Thursday, December 15, 2022

Toy Story

The Micronauts was an American repackaging of a line of Japanese toys and action figures. It was never a construction system like Lego, but the figures had joints and connections of a consistent size, so any robot or spaceship could be disassembled and put back together in a different configuration. Spaceships could become cities and cities could become robots. "The Interchangable World of the Micronauts", they called it.

They were pretty generic space-toys, actually. "Microtron" looked a lot like a dozen other clockwork or battery powered robots. "Biotron" was another undistinguished automaton, albeit with an incongruous silver humanoid face. The spaceships were equally un-noteworthy, all pointy cockpits and delta-wings. 

But still, there was a certain ambience. The default action-figure -- the Micronaut -- is a gold headed robotic humanoid with a transparent plastic body. I think his head, with a retro-future rock n' roll quiff, was the same head as Biotron's. 

He was called Time Traveller. I don't know if he travelled in time. He looked a lot like my beloved Cyborg, the transparent robot Jesus who saved the Earth from a plastic purple Satan called Muton. Cyborg wasn't actually a cyborg, but he had an enemy named Android who was definitely an android. 

There turns out to have been a family resemblance. There had been a series of Japanese action figures called Henshin Cyborg; they were transparent and had robot innards and came in different colours. The UK market re-named them Cyborg and Muton and gave them a needlessly messianic backstory. But there was also a smaller, more accessorisable version of Henshin Cyborg called Micronman. Microman became Time Traveller for the US and UK markets. 

Interestingly enough, Henshin Cyborg had originally been based on GI Joe and GI Joe had been based on the British Action Man. So Micronauts was begotten of Microman, which was begotten of Cyborg, which was begotten of GI Joe, which was begotten of Action Man, the Hero With a Thousand costumes. 

Sandman has a library of books that were never written. Perhaps somewhere he also has a dusty trunk of toys that you never owned. I certainly never owned a Micronaut. I don't think I ever even handled one. But I saw the adverts on children's TV and on the back page of Star Wars weekly. I saw a big display underneath Santa's Grotto in Selfridges. I remember how they tasted. The robotic Time Travellers operating Science machines and piloting Science vehicles. There was a bad-guy in black armour who had a black horse and a good guy with white armour who had a white horse. Horse and rider sold separately. Being interchangeable, both of them could be configured as centaurs. I have always been a sucker for stories in which the villain is an exact mirror image of the hero.

I remember one particular morning on the way to school a space-centaur jumped into my head; half-man half-horse; with stormtrooper armour, leaping into the air firing laser beams from his eyes. I don't know if he had a flaming sword. I expect he had a flaming sword. The image had no context. I don't know if it was before or after I had seen the Micronauts figurines. I don't know if it was before or after Star Wars. But it made me jump for joy. If C.S Lewis is right joy is precisely what it made me jump for. 

"You're pretty young. A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he would remember."

I don't know if I really need to say this, but I will. 

In 1978, homosexuality was still not fully legal in England. The BBC still showed black-face minstrel shows. Teachers were positively encouraged to hit pupils. Nuclear war seemed not only possible, but probable. We were just moving into the Winter of Discontent. We had the Falkands War, the Miners Strike, AIDS, Section 28 and Ronald Reagan still to look forward to. To think about the popular culture of a particular era does not imply that you think that that the era was necessarily a great time to be alive. If comic books and RPGs were truly better in the olden days it does not follow that everything else was better too. To look with fondness on your own childhood and adolescence is not necessarily to look with fondness on the past in general. The Golden Age of comics was not itself a golden age. It may, in fact, be that they invented rock and roll in the 1950s because the 1950s were so awful; and that they invented punk in the 1970s because the 1970s were so awful. It may be that romantic poetry is the opposite of the industrial revolution. It may be that I ran away to the microverse because I was just basically unhappy. 

I don't know if I really needed to say any of that, but I have. 

A toy is not an object but an idea. A cheap ray gun selling for 50p in a market stall is not a lump of plastic designed for some knock-off company by a lazy designer who hasn't heard of Prince Wayfarer or Adam Warlock and wouldn't care about them if he had. It isn't even a marvellous toy that goes zip when it moves and whir when it stops, at least until the friction drive wears out. It is an artefact from an implicit science fiction universe. It is you transformed into a space cadet or a cowboy in an alien bar. You don't need to own it. You are probably too old to play, in that sense, with toys (and too young to be a collector). But the spell lasts for the whole bus-ride home.

"But if you want to play at being a space cadet, you can as well play at being a space cadet with a ray gun made from a toilet roll tube and some silver foil as with a cheap lump of Hong Kong garbage which will break inside a week."  Parents don't get this stuff. 

Don't sell the sausage, sell the sizzle, salesmen are told. When uber-hack Bill Mantlo turned the Micronauts into a Marvel Comic, what he emphatically sold was the sizzle.

Bill Mantlo gets a footnote in comic book history because he created Rocket Racoon. Rocket Racoon has become something of a cult since Guardians of the Galaxy became a movie. He was a guest star in an episode of the incredible Hulk. He helped the Hulk retrieve Gideon's Bible from a bad guy. The story was called Somewhere Near the Black Holes of Sirius There Lived a Young Boy Named Rocket Racoon. Bill Mantlo really liked the White Album. 

Hulk #271 was not, in fact, the first appearance of Rocket Racoon. We will come back to this point eventually, and you will be mildly surprised. 

Bill Mantlo has a bit of a bum rap as a Marvel Comics "company man". And it's true that any run of any Marvel comics series from the late 70s or early 80s will periodically be interrupted by a low-quality out-of-sequence episode written by Mantlo. It's quite disconcerting to be reading through Don McGregor's art-house Kilraven, or Doug Moench's proto-cyberpunk Deathlock and suddenly find the main story paused in favour of by a by-numbers Mantlo episode, often with an inappropriate guest star. 

There's a reason for this. One of Mantlo's first gigs was to write a notional Marvel Fill In Comic, one issue a month, so the company could stockpile a backlog of material which could then be printed when a writer or an artist missed their deadline. That happened quite often in the bad old days. Prior to Mantlo, when an artist got called up for jury service or a writer got food poisoning Marvel would reprint a previous issue and pretend it was a flashback. It was the comic book equivalent of a clip show. 

Mantlo didn't always respect his predecessor's work. He took over Alpha Flight (the Canadian Avengers) from John Byrne and took exactly one issue to excise every single idea which had made Byrne's comic feel like a breath of slightly fresher than usual air. When Steve Gerber lost control of his highly personal Howard the Duck, it was Bill Mantlo who stepped forward to write an instantly forgettable conclusion. Some people have never quite forgiven him for that.

And yet. 

When fans of a certain age start to wax nostalgic about the seventies and the eighties it is quite likely to be a Mantlo title -- Rom: Spaceknight, Jack of Hearts, Cloak and Dagger -- that they'll be talking about. There's a very thin line between the derivative and the archetypal. Rom, the alien in power armour who falls from the sky to fight shape shifting aliens who have secretly conquered the earth without anyone noticing feels like a "these you have loved" tribute to every old-fashioned superhero comic and every science fiction B-movie. And it ends with a multi-hero crossover before such things were fashionable. 

Dammit, I remember the fill-in issue in which Tony Stark recalls that day in the 'Nam when he renounced the arms trade; and the fill-in issue in which Peter Parker places a very old microscope on the grave of Uncle Ben better than I remember some of the deathless classics of the era. The reason is not hard to see: Mantlo had taken every issue of Iron Man and every issue of Spider-Man, chewed them up, and spat them back at us. Perhaps because he was not himself a fan (he really wanted to be a lawyer) he could see the characters with fresh eyes. The fan favourites of the era, Panther's Rage and Master of Kung Fu and what-not can seem a little worthy and pretentious by comparison. 

So. The Micronauts. Call it pastiche, homage, blatant rip-off. It was all of those things. But sometimes it feels more like Star Wars than Star Wars itself. 


In 1992 Bill Mantlo was involved in a catastrophic road accident, suffering brain damage from which he has never recovered. It is said that he has seen Guardian of the Galaxy, and was able to recognise Rocket Racoon.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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