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.

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