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.

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