Monday, March 27, 2023

Micronauts # 1


Two nobles are fleeing an insurgency.

They are captured and imprisoned by a black-armoured villain.

A space-traveller returns from a long voyage.

Instead of being welcomed as a hero, he is arrested and thrown into prison.

The space-traveller is menaced by other prisoners: but two inmates come to his aid.

The space traveller, the two friendly prisoners and one of the nobles are thrown into a gladiatorial arena.

They escape, and flee in the space-traveller's ship, pursued by the dark lord's minions.

That, in essence, is the plot of Micronauts #1. 

Comic books have been built on flimsier first issues.

I said that I had thought of calling this essay “What did Star Wars look like in 1978?” But it should really be called “How does Micronauts make me feel.” Or, more expansively: “How Micronauts made me feel in 1978; how it makes me feel now; how that feeling reminds me of how Star Wars made me feel in 1977 and what that tells us about Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon and the extent to which Bill Mantlo, and, for that matter, George Lucas, had the faintest idea about what they were doing." 

Which is why I have gone with a briefer and more descriptive title.


"For the love of Dallan!" "Burn the elitist swine!" Telepathic horses. The Enigma Force. Body banks. A black armoured villain who can make his followers immortal and has ruled the universe for a thousand years. Everyone is running away from everyone else, shouting fragments of a backstory at each other. Each piece of action is interrupted by a different piece of action.  Every piece of exposition is cut short. The setting is taken for granted; alluded to; only partially explained. Genres clash. The nobles are riding horses and wearing Napoleonic uniforms; but they are chased by cyberpunk stormtroopers (“Dog Soldiers”) and flying robots (“Acroyears”). 

How does Micronauts #1 make me feel?

Exhilarated. Confused. Dizzy and cross and intoxicated at the same time.

Stan Lee reportedly found it baffling and asked Mantlo to add a crib sheet. This actually makes matters worse: it references characters who barely feature in the first issue and foreshadows events which won't come into the story for months. But the added confusion adds to the compelling fascination. T.S Eliot's explanatory notes notoriously failed to explain the Wasteland: but smart critics see that failure as part of the poem's impact. 

"Did you really just compare Bill Mantlo's Micronauts to T.S Eliot's Wasteland, Andrew?"

"Yes. Yes, I suppose I did."

"Might you argue that there is something post-modern about the way Micronauts and Star Wars appropriate images from widely different narrative sources and allow the juxtaposed cultural symbols to generate new levels of meaning?"

"Yes. I suppose that is the kind of thing I might well argue."


On page 2, one of the horse-riding royals — Princess Marie, she is called — exclaims "For the love of Dallan!”

On page 3 her brother exclaims "By Dallan!"

On page 5, discovering that her family have been murdered, Marie says "Sepsis have mercy!"

Again, on page 16: "For Sepsis sake!" and "Dallan and Sepsis!"

I don’t think we pay much attention to this kind of thing. Superman occasionally says by rao because he isn’t allowed to say damn. Judge Dredd says drokk and grud and the crew of the Red Dwarf say smeg. It’s part of the texture of the comic, a linguistic tick, like a Dalek saying rels instead of "hours" or a Smurf smurfing smurf when he smurfs to smurf. [1]

But on page 27, while everyone is running from the gladiatorial arena to a waiting escape starship, Commander Arcturus Rann — the returning space traveller — suddenly asks Princess Marie who Dallan and Sepsis were.

It falls to Time Traveller, a luminous science genie who Prince Argon summonsed up on page 5 and who hasn't done anything useful since to explain that Dallan and Sepsis were the first to defy Baron Karza (the dark lord) a thousand years ago, and that they have since been deified. 

"By all that's holy", exclaims Arcturus, who is also not allowed to say swears "They were my parents!"

Michael Moorcock’s Corum spends an entire trilogy wielding a magic item called the Hand of Kwll. [2] In the final chapter of the third volume, a one-handed god named Kwll shows up. I distinctly remember reading this chapter: I was in the waiting room on Oakleigh Park station, very probably on my way to Wood Green to exchange a book token for volumes four, five and six. My jaw dropped in a way that it hadn't since Cloud City and almost never since. It didn't particularly occur to me that Moorcock was making it up as he went along.

Neil Gaiman has rather based a career on showing readers' a funeral in issue ten and making them wait until issue twenty before letting them know who died; or alluding to a messy break up this year but not dramatising the actual love affair until the year after next. Dave Sim made us wait ten years to find out why Cerebus wasn’t allowed to look at the President’s ankle. It took George Lucas thirty-five years to attach any concrete concepts to words like Clone Wars and Kessel Run. [3] 

Some writers create whole worlds of facts and gradually uncover them in a kind of narrative striptease. Say what you like about J.K Rowling's prose style and her sexual politics, but you can't fault her card-index system. Other writers consciously throw out evocative words because they sound good without having any clear sense of what they mean. Two thirds of what we laughingly call the Cthulhu mythos started out as random collections of evocative syllables. And some writers doodle out lore-babble and think up reference points later on. “By the dread Dormammu!” was a cool thing for Doctor Strange to say. After few months Stan Lee decided it could also be the name of an actual bad-guy. Judge Dredd's universe eventually acquired a church of Grud for him to blaspheme against.

But there is something unusually breathless about the speed with which the set-ups and pay-offs pour off the pages of Micronauts #1. The casual decoding of lore is an architectural principle across a whole comic-book, as if decades of continuity were being retconned into twenty pages. It’s thrillingly frustrating and frustratingly thrilling.

My father fought in the Clone Wars. Gil Galad was an elven King. May Dallan preserve us. By all that's holy; they were my parents.


Fleeing from the flying robots and stormtroopers, our heroes find their way to some kind of refuge or safe house.

“Shelter” says Argon “I gave Oberon free rein, and he led us here straightway.”

“It was the telepath training he received in father’s stables, Argon” exposits Marie.

We are only on page 4. We haven’t really worked out who the goodies and the baddies are. But we spend a whole panel finding out the name of Argon’s horse.

And the fact that he is a telepathic horse.

Which is important because….


At the bottom of page 6, we meet Baron Karza, the Big Bad, for the first time. He’s the guy in the Darth Vader armour off the cover. He’s squished into a single, tall panel, his left arm cut off by the frame. Behind, partially obscured, is a figure in black and silver armour who calls him Your Eminence. [4]

We’ve had a chase; the goodies have been captured; and the bad-guy’s leader has walked on stage. That’s very much how first acts are supposed to work. But Karza's first appearance has no visual punch. It’s almost like artist Michael Golden is giving all the characters equal prominence, because he doesn’t know who is going to be important as the story develops. Howard Chaykin, who had to illustrate Star Wars without having seen the movie, had a similar problem. Lucas gives Vader one of the all-tine classic entrances: but in the comic book adaptation he is just suddenly there.

Karza, what we see of him, looks pretty impressive. Black armour; off-set by big red circles on his chest. Golden is following the design of the action figure: I think the red dots were actually connection points for accessories. The chrome shorts look odd: but better heroes and better villains have been undermined by their choice of underwear. 

But there is something wrong with his legs. They are thin. They bend the wrong way. And there are at least three of them. 

Realisation dawns. He has hooves instead of feet. He may be this comic's Darth Vader analogue; but he’s a Darth Vader analogue who is also a centaur.

And why not?

The next time he appears, on page 11, Karza is slouching on a throne; the other armoured figure (“Shaitan”) is next to him; and a green monk (“Shadow Priest”) sits in between them. 

But hang on. Doesn’t he now have…ordinary human legs?

So: let's get this straight. In this world, Darth Vader is sometimes a centaur.

And sometimes not a centaur.

Because… Because…

You could buy an accessory for the Karza action figure: a black horse called Andromeda. And you could buy a very similar white horse called Oberon who went with Force Commander. (Force Commander is what the toy was called: Prince Argon is Mantlo’s coinage.) You can take the legs off Karza and Force Commander and the heads off the two horses and recombine them into Centaurs. The figures, unlike the vehicles, were held together by magnets: I don't think you could put Karza's head on one of the robots even if you wanted to. 

So: are we assumed to be so conversant with the toys that "the bad guy is sometimes a horse" can be taken for granted? Is Mantlo foreshadowing? (Argon will be forcibly turned into a centaur in issue 5.) Or maybe he is deliberately trying to give the comic a dream-like quality?

But it’s still an odd decision. The villain is a centaur. The hero has a magic telepathic pony. We start with a chase scene. But the horsy villain leaves it to his Dog Solidiers and Acroyears to do the actual pursuit.

The Acroyears are shown in extreme long-shot. They are not much more than doodles; tiny birds with v-shaped heads and frisbees on their arms. The Dogs Soldiers and insurgents are inked in solid black (silhouettes) or heavily coloured in yellow and blue. In many panels they are so distant that they appear as tiny figures; we might even say, as toys. We do get a look at a Dog Soldier on page 3: he turns out to be a very unmemorable cyberpunk riot policeman; but we don't properly see the Acroyears until page 15. 

Michael Golden is a well respected artist; but he seems overwhelmed by the material. The comic feels blurred; schematic; it only gradually and partially comes into focus. When we get headshots of the main characters, they are exaggerated, caricatured, cartoon-like. Prince Argon on page 3 is a generic olden days character, somewhere between a toy soldier and a French Legionaire out of Carry On, Follow That Camel. Hardware and aliens come at us with joyful abandon, but we can't latch onto any of them. 

What does Micronauts #1 feel like? Like a kid who has been let loose in a toyshop, desperately trying to push all the buttons before closing time. 


[1] Karza says that it is twenty four xats since his insurrection. This refers either to his coming to power a thousand years ago, or his uprising on Homeworld the previous afternoon, so we can categorically say that one xat represents a period between one hour and four hundred and sixteen years.

[2] Corum presumably doesn't use Latin orthography, so it is hard to know what the lack of a vowel represents -- even if it was written Kw'll we'd still have to say "Kwill" or "Kwell". I think I pronounce apostrophes and blank spaces "uh". Or maybe Corum is Jewish and writes the divine name Kw--ll?

[3] For two movies and six years, Jabba the Hutt was just a name. Spoiling the big reveal in Return of the Jedi is not the worst sin of the special editions. 

[4] Which is an Ecclesiastical form of address. It’s what you call a Cardinal. The proper address for a Baron is “Your Lordship”.


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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Achille Talon said...

*Hours*? Rels are notoriously inconsistent, but I've always figured them to be something like a second, or maybe a minute.

Achille Talon said...

Regarding pronunciation of "Kwll", "w" and "oo" are more or less the same sound, so I'm rather afraid I read it as "Cool".