Friday, June 09, 2023

Micronauts #9 and #10

Micronauts #9: Home is Where the Heart Is

Micronauts #10: Defeat

He-Man is always at war with Skeletor. Flash Gordon is always at war with Ming. There is no reason why Arcturus Rann and his plucky band of rebels should not have fought a never-ending battle with Karza: never defeated by him, but never quite overthrowing him, either.

This was before the Empire Strikes Back. We didn't know the Star Wars trilogy was going to have a definite conclusion. We didn't even know that it was a trilogy.

But the Micronauts saga is heading towards a definite finale. Baron Karza may not have been part of Bill Mantlo's original conception: he was part of the second wave of Micronauts toys; and therefore not one of the figurines that Adam Mantlo would have been playing with on Christmas morning. He must have been added to the mythos when Mego sent Marvel a full set of toys as reference material. So maybe Mantlo's original idea had been for a comic in which six plucky heroes go on plucky voyages and have plucky adventures on a month-to-month basis. And maybe he really thought of the Karza saga as an origin story, a prelude to the toy-level Star Trek he had originally envisaged. And perhaps that gave him freedom to work towards an end-point, long before the idea of "graphic novels" and "writing for the trade" had gone mainstream.

Issue #11 will have "saga's end" printed on the cover. The baddies are going to actually, decisively, lose.   

We're back in the Microverse. Everyone is talking about a final battle. The cards are very firmly on the table. We've been told everything we're going to be told about the setting. If we still haven't got it straight in our heads, there's not much hope for us. But Mantlo isn't hurrying to get to his climax. He's going to make us mark time for an episode or two. Build up the suspense. Burn through a couple of sub-plots. 

The Final Resolution is going to come down to a one-to-one face off between the Good Guy and the Bad Guy, so it's a canny move for the Penultimate Act to be a full on star war. Every frame is stuffed with toy spaceships, many more than we can count or process. Nearly every panel is saturated with space-coloured ink and a starry, starry background. And Acroyear's back-story is dialled up to eleven. 

Acroyear is not the main character; but he's the most intriguing one. The one who turns Micronauts from "science fiction" to "science fantasy". The armoured knight who calls himself prince and whose evil turncoat brother is the arch-villain's top henchmen. Showing us the Acroyear home-world could have spoiled him, in the way that the Jedi Knights were (arguably) spoiled once we knew they had a temple and a library and a kindergarten. (Bob Howard had the good sense never to let us see the country Conan came from.) But Mantlo largely pulls it off. 

It's called Spartak. It's an Arthurian, medieval world. It's totally made out of rock. Everyone lives in castles or caves or towers. The castles are miles high and the mountains are hundreds of miles high. There are no artisans or servants. Everyone wears their armour at all times, and they never remove their masks. (This, I imagine, is the way.) You might have expected them to be Klingons, obsessed with personal honour; but they are actually Vulcans: their racial characteristic is that they never show their emotions. Acroyear has a lady love, Cilicia, but they show their love by gently touching their palms together. (This was after Star Trek but before Star Trek: The Next Generation.) Spartak is exactly the world that you would have wanted Acroyear to come from: it's as cool as he is, and it makes him even cooler.

Baron Karza was very, very cross when Shaitan failed to capture Arcturus Rann in issue #4. As a punishment, he removed the Thoughtwash he had placed Spartak under. The noble Acroyears, it seemed, had only sided with Karza because Karza had used Science to make them think that Acroyear, their rightful king, was dead. Once the Thoughtwash was removed, the Acroyears turned against Shaitan; but they also turned against Karza. So the Dark Lord now has to deal with an entire planet of psychotic armoured space-knights rising up against him. 

Lords of Darkness, eh? They just aren't terribly bright.

Karza directs his fleet to Spartak, leaving Homeworld relatively undefended. Argon and Slug start their revolution, although they know it is destined to fail. Argon notices what a great queen Slug would make. Ran and Mari leap into their spaceships and join the Acroyear's defence.

Karza is standing on the hull of one of his starships: so naturally Rann dive-bombs him in a fighter. Karza has a supervillain forcey-field around him, so the attack has no effect, and everyone assumes Rann is dead, It's over and done with in a couple of panels: quite an odd way to handle the first major confrontation between the main hero and the main villain. But I think we can see what is going on: issue #11 will belong to Rann. This one is all about Acroyear. 

He is making his way to something called the Crystal Chamber. Bug wants to go with him, but isn't allowed to. Alone in the Chamber, Acroyear takes his armour off. He seems to be naked underneath it. We see his face: he looks like a dark skinned claymation frog. "The World Mind can only be wielded by a King and through accident of birth, I am a King" he exposits. What in the world is the World Mind? Mantlo is hurling ideas at us again. On one page we are introduced to the ultimate secret weapon which has never before been used; and on the next panel, Acroyear uses it. 

"Can any Acroyear risk less than his life to save his world?" says Acroyear

"Oh my beloved" says Cilicia "Can any Acroyear risk more?"

Fizz! Fizz! Turn up the Wagner. 

Comics are at their best when they are doing the kinds of things which comics are best at doing. (This is also true of interpretative dance routines and limericks.) The final pages of Micronauts #9 may not be displaying the pyrotechnics of a Frank Miller or a Dave Sim, but they are very much in tune with the dynamic of the form. At the bottom of page 16, is a strip of three frames, each showing Acroyear grimacing. His eyes have lost their pupils and turned pure white, a trait he shares with X-Men's Storm. Cilicia seems to be narrating: "We are one with our with our king." Acroyear continues the thought "All...the generations! All the years of our race!"

Boom. Boom. Fizz.  

And then we flip the page. A full page splash. Two pictures of Acroyear, not separated by a frame or a gutter. A long shot of his torso and arms being buried or consumed by crystalline rocks; a close up of his face; eyes closed now; in some kind of pain. Three text boxes, heavily edged in yellow. It might be Cilicia's voice, or Acroyear's or just the narrator. Up to now, Mantlo's world-building has been clumsy and expository. But now, the act of telling seems to be part of the narrative: we're listening to a story within a story.

"The legend of the Acroyears: in the dim past a race was driven from its home. The fugitives wandered for millennia as exiles among the stars. Finally they came upon a harsh, cold, forbidding world of stone. 'World, may we settle here?' they asked."

Last month we had a superhero, with patriotism and cliche oozing out of his spandex. This month we have a sentient planet. And as King of the Acroyears, Acroyear can somehow merge with it; or channel it; or control it. Details are a bit vague. His dialogue is now edged in yellow, as if his voice has merged with the voice of the narrator, or the voice of the story itself. His word balloons are square, and fills the place where we would expect "the next issue" caption to fit. It doesn't particularly point us towards the next issue. 

It just says "I am Worldmind".

Honestly, I don't know if I can convey how weird, how audacious this seemed in 1979; wrapped around advertisements for Technical Lego and scantily clad posters of Cheryl Ladd. An ending of an episode which isn't an ending of an episode; a story which gets louder and louder and changes gear and stops. It's not the same as encountering Galactus or finding out who really killed Luke's dad, but it's certainly a moment. 

Worldmind. It sounds like it should be German; weltgeist or weltenbaum. I don't know if Mantlo knew Wagner but he certainly knew Thor. Spaceships and space-knights and sentient planets all in the space of seventeen pages. 

Thor had met Ego the Living Planet a decade previously: but there was a Kirbyish whackiness to Ego; a planet with a literal human face; a gigantic Man in the Moon with a green beard. Worldmind is more audacious, in a way, and more exciting. Acroyear, a character we have got to know and like, merged with the soul of his planet, is going to physically create earthquakes to swallow the invaders. He is going to literally throw mountains at them. He is going to change the planets density so their spaceships can't take off. Never mind Thor: it's all quite Biblical. 

Oh, sinner-man, where are you going to run to? 

For a series of comics about toys, it's quite violent and even dark. When the Dog Soldiers ask Cilicia for mercy, she beheads them with her lightsaber energy sword. On Homeworld, Slug summarily executes the rich humans who supported Karza. One of the Dog Soldiers points his gun at the head of an Acroyear infant. Alec Guiness rightly said that the violence of Star Wars is play violence: goodies say bang-bang and baddies fall over, but there is no sense of anyone being harmed. Mantlo is happy to show that people, actual people, are killed in wars. (He was born in the 50s; he didn't serve, but contemporaries must have been drafted to Vietnam.) 

The art feels different. Big panels and full page spreads: the characters are larger and solider than they were before. If we are right that the first six issues were the product of a paste up job, perhaps that put limits on what Michael Golden thought he could achieve. Perhaps incoming inker Al Milgrom is doing a better job at accentuating Golden's line-work than Jeff Rubinstien had been able to. Or perhaps, now the back story is established, Mantlo is presenting the artists with less exacting briefs. You don't need to cram a dozen characters into a panel. Just relax and tell the story. 

Page 15 of issue #10 ends with a row of four square panels, alternating between Cilicia's face and the face of the terrified Dog Soldier; followed by one long panel of Cilicia swinging her sword. His plea for mercy is detached from the frame, hanging in slither of blank space. (Dave Sim or Frank Miller would not have bothered with the sword; there would have just bee a sound effect saying SLASH!) The actual violence is not shown, but one still wonders what the comics code thought it was doing. 

Page 10 is a grid of six frames, two rows of three: two pictures of Karza's ships being attacked by the planet, and a third of Acroyear's face against a star-scape, chanting curses or spells against his enemies. 

Page 12 is a three by two grid, each pictures an unrelated battlefield vignette: an Acroyear throwing a sword, Dog Soldiers menacing civilians and charging into battle, and, finally, a close up of Acroyear's face. Each frame contains only the single word of dialogue. Destroy! Destroy! Destroy! This is a writer paying attention to the architecture of a comic book page.

While the planet burns around them, Shaitan taunts Cilicia and Cilicia knocks him across the hall: his mask falls off, and he is revealed to be an albino. This kind of thing happens a lot in science fiction and fantasy: a very intense, personal moment happens while a huge far reaching event is going on in the background. One thinks of Eowyn reconciling herself with Theoden while the last great battle of our time rage around them; or Orion revealing his identity to Bekka a few moments before New Genesis explodes. It's a narrative version of the Pathetic Fallacy: the turbulence in the hero's souls reflected in the world around them.

I think it was Alan Moore who said that Daredevil's personality is that he is blind and Professor X's personality is that he is bald. Revealing Shaitan's skin colour gives him one more character trait in addition to "he's a traitor". He think everyone hates him because of his white skin: but of course this has never been true. It might have been a better plot development if Acroyear's people really did hate and disinherit white people; giving Shaitan a genuine, rather than an imagined, grievance.

"I know, little one" says Biotron "We have only each other now." Mari has gone off to repeat Rann's stunt, crashing her spaceship into Karza and getting captured for her trouble. Mari swears vengeance, carries out the exact same stunt, and is also captured. Bug throws himself into the fray, and is unceremoniously killed off. He'll only stay dead for only three issues, but it's a sensible bit of plotting. The comic relief would be otiose during the heroic resolution. Shakespeare killed off Falstaff in Act 1 of Henry V for the exact same reason. Microtron is often said to be the Artoo Deetoo analogue; the feisty little robot in contrast to the pompous Biotron. And last issue he was part of the comic relief, alongside Bug, tossed on his head and unable to right himself. But he's the one who rounds out issue 10, announcing that he is going "To battle to avenge the Micronauts", to which Biotron replies, simply "Oh". It's as if the little droid has taken on Acroyear's personality, and the big one (separated from commander Rann) has become the coward.

Or perhaps Mantlo can't always remember which is which.

Issue 9 ended with an anonymous voice telling the story of the Acroyears. Issue 10 ends with the story teller unmasking. The Time Travellers break the fourth wall and talk to the reader:

Thus the players play their parts
Thus the drama runs its course
Carrying all and sundry to their end
Final meeting with Enigma Force.

Mantlo is no longer bothering to conceal the fact that this issue -- and arguably the last ten issues -- have been an exercise in pushing the characters into the correct position for the denouement. But that is probably all story telling ever is.


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, June 04, 2023

Micronauts #8

Micronauts #8: Earth Wars

Eight issues in. The pieces have meandered into the correct positions. Mantlo lights the microscopic touch paper and stands well back.

Micronauts #8 is silly. It is preposterous. It involves a mismatch between tone and style that veers into self-parody. To get himself out of a narrative hole, Bill Mantlo performs a ju-jitsu maneuvre. He takes a problem and makes it a unique selling point. Mantlo wants to be writing a Star Wars comic; Golden wants to be drawing a Star Wars comic, and it is increasingly clear, we readers want to be reading a Star Wars comic. But something -- editorial interference, the contract with Mego, or very probably Mantlo's own original pitch -- mean that the Hero, the Princess, the Space Knight, the Alien and the Two Chirpy Robots are stuck having superhero adventures in the Marvel Universe.
And fighting scary pussy cats.

The Star Wars comic also suffered from a mismatch of tone and content. The Marvel adaptation embedded George Lucas's script in Roy Thomas pastiches of Stan Lee captions, with episode titles that made you cringe. Waiting in the wings were green rabbits and alien pirates with eyepatches and wannabe Jedi called Don Wan Quixote. The Marvel Style revolutionised comics in the 1960s. But Marvel Style is not a one-size fits-all aesthetic.

You want superheroes? Mantlo seems to say. I'll give you superheroes. I'll give you the distilled essence of superhero. I'll camp up the dialogue. I'll make everyone talk fluent cliche. People will talk about America and Apple Pie and say "I love you Dad". I'll give you a Jack Kirby take on Green Lantern in the style of Steve Ditko. I'll give you Superman vs Darth Vader. And if you miss the point, I'll call the episode Earth Wars, see if I don't.

Micronauts #8 is unhinged. You pick it up and wonder if Marvel really published it. There is a sense of a writer cutting loose and doing what the hell he felt like; a sense that he no longer has to do slow frame by frame exposition or even exactly tell a story. It's like a guitar riff at the end of a concert. It has crossed my mind that cancellation was looming and Mantlo was rushing headlong to a conclusion he thought he might never reach. 

There are writers, Jack Kirby, say, or Robert E Howard, who seem to be plugged into the essence of their material, surfing on the wave of the sea of stories and seeing where it takes them. And there are writers who have studied those writers; who have learned consciously and knowingly how to construct a story; whose mighty-thewed barbarians hack in particular ways because they have worked out that that is how mighty-thewed barbarians ought to hack. I make no claim that the primary, unreflective, intuitive style of creation is better, or, indeed, harder than the studied, self-conscious, constructed approach. But I think we can tell our untutored intuitive rock and roller from the guy with the music degree and the pile of ancient vinyl. Bill Mantlo is a second-order writer. He got hired, as we've seen, because he could write a passable Chris Claremont X-Men story one month and a passable Rich Buckler Deathlok story the next. He is very good at what he does. 

Is Earth Wars a fanboy writing a love letter to comic books and science fiction? Or is it, in fact, a man of thirty who never really wanted to write comic books in the first place artfully creating the kind of thing he thinks comic book readers will love? (I can think of another middle-aged man who never wanted to write comic books in the first place. His initials were S.L.) 

I am a comic book reader and I loved this comic. I am a comic book reader and I still love this comic. And it is only the curtain raiser to the trilogy which will take us back to the Microverse and pay off on the last twelve months worth of hints.

Micronauts #8 just works.

On page 7 of the last issue, it was reported (on Earth TV) that there was a mysterious force field around H.E.L.L and the Prometheus Pit; but then everyone got distracted by a giant swamp monster. This issue begins with Steve Coffin and the toys arriving back at Cape Canaveral to try to find out what is going on. Mantlo has entirely given up on transitions. We just take it for granted they have rushed back between issues.

Logic is fuzzy. Karza emerged from the Prometheus Pit at the end of last issue but I think we have to assume that that scene actually occurred some hours earlier -- that events in the Microverse were running some hours behind events in the swamp and the final panel was effectively a flash-back. Substance is relentlessly sacrificed to style. It's kind of logical that Karza can transfer his mind into Prometheus's body: that seems to be how his Body Banks keep rich people alive for thousands of years. But he emerges from the Pit in his armour: in, we have to assume, giant armour. Where did it come from? And where, come to that, does it go? Up to this point, Karza has been a mad-scientist and dictator: he has conquered the Microverse by virtue of discovering warp drive long before anyone else, by making alliances with powerful races like the Acroyears, and by buying unquestioning loyalty with his longevity treatments. But in this issue, he's acting like Darksied, shooting omega beams from his gauntlets, ranting about how he's absorbed power from the planets he has conquered and envisaging conquering the earth single handedly (or backed up by at most a few hundred of Prometheus's humanoids.)

"I have the strength of worlds behind me -- all the power I've plundered from the Microverse." Is he suddenly Galactus now?

It's a built-in problem with Marvel Comics and perhaps with comics in general. Villains are super villains by definition, and everything has to end with fight scenes. So almost any bad guy turns out to be able to throw dramatically coloured beams from his fingers. Any bank robber with a gimmick -- the merest window-cleaner turned amateur inventor -- can give super-strong Spider-Man a pretty good fight for his money. We hardly challenge it. Karza's superpower is being a bad guy.

Source hunting and imagining unfinished stories is not always productive. But wouldn't it have made much more sense if Prometheus had looked like Prometheus, with Karza's mind but without his armour? Can you imagine a lost text in which the human scientist with the robots and a Boom Tube turned out in issue #15 or #20 to have been possessed by the Dark Lord? And if the Dark Lord's plan had been to conquer Earth, as he conquered Homeworld, by offering humans a Faustian pact? Could you imagine a story in which Prometheus was the Big Bad from day one, and the existence of Karza and the Microverse came as a mid-season surprise? Is it possible that Mantlo, under editorial pressure, hastened his saga towards a conclusion with fight scenes, full page spreads, and a large amount of intervention by the Enigma Plot Device?

It's a brave move to have the heroes more or less wiped out by the villain, and rescued by a deus-ex-machina. The Micronauts zap Prometheus/Karza and discover that he's zap-proof. Rann blasts him with the Endeavour's pulse-guns, which doesn't work; Acroyear attacks him with his light sabre energy sword, and adds some fizz to the proceedings, but that doesn't work any better. "Cease your attack upon the Endeavour, vile corruptor of worlds" he cries. When all seems lost, Mari blurts out that Rann is the man she loves, which really shouldn't surprise him as much as it does. And they decide that since they can't beat Karza and are right next to Prometheus's secret path to the Microverse, they might as well go home. It's not quite clear why this didn't occur to them a couple of issues ago.

Previously, our heroes have zapped enemies with something called a Thorium Blaster, but this time we are told that they are using a Puls Cannon. No Puls Cannon is mentioned on the schematic in issue #4.  

While all this is going on, we get our monthly chunk of action inside the Microverse. Up to now, these scenes have been markedly darker than the action taking place upstairs: the setting is part cyber-punk and part psychedelia, but there's a real sense of despair and horror coming from the rebels. But this time, the two plot threads seem to sing with the same voice. For the first time, the sub-plot seems to be an organic part of the main comic, as opposed to having been pasted in from a slightly different one.

When Rann returned from his Buzz Lightyear voyage in issue one, there was a certain Arthurian vibe to it. His return had been "foretold on ancient mission charts." The plot summary in issue #4 drifted into mythical language as well. ("Yet all too soon came the Time Of Returning.") But that was just a taster. Things are about to become, as a wise man once said, needlessly messianic. 

We are introduced to the Rebellion: it's represented in a single panel. Huge statues of Rann's parents, Dallan and Sepsis, dominate the frame, a little like those pillars of Argonath that Aragorn got so excited about. Beneath the statues is one of the green-robed shadow priests. Next to him is a suit of white armour. And in the foreground is a bunch of humans and aliens. One of them is wearing one of those reverse-visor hats that rebels wear in Star Wars; one of them is an unspecified green alien and one of them is a person of colour. The alien's ray gun looks like a cross bow. As ever, the pictures are sketchy; and the details never get filled in. Argon summarises the back story, again, and the Shadow Priest reveals a crucial piece of information. The Time Travellers founded the Shadow Priest religion; specifically in order to support the Rebellion: they've only been pretending to work for Karza. 

"For it was foretold long ago that a champion would one day appear on Homeworld to deliver us in our darkest hour. Gaze upon the image of that champion."

It's Rann, obviously. And the Armour is Sacred Armour that used to belong to Dallan Rann, and Argon is going to wear it. In the Toy Universe, White-Centaur-Guy is the Leader Of The Micronauts and Black-Centaur-Guy is the Enemy of the Micronauts. Mantlo has set up the very minor Space Glider figure as his main protagonist: but he has still found away to give Centaur Argon an important role.

Maybe this should have unfolded over a number of issues. Surely the existence of Rann's Sacred Armour should have been foreshadowed in issue #1? (And I am not entirely happy with Argon wearing the Sacred Armour of Arcturus Rann's daddy.) We needed to see the Time Travellers inaugurate the Shadow Priests, rather than merely hear the events reported in passing. And shouldn't there have been a scene, or some scenes, or a sub-plot, in which we discovered that the one-armed bandits in the Shadow Temples are covertly giving out pro-rebellion propaganda?

Perhaps not. Perhaps the rapid fire tell-don't-show density is precisely what made us love this comic so much.

So. Argon, the Force Commander, in Sacred Armour, and Arcturus, the king who will return in England's hour of greatest need. To have two Chosen Ones in a single issue may be regarded as parallel plotting. To have three seems like overkill. In another part of the Microverse the Time Travellers are talking to the floating body of Steve's dad. Mantlo knows exactly what he is doing here. Last issue the scene in which Ray Coffin encountered the Time Travellers was placed alongside the flashback to Rann's meeting with the Enigma Force; this time Coffin's selection as Earth's Champion is parallel with the announcement that Rann is the Engima's Force's prophesied saviour.

Last issue Coffin did the Refusal of the Quest thinh ("You can't make a hero out of a guy like me...can you?"). This issue he's, like "My boy Steve is on earth ... what do you want me to do?" and Time Traveller is, like, "Earth shall have its hero!" And three pages later, when everything looks hopeless, Ray Coffin flies through the Prometheus Pit, positively bursting with the power of the Fizz.

"Call me an avenging angel, Baron, come to safeguard earth. Call me Captain Universe."

I know, I know. Not even Captain Microverse.

He's wearing a single piece lycra onesie, white below the waist with blue and white stars on the top half. Clearly, the Ditko-esque parallels (with Captain Atom and even the original Spider-Man) are intentional: a few months later Mantlo was teaming up with your actual real life Steve Ditko on a not terribly good Captain Universe solo comic. The Captain talks entirely in Superheroic cliches. "You won't conquer the Earth because Earth's got a hero who will stand against you." "A man's got to fight for what he believes in". "I'm calling a halt to your insane dreams of conquest." There is a full page spread of Karza and Captain Universe fighting, surrounded by Doctor Strange-like circles of energy (possibly "the Unipower");  different energy bolts (possibly from Karza's gloves) whizz round them, and there is more Kirby Krackle than you can shake a stick at. 

It's quite a big deal. It's Mantlo's equivalent of Darth Vader fighting Old Ben. It's the first time Karza has been presented as an active villain as opposed to a dark lord on a dark throne. 

"You are positively dripping with the Enigma Force" exclaims Karza. Up to this point, the Enigma Force has been an X-Factor that the Baron is afraid of; but now he is talking about it as he might talk about a known adversary. Mantlo spots this, and has Karza say that because the Enigma Force has manifested itself, he is no longer scared of it. And indeed, in the cold light of day, all the Time Travellers have done is create a hero who is strong and can fly a bit, which Marvel Earth is not particularly short of. 

But that's not the point, my friend. The point is symbolism: a not-so-young-as-he-used-to-be all American geezer with a young lad and a lawn mower and a dog stands for everything that America stands for.

The fight does not have a conclusion. Rann and the others have flown down the pit back into the Microverse; and Karza has realised that he doesn't want to conquer earth or destroy Rann, but to use Rann to find out the Secret Of The Enigma Force (which I thought was his plan from issue #1, but never mind). So Karza detaches his mind from Prometheus, and zooms back down the hole to the Microverse, leaving a confused Prometheus back home in our world.

Star Wars is, at this point in history, still about a young gunfighter going after the guy who killed his dad, armed with his dad's old six-shooter. Vader won't become Luke's father for some months; and Luke's father won't become the redeemable Anakin for some years. Joseph Campbell said that all the heroic stories are really about the reconciliation of the Father and the Son (or at least fathers and sons): Star Wars end when Vader takes off his mask and looks at Luke with his own eyes. And that idea runs through this stuff: it seems not to be a coincidence that Indiana Jones' search for the Holy Grail was also the search for his estranged Daddy. 

I don't know if Mantlo thought along these lines. Ray Coffin has said, a couple of times, that he hasn't been a great father to Steve since Mrs Ray passed away. (We are not told what happened to her. We half expect her to have been kidnapped by alien pirates.) But the final frame shows Dad and Son tearfully embracing. Steve seems to have de-aged by a few years, but at least he keeps his pants on. Somehow, Ray's love for Steve; and human love in general, is what freaked out Karza. "I've learned what's important in life. It's not recognition or fame or glory its the kind between and man and his son."

"Camp" is where you treat serious material with a nod and a wink -- where you intentionally fail at creating melodrama in order to subvert the whole idea of it. You have to be quite sophisticated to create camp and fairly sophisticated to appreciate it. A lot of us were only able to see the point of Adam West's Batman several decades after the event. But Mantlo isn't camp. We aren't laughing at the sentiment though we may be laughing with it. It skates close to parody but it doesn't cross the line. This part of the story ends with "I love you Dad" "I love you too son" because that's how these kinds of stories end. Mantlo is consciously taking the cliches of comics and exaggerating them; boiling ideas down to their component parts.

Very like, in fact, a movie called Star Wars.

Earth Wars is big, and unashamed, and brash, and completely over the top. It leaves you wondering what Mantlo is going to follow it with. Anything less than an exploding planet is going to seem like an anti-climax.

NEXT ISSUE: An exploding planet.


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, June 03, 2023

Micronauts #7 (the back-story)

Micronauts #2 and #3 included full page "pin ups" of Time Traveller and Karza respectively. This was relatively common in the olden days. No-one actually cut their comics up and pinned pages to walls. But artists drew "studies" and "reference images" of the main characters during the pre-production phase, and editors used the art when issues needed to be padded out. There were often spare pages in the first few issues of a title because there was nothing to print in the letter-column. 

Issue #4 included a diagrammatic schematic of the Endeavour. I assume this was also repurposed reference material. But I am a sucker for this kind of thing. The Fantastic Four sometimes showed a diagram of the Baxter Building and the Teen Titans included layouts of the Titans Tower. I think Stan Lee even offered us a map of Peter Parker's apartment. No-one expected the writers to actually refer to these layouts: but they established that the Avengers mansion was the sort of place of which a map could conceivably exist. It was a signal of how we were supposed to approach these stories. The main reason to put a map at the front of a fantasy novel is to tell the reader that this is the sort of fantasy novel that has a map at the front of it.

It's a cool diagram. The Endeavour seems a lot bigger than it is generally drawn in the comic -- maybe 60 feet tall relative to Rann, or about 30 inches when it is toy-sized. We can see that the ship's bridge detaches to become the Astrostation; which is fun; and there is a hanger containing something called a Hydrocopter which we will catch a glimpse of in a few issues time. Rann's suspended animation chamber is "now" converted into a rec room and library, although it is hard to see how anyone has found the time to reconfigure the ship in the last few issues.

You might expect the small print (in typescript rather than comic book lettering) to be a technical description of the ship's capabilities. But it's actually a description of its mission; which amounts to a fresh re-telling of the History Of The Microverse. One wonders whether it comes from Mantlo's private notes: it could even be his original pitch document. It's an odd thing to do: the fullest explanation of what is going on in the comic, buried in very small print under a diagram of a toy spaceship. A lot of readers probably skipped it.

Alan Moore would do a similar thing in Watchmen, years later: hiding part of his world-building in story-internal newspaper clippings at the end of each issue. Some readers found them too boring to even contemplate reading. When Dave Sim started to incorporate prose passages into Cerebus some readers took it as evidence that he hated his readers.

We don't feel, reading this text, that much new data is being revealed. We have known from the beginning that Rann has been away from Homeworld for a millennium. It's written on his character sheet, the thing which makes him more than a generic action figure, and it's restated every issue. "I've only been in suspended animation for the last 1,000 years." "You're at least 1,000 years older than the princess." "1,000 years in suspended animation doesn't dull the hurt." 

We are also told from the beginning that he is "hooked into the telepathy channels of his ship, that he "explored space telepathically"; that he is telepathically linked to Biotron and that on his voyage he encountered a mysterious Something which Karza is afraid of. The cheat sheet in issue #1 talks about "the X-factor that Karza fears"; and Karza says Rann represents "the unknown that must be made to reveal itself". In issue #2, Rann repeats that Karza "wants the telepathic data locked in my brain".

The text piece attached to the spaceship plans ties all this together:

"His body slept while his mind explored the universe via a telepathic linkage with his Roboid companion. As the long centuries passed, the combined consciousness of man and roboid melded, became inseparable."

The language drifts into the religious:

"They had become two coequal, co-existent entities."

One could very easily imagine a comic book about a human who shares his consciousness with a machine; but Micronauts is not that comic: Biotron never presents as anything other than Rann's friend and co-pilot. They banter on the flight deck like mates, but not, in any sense, like the first two person's of the Trinity.

We suspect that the Time Travellers are related to the X-Factor in in Rann's head -- we know that they first popped up during his long voyage -- but his relationship to them is now made more explicit: 

"Baron Karza knew that Rann had encountered mysteries on the fringes of the Microverse that might shake (his) rule."

"Time Travellers manifested, strange beings who seemed to belong to no reality save their own..."

"Baron Karza knew that Commander Rann was somehow linked to the Time Travellers and the elusive Enigma Force they represented..."

So: Rann's background has been alluded to in dialogue; and then described again in text. In issue #7, while Steve is fishing, and before Man Thing attacks, we hear the story again; narrated by Biotron while Rann is asleep. But this time, Mantlo shows us what he has previously told us about. We get a three page flash-back. We see the Endeavour being launched; we see a not yet deified Dallan and Sepsis saying farewell to their son, and a not-yet-evil Karza in the background. There are flags and horses and doves and some very silly costumes: if contemporary Homeworld looks like Star Wars, it is fair enough that Olden Days Homeworld looked like Flash Gordon. Dallan is described as the regent of Homeworld, although his relationship to Argon and Mari's royal family is unexplained. Chief Scientist Karza was described in issue #1 and on the schematic as one of Rann's tutors at the Science Academy but here he is described as "the man who has tutored the commander from birth". We see Rann and Biotron making first contact with some very silly aliens with very silly names. We see them travelling to the Space Wall and we see them encountering the Time Travellers. 

Up to this point, Time Traveller has been presented as a deus ex machina; a familiar spirit that haunts the ship and gives advice and aid to Rann and Mari. But he is now part of an angelic choir, singing "Welcome to the Enigma Force."  Up to now it has been implied that Biotron and Rann merged because they spent so long in telepathic contact; but now we are told that it is a mystical event which occurred as a result of their contact with the Time Travellers. They are coequal and coeternal because of the Enigma Force.

Allude, imply; then tell directly; finally, show. Mantlo does a similar thing with Karza's back story. That Karza is a conquerer, and that he controls his people by offering them infinitely extended life is taken for granted from the very first issue. "Karza gave the people a more concrete offer -- the assurance of immortality"; "he offered them immortality...for a price"; "those who defied him served as organ donors to extend the lives of those who submitted." The whole Slug/Belladona sub-plot through issues #2-#7 shows us the process happening: Belladonna reserving Mari's body; naked captives being deloused and prepared for ghoulish experiments. But a full page montage in issue #5 gives us a good look at how Homeworld functions. The rich can buy immortality; the middle class earn credits to extend their lives; the workers gamble for life points and the rebels are recycled in the Body Banks or recruited as Dog Soldiers. This never really becomes relevant to this story: sometimes we feel as if we are reading the campaign notes for a Science Fiction Role-playing Game that no-one has quite got around to running.

What is happening? Are we watching ideas coalesce in Mantlo's own head, as he himself gradually figures out what he means by the Enigma Force and the Time Travellers? Or is he responding to editorial pressure to damn well give the readers some clue as to what is going on? Or did the writer intend from the beginning for the Microverse to have this fractal quality; so that the closer you look, the more you see. 

We rarely feel that we are learning a new fact. No-one says "Good heavens the butler" or "No, I am your father". But things become clearer and clearer on each repetition. Our reaction is not "Wow! A new twist!". It's more like "Ah, Time Travellers. Did we know that already?"

Intentionally or not, Mantlo has again put his finger on one of the things that made Star Wars so genre-defining. George Lucas has a scatter-gun approach to backstory: Jedi Knights, Dark Side of the Force, the Clone Wars, the Spice Mines of Kessel, Kessel run, Jundland Wastes, Imperial Senate, Jawas, Sand People, moisture evaporators... Some of the material is decoded in the actual movie. We hear about the Rebel Alliance in the opening crawl and see their hidden fortress in the final act; we are introduced to Darth Vader in the opening scene and gradually learn that he is a former Jedi, Ben's apprentice and the murderer of Luke's father. But most of the details are under-defined. Fans wanted very badly to know how the back story worked. Lucas made them wait twenty six years, and his answers met with near-universal disappointment. But by alluding to mysterious events and explicating them almost immediately, Mantlo is giving Star Wars fans the exact experience that they wanted. 

Or thought they did.


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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Friday, June 02, 2023

Micronauts #6 and #7

Micronauts 6: The Great Escapes
Micronauts 7: Adventure into Fear

Prof Prometheus and Ray Coffin have fallen into the Prometheus pit. Rann and his friends are engaged in a super-heroic romp in Marvel Florida. And Argon is still unrelatedly imprisoned in Karza's body banks. It's going to take a little bit of effort for Bill Mantlo to get his plot threads back in sync.

You could sum up Micronauts #6 by saying "There is a confused whirlwind of action and everyone escapes". And that is hardly the worst thing you could say about a superhero comic. For eleven out of the seventeen pages, Steve Coffin and the Micronauts effect their escape from Prometheus's lair. As usual, the artwork and the speed of exposition make it a little hard to keep track of what is going on; but that feeling of information-overload is rather exhilarating. Rann and Acroyear make their escape by flying the Astrostation along the obligatory ventilation shaft. Steve and Muffin (being too large to take that route) bluff their way out of the front door. Everyone is threatened by Prometheus's humanoids (for one panel) but they manage to regroup and return to Steve's house, where they find Biotron being menaced, rather ineffectually, by a cat. They power up the Endeavour and fly away, pursued by the police, who still think that they are a UFO. There is an overwhelming sense that the purpose of the HELL sub-plot has been to get Phillip and Ray into the Microverse, and with that accomplished, Mantlo wants to whisk our heroes to the next plot beat with all possible haste.

Very conveniently, Steve's Dad owns a cabin in the Everglades (a mere four hundred miles away) so that's where our heroes head, to rest and take stock. Issue #7 opens with the team fishing, watching TV, narrating new bits of the back-story to each other and grabbing a few hours sleep. It's quite a canny move on Mantlo's part. Rann has been engaged in a non-stop chase scene for the past six issues, and a bit of down-time cements our sense that the Micronauts are a team -- even a family -- and not merely a collection of playing pieces. It's a bit like that transitional scene in the Millennium Falcon where everyone plays chess and practices fencing for three minutes. Readers are much less inclined to say "Hey! But you guys have only known each other since this morning."

But the Gods of Marvel say that you can't have a whole issue without a fight scene; and even if we hadn't seen the cover, we would know that the Everglade Swamps are where the Man Thing hangs out. And also the Lizard, but he's contractually obliged to only fight Spider-Man. 

Fans like cross-overs; at any rate, editors believe they do. And everything Marvel publishes has to intersect with the wider Marvel continuity. The big question fans asked about any new comic was not "Is it good?" but "Where does it fit into the Marvel Universe?" The expected answer was "Right in the middle!" Some fans had thought that the existence of a Star Wars comic book logically implied a Spider-Man & Chewbacca issue of Marvel Team Up, and were most put out when it failed to materialise. Bill Mantlo had, of course, started his career as the Cross-Over King, and Man Thing was between comics. His own title had come to a post-modernist conclusion in October 1975, and he wouldn't get another one until November 1979. (His first regular title had been an anthology comic called Adventure into Fear which is also the title of Micronauts #7.)

Man Thing is not, truly, a particularly interesting character. He's a scientist who, as a result of an experiment gone wrong, has been turned into a swamp-dwelling monster. Unlike DC's Swamp Thing he doesn't even get any dialogue. But he had a distinct fan-following due to the the surreal and politically switched-on writing of Steve Gerber, who had parted company with Marvel in 1979 due to a well-documented duck-related dispute. Fans tend to follow characters rather than authors and a big picture of Man Thing on a cover very probably shifted titles. In our content flooded streaming era, it is hard to believe that back then a character could be popular but underexposed. As iconic a hero as the Silver Surfer was not allowed his own comic between 1970 and 1987, making his rare cameos seem like Very Important Events. 

It may be that Mantlo intends the encounter with the Man Thing to develop Steve Coffin's character. The monster (who has empathic powers instead of a personality) homes in on Steve because he is Sad. He nearly destroys him because he is Scared, and whatever knows fear burns at the Man Things touch. But he goes away because Steve is Brave. Apparently, he has never come across anyone brave before and impales himself on a rotary fan. The heroes think he is dead, but we know that Man Things can re-form after they get squished. I don't know if this new-found courage would have been part of a character-arc, because Steve will be pretty much written out at the end of next issue. The overall sense is of a nice, change of pace character-based interlude being hijacked by a rather silly fight scene.

Meanwhile back in the Microverse...the other two storylines carry on failing to intersect with each other. The same "logic" which says that our heroes are three inches tall on our side of the Space Wall means that Prometheus and Steve's Dad manifest in the Microverse as Celestial-sized giants. They naturally come to the attention of Baron Karza, who "senses in Prometheus an evil not very different from his own".

Stan Lee used to be very proud of the fact that Doctor Doom was not evil in his own eyes -- he honestly believed that he could rule the universe better than anyone else. The best supervillains, like Thanos and Galactus, have a genuine nobility to them. Granted, Darth Vader consciously follows the Dark Side of the Force, but extended continuity is inclined to say that the Sith are heretical Jedi with their own outlook, not pure Manichean evil. (It's even been said that the Dark Side is "Dark" in the sense of being secret.) But Karza, like David Mitchel's iconic Nazi soldier has evidently considered his place in the narrative structure of the war and realised that he is one of the baddies.

At any rate, Karza hatches a brilliant scheme: he will use Prometheus's gigantic form to conquer the earth. "Prepared the subject for mind-merge!" he announces. The final frame of issue #7 shows a fully armoured and human-sized Karza climbing out of the Prometheus Pit. But while Karza is being Evil, Ray Coffin is drawn towards the Light which turns out to be (of course) a group of Time Travellers. It should not be too difficult for readers to work out where all this is going.

In issue #5, Karza identified Slug (the rebel leader) as a possible body donor for Belladonna (the old lady). In issue #6, Slug blasts through the wall of Argon's cell. Mantlo's habit of skipping transitions adds to the breathlessness of the narrative but frequently makes readers say "Did I miss something?" even on the eighth or ninth reading. Last issue we were pointedly told that all the captives were nude (and the Dog Soldiers were unashamedly leching after Slug) so Argon is puzzled about how she smuggled a gun into the prison. "There are places even Karza's dog soldiers sometimes forget to search, my prince" she explains. It's only a mildly indecent joke, but it does make you wonder whether the comics code was still paying attention. Bionic fascists are evidently more respectful of boundaries than the average airport drug-squad and haven't come up with X-Rays or metal detectors yet.

The two pages of issue #6 (9 and 17) in which the Shadow Priest tells Karza that Prometheus has materialised near the space wall and the two pages (10 and 11) in which Slug rescues Argon don't cross over or reference each other in any way, which tends to confirm that all the Argon material in the last five issues were originally intended for a stand-alone comic. The thread is wound up in a couple of panels in issue #7: Argon and Slug leave the pits and are greeted by one of the Mysterious Shadow Priests who tells mysteriously to prepare for the Final Battle.


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.