Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Source Criticism

I was going to give this series of essays an academic sounding title. A Case Study In the Reception History Of Star Wars, perhaps. Defamiliarizng Lucas: Star Wars Observed Through a Mantlovian Lens. Or if that was too pretentious maybe Micronauts Considered As  Fan Fiction. Or something blunter. What Star Wars Looked Like In 1978

That was the excuse for dusting off these very old comics. I wanted to celebrate the best bad comic book I have ever read: but I also wanted to revisit that forgotten world when Star Wars was just one movie; when Darth Vader was not Luke's daddy and it wasn't squicky for Leia and Luke to go all kissy-kissy. When Steve Gerber looked at Star Wars, he saw silly hats and silly names. When Terry Nation looked at Star Wars he saw terrorists fighting fascists. When some advertising creative for a confectionary company saw Star Wars, he saw temples and cod-mysticism. What did Bill Mantlo see? And why did his version resonate with me in a way that Battlestar Galactica and even the Empire Strikes Back never quite did? 

But this plan collides with a very inconvenient fact. Bill Mantlo, like Terry Nation and Eddie Large, had never seen Star Wars. In a 1979 interview he is quite clear on this point:

"Star Wars too, had some effect, but not much. I saw the movie well after I conceived the Micronauts, and was surprised at how closely the two meshed."

Well: maybe so. But if Mantlo had an eleven year old son, he could hardly fail to have been aware of Star Wars  -- to know, at the very least that the idea of Space Fantasy had come back into the zeitgeist. And as a jobbing employee of the Marvel Bullpen, he must have known that there was a comic book adaptation of a block-buster movie in the works. 

His preview essay in FOOM magazine presents the initial five characters -- Rann, Acroyear, Bug, Time Traveller and Marionette -- very much as an incoming superhero team not entirely unlike the Fantastic Four. Only when Mego sent him a complete set of Micronauts figures did he become aware of  Microtron, Biotron and Baron Karza, and only at that point did his story become inescapably like Star Wars. And whichever Mego employee designed the Karza figure must have been well aware of George Lucas's big-bad. So even if Mantlo really hadn't seen Star Wars his comic book character was inspired by a toy that was inspired by the movie. Vader once removed.

Did Bill pass the toys on to his son, we ask ourselves? Did Adam Mantlo become the only kid in America with as good a collection of Micronauts as the lad in the telly adverts? And did Bill Mantlo, like A.A Milne, watch him play with the figures and borrow themes for his stories?

But if Star Wars was only an indirect influence on Micronauts, Mantlo happily lays claim to two more illustrious predecessors:

Kirby's 'Fourth World' was incredibly inspirational, though, I always felt, erratic and confusing, spread over five or more books....I guess (Micronauts) closest parallels are again Kirby's 'Fourth World' and the Thor comic stuff he and Stan did back in the mid-sixties. Yeah, a lot of Thor. 

The Fourth World was, of course, the interlinked series of mythological super-hero comics which Jack Kirby created for DC after he flounced out of Marvel in 1970. (It consists of The New Gods, The Forever People, Mister Miracle and sometimes Jimmy Olsen -- which doesn't add up to five or more.) A civil war between good and evil deities spills onto the earth. The leader of the evil gods is Darkseid, pronounced Dark Side. The hero, Orion, is Dark Side's son. He wears a helmet to conceal his evil face. There is a non-specific theological power called the Source. 

When Kirby's acolyte Mark Evanier saw Star Wars, he instantly declared it Kirbyesque. Mantlo says that Star Wars was "derivative of a lot of Stan Lee's work." Both claims are probably overstated: Lucas, after all, was drawing on the movie serials and pulp science fiction which Stan and Jack had grown up with. Certainly no-one envisages George Lucas waking up one morning and saying "I have it -- since I can't get the rights to Darkseid, I will disguise him as Darth Vader, in the same way I disguised Flash Gordon as Luke Skywalker." But it is hard not to think that Darkseid is one ingredient in the literary soup from which Darth Vader was drawn. Stan Lee's Doctor Doom was clearly another component. So if Mantlo's villain was based on an action figure that was based on Darth Vader; he was also based on one of the comic book villains who Darth Vader was based on.

Thanos was rampaging around the back pages of Star Wars Weekly at about the same time as Baron Karza, and Thanos is about as transparent a copy of Darkseid as it is possible to imagine. 

Astonishingly, when Mantlo first pitched the idea of Micronauts to Stan Lee and Jim Shooter, they seriously entertained the possibility of asking Jack Kirby himself to draw it. Which makes for a pretty depressing counter-factual. After his acrimonious split with Stan Lee, Kirby takes his great mythological epic to DC. It meets with an ecstatic critical reception and mediocre sales, and is cancelled after only a dozen issues. After working on some other, lacklustre titles, he returns to Marvel with his cosmic tail between his legs, and has another shot at his magnum opus in the form of the Eternals. Marvel kill that off after only nineteen issues. He works on the widely derided Devil Dinosaur and the mildly diverting Machine Man -- and is offered the chance to illustrate a self-confessed rip-off of his masterpiece, written by a self-confessed Stan Lee impersonator, and based on a series of toys. 

In the event, Kirby went to Ruby-Spears animation and did storyboards for Thundarr the Barbarian (with a similarly disgruntled Steve Gerber) which is only slightly less depressing. He did end up illustrating a line of toys, Superpowers, for DC, but that was a decade later, as a kind of favour when he needed the money. But the Kirby who didn't illustrate Micronauts was still J*A*C*K K*I*R*B*Y. He would not have quite been at the height of his powers, but he still had at least Captain Victory and Hunger Dogs inside him. It's unlikely he would have really agreed to work with a writer. 

Astonishingly, a few issues of Micronauts were pencilled by Steve Ditko. They weren't very good.

It is pretty weird, in 2022, to hear Bill Mantlo talking of Kirby as a fellow-creator, and criticising New Gods for being incoherent. I can't help thinking about Ernie Wise improving Romeo and Juliet: "Shakespeare did it very well; but I am going to do it just that little bit better." But in 1977, Stan Lee was an editor, not an icon; and Jack Kirby was an artist, not a martyr. Star Wars was only a movie.

Vader looked like Darkseid. Karza looked like Vader. Vader looked like Doom. Darkseid looked like Thanos. Perhaps that's to say no more than that Lee and Kirby and Lucas and Mantlo and Jim Starlin and someone at the Mego corp were working within a genre, a genre in which villains have black capes and disfigured faces and metal masks and estranged sons. Perhaps Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung were right all along and if you try to imagine Ultimate Evil you come up with Darth Vader because that's what Ultimate Evil looks like.

What did Star Wars look like in 1977?  Like a tube of sweets. Like a man with a bucket over his head. Like Muffit the space dog. You don't have to have seen a movie to be under its influence. The Beatles influenced thousands of people who had never been to a Beatles concert. Northern colloquialisms. Sexual freedom. Bright colours. Psychedelia. Meditation. Even the straights who hated those things were affected by the prevailing atmosphere. "In Minnesota, even the atheists are Lutheran. It's the Lutheran God they don't believe in." Something in the atmosphere seeped from a comic to a movie to some toys and back again. 

A space-traveller who is also a god. Ancient prophecy. Priests. The Enigma Force. A Dark Lord. A rebellion. Robots. Swords. Mantlo may not have seen Star Wars, but he grokked the idea of science fantasy. Alone of all the Star Wars wannabees, Micronauts had The Fizz.


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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