Monday, July 03, 2023

Micronauts #11 (continued)

There is a 1960s Batman TV episode involving a cowboy-themed bad-guy named Shame. ("Shame on you, Shame!") Robin wants to know why Batman is looking for Shame in his old hide-out. Since Shame knows that Batman knows where it is, he would be a fool to go back there.

Batman agrees. "However, knowing that, he'd think that we'd think he would not return there, therefore, he did and so will we."

But, on this occasion, the world's greatest detective is out-thunk. Shame guessed that Batman would return to the old hide-out, and laid an ambush for him there.

"I knew he'd think I'd think he'd think I'd think he'd come back here", he explains in an impeccable John Wayne accent.

Of course, generals sometimes make decoy attacks and chess-players sometimes double bluff each other. But too much second-guessing can undermine a story. I have always though that the single weak link in George Lucas's impeccable plot is Princess Leia's speech before the final act of Star Wars. "He let us go" she says "It's the only explanation for the ease of our escape." The entire middle-section of the movie is thereby wiped out: the Stormtroopers were never really trying to recapture our heroes (which may explain why they are such poor shots) and the TIE Fighters were never really trying to shoot them down. Vader let our heroes escape so he could trail them back to the rebel base; our heroes let him trail them so they can have a shot at destroying the Death Star. We can forgive it, perhaps, because it sets up such a perfect climax, and because Star Wars, in 1977, was more about spectacle than about world building. But it strikes a false note. It feels too much like an author manipulating the heroes towards a pre-determined end point.

Micronauts has, from the beginning, turned on some fairly clunky plot devices. Right back in issue #1 we were told that Karza -- like Vader -- allowed Rann to escape from the arena and -- like Vader -- tracked his spaceship because he thought that letting him go would give him the chance to reveal his secret. But in issue #11, we discover that this was a triple bluff. Karza knew that Rann didn't know the secret of the Enigma Force; but he pretended to hunt him; in order to give Slug and Argon the opportunity to start their revolution, so that he would know the extent of their rebellion and be able to put it down. Everything that has transpired has done so according to his design.

And also, he just thought watching the rebels rebel was fun.

"Then it was all a game?" says Argon "You manipulated us all like puppets?"

"An apt metaphor" replies the Dark Lord.

Game. Puppets. Did I mention that this was a comic book about a series of toys?

It is possible to imagine a purely naturalistic story which is driven entirely by a cast of characters doing what those characters would do under those circumstances. Chekov, I suppose, comes quite close to this Platonic ideal. But even the best writers use ghosts, witches, lost handkerchiefs, mistaken identity, misdirected letters, impenetrable disguises and love potions to manipulate their characters into situations which would never in a million years happen in real life. The universes of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo are governed by the power of coincidence: obviously the very first pocket that little Oliver picks belongs to someone connected with his long lost mother; naturally, the woman Marius falls in love with at first sight was raised in the inn belonging to his father's mysterious benefactor who he has spent his whole life searching for.

This isn't a flaw, necessarily: it's how stories work. There is something to be said for Sam Gamgee's theory, that unlikely things happen in songs because you only write songs about people who unlikely things happen to. Dr Watson says much the same thing: Holmes always solves the mystery because he doesn't bother to write up all those cases which Holmes can't solve. (He also skips the boring ones that Holmes solves easily.)

Shakespeare, Hugo and Dickens all believed in God: they might very well have said Providence is controlling their characters; and perhaps allowing us to see how It controls our own. But science fiction and fantasy writers are apt to make the contrivance and the co-incidence part of the story: to make Divine Providence explicitly part of the characters' world. Most readers understand that good guys don't get killed off; that however bad things get, Indiana Jones will survive; that the young farm boy we meet on page 1 is going to be the person who defeats the bad guy on page 550. Smart-arse kids sometimes say that there is no point in reading a first person narrative (an "I" book) because you know in advance that the hero is going to survive to tell the story. But you could equally say that the cliffhanger on page 50 isn't very exciting because you know that you are reading a 300 page story. Identifying the orphan living under the stairs as The Chosen One merely makes that contract explicit: Harry is going to defeat Voldemort because Harry is the hero of the story. (But he isn't going to defeat him until the last chapter of the last book.) Heroes of medieval romances are prone to encounter wizards, monks and dwarves who explicitly tell them where they have to go to complete their quests and (very often) what will happen to them when they do so. Gandalf himself blames the central implausibility in Lord of the Rings on God -- who is an actual character in the story. "Bilbo was meant to find the Ring; in which case you were meant to have it." 

It has long been understood that Star Wars only makes sense when you know that The Force is Lucas's in-universe stand-in for Providence, Contrivance, Co-Incidence -- in short, The Plot. The game of substituting the word Plot for the word Force is never not informative. The Plot can exert a strong influence over the weak-minded. The Plot awakens. Rey and Kylo form a Dyad in the Plot. Anakin is destined to bring balance to the Plot. 

Mantlo's Enigma Force is a particularly shameless in-universe representation of the authorial hand. Almost from the beginning, we are told that Rann had contact with the Enigma Force during his voyage; that he is the chosen one who will defeat Karza; and that Karza fears him because he carries the secret of the Enigma Force in his mind. In issue #7 it was revealed that Rann had passed through the Space Wall and encountered the Time Travellers on the other side. Issue #10 ended with the Time Travellers addressing the readers directly.

"Thus the players play their parts,
thus the final drama runs its course
calling all and sundry to their end
final meeting with the Enigma Force."

Tellingly, the rhyme would scan better if you dropped the word "Enigma".

There is no attempt to rationalise or ameliorate this. The Time Travellers aren't speaking to anyone inside the story. They are looking out of the comic and talking to Andrew Rilstone. In subsequent issues, they will increasingly be presented as story-tellers and narrators, rather like the Crypt Keeper in a 1950s horror comic. 

It couldn't be much more explicit. Karza believes that he's in charge of the story; but Rann has encountered the Story itself. Karza thinks he knows how the story is going to end; but Rann carries the ending of the Story in his mind. The Space Wall isn't just the membrane between the Microverse and the rest of Marvel Continuity; it's the Fourth Wall between reality and fiction which the Time Travellers breach on the final page of the penultimate issue. Karza thinks that he is manipulating the other characters like puppets: Time Traveller thinks of them in terms of actors in a play which they are writing.

Actors, play, drama.

Did I mention that the Micronauts is based on a series of toys?

Luke Skywalker asks Obi-Wan if a Jedi's actions are controlled by the Plot. Ben replies that they are, up to a point, but that the Plot will also obey a Jedi's commands. And that's not a bad definition of the writing process. Characters are sometimes pushed into particular situations because the Plot requires it; but the Plot can also develop in particular ways because of what the Characters do. Everything in Lord of the Rings appears to build up to the moment when Gollum cuts the Ring from Frodo's finger: evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. But Tolkien maintained that he had not foreseen the ending until he came to write it. What happened was what seemed to him to be psychologically plausible given the characters he had created. Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star because the Plot ensures that the proton torpedo finds its target. But Luke isn't a passive puppet of the Plot. The ending of Star Wars is also a character moment. Luke consciously decides to switch off his targeting computer: a huge act of faith, but plausible based on what we've seen of his relationship with Ben. But then again, the whole point of the Plot has been to set up the situation in which the fate of the galaxy depends on one choice by one character. (See also: Quidditch.)

The Enigma Force acts much more directly on the Microverse. It manifests as a deus ex machina freeing Mari from prison, giving Rann crucial information, and allowing Slug and Argon to escape from the Dog Soldiers. It brings Argon's sub-plot to an end, informing him where he has to go to complete the story; and before his battle with Karza, it tells him that "the order of this day has long been written". Time Traveller takes such an active role in the story that me might legitimately wonder what the other characters are there for. Rann doesn't really have to do anything: he saves the universe simply by being Rann. (The Time Travellers seem to require Rann to act as a physical host; but his contribution to the denouement is to recklessly hurl himself at Karza and wait for his rendezvous with the Ending.) It's very dramatic that the final battle should occur on a floating energy platform above the Body Banks, but there's no reason for it to happen there, except that the Time Travellers have decided that that is where it should happen. Captain Universe felt like a supercharged Ray Coffin; but Rann's story and personality is overwritten by the Time Traveller.

Except for one thing: one elegant, jaw-dropping twist. Rann didn't encounter the Enigma Force. He wasn't chosen by the Enigma Force. Rann literally is the Enigma Force. The Hero didn't break through the Fourth Wall and learn about the Plot. The Hero wins the day because he is the Story and the Story is what he is.

Jack Kirby's New Gods saga began where every other saga ends: with Asgard in flames and the Old Gods slaughtering each other. It may be that he consciously intended his New Genesis to arise from the ashes of Marvel's Asgard -- sending a message that these new characters were going to surpass the ones he'd created with Stan Lee. It may just be that that was the kind of thing he enjoyed drawing. Bill Mantlo disavowed Star Wars as a direct influence on Micronauts, but happily admitted to having written it under the influence of the Fourth World.

Micronauts #9 and #10 unashamedly invoke Kirby's imagery. The Acroyears are unmistakably Space Vikings, and their home planet Spartak is located somewhere between Asgard and Apokalips. The battle scenes are crowded, epic, over-the-top, straddling the frontier between science fiction and mythology. In a word: Kirbyesque.

But in comic book terms, it's just a little bit impersonal. In Kirby's universe, the old, Norse pantheon was replaced by a super-heroic dynasty, and the new war would be resolved by Darkseid and Orion fighting one-to-one in the flame pits. Hoards of space-vikings, stormtroopers and toy spaceships playing at War can only ever be the prelude to the main story. If Rann is the good guy and Karza is the bad guy, then everything has to come down to a pistol duel on Main Street at High Noon. Helms Deep is where we swash our buckles; but the real story happens on Mount Doom. 

But this demand -- this need for a fight -- is really at odds with the way Mantlo has set up the Micronauts universe. Karza is a tyrant, a mad scientist, and a Mephistopheles figure. He created hyper-hyper-drive and conquered the universe while everyone else was crawling about at light speed. He offered immortality in return for blind obedience. So how does killing Karza end his empire? Doesn't he have a bureaucracy and a chain of command who can take over the day-to-day business of oppressing people? Doesn't he have Evil Minions who would keep the Body Banks ticking over in his absence? Are we supposed to think that the longevity technology depends on science known only to Karza and never shared with anyone else? Or are we perhaps meant to think that the Dog Soldiers and his other subordinates have been subjected to a "mindwash" which will terminate with the Dark Lord's death? (Sauron's will seems to have dominated the Orcs to the extent that his armies rout as soon as he is destroyed.) 

So. The Plot mutates. Marvel heroes and villains generally talk to each other during fight-scenes. They not infrequently provide a running commentary on their attacks and defences. "I bet you didn't expect me to use my Spider-Agility" "You have forgotten that I have the power of every kind of reptile". Rann and Karza dialogue redefines the universe; they retell the story in the act of ending it.

At first, we are talking about Who Is The Stronger. Rann is "power incarnate" who after a few panels has learned how to "harness" his power. Karza blasts him with red power rays, which Rann deflects with the palms of his hands; Karza is surprised that Rann can "breach his personal force field". But we are also, at some level, talking about a philosophical difference: Karza says that his "super science" will defeat Rann's "outmoded mysticism". There is no particular sense of technology taking on magic, although it might have been cool if there had been. The main difference between the antagonists is that Rann is surrounded by Enigma Force fireflies, where Karza is enveloped by black dots. 

Fans affectionately describe black dots as Kirby Krackle after the King's penchant for the device, so we might say that two comic book iconographies are in conflict. But then again, we might not.

But it suddenly turns out that they are wielding entirely different kinds of power.

Karza: As you derive power from the Enigma Force, so are my energies fed by the fiery core of Homeworld, through the great pit over which we battle suspended.

Rann: A pit you gouged into the heart of Homeworld to power your fiendish body banks, Baron, a gaping wound into which you've hurled the noblest of our citizenry for the last ten centuries.

The word "power" tends to have a double meaning in comic books. We say that Spider-Man has the "power" of sticking to walls and sensing danger; where Ant-Man's "powers" include talking to insects and shrinking really, really, small. We say that Namor has the "powers" of every fish in the sea, meaning that he can bite like a shark and change colour like an octopus. But we also use "power" in a more conventional sense -- political or physical power -- in which case it is usually a Bad Thing. ("Power" laments Captain America "How many crimes have been committed in your name.") The Body Banks are certainly the source of Karza's Power: he rules the universe and everyone obeys him because he can extend their lives. But they suddenly seem also to be the source of his super-villain power: they are what make him strong and hard to beat in a fight. 

Metaphorical power has become literal power. It's rather as if we were telling a story in which Arthur Scargill was able to move a mountain with his bare hands because there ss Power in a union. (Which would, come to think of it, be awesome.)

And finally, Rann explains narrative principles of to Karza. "Didn't your encounter with Captain Universe give you an inkling of how the Plot Enigma Force works?" he asks. It seems that Captain Universe was "the embodiment of all that was best on his world" (although a minute ago he was merely "a very courageous human") whereas the Enigma Force is "the spirit and the power of all the prayers and dreams of the Microverse for the past 1,000 years" (although a minute ago it was Rann's infinitely expanded consciousness.)

"We represent everything you hate, Karza...We are the light you sought to banish to eternal darkness."

Represent. Embody.

All superheroes are symbols. But most superheroes don't know that they are symbols. Superman best represents truth, justice and the American Way when he is merely a very strong journalist saving a little girl's kitten. Captain America best represents the Dream when he's a cop or GI going about his duty; or when he's telling hurting New Yorkers that they mustn't take their grief out on their Muslim neighbours. There is been an unfortunate tendency in recent years for Spider-Man to be consciously aware that he is a role-model for the children of New York; and indeed, for Doctor Who to go on and on about what it means to be Doctor Who.

Captain Universe beat Karza because he stands for America, fatherhood, the planet earth, Apple Pie. That's the kind of thing you'd expect a corny old super-dude to say. But it turns out that it's literally his superpower. And Rann has the same superpower to the thousandth degree. He represents "the hope of Dallan Rann....the love of Ray Coffin...the nobility of Princess Mari...the comradeship of Commander Rann..." He doesn't win the fight because he's really, really, hopeful and really, really loving: representing those things somehow enables him to chuck more and more powerful wavy lines and golden glow worms at this enemy. 

I did wonder if "the hope of Dallan Rann and the love of Ray Coffin" would spell out a terribly rude word, in the way that the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules and the power of Achilles spell out SHAZAM. But sadly not.

Goodies win because they are goodies and baddies lose because they are baddies. That's how stories work. And the Plot Enigma Force's job is to make sure the story comes out the way it's supposed to. Karza is fighting The Story; and in Stories, Light always defeats Darkness.

There is a final ending which pulls all the threads together. Rann is inclined to spare Karza -- bind him, rather than destroy him. But Karza, knowing that he has lost, announces his intention to break all his toys. He suddenly invents a new power. He is going to "summons forth" (whatever that means) the power of the great pit and use it to "unleash a massive mindshock" (whatever that means), which will destroy the whole planet. But before he can do this, he is literally struck dead by a bolt of lightning.

Of course, it is the World Mind, manifesting as a gigantic purple face in the heavens. The Micronauts saga began with Argon and Mari running away from the Acroyears. It ends with Slug crying "Look to the skies. The Acroyears have arrived! (The Eagles are coming! The Eagles are coming!) The Acroyears and the rebels wipe out Karza's supporter in two frames. Of course they do.

PEDANTIC POINT: On page 17, Rann is drawn in his familiar blue uniform. But on page 18, he is still in his Enigma Force form: Time Traveller leaves him on the first panel of page 19. And the art on page 17 reverts to a more cartoony style, very different from the rest of the issue. Is it possible that, once again, some pages have been moved around: or that there was an earlier version of the story in which the Acroyears and the Rebels overcame Karza by military force alone? Is it possible that, as a matter of actual fact, the Enigma Force altered the plot?
When Biotron believed commander Rann was dead, he wondered out loud if there was any point in this endless conflict. When Acroyear merged with the World Mind, he started to wish that his people's endless wars would come to an end. This foreshadows the final words of the story, spoken by Mari. She doesn't proclaim a victory. "The war is over" she says "There will be peace at last."

I don't know what Bill Mantlo's religious affiliation was. We know that his family celebrated Christmas. But religious imagery and language is never far away from Micronauts. Dallan and Sepsis are literally the gods of Homeworld, and Rann is literally their son. (When he lands his first punch on Karza, it's his parent's faces, not those of Mari or Argon who seem to be looking on approvingly.) The Shadow Priests described him as a "champion" in issue #8 and Slug directly calls him "Homeworld's Saviour" this time around. 

He appears on page 10 with his arms stiffly out-stretched; not flying with his fists forward, like Superman, but floating with his feet pointing down. On page 12, surrounded by a spider-like penumbra of the yellow force, he hangs with his arms above his body, in a Y shape, the light seeming to expose his rib-cage. And on the main cover he takes a cruciform position with one Time Traveller on his left and another on his right. The imagery is unmistakable.

Karza thinks he is in charge. He thinks he is manipulating the other characters: like puppets. He is doing it for his own entertainment: it's just a game. But Karza doesn't realise that he's a puppet as well: the story is being told by Time Traveller. And Rann, the hero of the story, created the Time Traveller; so really, he's been telling the story all along. 

But Space Glider himself -- and Acroyear and the Galactic Warrior and Biotron and Microtron and Force Commander and Baron Karza, enemy of the Micronauts -- are all toys. And the person who is really manipulating them is a little boy. 

On Christmas Day.

That concludes my unnecessarily deep dive into the Micronauts saga. I've been wanting to do it for several years, and I hope I said most of what I wanted to say. Maybe we will come back to the later issues when Marvel republishes the comics next year.

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Thank you, and may the Plot be with you.

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