Sunday, May 21, 2023

Micronauts #2 and #3

Micronauts #2: Earth

Micronauts #3 Death Duel at Daytona Beach

"Tell me why are smurfs so small?"
"We're not small but you are tall."
           The Smurfing Song

Micronauts 3 contains a small mis-print.

Or perhaps it isn't a misprint. Perhaps it is like the barefoot Paul McCartney on the Abbey Road cover, desperately trying to warn his fans that he is no longer alive. Or like that tiny piece of paper that says "Help, I'm being held prisoner in a fortune cookie factory."


Shaitan (the Dark Lord's lieutenant) is chasing Arcturus Rann (the thousand year old Buzz Lightyear Action figure) across a Florida skate-park. Because of course he is. It's 1978; everything which isn't Star Wars is skate-boarding. 

Not that the location is particularly important. There is a tracking beacon on Rann's ship. Because of course there is. It's the only explanation for the ease of their escape. Shaitan's Battle Cruiser could perfectly will  have been chasing Rann's Endeavour through an asteroid field or across a forest moon. It happens to be chasing it through Florida -- along a freeway and in a skate park and into young Steve Coffin's back garden. It's clearly a Star Wars scene: people keep saying things like "Rear deflector breached" and "Man the thorium guns".

Shaitan's Battle Cruiser splits into six smaller modules. Because of course it does. Modular vehicles were all the rage that season. Judge Dredd had crossed the Cursed Earth in a big land rover that split into two small land rovers. It was called a Killdozer and it was based on a line of Dinky toys, for reasons which have never become entirely clear. Cyborg (Time Traveller's forbear) had a big spaceship, the Invader with a little spaceship, the Interceptor, inside it. Even Gerry Anderson was in on the act, selling his Star Cruiser model kits. It had a detachable cockpit at the front and a piggyback star-fighter on top and a Thunderbird 2 type landing pod on the undercarriage. He never made a TV show to go with it, but there was a cartoon strip in Look-In and the Airfix kit was cool. It was snap-together and came with stickers so it could be assembled by relative klutzes. 

There is probably some deep seated reason why little boys think that big machines which divide into smaller machines are cool. But Shaitan's Battle Cruiser just isn't cool enough. Michael Golden's art is still too sketchy, too small, too distanced; and it's all over and done with in a panel. A big triangular spaceship splits into six tiny small doodles. We needed a double-page schematic at the very least. That's Micronauts all over for you. Cool ideas that don't stay long enough for you to get a decent purchase on them. Perhaps Mantlo just assumed we all had a Battle Cruiser on the bedroom floor and knew what it was meant to look like.

Acroyear (the good guy, the one who looks like a knight in armour) proposes jumping out of the Endeavour (the spaceship) and taking on Shaitan (the bad guy) hand to hand. Biotron (the robot) is left in the pilot's seat and Marie (the princess) is left manning the guns. Acroyear leaps onto one section of the Battle Crusier with a lightsaber energy sword, yelling "Tell your traitor prince that his brother has come for him!" Acroyear gets all the best lines. Until Time Traveller moves to the centre stage, he will provide most of the Fizz in the comic.

And then. We cut back to the Microverse. For just one page.

We are in Baron Karza's body banks. He is standing on a yellow glowing square, surrounded by short green monks who on a bad day could be mistaken for Jawas. They are the mysterious Shadow Priests. Their job is to be mysterious. They don't do anything apart from be mysterious until the big reveal in issue # 11. (It will, in fairness, be a very big big reveal.) He, Karza, is talking to a little old lady, Duchess Belladona. One of the perils of living on the intersection between Mego Action Figures and Kirby's Fourth World is that everyone has very silly names. One of the Baron's underlings is called Major D'Ark. Belladonna wants to buy a new body from Karza. Ideally, she wants Princess Marie's body; but Karza has to admit that she has escaped. Alternatively, the duchess would like Prince Argon, which suggests an admirably enlightened attitude to gender. Karza hisses that he, Argon, is slated for a "rather special experiment ".

And in neat lettering, just under the final panel are the words "To be continued".

And then we cut back to Earth. The US airforce is being scrambled, skateboarders are being tripped up by toy spaceships and Acroyear is yelling "Traitorous Dog!"

"To be continued." At the bottom of the page. Half way through the issue. I can imagine Stan Lee cutting away from a subplot with a wink to the reader "We'll learn more about the mysterious Mr Osborn next issue, but for now..." But To Be Continued comes at the end of an issue. And there are still ten pages to go.


The second and third issues of Micronauts entirely fail to pay-off on the promise of the first. Issue # 1 felt more like Star Wars than Star Wars: issues #2 and #3 feel a lot like any other late 70s Marvel Comic. Everyone banters and wise-cracks in the face of certain death. Rann and Marie fall in love at first sight. ("She's one helluva of a girl"; "I like that in a man".) The adjective "feisty" is applied to Microtron. The first cover was a pastiche or half memory of the Star Wars poster: a hero; a princess; a knight; a dark lord. The cover of #2 shows us the same group of characters...threatened by a suburban lawn mower. The tone is comedic; even parodic. Our heroes are running away. Marie has her arms around Rann a little too exaggeratedly, a little too much like a silent movie heroine. There is something of the Warner Brothers cartoon about Bug's demeanour. Only Acroyear seems to rise above it all, literally and metaphorically.

It's perfectly good fun. "Star Wars but Marvel Superheroes" is by no means a terrible selling point. But the consciousness expanding first issue has been relegated to a prologue. Marie and Rann helpfully tell each other things they already know for the benefit of the reader. "The Homeworld you left died ages ago, commander, enslaved by Karza's science; the royal family fought back, but..." "He slew my parents, but that's the least of his evil. He wants every living thing subservient to him..." Characters in 1970s comics did have a bad habit of stating and restating the premise ("Eternals can't die..."). But this feels like a rear-guard action to make sure we're au fait with the salient points after the information-dense first issue. If you started reading with issue #2, you wouldn't feel you'd missed very much. 

I've sometimes called it conceptual story-telling. You can read, say, a late John Carter story, or one of the Conan adventures when Howard wasn't really trying, or anything at all by David Eddings -- and find that you are enjoying the idea of swords and dragons and martians even though the story is doing nothing to make the swords and the dragons and the martians particularly interesting. Kids in particular fill in details for themselves -- you only need a cursory sketch of a pirate ship or the barest hint of a haunted house and they are off on a day dream of their own. (For grown ups, this really only works with soft pornography.) Conceptually, Micronauts #2 and #3 are an absolute blast: tiny epic spaceships zooming through suburbia, tripping up skaters and stunning puppies. But the execution feels perfunctory.

Issue #1 ended with our heroes reaching "the fringe". Issue #2 begins with them crashing through something called The Space Wall. This seems to be a physical barrier which encloses their universe and separates it from ours. Karza's dog soldiers periodically hurl themselves at the barrier and get killed; but Time Traveller, in his primary role as mysterious deus ex machina, has helpfully blasted a hole through it. Rann's thousand year voyage took him literally to the edge of the universe: he is now going to infinity and beyond. 

The hole-in-the-space-wall ought to have been something like the Hellmouth which causes Buffy Sommers such endless trouble. Or even like the Boom Tube from the New Gods tetralogy: a ol' hunk of plot device through which goodie toy space ships and baddie toy space ships can endlessly pour into Steve Coffin's back yard. But it never becomes particularly central to the story: Shaitan chases Rann from the Fringe to Earth and returns home with his armoured tail between his legs, and the story moves on. It's one of the things which makes Micronauts such a dizzying, exasperating, but ultimately thrilling experience. Mantlo bleeds out premises for stories; uses them once; and discards them.

On our side of the Space Wall, the Micronauts are about three inches tall. This is kind of necessary to justify the title. Things which seen small to us appear big to them. It's possible to make this kind of thing interesting. Jonathan Swift wrote a moderately well known satirical novel around the idea. Land of the Giants ran to two whole seasons. The Incredible Shrinking Man was quite scary. There is a black and white Doctor Who story called Planet of the Giants in which our heroes spend an inordinate amount of time wondering why anyone would bother to build a giant matchbox and if they are on a planet where giant ants have evolved. Within three minutes the audience is shouting "You've been shrunk you dozy buggers!" at the TV screen. It's quite fun and has a certain sense of wonder: but it helps that Ian and Barbara can be assumed to already know what a box of matches is.

Marie and Rann have never seen a lawn, or a garden swing, or a dog. Earth would be strange to them even if they were normal sized. Bug is surprised that earth-fauna is so much bigger than the forests on his own planet; they think the giant metal structure has some religious significance; and they use stun-guns on a puppy. But it all gets sorted out with a couple of pages. They encounter Steve Coffin, a semi-naked teenager, who instantly realises that they must be aliens and is only mildly surprised ("Oh wow, I mean wow.") Marie explains the entire backstory to him off panel, and he's pretty fine with it. ("We'll, sure I'll help you.") The issue ends with the lad surveying his wrecked garden and wondering what he is going to tell Dad. He decides to tell him that "It was a war, dad, between two forces from a microscopic planet called home-world. They had spaceships and ray-guns and..." His Dad believes him. He is, very conveniently, and ex-astronaut; something of a Buzz Lightyear himself. His plot arc is going to be one of the most bizarre things in the comic. 

When John Byrne rebooted Superman in 1986, he stuck with established tradition; starting the story on Krypton and following baby Kal to earth. He later said he regretted this: he wished he had started with Jonathan and Martha Kent finding their star-child, and only gradually revealed his origins. The narrative would have had the quality of surprisingness, even if the readers were not actually surprised. There is something to be said for dramatic irony. 

I think there would have been a strong argument for making Steve Coffin the viewpoint character in the Micronauts. It makes a lot more sense to see space-aliens through a teenager's eyes than teenagers through space-alien's eyes. (This is largely how Mantlo constructed Rom, showing us the Space Knight from the point of view of his human girl-friend.) We readers could have first perceived the Endeavour as strange toys clogging up Steve's lawnmower, and only gradually learned about their epic origins. Our confusion could have been his confusion; and the Microverse might have seemed more wonderful because we had never been there. Kirby showed as Darkseid from Jimmy Olsen's point of view before showing us the inside of Apokalips. Alternatively, the aliens-eye-viewpoint could have been used to defamiliarise the mundane: we could have stayed with Rann and Marie, seen a strange new world through the windscreen of the Endeaour, and only gradually working out where they had fetched up. The shifting viewpoints tend to melt the sense of wonder: no sooner have they seen the strange religious artefact than they have realised that it is a child's back-garden swing, and no sooner has Steve seen the Micronauts than he has understood that they are visiting aliens.

How many of Stan Lee's Weird Wonder Tales and Tharg's Future Shocks ended with mighty space fleets being destroyed by house-wives with fly swatters and alien diplomats deciding that ants are the dominant life-form on earth. Douglas Adams sent the whole idea up, having the battle fleets of the Vl'Hurgs and the G'Gugvuntt swallowed ("due to a terrible miscalculation of scale") by a small dog. But Mantlo is slightly too at ease with his own sense of wonder. When young Steve smashes Shaitan's ship with a garden rake, it ought to be awesome. A whole Star Destroyer full or Evil Mandalorians destroyed in a single blow; Godzilla pulling a jumbo jet out of the sky. Or else it ought to feel uncanny: a whole civilisation of tiny two inch scale human beings. But we don't really feel the narrative disjuncture between the physical size of the heroes and the narrative size of the story. We see a kid breaking a toy spaceship. Awe fails to be inspired.


So: a chase and a dogfight; some Lilipution silliness; and multiple statements and restatements of the backstory. But threaded through this: two tiny-small cutaways to the Microverse. Two pages in Issue #2; a single page in Issue #3. Prince Argon spread out cruciform on some luminous platform; taunted by Karza and warned that he is going to be experimented on. The old lady demanding Argon's body and being told she can't have it. The inset scenes are part of the same world, artistically and tonally, as issue #1. The Daytona Beach material seems to come from a different comic-book. 

I wonder. Did Mantlo originally envisage Micronauts # 2 as a direct continuation of Micronauts #1: swashbuckling, intrigue and exposition in a space-fantasy cosmos? Had that second issue already been drawn when Stan Lee admitted that issue #1 left him baffled; resulting in a much more mainstream second issue? And did Mantlo chop up the unpublished #2 and distribute the pages through the rewritten issues? 

There is a precedent for this sort of thing: material from an abortive Inhumans comic was repurposed as a subplot in Fantastic Four #51 - #64. I've argued that the Silver Surfer material in Fantastic Four #49 was added after the fact. 

I assume that in the Real World, the "To Be Continued" caption was a mistake. The Duchess Belladonna story was originally scheduled to come at the end of issue #2 (or perhaps to be presented as a separate "Tales of the Microverse" feature) and someone forgot to erase the lettering during the editorial process. But as a piece of text, it does seem to be an acknowledgement that what we are reading is two conceptually different comics, glued together. A warning that the comic we really want to be reading and the one Bill really wants to be writing has been carved up and served in bite sized chunks? Or even a secret message from Bill: "Stan has told me to make this comic more Marvel Style. Like he told Jack to put a robot Hulk in the Eternals. But don't worry. We'll get back to the kosmic stuff before too long."


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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1 comment:

Ken Shinn said...

I'm delighted that you've chosen to tackle the Micronauts comics. I recall the same mix of fascination and frustration that you seem to have about them when I first encountered them as one of the Star Wars Weekly/Monthly back-up reprints.

One minor point of pedantry: the Killdozer from The Cursed Earth was based on a die-cast named Raider Command, one of the Adventure 2000 range which came to us courtesy of neither Dinky nor Corgi, but their eternal also-ran competitor Lesney (best known for the Matchbox range). For once, they put their bigger rivals in the shade.

I also remember (i) what happens to Prince Argon, and (ii) how his subsequent jailbreak involves a gun-smuggling moment which leads to a joke which I found surprisingly near-the-knuckle at the time. By Dallan and Sepsis, I like your style!