micronauts fighting police cars (!) that feels at once mundane and awfully exciting.

The other escape of the issue (the title is plural) is that of Slug and Argon from Karza’s prison. Slug once again proves herself resourceful in a way that’s too much fun to spoil here (suffice to say the Comics Code must’ve been looking the other way when that issue went past them), and is instrumental in spurring Argon on to his rightful place at the head of the revolution.

Adventures in the Marvel Universe

The Baron’s not focused on the escape of Slug and Argon, though, since his Acroyear army has found Prometheus’s body floating in the Microverse. He can breathe thanks to the atmosphere he’s generated because of his great size (?!), but he’s been driven stark mad by the realization that his theories were right. Karza sees the situation to his advantage, though. He realizes that he can use his own technology to switch body masses with Prometheus, allowing himself to be the same size as humans on earth, and thus at a greater tactical advantage in fighting the Micronauts.

And what of Ray Coffin, Prometheus’s fellow human in the Microverse? He’s been whisked away by one of the Time Travelers that’s popped up from time to time so far for a much greater purpose.

Micronauts 7

Micronauts 7

But in the main story of the Micronauts, we mark time for an issue.The Micronauts hang out at the Coffin summer cabin in the Everglades and monitor the TV for news about themselves. Now that he’s got some time to think about it, Steve’s not handling the apparent death of his father very well, and he spends the first part of the issue sulking and crying. This attracts the attention of the main attraction of the issue, the empathic Man-Thing, Marvel’s resident swamp monster. He menaces Steve and the Micronauts, but quietly goes away by the end of the issue, and the status quo is restored.

It seems that there was initially a bit of question as to whether Marvel characters could appear in Micronauts or not. My opinion is that there was little need to put them in, and that the world that the Coffins live in is all the more interesting for not being the same one Spider-Man, say, also lives in. It makes them all the more special, and the previous issue’s NASA manhunt all the more thrilling. Regardless, the Marvel characters could appear as much as they wanted to in Micronauts, but the Micronauts couldn’t appear in other Marvel books (according, again, the BEM interview with Mantlo. And appear they did — as the series went on, the Fantastic Four popped up more than once, and Dr. Strange , the X-Men and others all peeked into the world of the Micronauts. But we’re not talking about those issues here for a reason.

In the letter column a few issues later that responded to this issue, cat yronwode (best known for her editorial stint at Eclipse Comics in the ’80s) wrote in to complain about Man-Thing’s appearance in the book. Her concern is that Mantlo didn’t give the character any of the justice he deserved, and that it was all a shameless plug for Chris Claremont’s recent revival of the book. While the editor responding to the letters page insisted the latter wasn’t the case, s/he did concede that Mantlo had been taken to task for Man-Thing’s treatment (if not his inclusion) by no less than Jim Shooter himself.

Man-Thing himself was a point of relative contention because of the cult status afforded to his series from the early ’70s, written by Steve Gerber*. In real life, Gerber’s relationship with Marvel had just melted down over the rights to Howard the Duck, a character that was in fact originally created for the Man-Thing strip, and tensions were rather high in fandom as to what Gerber’s creative legacy would be at Marvel, given his strong personal touch on the books he worked on. It’s all a mess for another time, but it’s a mess worth pointing out here.

In short, of all the characters that could have been included as guest stars, The Man-Thing is one of the least likely, and the most politically contentious.

*Gerber’s one of my very favorites, and his time on Man-Thing will almost certainly be the subject of a column in the future.

Dallan and Sepsis with the unmasked Karza

Dallan and Sepsis with the unmasked Karza

The upside is that the slow point in the overall narrative that this issue offers allows us to finally get some much needed background: in this issue we learn more specifics about Commander Rann’s travels in the Microverse, and about his first encounter with the Enigma Force. We also learn about his parents, Dallan and Sepsis, who 1,000 years prior were the first to stand up to the Baron’s plans for the Body Bank, and thus were the first to be sacrificed to it.

I thought this brief passage was an awful lot like Jack Kirby’s earlier story “The Pact” in New Gods, which explained the origins of the New Genesis/Apokolips war. Selfishly, I wanted this flashback (and a similar one in the next issue) to be longer to round out the similarity and also to give us a better glimpse of what life was like on Homeworld before Karza took over. It is fun to get to see what he looks like under his armor, or at least used to look like. Part of the fun of the Baron is that the reason for his appearance now versus when he was merely Homeworld’s chief scientist raises a lot of speculation why (aside from the obvious reason that he needed to look like his toy counterpart) does he wear his black armor? What does he look like underneath now? In fact, I have the same questions about Karza as I did about Darth Vader for years which have (for better or worse) all been answered now. In some ways, it’s sort of exciting to still have the relative mystery of Karza’s past to fill the void.

Micronauts 8

Micronauts 8

In any other series, “Earth Wars!” in issue 8 would have been the climax of the story, and that’s part of why this series is so great. Baron Karza has taken over Prometheus’s body and is using Prometheus’s robot troops and his own substantial powers to hold HELL hostage, and is systematically tearing through the army that is trying to contain the situation. Presumably because they heard about it on TV, Steve and the Micronauts rush back to HELL and fall right into the Baron’s trap. They can do little to fight him; he has incredible power plus a size advantage. But they have an ace in the hole that even they don’t know about.

The Time Traveler that pulled Ray Coffin aside in the Microverse knows about Karza’s plans on earth, and offers Ray Coffin the chance to borrow some of the power of the Enigma Force and become Earth’s champion, Captain Universe. As Captain Universe, Ray’s strengths are his most positive and idealistic attributes, which fuel the power inside himself. In a lengthy battle of wills and cosmic energy, Universe is able to force Karza back into the Prometheus Pit. The Micronauts follow, and vow to continue the battle in the Microverse.

Marvel Spotlight 9 by Steve Ditko

Marvel Spotlight 9 by Steve Ditko

Captain Universe went on to become one of the better-known minor Marvel characters from his role in the Micronauts saga. Under the premise that the powers (and costume) of Captain Universe were granted to different ordinary people as needed — “The hero that could be you!” — a Captain Universe series ran in the last few issues of Marvel Spotlight, written by Mantlo and drawn by Steve Ditko, best known for co-creating Spider-Man. The first of these adventures featured none other than young Steve Coffin as the Captain. In later years, Spider-Man (among others) would gain the powers of Captain Universe (which seems to sort of run counter to what both characters are about), and most cleverly, the character was the subject of a Marvel “custom comic” co-starring the X-Men. Taking “the hero that could be you!” tagline to its conceivable limits, customers could send away for the comic, and their name would be printed as Captain Universe as s/he fought alongside the X-Men in this one-off adventure.

In fact, interestingly, all the characters that appeared in the comic that weren’t explicitly based on the toys are Marvel characters, though they’ve been used little or not at all since. Bug and Marionette, and Prometheus, and Slug… Though since Marvel no longer has the Micronauts license, any future non-Marvel Micronauts adventures cannot feature those characters either. It’s a double edged sword.

Back to the Microverse

Micronauts 9

Micronauts 9

The next few issues leave Earth entirely for what I feel are the finest Micronauts moments. On returning to the Mircoverse, The Endeavor and its crew end up in the vicinity of Spartak, the Acroyear homeworld. This could have terrible consequences, but Shiatan’s mind control has been lifted from the planet, and Prince Acroyear and the Micronauts are welcomed with the open arms of a people who know they’ve been duped into doing horrible things.

Micronauts 10

Micronauts 10

Never one to let things pass, Baron Karza orders his Dog Soldiers to Spartak, where a battle for the planet rages for the next two issues. This is terribly effective: the Dog Soldiers get to show off here better than anywhere else what monstrosities they’re capable of committing. In the ensuing battle, the Micronauts are split up: Acroyear is trying hard to marshal the Acroyears’ secret weapon (a surprise I’ll save for you); Rann and Mari are captured while fighting the Baron — Mari leaps to Rann’s aid when he falls in one of the most touching moments that we see between the two — and Bug is caught in an explosion and presumed dead. So much happens over the course of these two issues that it’s easy to forget that just a moment before the story was back on Earth. After so much time spent there, the openness of space and of all-out interplanetary war is a refreshing and much needed change of pace.

On Homeworld over the course of all of this (in fact, recapping bits I’ve skipped since issue 8), Argon has found some unexpected allies (again, a surprise that I shouldn’t reveal) who tell him that he is prophecied to be the new Force Commander, the title last held by Dallon Rann, who first stood up to Karza. Donning Dallon’s armor, Argon and the amassed hoarde of the poor of Homeworld storm the Body Banks. They know that their savior is about to arrive… in the form of Commander Rann.

Micronauts 11

Micronauts 11

Hopefully by this point you’re sucked in enough to be curious about issue 11, the climax of the whole epic, and I’m not going to spoil that. Everything comes to a head here, and all the pieces fall into place. The pacing is strong, the battles are fierce, and some things ahppen that threw me for a genuine loop.

That’s all I have to say about this one; do yourself a favor and if you pick up no other issues of Micronauts, pick up this one.

Micronauts 12

Micronauts 12

The final issue up for consideration, “To the Victors Belongs a World!” serves as a coda to the action of the previous 11 issues, and to its credit manages not to be anticlimactic. Acroyear and Shaitan battle as part of Shaitan’s trial for treason, and the results are less than ideal but well handled. This action (as the cover implies) is the main focus of the issue.

This is not to play down the parts that focus on the fate of the other Micronauts after the climactic events of the last issue. Continuing the comparison to Star Wars I’ve set up, this issue does something we never get to see in the movie: we get to spend time with the characters dealing with their celebrity following their great defeat of evil. More than just watching Luke and freinds grin as they get their medals, in this “last” issue of Micronauts we see Rann’s dissatisfaction at being hailed as a messiah; we see better the relationship between him and Mari, and we see how well Argon and Slug are getting along with each other now that there’s no more rebellion to fight for. All in all, it’s a nice wrap up. There’s only one dangling plot thread, but even that is slightly resolved on the last page.

From early on, Golden was only signed up for the first year of Micronauts, and the subsequent issues without Golden (by Howard Chaykin, and later by Pat Broderick, Gil Kane, Steve Ditko and others) lack the immediacy and fun of the first twelve. The art’s still good, and Mantlo’s still behind the pen most of the way through, but it feels to me like some of the spark’s missing. The book was an enormous success, and lasted nearly 80 issues over two different series.

Mantlo went on to write for Marvel for several more years, notably revealing in Hulk that Bruce Banner’s transformation is the result of abuse as a child. He had been working in comics as he made his way through law school, and evntually left to practice. In the early ’90s, Mantlo was hit by a car and suffered severe brain damage. At latest report, he’s in nursing care in New York. There’s more about this here. It’s a terrible thing.

Michael Golden has fared much better, becoming a bona fide fan favorite dring his run on Micronauts. He worked more for Marvel, created Bucky O’Hare at Neal Adams’ Continuity Studios (which later spun off into a reasonably successful cartoon and toy line in the early ’90s) and was for a time Marvel’s art director. His work shows up in comics from time to time (with great acclaim), but he’s spent most of his energy on advertising work.

Among his followers are Art Adams (whose cover to Classic X-Men 14 quotes that of Micronauts 9) and Todd McFarlane. In fact, I’ve heard it said (in classic comic fan overstatement) that without Michael Golden there’d be no “Image style”. I’m not sure I agree with that statement, but his impact on the next generation of comics artists is undeniable.

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