Friday, December 23, 2022

Tales of the Galaxy

I first encountered the Micronauts in the back pages of Star Wars Weekly.

Star Wars Weekly was a black and white comic which ran from 1977-1983 in the UK. (In May 1980 it unsurprisingly changed its name to Empire Strikes Back Weekly, and went monthly the following November.) For the first twelve issues it reprinted the Marvel Comic Book version of the original movie, and then launched straight into the "new" stories -- giant rabbits, cyborg bounty hunters, and all. The twenty monthly pages of American material had to be eked out at the rate of only about five pages a week; and the rest of the space was taken up with text features and comic-strips from Marvel's back-catalogue. The supporting material was branded as Tales of the Galaxy. Doctor Who Weekly would go with Tales From The Tardis a couple of years later.

The back-up stories in those early issues were mostly drawn from US Marvel's black and white anthology titles. Something printed in black-and-white and including text features was regarded as a magazine as opposed to a comic, and therefore exempt from the still influential Comics Code Authority. Children couldn't be corrupted by men's bottoms, vampires, marital infidelity and the word "damn" if they encountered them in publications costing a dollar as opposed to only twenty five cents. It made sense that the editors of UK Marvel would seek for non-superhero, raygun-and-robot material to fill up the blank pages of the Star Wars comic, but it is a little surprising that they went for the more "adult" end of the parent company's output. Perhaps they thought that older kids and adults would be interested in a comic book based on a blockbuster movie? Or perhaps they just grabbed anything they could find that had the word "star" in the title.


Issues #6 - #14 serialised a story called Man Gods From Beyond the Stars, originally published in Marvel Preview #1 (Feb 1975). It is certainly "mature", if by mature you mean long, dull and ponderously over-written. It is narrated in internal monologue by one of the subordinate characters, who keeps saying things like:

"I will not trespass the computers cold domain of facts and figures. I will concern myself only with wonders, with the exhilarated human response to this white moonbeam riding needle through the dark eye of space toward I know not what."

Let that be a dreadful warning about what will happen if you spend your formative years reading nothing but Stan Lee.

The story is not at all bad, but it is a not at all bad curtain-raiser to a series that never went any further. I suppose the point of a title like Marvel Preview was to provide homes for comics which Marvel had paid for but never published. It was a mix of Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey, shot through with an unhealthy dose of Eric Von Daniken, who we are assumed to take very seriously indeed. It's written by Doug Moench, as practically everything was in those days, but it was "conceived and plotted" by Roy Thomas, Stan Lee's representative on earth.

Although it has a radically different tone, the theme is strikingly similar to Kirby's Eternals, which came out only a year later (July 1976). We know that, for Stan, a concept and a plot might amount to not much more than a one line synopsis. ("What if Doc Ock kidnapped Aunt May?") If it turned out that Roy Thomas "dreamt up" the Man-Gods story, handed it to Doug Moench a Stan Lee style pitch, been unsatisfied with the results, and passed the same idea over to Jack Kirby, I wouldn't be entirely surprised. "What if archaeologists in Peru found conclusive evidence that prehistoric earth had been visited by space aliens -- and that they were about to return?" would serve equally well as an elevator pitch for Man Gods From Beyond the Stars as it would for The Eternals.

But probably they are independently riffing on the same cultural meme. The New Age adjacent counter culture in the 1970s may not have literally believed that aliens built the pyramids; but pyramids, aliens and flying saucers went together on many a hippy poster and album cover. In retrospect, one can detect strong whiffs of the First Kingdom (which launched in 1974). It also anticipates Elfquest (1978): the Wolfriders were also alien space travellers who encountered primitive humans. Alex Nino's swirly whafty panel work at times feels quite a lot like Wendy Pini's.

So. Aliens come to earth in huge dramatic space ships -- curvaceous, womb-like, but not quite saucer-shaped. They appear human, and although they speak in long, wordy monologues, they have normal human feelings and concerns. (Very different from Kirby's Celestials who it was quite impossible to eff or scrute.) The leader has a huge winged helmet, somewhere between Marvel's Thor and the old Mobil logo. The story is told from the aliens' point of view which rather undermines the whole mythological angle. It's pretty much just a tale of a starship encountering some primitives and carelessly breaching the Prime Directive. (They do actually call it the Prime Directive.) They have visited the earth once before and are checking up on how everything is going. (You might, if you felt so inclined, call them the Second Host.) The earth is populated by cave-men with spears and fur underpants who instantly assume that the space travellers are gods and exclaim "Kneel to them, they have come down from the sun in a bright stick of flame."

Meanwhile, in the present day -- 1975 -- two archeologists are examining Peruvian carvings and slowly coming to the conclusion that they preserve a race memory about an alien visitation in the remote past. Despite the Von Daniken branding that's all the strip has to say about mythology, archaeology and religion: I suppose this angle would have been played up in subsequent episodes.

The aliens aren't meant to interfere with the cave-men, but the their leader transgresses the rule; first to rescue a cave-lady who is about to be killed by a saber-tooth tiger, and then to have a brief romantic encounter with her. (The rest of the crew thinks he wants to dissect her, which he distinctly doesn't.) They decide they had better leave in a hurry...but not before disclosing the Big Secret. Many years ago, their space civilisation was involved in a Great Big War, during which they bred a race of savage super soldiers. Once peace broke out, they had to retire the clone army, and so they rehoused it on earth. The cavemen are their descendants. (It isn't mentioned whether they also re-homed any hairdressers or telephone sanitisers.) The aliens gift one of the cave-men with a device which contains their knowledge and history. After the space ship has taken off, it is revealed that the cave lady who the leader befriended is pregnant...

Clearly the archeologists are going to discover that most human beings are alien orcs, but that a few of us are descended from the higher life-form. And presumably someone will discover the alien computer-thing as well, and the aliens will come back. A Third Host. H.P Lovecraft arguably came up with the idea of space-gods, and there is something a little Lovecraftian about the revelation that humans are not really human after all. (Who now remembers the Terry Nation story in which it turns out that primitive humans were taken to a planet called Skaro and therefore WE-ARE-THE-DALEKS!!!?)

I think that in pulp science fiction, the idea is often more important than the actual story. A title like Man Gods From Beyond The Stars can have a haiku like poetry that no-story can ever live up to. (For The World Is Hollow And I Have Touched The Sky. The Brute That Shouted Love At The Heart Of An Atom.) The Neil Adams cover (which didn't appear in the Star Wars Weekly reprint) represents a myth which Doug Moench struggles to embody in a narrative. A man in shiny golden armour, floating on some sort of anti-grav device; a glowy flying saucer behind him; cave men cowering in religious awe... Von Daniken was a hoaxer, but he created a compelling meta-mythology. Some people prefer space-gods to actual gods. If God was an astronaut then astronauts may be gods. 

From issue 15 to issue 53, the back up strip in Star Wars Weekly was called Starlord.

Everyone has now heard of Starlord because of his role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the character in Guardians of the Galaxy has very little in common with the 1970s comic book version. He first appeared in Marvel Preview #4 (Jan 1976) in a story written by Steve Engelhart; but was substantially rebooted by Chris Claremont and John Byrne in Marvel Preview # 11 (June 1977), The Engelhart strip has some aspirations to be proper serious science fiction; the Chris Claremont version is pretty standard super-heroic fare, with a distinct Flash Gordon flavour. Star Wars Weekly skipped the abortive origin story and dropped the reader straight into Claremont's space opera. This meant that we readers had a sense that we were joining the story part way through: but "hopelessly confused" was the default state for British comic book readers in the seventies.

The hero in each case is one Peter Quill. Peter is a fairly common American euphemism for a man's penis. And the word Quill is a slightly less common euphemism for the same body part. On his first appearance, Peter Quill was a bit of a dick. Creator Steve Engelhart said this is literally what he had in mind when he named the character. The "mature" in "mature readers" often turns out to mean "adolescent."

Engelhart conceived of the strip as a multi-part epic, during which John Thomas would have grown from a generally appalling individual into a proper hero. (The movie version chose to stick with the "appalling individual" angle, but passed on the personal development.) Each episode would have taken place on a different solar planet; and these adventures would reflect the planet's astrological meaning. Engelhart took astrology very seriously: his text intro assures us that he has tried it out and it "just works". But after completing only one issue, he defected to DC Comics, where he re-invented Batman ten years before Frank Miller did. The Starlord character was handed over to Chris Claremont and John Byrne who turned it into a very straight-forward yarn, in which our hero takes on a mob of evil slavers in a generic Galactic Empire.

Cock-jokes apart, the extant Moench episode is clearly trying to appeal to a relatively grown-up audience: Quill's family and school are several shades more realistic than Peter Parker's. There is a strong suggestion of marital infidelity, at a time when the comics code still theoretically banned any mention of divorce. There is something mysterious about Quill's parentage; his dad takes off when he is a baby and his mum is murdered by the occupants of interplanetary craft. Naturally, he swears eternal vengeance; he becomes an astronaut because it is the career which offers the greatest chance of saying "My name is Peter Quill; you killed my mother; prepare to die" to an alien reptile. While working on a 2001-style space station, he encounters a white-bearded figure who pointedly denies being God. The god-like figure gives him a silly costume and a ray-gun, and says that from now on he will be "a" Starlord. So despite a certain novelistic panache, what we actually have is a Marvel take on the Green Lantern Corps. The Guardian of the Sun giving an elemental gun to Peter Quill is not too far removed from Merlin giving the magic amulet and staff to Brian Braddock; or indeed Billy Batson learning his magic word from Shazam. And it has a certain Jedi Fizz about it.

The Claremont/Byrne stories don't have anything like the edge of the Engelhart one: they read disconcertingly like an extended episode of the New X-Men. But they are a much better fit to Star Wars Weekly. We are now in a Galactic Empire, where people travel casually between planets. There are pleasure worlds and throne worlds and an emperor with a wicked uncle. The wicked uncle is consorting with the slave traders to seize the throne. The slave traders are, astonishingly, referred to as Sith Lords, and are the same species that killed Starlord's mummy. (When he realises this "The hate is a rising crimson tide within him, a lust, a need, that will not be denied.") There are no lightsabers or force-wands, but Starlord ends up fighting the Emperor's wicked uncle with a sword. "There is an unreal quality to the combat" interjects the melodramatic narrator "That the fate of galaxy spanning empire...should be determined by two men duelling with swords...on a ledge a mile above the ground." It occurs to many of us that the fate of a different galaxy was determined by two men duelling on an armoured battled station; but although the comic came out in the summer of 1977, no-one seems interested in playing up the Star Wars link. (The Marvel Premier cover blurb went with 'In the tradition of Robert Heinlein' which didn't amuse Robert Heinlein one little bit.) 

Claremont ties up the previous episode's lose ends in a much more comic-booky style. In the old story, Quill's father accused his mother of seeing other men; in this one, Quill turns out to be the Son of the Emperor of the Galaxy. The Emperor says that when he left earth he used a device to erase Mrs Quill's memories, which is a pretty strong signal that we're looking at a ret-con. Star War's weekly uses "I am your father!" as the title of an episode. 

Starlord turns down the chance to become emperor of the galaxy, and decides to carry on wandering around the universe in his ship called Ship. "Let's go carve ourself a legend", he says; the sort of knowing, downbeat ending that seemed very classy in the days when one in three superhero stories ended with the good guy saying "Let's go home." In the months after Empire Strikes Back I built a conclusion to the trilogy in my head in which Luke Skywalker is offered the job of Emperor and rejects it: this must have been where I got it from. The episode is called The Hollow Crown. Richard II was our set text at O Level, and I half-believed Shakespeare was quoting Starlord.

There is a distinct feeling that the second story wipes out the first one and leaves subsequent writers with a blank slate: which makes one wonder what the point of the exercise was. Englehart's astrological cock-head was not entirely like any other character: Claremont's is a guy in space ship travelling around the universe having adventures. (The third story focusses entirely on the fact that "Ship" is female and sentient, which is just about the only distinct thing about the character.) Englehart says that Marv Wolfman gave him the name Starlord but gave him carte blanche to create any character he wanted to go with it. In 1967, Stan Lee had created a character called Captain Mar-Vell purely so that the company could maintain copyright on the name. One wonders if there was some legal reason why there had to be a Marvel comic called Star Lord. 

Man-Gods From Beyond The Stars played with idea that gods were aliens and aliens were God. Starlord presents astrology as a form of mysticism with scientific collateral. Engelhart's curtain raiser starts with pictures of stars and galaxies, and suddenly jumps to the Biblical start of Bethlehem which was (we are assured) an astrological conjunction. The idea of science-as-magic and magic-as-science sits alongside space-sword fights and the idea of science fantasy. 

Which brings us to our third strip. It arrived in Star Wars Weekly in issue 5 and lasted until issue 13. It came from the same black and white magazine that Starlord and Man Gods did, and it also had the word Star in the title. It was much more explicitly a mixture of fantasy and science fiction than either of the other strips, and the title was much cooler than anything in the comic.

It begins with a war. The hero's people are slaughtered, and his father sends him on your actual Quest. "The Gods have other paths for you to walk" he explains "Ways that will lead you to a time when you will return to your homeworld, to a day when it has been prophecied that you will see with more than your eyes and the sword you bear in blistered hands will glow with the fires of the stars." After his father's passing he is adopted by a Wizard. In case we are in any doubt as to the story's Epic Pretensions, the hero's people are called the Ithacon and the wizard is named Delphos. The hero himself rejoices in the name Prince Wayfinder.

Wayfinder speaks fluent Dungeons & Dragons. ("You would drive me from you, father? You wouldst divest me of my honour as well as my birthright?") He wears armour that would not look out of place in John Boorman's Camelot. But Ithacon the wizard speaks a sort of Ben Grimm jive ("here's the teacher, kiddo, c'mere while I fix it on your head") and has a home full of Modern Technology. It turns out that Wayfinder, and the aliens who have wiped out his people, and all the other races of the Galaxy are distant descendants of a human race that colonised the galaxy thousands of years ago. (Presumably, pre-empting Battlestar Galactica, by several years the "homeworld" where he will find the skin-blistering glowy sword is The Earth.) The wizard is simply an incredibly long-lived mutant human who has witnessed the whole show. He dies, right on cue, at the end of the first episode (or "stave") and leaves Wayfinder with a massive starship and a robot helmsman called Alkinoos. In "stave" two, they arrive on a forest covered world where they are menaced by evil plants and encounter a space-witch called Kirke (geddit?) whereapon the story comes to an end. There is a text piece by the writer in Marvel Preview #7, begging readers to write to the editor and demand more episodes. No more episodes were forthcoming.

The artwork has a slightly out of control detail to it -- the first issue is credited to P Craig Russell (as inker) and the second to Keith Giffen (his first published work.) It recalls Druillet's Lone Sloan and anticipates Kev O'Neil's Nemesis the Warlock. The vast spaceship at the beginning of "stave" two seems part Star Destroyer and part gothic cathedral. Both episodes came out too early to be under the influence of Lucas, but the writer has drunk from a similar well. Dying fathers. Quests. Swords that glow. Wizards with spaceships.

The title catches the space fantasy atmosphere as well as anything ever has. Wayfinder and Delphos have something of Arthur and Merlin about them, and the title of the strip is The Sword In The Star. 

The author of the Sword in the Star was, of course, Bill Mantlo. Some years in the future it would transpire that Arcturus Rann is Prince Wayfinder's very distant descendent. And one of the creatures that Wayfinder encounters on the forest world is a bad tempered gun touting space racoon called Rocky.


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.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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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.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Monday, December 19, 2022

I've Never Seen Star Wars

Tuesday 27 December 1978: Star Wars opens in the UK. 

Monday 2nd Jan 1978: The BBC transmits the first episode of a new TV show. It is about a group of rebels, resisting and trying to overthrow an evil empire. I'm sorry: an evil Federation. There are ray guns and robots and pursuit ships and a hidden computer at the center of the universe. And there's a villain with a disfigured face and black mask and a bionic hand who says things like "I am your death!" at the good guy. Terry Nation swore that when he created Blake's 7, he hadn't seen Star Wars. And indeed, the tone could hardly have been more different. It went out at 7pm on Monday nights, a slot otherwise occupied by Angels (a medical soap) and The Rockford Files (a detective show). The adult slot meant that it came in for quite a lot of ridicule: thanks to Terry Wogan and Rowan Atkinson, Blake's 7 is a by-word for "terrible TV" in some circles to this day. Nation's previous series, Survivors, about a pandemic wiping out 99% of the population of England, was very dark, very adult, and shown after the kids had gone to bed. The crew of Blake's 7 are unambiguously terrorists. Good guys die with some regularity. The first episode shows the hero being brainwashed and framed for pedophilia. And yet: watch Travis's big fascist boots march into Servalan's office and try not to think of Darth Vader.

We sometimes call naughty children "menaces". And "menace" rhymes with Dennis. So there is no reason on earth that an English cartoonist and an American cartoonist should not have independently created a character called Dennis the Menace. What is slightly surprising is that they both did so in March 1961. 

There is no reason on earth why a very well established British TV writer and a hot young US film director should not have independently come up with the idea of a space-opera series in which the Empire were the baddies and the Rebels were the goodies. There is equally no reason why Terry Nation could not have heard someone talking in a bar about a new American movie and found himself musing about what he would do with a similar premise.

But perhaps it was Steam Engine Time. Perhaps society had grown tired of Captain Kirk and Dan Dare patronising everyone; perhaps we no longer imagined Space as the continuation of the British Commonwealth by other means. George Lucas started Star Wars with Vietnam in his mind, and Terry Nation's thoughts were never far away from World War II. Perhaps it was just the right time to tell stories about rebellions. If it hadn't been Star Wars and Blake's 7 it would have been something else.

April 1978: The legendary Steve Gerber dropped a two-issue Star Wars parody into his Cerebus-inspiring Howard the Duck comic-book series. Howard is pulled out of the main storyline into what looks a little like a dream sequence, making one suspect that Marvel had demanded or advised that Gerber incorporate the parody. The bad guy wants to fill the universe with bland shopping centres. He is completely without humour, and Howard has to learn to channel "The Farce" to defeat him. (The baddies are overcome by "their inability to accept the ultimate ridiculousness of themselves and the cosmos.") He befriends two robots, one of whom (2-2-2-2, or TuTu, for short) looks like a trash-can. He borrows a spaceship called the Epoch Weasel, and destroys the evil Emporium with double-entry bookkeeping. The first episode is called Star Waargh; the second, May The Farce Be With You. (A sequel, back in naturalistic mode, is more promisingly called "The Night After You Saved The Universe".)

Steve Gerber was incapable of being unfunny; and the speech beginning  “Within hours, as bees reckon time, we shall bulldoze the universe and build on its ruins a shopping centre unrivalled in its crassness” made me laugh out loud. But it is striking that he has nothing whatsoever to say about Star Wars. A few issues previously, when Howard the Duck learns the ancient art of Quack-Fu, Gerber makes serious points about cultural appropriation and the sanitisation of violence. But when he looks at Star Wars, he sees only trash-can and gas-masks. 

Saturday 8th July, 1978:  Two second division comedians, Syd Little and Eddie Large, do a turn on BBC variety show called Seaside Special, alongside the Brotherhood of Man, Sacha Distell and Schwaddywaddy. (The show happens in a tent. By the seaside. In the summer.) 

Syd and Eddie's act consists of a nerdy little man trying to sing a song or give a talk, and a silly fat man interrupting him with corny jokes and bad impressions. This is what passed for entertainment before YouTube. In this particular skit, poor Syd was trying to tell the audience about a new film called Star Wars; while Eddie appears dressed in a dustbin, and then with a bucket on his head. At one point he appeared wielding one of those off-brand lightsabers you could buy in toy shops.

"It is called a Force Wand."


"Wait til you see where I am going to force it."

A representative cross-section of Seaside Special viewers around the age of twelve disapproved of the skit. Supersonic Syd described Star Wars as a film about "a big planet that wants to destroy a little planet", and claimed that Artoo Deetoo was the true star. The sample was offended. They were daring to to parody the sacred text, but they had obviously never seen it. 

Monday 23rd October 1978: The penultimate Season of the Tomorrow People. Human beings are being eaten by alien life-forms disguised as anoraks. Or possibly a cursed drum was calling an alien Hitler back to earth. Recollections, as the Queen said, may vary. But there must have been some special reason that a middle-class geek was watching ITV. 

The advert break includes a now legendary advertisement for Trebor Refreshers. Trebor Refreshers are little sherbet candies, a bit like love-hearts, but without the love. I think you can still get them. The advert featured an elderly actor (Derek Farr) doing what was, in fairness, a pitch-perfect impersonation of Alec Guiness. He tells a young lad that "the time has come for you to learn about...the Fizz." He hands the younger actor a tube of sweeties, which ignite into a light sabre, or possibly even a Fizz Beam. "When will I get a chance to use it?" asks the young initiate, whereupon a heavy-breathing silhouetted bad-guy appears, also with a glowing swordy thing. "Now would seem as good a time as any." End of advert.

Fair play to which ever creative spotted that a tube of sweets feels quite satisfying in a kid's hand, and tried to set up a subconscious connection between the sweeties and the iconic weapon. Or perhaps they just wanted an excuse to use "May The Fizz be With You" as a slogan. They normally went with The Fizz That Gives You Whizz which we assume was not one of Salman's. Badges with the slogan May The Fizz Be With You are now sought after collectors items. 

A representative cross-section of eleven year olds who had been annoyed by Little and Large approved of the Trebor advert, to the extent of supplying Refreshers to meetings of the East Barnet Lower School Jedi Knights Club. It had a quality that I can only describe as Jedi Vibes. Someone had watched Star Wars, and spotted one of the things which was awesome about it, and gently turned it into a joke which the fans could share. 

The advert appears to take place in some kind of Temple; and the Obi-Wan figure is on a throne. This is how I still imagine Real Jedi to be. I am still vaguely disappointed that neither The Phantom Menace nor The High Republic capture the magic of the Trebor Refreshers advertisements.

What do you see when you see Star Wars? Rebels fighting fascists? Silly shiny robots with silly shiny names? Dustbins and buckets? Or a vaguely eastern confection of mentors, mysticism and shadows?

The Chrome? Or the Fizz?

Dec 1977: Star Wars
Sep 1978: First Issue of Micronauts
Nov 1978: Lord of the Rings
Dec 1978: Superman: The Movie
Apr 1979: Battlestar Galactica 
July 1979: Arabian Adventure
Sep 1979: Alien
Dec 1979:  Star Trek: The Motion Picture
Aug 1980: Buck Rogers 
Dec 1980: Hawk the Slayer
Feb 1981:  Battle Beyond the Stars
Apr 1981: Excalibur
Jun 1981: Dragonslayer
Jul 1981: Clash of Titans 
Apr 1982: Conan the Barbarian
Aug 1982: Beastmaster
June 1982: Blade Runner
July 1982: Tron
Dec 1982 Dark Crystal
June 1983: Return of the Jedi
May 1984: Final Bill Mantlo issue of Micronauts

In that great blank space between Star Wars and the Empire Strikes Back, many things were offered as The Next Star Wars. None of them were. I recall a very dated attempt to revive the Sinbad/Arabian Nights genre optimistically writing "Like Star Wars, but with Flying Carpets" across the posters. Things like Alien and Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been in production for years, but still seemed to be riding the Star Wars wave. The Black Hole and Buck Rogers were clearly created partially with Star Wars in mind. Close Encounters of the Third Kind arrived in the UK before Star Wars, and are somehow part of the same moment. People at the time talked about Star-Wars-and-Close-Encounters-Of-The-Third-Kind as if they were a thing, which makes about as much sense as talking about Casablanca-and-Bambi. I suppose to a muggle, they were equally part of that crazy impenetrable thing called science friction. 

I remember a school-friend's very rich elder brother took us all to see Battlestar Galactica in a big London cinema. I dutifully enjoyed the little red space-ships and shiny bad guys, but even then I knew that little red space ships and shiny bad guys weren't what Star Wars was about. (The ultra-low-wave surround sound gimmick, which was supposed to make the theatre physically shake, was distinctly underwhelming.) The Black Hole had spaceships and a cute robot and went mystical at the end, but was merely boring. Buck Rogers had space ships and a cute robot but was mostly silly. 2001: A Space Odyssey got a big screen re-release. That had space ships, mysticism and classical music, but on the whole I preferred the original Jack Kirby version (//Irony//) When Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers emerged on UK TV, I couldn't quite be bothered to watch them. 

Hollywood did, eventually, try to get beneath the chrome and serve up some fizz: but they largely identified "fizz" with the Hero's journey. There was a glut of fantasy quest movies; some very good; some very not good. Swords and shards glinted. Prophets prophesied and chosen ones got chosen. Dark Lords fell like nine-pins. There were princesses, comical companions, clockwork owls and English actors who's shoulders had been tapped by the Queen. Star Wars is a myth set in space, they said, so let's go one better and sell the punters a myth not set in space. 

And indeed, Star Wars with no space ships is a much better proposition than space ships with no Star Wars. It is much more a fantasy story which happens to be set in space than a space-story which happens to have fantasy elements. But it turns out that, without the chrome, the fizz goes flat pretty quickly. The biggest lie that Joseph Campbell sold the world is that the Hero's Journey has power in and of itself, as opposed to being a hook on which a powerful story can sometimes be hung. And the joke is that Lucas himself moved on: when the Empire Strikes Back arrived, the one thing it did not do is serve up the magic of Star Wars all over again. A good movie? Definitely. A better movie than Star Wars? Very many people think so. But I have never been quite convinced that it fizzed. 

Still, we were young and computer games hadn't quite been invented and we were only just getting into Dungeons & Dragons and we would take what we could get. If there's a sword and a mentor and a quest and a dragon, we'll throw ourselves at it wholeheartedly for ninety minutes, and build a better film in our head for the next few years. C.S Lewis said that on first looking into Homer's Homer he was thrilled because it reminded him of Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum. I think the reason I adored Boorman's Excalibur; and the Arthur stories more generally was that Arthur's sword (like Narsil and even Nothung) reminded me of Force Beams and Trebor Refreshers. 


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.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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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.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

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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.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Saturday, December 03, 2022


That first poster was strangely static. A bare-chested male hero, holding some kind of shining light or torch above his head; a woman, with one leg provocatively unclothed, below him. She has a ray gun, but it is hanging flaccidly at her side; the hero is holding his weapon or wand or magic lamp aloft, dividing the frame into quarters. 

They aren't identifiable as the film characters: either Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher hadn't been cast when it was painted, or else the artist (one Tom Jung) didn't have reference material to hand. 

They are standing on a sandbank. It could be Tatooine, but Leia doesn't go to Tatooine in the film. And apart from a brief training sequence on the Falcon, Luke never actually wields his lightsaber. (And anyway a lightsaber is a short coloured beam, not a silvery beacon that reaches up to the sky.) The droids and the cloud of X-Wing fighters -- far more than appear in the film -- are small and indistinct.  

Behind everything an imposing, ethereal face. It could be a man in a helmet; it could be a robot. His blackness merges with the blackness of the stars. There is no clue as to who he is; but he dominates the frame: at some level, he is what this movie is about.

The poster is selling us a film which is alien and Other; wistful and slightly exotic. It's a science fiction film -- there are robots and spaceships and ray guns and some kind of space station -- but they are part of the background; not the selling point. We are focussed on a hero and a heroine who look as if they came off a Frank Frazetta sword-and-sorcery paperback cover. 

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. We are intrigued, rather than thrilled. If the poster had a soundtrack, it would be Leia's theme or the Stravinsky-inspired Tusken music. 

If the second poster had had a sound track, it would have been the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, or perhaps  the Imperial March Track 15, the Last Battle. It is safe and familiar, a group of comrades on an adventure. Where the first was static, this one is full of action. There is a cast of thousands, including recognisable stars like Alec Guiness and Peter Cushing. The hero and the heroine are identifiable as Hamill and Fisher, and they are fully clothed. 

Luke, at the front, points his blaster directly at us; Leia, behind him, is in an active combat pose. Han is behind her, firing a blaster in the other direction. The first poster was neatly split in three by Luke's mysterious flaming sword; this one is split by blaster bolts, zapping out of the frame at jaunty angles. The X-Wings have go faster rockets blasting out of their rears; they are chased by overwhelming numbers of TIE fighters. The other poster was located on Tatooine; this shows the characters suspended in space, against a starry backdrop. 

Darth Vader again dominates the picture; but he's no longer a disembodied face. He stands behind the main group, towering above them. He is holding a sword like weapon. The beam is much like the beams from the hero's ray-guns. We may not yet know that the tool hanging between Luke's legs is called a lightsaber but we can hardly fail to spot its phallic significance. But it's that intriguing laser sword which dominates the picture. The bad guy is a knight from an older world: the hero is a contemporary space cowboy. 

Most of us knew Star Wars as a comic before we had seen the film. Howard Chaykin's cover has the same vibe as the second poster. A dynamic group of heroic figures, facing the reader. An abstract image which doesn't represent anything which happens in the story -- Leia and Ben are never in the same room -- but which incapsulates the movie.

Luke is still facing the reader, but he now has a lightsaber, not a gun. Ben is now behind him, and it's his lightsaber beam which shoots out of the right of the fame. Han is still on Luke's left, firing his blaster. Leia is behind them, weirdly aloof. Two X-Wings are flying towards us; they could even be threatening the group. 

Where the two film posters showed a very small Death Star in the top left hand corner, the comic book makes it dominate the picture, framing the group. Either we see it in the moment of its destruction, or else it is supposed to be eclipsing the sun. (The darkness blocking out the light: the movies didn't get to that symbolism until the Force Awakens.) 

And behind the four heroes, again, is an enlarged face of Darth Vader shaded, bizarrely, in green. Green is an easier colour to deal with in cheap four colour printing that black and white. Just ask the Hulk. 

Now: fast forward to September 1978. 

Star Wars is a very long time in the past; the Empire Strikes Back is a very long time in the future. Time passed slowly in the 1970s. Battlestar Galactica has just started on TV, if you are that desperate. 

Run your eyes along the "spinner" at your "drug store", or the import section in the basement of Dark They Were And Golden Eyed. Marvel has launched a new comic book. (They've been trailing it for several months.) Have a look at the cover. And experience a brief, agreeable moment of deja-vu?

An heroic, musclebound figure in a blue jump suit. A generic Marvel tough guy. Paint a skull on his chest and he could pass for the Punisher. But he's firing a ray gun out of the panel: like Luke Skywalker. Stan Lee doesn't wholly approve of ray-guns, but since Star Wars arguably saved the company from bankruptcy, his attitude has softened.

Behind him, fanned out at roughly 45 degrees; are three other characters. A girl, in a colourful, sprayed on bikini, also with a ray gun. An alien, wielding something which could be a spear. And a medieval knight, red and white armour, with a sword. It's a metal sword, not a lightsaber, but it glows with some kind of energy. The girl hides behind the hero; the alien hides behind the girl. The knight stands behind the hero, but he's clearly advancing. 

The group are surrounded by motion lines: there is a small outbreak of Kirby Krackle at their feet. 

And behind them all, in a black helmet, horned like the Devil, a figure in black. His mouth, covered by something which could be a grate or a portcullis; as if his face were a piece of gothic architecture. His hands, held up, detached from his body as if grabbing the heroes. A venerable comic book motif, this. Kriby used it on the cover of Fantastic Four #49. Chris AchillĂ©os did a homage on the cover of the novelisation of The Three Doctors. We don't know who he is, but he's clearly not a goodie.  

A hero. 

A space-knight. 

A princess. 

An alien. 

Blaster swords. 

Laser fire. 

And behind it all, a dark lord. 

It was very, very clear what was on offer.

I have been saying for some time that I would talk about Bill Mantlo and the Micronauts. 

So this is Andrew Rilstone, talking about Bill Mantlo and the Micronauts.

The Micronauts: best and most blatant and shameless of all Star Wars rip-offs. 

The Micronauts: the best bad comic book I have ever read. 


I've been planning to write about Micronauts for several years, and I hope I have said most of what I wanted to say. 

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