Sunday, December 18, 2022

How Toys Become Real

All stories are true. 

This is the story which Bill Mantlo tells about the creation of the Micronauts.

It's Christmas 1978: Bill Mantlo is watching his son open his presents. Santa must have been in a pretty generous mood that year, because the lad got quite a haul of Micronauts toys. His Dad looked at the toys, and started to imagine personalities for them. Time Traveller looked mystical; Space Glider had the look of Reed Richards about him; Galactic Warrior looked insectoid; Acroyear looked like a space version of a medieval knight. As the young lad played with his toys, a story formed in the grown-up's head. He liked it so much that he persuaded Marvel to get the licence from Mego so he could put it in a comic book. [See Note]

It's a cute story. It reminds me of another story, about another father and son and another collection of toys. You only have to look at that stuffed donkey, said Dad, to see that it has to be gloomy: you only have to look at that pig to see that it has to be squeaky and nervous; you only have to look at that tiger to see that it has to bounce.

And perhaps that is how all good toys work. They inspire a particular kind of play-personality. I have heard mime artists say that certain masks have certain personas regardless of who is wearing them. But perhaps, on the other paw, a good toy is a blank canvass on which you can project whatever you were going to project in any case. If what you wanted to do was host tea-parties, then the guests might as well be Mr Bear, Miss Bunny, and Lord Penguin. But if you were planning a jaunt around the Spanish Main, then Captain Bear can perfectly well have First Mate Penguin and Bunny the Bosun. I have absolutely no idea what a Bosun does, but there's always one on a pirate ship.

The toys don't look very much like the comic book characters, which was convenient for Marvel when the copyright lapsed. Space Glider is some kind of alien android; very like Time Traveller but opaque and with a silly winged jet-pack. Like Time Traveller, he has a chrome head that seems to belong on a different body. The Galactic Warrior is the same again, but this time with some kind of space-cannon arrangement on his back, which fired plastic tipped darts. But when Bill Mantlo looked at Space Glider he saw Commander Arcturus Rann and when he looked at Galactic Warrior he saw the Bug; because Commander Arcturus Rann and the Bug were already in his head. Anyone who has read A.A Milne's essays knows that Winnie-the-Pooh was in the writer's head long before little Christopher acquired his first teddy. 

But perhaps, once you have projected Winnie the Pooh onto this Steiff bear and Captain Arcturus Rann onto that action figure, the two are indelibly connected. Perhaps you can only tell the story about that particular confection of fabric and sawdust and that particular lump of plastic. Perhaps the inanimate object has been ensouled, or at any rate enstoried.  

Many of us find it difficult to part with our childhood toys, even though we are not seriously going to play with them again. I don't think this is just sentimentalism. We used to think of them as people: we can't now treat them as inanimate objects. It would be too much like eating a dead pet. It's one thing to keep a cow or a pig with the intention of slaughtering it; it's another to give it a name, enter into a quasi-social relationship with it, and then turn it into sausages. C.S Lewis was on the right track when he buried his toys in a mock funeral; but it is too late for that now. 

There are good arguments for not eating animals at all, but I don't propose to go into them today.

The name Arcturus is probably meant to make us think of King Arthur. It's also the name of a star. The strange, surreal 1920s science fiction novel which so inspired C.S Lewis was called A Voyage to Arcturus. But it is surely not a coincidence that Bill Mantlo's toy-themed fantasy story has a hero who's name means "bear".

Bill Mantlo says that he saw his sons action figures at Christmas 1978. The comic has a January 1979 date, which means it was published in September 1978. So he must really be thinking about the previous year, December 1977, when Adam would have been eleven. 

And that makes a difference. Because Bill looked at Adam's haul of toys and saw Hero; a Princess; Two Comedic Robots and a Space Knight. But at that some moment, on that particular Yulechild, all over the world, other children were opening their presents. And they too were finding action figures. A Hero. A Princess. Two Comedic Robots. And a Space Knight. 

Mickey Mouse watches; Shirley Temple dolls; Davey Crockett hats: as long as there have been movies there has been movie merchandise. But your Aristocats plushies or your Jaws t-shirts were primarily promotional items: a means of getting kids inside the cinema, or at least, to get a few extra quid from their parents on the way out. George Lucas was one of the first to realise that the movie ought to be driving the sales of the merchandise, not vice versa. He retained a greater financial interest in toy sales than was standard in the industry at the time, and his profits financed two sequels. It may not be entirely fair to say that the Star Wars saga exists primarily as an extended advert for action figures, but it is certainly true that Lucasfilms is built on plastic rather than celluloid. For many of us, that black-and-silver card mount evokes the spirit of 1977 as surely as Peter Blake's album artwork embodies the Summer of Love.

All stories are true. Here is a different story.

It is the summer of 1977. A boy is playing on the lawn; and discovers some lost toys: a space hero, a space knight, a space princess, some space robots, a space ship. But looking more closely he discovers they are not toys at all. They are actual heroes from another universe; a universe in which everyone happens to be about three inches tall. There are evil toys, as well, and they have also found their way into his garden. The good toys and the evil toys are engaged in a real, serious epic war. Before long, Good Space Knights are fighting duels with Evil Space Knights; and Good Toy Spaceships are chasing Evil Toy Spaceships around the shopping mall. 

Toys. But not toys. Actual space heroes. But still, somehow, toys. 

This is not the plot of the Micronauts. But it is, I think, the myth on which Mantlo built his epic. And it is the story you need to keep in your mind when you are reading those first twelve issues. 

The idea of the Microverse had been knocking around Marvel since Kirby's time. It's a venerable science fiction trope: if you could get small enough, individual atoms might turn out to be planetary systems, harbouring microscopic life and microscopic civilisations. Reed Richards had a shrinking device which allowed him to literally see a world in a grain of sand. The Micronauts come from one of these Microversal planets, imaginatively named Homeworld. When they cross to Planet Earth, they are only a few inches tall. When humans fall into the Microverse, they are vast colossi. This doesn't make a great deal of sense: is it somehow possible to increase one's size by a hundred billion percent, but increasing it by a hundred billion and one per cent is just a bit too difficult? 

But the Microverse is functionally an alien dimension, a parallel universe, accessed through the Space Wall in one direction and the Prometheus Pit in the other. Ninety percent of the setting is a direct lift from Star Wars; the other ninety per cent is taken from Kirby's New Gods. (The rest is lovingly ripped off from Flash Gordon.) But it is first and foremost a gigantic hand-wave, a humungous plot device which allows the action-figures-come-to-life fantasy to make rational sense. If a Good Toy Space Knight and a Bad Toy Space Knight are going to have a battle, they need to have a home planet, with politics, and a long standing feud. And the more monumentally epic that feud can be, the better. Princes who have lost their thrones to evil brothers? Sentient planets which can be channelled by the royal family? Characters who literally say "You fiend, you are a traitor to the entire universe?" Scaled down to three point five inches high and fought out on the bedroom rug. 

When people talk about the Micronauts, and I hope they still do, they frequently say that the Microverse stuff was great fun; but the earth-based stuff was dull. And certainly, once you have three and a half inch heroes knocking around a five foot ten universe, you are into Land of the Giants territory. Our heroes  spend an inordinate amount of time being menaced by gigantic pussy cats and climbing insurmountable kitchen utensils. Mantlo himself said he found those bits wearing.

Some readers, indeed, were offended by the whole toy-connection. We now live in a world where Transformers, Smurfs and even Emojis can be turned into high budget movie franchises -- where Lego Star Wars is its own thing, and a pirate theme park ride has spawned five pirate movies, or at any rate, the same pirate movie five times. So it is hard to remember how strange it seemed to be reading a comic based on some toys (as opposed to playing with some toys based on a comic.) Fans felt a sense of lese majestie. It seemed too much like product placement. It punctured our adolescent pride. See? Comics are just for kids after all.

Not too long after Micronauts; Mantlo wrote Rom: Space Knight, based around an electronic action figure. Shogun Warriors (toy robots) and eventually Transformers and GI Joe followed suit. DC did a He-Man comic for a while, although the He-Man toys came pre-loaded with a back story in a way that Micronauts did not. On each occasion, the fan reaction became proverbial: "When I heard you had made a comic book about a series of kid's plastic toys I really thought you guys had flipped."

But I think it is an indelible part of the magic of the comic, at least for the first dozen issues. The story was bigger because the heroes were smaller. Christopher Milne says that he believed, at some level, that the stuffed bear on the edge of his bed was the same bear that had tried to steal the bees' honey and got stuck down the rabbit hole. Nothing could capture the spirit of '77 better than the idea that your Luke Skywalker action figure was actually -- through some sacramental alchemy -- Luke Skywalker himself. I certainly believed my action figures were both models somehow at the same time real beings. Each time Cyborg kills Muton, the universe is really being saved all over again.

Ritual and magic and drama and play are part of the same continuum. What if your toy heroes were real heroes and your toy space ships were real spaceships? And what, incidentally, if your Dad became a superhero?

I only saw Toy Story quite recently. It's a very good film indeed. It works at multiple levels: as an odd-couple adventure; as a comedy; as a very good action movie, and as a piece of wish fulfilment in which toys come to life. Like Star Wars, it doesn't feel like a kids movie that adults can watch, so much as a movie that kids and adults can watch together. 

Screen-writer Pete Docter said that every kid believes that their toys come to life when they are not looking at them. (Since every kid also believes that there are monsters under the bed and in the cupboard, that became the basis for the Monsters Inc franchise.) But Toy Story wouldn't work if Woody and Buzz were not just very good toys; the kind of toys you would like to have had when you were a kid; and indeed, the kind of toy you would be tempted to buy for yourself as an adult. (Adult collectors who buy toys but do not play with them aren't treated very well in the story.)

The film is very perceptive about how toys work. The string-pull voice-box of the toy cowboy is a lot more cool than the gimmick laden electronic space figure. We know, watching Toy Story, that no real-world Buzz Lightyear could possibly be as fun as the one in the movie. Electronic toys run out of batteries and stop working, and flashing lights are never as much fun as they seem. The Rom: Space Knight comic ran for years, but the toy flopped. A silver robot that goes "bleep" when you push the button isn't that much fun to play with. 

A toy cowboy and a toy spaceman can be a lot more fun than any particular cowboy film or science fiction film can ever be: in the same way that those cheap ray-guns were more like ray-guns than any ray-gun in any actual story. Woody represents the whole idea of cowboys; and Buzz the whole idea of space, in a way that the Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon simply can't. Buster Crabbe and Clayton Moore are one particular hero: Woody and Buzz are potentially every possible hero. It was probably a mis-step to reveal that Woody was originally a piece of merchandising for a not-terribly-good TV show. 

I have on two occasions seen graffiti in a gentlemans' public toilet that says "Toy Story 2 Was Alright." 

Bill Mantlo looked at Space Glider and saw an astronaut -- a micronaut -- who had travelled to the edge of the universe with a faithful robot companion. A micronaut who returned to a home world called Homeworld to find he was remembered as a legendary saviour whose return had long been prophesied. And his old science teacher and mentor had become an armoured figure of pure evil. Who sometimes turned into a horse. 

In the right light, you could mistake Arcturus Rann for Buzz Lightyear.

[NOTE] According to the Innerspace website, the first wave of toys, released in 1977, included Time Traveller, Space Glider, Galactic Warrior and Acroyear, who are the characters that Mantlo refers to. A second wave, including Baron Karza and Force Commander, were released in 1978, when Mantlo would have already been working on the comic. Karza, who became central to the story, can't have been part of the original flash of inspiration.


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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Thomas said...

The name Arcturus is [...] the name of a star. [...] But it is surely not a coincidence that Bill Mantlo's toy-themed fantasy story has a hero who's name means "bear".

That's... over-stretching things a bit. ARKTOS (Arctus) means "bear". ARKTOUROS (Arcturus) means "bear-watcher". So, not really?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Fair point.

Suppose I said that, since Arcturus Rann is meant to be like Reed Richard, a bit of a stretch is permissible...