Thursday, March 30, 2023

Micronauts #1 (continued)


Princess Marie is in hiding. Prince Argon is a prisoner. (“Take him to the body banks” says Karza. We're not quite sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound like anything good.) And the action cuts to a new character.

Commander Arcturus Rann. He’s an astronaut (“micronaut”) returning to earth (“homeworld”) after a voyage to the edge of the universe (“fringe of the microverse”). We see him heavily shaded in purple, alongside a robot. Then we see him heavily silhouetted in the door of his space ship, almost like the aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Finally we get a good look at him, and (like Argon) he's a caricature, a cartoon: a space-hero with a jaw so square you could use it in a woodwork class.

Lucas, of course, pulled a similar structural manoeuvre. Start with a secondary character (Leia) running away from the main villain (Vader). Leave her in peril: and shift everyone's attention to the main hero (I forget his name.) Let us get to know him for a bit, and then show us how his story overlaps with hers. 

“I am glad you woke me for this” says Arcturus.

“I knew you’d enjoy seeing the real thing rather than a telepathic image” replies his robot. “You’ve waited a long time for this.”

And a narrative voice kicks in: “A long time? Yes a thousand years is a very long time to be away from one’s world, with only your ship and a roboid companion for company” [5]

And the crib sheet, if we can be bothered with the very small type, repeats the information again: Rann is “one of the first of the space-gliding Micronauts to be dispatched in suspended animation 1,000 years ago to the farthest reaches of the Microverse.”

George Lucas pruned a very complex back-story down to a very small number of upper case captions: BRAVE REBELS; EVIL GALACTIC EMPIRE; ULTIMATE WEAPON. Mantlo's story is an overgrown forest that we get lost in. But he resists the full-on info dump. He disperses information through the story, expecting the reader to connect the dots. It's a little like the rhetorical technique sometimes employed by political speech-writers. "What was it Ghandi once said...?" or "As that great champion of passive resistance put it..." go down better than "To quote a speech M.K Ghandi made in August 1942..." Let the audience finish your sentences; let them fill in the spaces you have left blank. It get's them on-side; makes them feel part of the in-crowd. 

What was it the author of Zot! told us in his seminal book on comic criticism? Comics are an invisible art; all the action comes in the space between the panels. The reader is an active participant in the creation of the story. 

So: Rann is not merely a space-explorer. He's also, at some level, a messiah. ("His return was clearly foretold on the ancient mission charts.") He has spent a thousand years in suspended animation, during which time he remained telepathically linked with Biotron, his robot companion.

It's a rather splendid science fiction idea. It could have formed the basis for an entire comic book series. An explorer whose body is frozen but whose mind is free to explore the universe, using a robot as his eyes and ears. As if that isn't enough, in the very next panel Mantlo brings in another huge space operatic concept. Rann’s spaceship was travelling at “faster than light speeds” but while he was gone, his people discovered warp drive. Aliens he made first-contact with during his millennium long voyage have obtained this faster-than-faster-than light travel and arrived home before him. [6]
Karza fears Rann because he is an "x-factor", not taken into account in any of his schemes; and there is going to be a Very Big Revelation in issue #11 concerning something which happened on his thousand year mission. But most of the time, he is merely the heroic Captain Kirk /  Buzz Lightyear figure, who falls in love with Princesses and saves the day. Rann's cosmic history has very little impact on the narrative: but the fact that he bursts into the comic trailing clouds of backstory is a very big part of what made the comic so mesmerising. 

Fans like complexity. Comics like Green Lantern and Legion of Superheroes with long, long histories and huge intricate casts are the ones which attract cult followings. Fan fiction was less ubiquitous in the 1970s; but the impulse to take possession of a text, to simultaneously dominate it and be dominated by it has always been there. I want to be X-Wing Blue Five flying down the Death Star Trench with Luke Skywalker; but I want to have a collection of model X-Wings and look down on the saga from above. 

Was Mantlo angling for cult status? Were his endless allusions to past histories and off-stage events a means of creating a synthetic continuity? Or did his conceptual stream outrun his ability to make up stories, so ideas just tumbled into the narrative because he couldn't keep them out? 

That would, indeed, make Micronauts a close relative of New Gods. 


Relentless peril; the endless serial cycle of threat and escape. Each cliffhanger pushes us deeper into the backstory. It is hard not to be engaged. 

Rann expects to be greeted as a hero: but what he thinks is the honour guard are actually Karza’s Dog-Soldiers. He is captured. He is imprisoned. He is attacked by alien prisoners who, er, want to eat him. Two more aliens drop into the frame, from nowhere, to rescue him. 

Rann's rescuers are fairly incongruous. One is a knightly figure in red and white armour; the other is a green-skinned alien. I don’t think we immediately connect the knight with the silver and black figure we saw alongside Karza -- he's only been in the comic for one frame. But we probably grok that the knight's name, Acroyear, is the same as that of the robots who were chasing Marie and Argon on page 2. Bug, who is going to emerge as a comedic “artful dodger” figure in later issues is on this first appearance, a completely generic Little Green man: the kind of human-in-make-up you’d have met in Season Two of Star Trek.

Was this slightly unlikely friendship between a giant space-knight and a little-space thief suggested by the (at the time) equally unlikely friendship between the cowboy space pirate and the giant chess playing gorilla? Or does Mantlo just need to squeeze two more action figures into the story? Acroyear looks quite a lot like his model: we would not know that Bug was Galactic Warrior unless Mantlo had told us so. The Galactic Warrior figure did come with a curious bucket-shaped helmet like the one Bug wears (very valuable to collectors as they most often got lost). Some iterations of the figurine were green.

Rann is surprised that there are Bugs and Acroyears on Homeworld, because he thinks he discovered them during his infinitely extended space sojourn. But his surprise is almost immediately undercut with a revelation. We readers already know that Baron Karza is the bad-guy. He’s been mentioned, oh, three or four times already. But when Bug mentions his name, Mantlo hits us with another Hand of Kwll moment

“Baron Karza? Doctor Karza of the science academy? But he was my professor, 1,000 years ago.”

But he was my professor. 

It is not quite up there with no-Luke-I-am-you-father. But it did come two years earlier.


Princess Marie and Commander Rann both have mechanical companions. Rann's companion, the one he mind-linked with during his voyage, is called Biotron. He is quite tall and has human features. Marie's is shorter and less anthropomorphic and is called Microtron. [7] The crib sheet says that he is her “jester, servant, tutor and guardian” although he does very little in this first issue. Both of them are modelled very closely on the original action-figures, and there is very little that Golden can do to prevent them looking like oversized toys. They will inevitably form a friendship, and it is impossible not too look at the double-act without thinking of Artoo Detoo and See Threepio. However, Biotron is not particularly pompous and Microtron is not especially flighty. 

Artoo and Threepio were referred to as "droids" which is presumably an abbreviation of "android".  Android literally means "man-shaped", in the way that "ovoid" means "egg-shaped", but science fiction fans would naturally take it to mean "a human shaped robot". See Threepio is arguably an android: Artoo Deetoo decidedly isn't. [8] 

Microtron and Biotron are referred to as "roboids". Mantlo says in passing that "roboids" have "become a synthesis of man and machine" -- or, in other words, cyborgs. [9] I suppose that "roboid" must mean "shaped like a robot", which they unquestionably are. C.P Scott would presumably have said that no good can come of a word which is half Latin and half Czech. 

On page 10 Microtron is seen operating Marie as if she were a puppet. I had to read this section several times to work out what was supposed to be going on. It appears that Karza uses "show dolls"  — humanoid robots operated by other robots -- as a form of entertainment. By pretending to be a show-doll, Marie hopes to gain access to the arena and rescue Argon. It seems a lot of trouble to go to to establish the Marie/Marionette pun. 

But that is how Rann first sees Marie: a figure being manipulated by a roboid. And this is surely rather reminiscent of Artoo Deetoo projecting the image of Princess Leia for the benefit of Luke Skywalker. 

“She must be real” says Commander Rann when he sees her.  “She’s beautiful.”


Steve Gerber complained that Marvel comics had to include one actual fight scene: not an action sequence or a confrontation, a fight. The fights in Howard the Duck became intentionally silly and gratuitous, both as an in-joke and as a protest. Stan Lee himself affected to regard “plot” as the annoying preliminary you had to rush through in order to get to the punch-up.

In one sense, Micronauts # 1 has been nothing but a sequence of confrontations and chases and escapes. But pages 12-17 are a relatively by-numbers comic book action sequence. Karza puts all the prisoners in the arena and releases a giant “death tank” that they are supposed to fight. The Time Traveller — the glowy angel that Argon summonsed by unspecified means — materialises again and somehow causes an explosion, giving all the good guys a chance to get back to Rann’s spaceship. The aliens who wanted Rann for lunch are killed, unmourned, by the robot. The flying Acroyears come down from the sky, and we finally get a good look at them: their heads are the same shape as the wings on Acroyear’s helmet, but otherwise they look like completely different toys. Everyone runs away, back to Rann’s space ship, where Biotron is waiting for them. They escape, and make for “the fringe”. 

Rann has already talked, several pages earlier, about having reached "the fringe" on his first voyage. A writer would probably not use jargon so consistently if he were making it up as he went along. Consecutive captions say that the Endeavour is slower than its pursuers, and that it is travelling faster than the speed of light: "faster than light" having been established as meaning "relatively slow". I remain in awe of Mantlo's world-building.  

There is one more twist. Karza reveals that he never intended his ships to catch our heroes. Because Rann is the x-factor that could mess up his plans, he needs to know what he is going to do next. “There is an unknown at work here and that we cannot fathom must sometimes be made to reveal itself.”

He let them go. It’s the only explanation for the ease of their escape. Bill Mantlo had never seen Star Wars.


If your first encounter with Star Wars was through a computer game or a guidebook or the prequels, then you have never seen Star Wars. If you went into Episodefouranewhope knowing in advance that Star Destroyers are bigger than Rebel Blockade Runners then you have never seen Star Wars. If when Darth Vader walked down the corridor you knew he was a Sith Lord named Anakin, you have never seen Star Wars. 

This is not gate-keeping. You can perfectly well be a fan of the Star Wars Saga without having seen Star Wars. English Literature survives quite happily even though most of us have never read Macbeth for the first time. But the aesthetic of Star Wars, and therefore the aesthetic of the Micronauts depends on there being oceans and continents of stuff about which the audience doesn't have the faintest idea.

You can't enjoy a puzzle if you already know the solution. 

This is not, incidentally, true of every movie and every book. The first Batman movie, and arguably the first Superman movie, rather strongly assumed that you knew the basic facts about the characters in advance. Sophocles would have written Oedipus Rex different if he thought there would one day be people who didn't know who the king murdered and who the king married. I appear to have just compared a bad Tim Burton movie with arguably the most significant secular text in the western canon. 

On page 16 of Mirconauts # 1, Acroyear gets to deliver arguably the best line in the whole comic. 

“I have a message for that traitor prince you serve" he says "Tell him there is a blood feud between us, and I will have his head.”

This is the culmination of a series of references to Acroyears that run laterally through the comic. Once you know what you are looking for, it is perfectly coherent and relatively easy to unpick.

Page 2: The good guys are are chased by flying acroyears.

Page 5: We meet Karza’s armoured councillor, Prince Shaitan.

Page 9: We meet an armoured knight, simply named Acroyear.

Page 14: As Acroyear starts to fight the death robot, Karza says to Shaitan “Your estranged brother, is he not?”

Page 15: We finally get a good look at the flying acroyears, who Shaitan describes as "my people".

Page 16, Acroyear delivers the line about the traitor prince. (It isn't clear if the message is going to be delivered or not, since Acroyear appears to have smashed the acroyear into little tiny pieces: a textbook example of shooting first and asking questions later.) 

None of this is particularly baffling or hard to follow: and the crib sheet sums it up admirably. Acroyear is the prince of the acroyears, his throne has been taken by Shaitan who has allowed Karza to use his people as shock troops.

But this summary falsifies the actual experience of reading the comic. The information doesn't come in exposition or flashback: it comes as six dots of information; one thread of a back-story; a sub-plot in a sub-plot, part of the rhubarb-rhubarb background noise while in the foreground luminous Time Traveller's explode gigantic killer robots in toy arenas.

The story of how Prince Space Knight regained the throne from Evil Turncoat Brother could easily have sustained a five act tragedy or a three volume epic. (And we haven't even got to the part about exile and migration and making friends with a talking planet.) But the specific power of Micronauts # 1 is that a whole Arthurian/Shakespearean space-saga takes place in parenthesis. Acroyear is simply the action figure to the left of the Space Glider action figure in the toy space ship; best mates with the Galactic Warrior action figure. And yet he drags behind him a whole separate mythology. Mantlo intends, I think, to do the same thing with Bug, but Planet of The Insect Theives never quite becomes interesting enough.

The Acroyears are not Jedi Knights. They might possibly be Mandalorians. John Favereu must have read Micronauts. He’s a Star Wars fan, he’s our age, and it was all there was. But the feud between Acroyear and Shaitan functions in a similar way to the feud between old Ben and Darth Vader in that first movie. It's the centre of its own plot, but on the margins of this one; the protrusion into this story of one that seems older and bigger and part of a different world. 

Micronauts # 1, like Star Wars, has a clear, linear narrative arc. People are captured and escape and recaptured and escape again. It begins with separate characters fleeing the bad guy; and ends with all the characters fleeing the bad guy together. But it is driven by social and chronological connections; which are revealed and created as the chase rushes on. The characters are introduced to us through their relationships; they form new relationships across the groups as the story develops and we gradually learn about the way they are related through their histories: 
Marie and Argon: siblings. 
Acroyear and Shaitan: siblings.
Acroyear and Bug: friends. 
Microtron: Marie's roboid.
Biotron: Rann's robot. 

Microtron and Biotron: Make friends because they are both robots. 
Rann and Acroyear and Bug: Make friends because they in prison together
Marie and Rann: Make friends because she's a lady and he's a man. 

Rann turns out to be Karza's pupil.
Rann turns out to be the child of Marie's gods. 
Shaitan turns out to have betrayed the Acroyears to Karza.
Time Traveller turns out to have a mysterious connection with Argon and Rann.

English teachers sometimes draw diagrams to explain Shakespeare's plots: who kills who and who falls in love with who and who is related to who. We feel we should be able to step back from Micronauts and see the whole pattern; but the pattern keeps shifting. It isn't that it feels real. It's that we feel it would feel real if we could only get under the surface and work out what was going on. But Mantlo won't let us. The story is too big.

What have I said? Have I said anything at all? Perhaps Micronauts reminds me of Star Wars because I read them at the same age. Perhaps Star Wars reminds me of Micronauts because they are both space operas and all space opera is pretty much the same? But then I read Doc Smith and liked Doc Smith and Doc Smith pretty much defined space opera and anyone who thinks that Doc Smith is anything like Star Wars hasn’t learned to read. Am I really just saying that George Lucas and Bill Mantlo both overwhelmed us by the sheer quantity of derivative fantasy ideas they lazily stuffed into one book?  But that gets us into the Campbell question: are some ideas powerful because they have been used before; or do ideas get reused because they are powerful? There was a point in my life when I would squee for any vaguely mythological scene involving wizards and swords and magic: Trebor refreshers, Thundercats, T.H White, Richard Wagner, it made no odds. Robots and horses generate a certain fizz; however little you like power-politics, it's hard not to love it when Frank Herbert gives you a vast galactic empire where they still use swords. We have seen that in Britain, at any rate, Micronauts shared space with Starlord and Thanos and the Sword in the Star. Swords-and-science wasn't invented in 1977: Michael Moorcock did it before George Lucas and Edgar Rice Borroughs did it before Moorcock. But we didn't talk about Space Fantasy before Star Wars. 

Could Mantlo keep it up? Yes, and no. The next few issues will be superhero comics, set on earth, with the Microverse itself reduced to marginal background information. But around issue 8 earth and the Microverse will come together with the arrival and immediate departure of an absurd, brilliant, irrelevant superhero. And then we will return to the Microverse; actually visit the Acroyear homeworld; and reach a conclusion which not only knocks the first issue into a micrococked hat, but (there are days of the week when I am tempted to say) out-Lucases Lucas and even out-Kirbys Kirby, 

[5] Stan Lee, famously, affected the voice of an avuncular huckster in his captions, addressing the readers as "gang" or "true believers" and treating the story as a thing he was making up. Mantlo's voice is more like Lee's hipper acolytes, writing captions which muse to themselves or address the reader.“A long time? Yes, a thousand years...” “Rebellion; it is not a very lovely word...” It seems to be the wrong voice: this is a story which needs to be declaimed in Star Wars crawl, or maybe the breathless wonder of a story-so-far radio introduction. But it is the voice of 1970s Marvel Comic; quiet; mature; serious. We are a long way from the days when peerless pilgrims proclaimed ever page a pulse pounding battle of the century. Micronauts is not camp; or at any rate, it is camp in a completely different way.

[6] Mantlo seems to have pinched the idea from the 1969 version of Guardians of the Galaxy, which has almost nothing to do with the movie version. Vance Astro was supposed to be travelling to Alpha Centauri in cold storage, but finds that faster-than-light humans have already colonised the place before he gets there. 

[7] Everyone knows that they are inhabitants of the Microverse; Rann calls himself a Micronaut; and Marie's robot is called Microtron. I suppose we have to regard "micro" as a word like "smurf" which means something untranslatable in the source-language. 

[8] In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Dekker refers to the replicants as "andys" which I have always taken rather personally. 

[9] Did anyone ever find out what Threepio meant by 'human/cyborg relations'?


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...

I am fairly certain that "human/cyborg relations" was written with the intent that "cyborg" here referred to literal "cybernetic organisms" (i.e. robots of the kind who have personalities and are essentially lifeforms who happen to be made of metals), rather than the modern standard meaning of a half-robot, half-organic being. So he just means that he's a go-between between humans and other, more impenetrable robots. Which, in practice, probably mostly means translating bleep-bloops like Artoo's for the benefit of people who don't "speak binary".

Of course, I'm sure the term "cyborg" has since been used in Star Wars stuff to refer to entities more like General Grievous and indeed Darth Vader himself; and that the EU has, in turn, come up with some preposterous other meaning for "human/cyborg relations". But in its original context the line doesn't seem that mysterious.

Achille Talon said...

(Also, a *bad* Tim Burton movie? Ye gads, I shudder to think what you'd call, oh say, his “Alice in Wonderland”. His “Batman” is one of his better ones, in, I think, both the public opinion and mine.)

Achille Talon said...

We feel we should be able to step back from Micronauts and see the whole pattern; but the pattern keeps shifting. It isn't that it feels real. It's that we feel it would feel real if we could only get under the surface and work out what was going on. But Mantlo won't let us. The story is too big.

This description strongly puts me in mind of Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events, which in its own way may rival "Tim Burton's Batman/Sophocles's Œdipus" as far as unexpected media comparisons go. (Some might say Batman/Œdipus is crasser, but it's also somewhat more expected, what with the endless, circular talk of Superheroes As Modern Myths and all that.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare Before Christmas are good Tim Burton movies. In fairness, I probably should have said that Batman was a good Tim Burton movie but a bad Batman movie.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yes: I think the idea that 3PO is a go-between makes sense. (He calls R2 his "counterpart" as if they were part of one mechanism...) In the first film he says he's "not much more than an interpreter" and that "protocol is his primary function". The fact that Owen needs him to understand the language of moisture vaporators (and 3PO claims they are similar to binary loadlifters) -- and talks to the Falcon's computer in Empire Strikes Back -- suggests the original idea was "interface between humans and machines" rather than "very advanced version of Google Translate."

Achille Talon said...

Pointing it out has become somewhat pedantic, but all the same I feel bound to repeat the important fact that despite the title, "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" is only 'a Tim Burton movie' in the sense that "Bram Stoker's Dracula" is a 'Bram Stoker movie'; it is not a Tim Burton movie in the sense that “Batman” and “Edward Scissorhands” are Tim Burton movies. As a movie, it's Henry Selick's. (And quite good, yes.)

(I still disagree with you with regards to the Burton “Batman”, which I think is in fact a very good Batman movie, possibly the best one thus far. The script has clear weaknesses — the Joker and Batman should not be fighting over a woman, and the Joker should not have killed Bruce's parents, yes, yes, obviously — but the tone, the aesthetics, the thrill of it are all precisely on point. Or so I feel. Quite like the “Star Wars”/“Micronauts” fizz, it's a subjective thing! Oh, and “Batman Returns” is obviously a different matter. That one has more Burt- than Bat-, for certain.)

Thomas said...

I think "Ed Wood" is Tim Burton's best movie. It's the only movie where Burton allows Johnny Depp to portray an actual human being that one can empathize with. Every other Depp character is a weird abstraction. (Although I *do* feel sad for Edward Scissorhands.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think the meeting between the man who made the greatest movie of all time and the man who made the worst movie of all time was inspired...

Mike Taylor said...

"It isn't that it feels real. It's that we feel it would feel real if we could only get under the surface and work out what was going on."

For what it's worth, this is Exactly how I feel about the music of Blue Oyster Cult.