Sunday, July 02, 2023

Micronauts #11

Micronauts #11: The Enigma Force

Mari and Rann have been captured. Bug is assumed dead. Acroyear has merged with the sentient core of his home planet. As one does. Back on Homeworld, Prince Argon has a mighty battle with Karza, but Karza defeats him. All seems lost. But then the green cowls fall from the Shadow Priests, and glowing golden forms are revealed underneath. 

The Shadow Priests! They were the Time Travellers all the time! And our Hero, Commander Arcturus Rann, changes his form as well. He becomes one of the Time Travellers. The Enigma Force grew out of his consciousness while he was in suspended animation. Wielding the Enigma Force, he fights Karza. The result is a forgone conclusion. He is minded to spare his arch-foes life, but at the last moment, Acroyear arrives and destroys Karza with the power of the World Mind.

The final image is of Karza's empty armour. "Saga's End" it says on the cover.

Comic book fans sometimes describe particular episodes as Cosmic, or (out of respect to Jack Kirby) Kosmic. "Kosmic" doesn't just means "science fictional" or "set in space". It refers to a moment when comic books acquire some level of theological abstraction; scenes where the characters become symbols and the imagery becomes surreal. Captain Marvel retrieving the Cube when Thanos drops it may count as Kosmic. So might Dormamu hurling himself into Eternity, and Phoenix binding the N-Galaxy together and perceiving the universe as a song. The Fantastic Four scaring off Galactus, or the Avengers defeating a Skrull invasion, not so much.

The most Kosmic writer of the 70s was Jim Starlin. His Warlock series also appeared in the back pages of Star Wars weekly. Time Traveller doesn't look unlike Warlock. It may be that Kosmic simply means Starlinesque.

In less than a year, Bill Mantlo has taken the Micronauts through a sequence of genres -- space-opera, superhero, horror, high fantasy, science fiction.

For the Saga's End he produces a definitive, unimprovable, Kosmic text.

Page 7

Prince Argon -- Force Commander -- fights Baron Karza.

From the first issue, Karza has been shown shifting from humanoid to horse shape sometimes in consecutive panels, but this is the first time it has been directly referenced in dialogue or caption. We're told that he has "transformed into his Centurian form" but there is still no particular explanation as to why he does so. It seems to be a source of power; or at least, physical strength. Argon seems to say that because he's also been transformed into a Centaur he's now Karza's equal. This doesn't seem to follow from anything. We were previously told that forcibly combining Argon with his horse, Oberon, was simply a cruel experiment.

Three issues ago, Karza was fighting a superhero and planning to conquer the earth single-handed. Now it seems that an armoured half-prince half-horse can stand up to him for several pages. 

Possibly Argon has been powered-up by the Time Travellers? Possibly Force Commander is a microversion of Captain Universe? We're in the realm of pure imagery. The leader of the baddies is a black armoured Centaur, so of course the leader of the goodies is a white armoured Centaur. And of course everything comes down to a fight between them. 

The sequence has heavy Arthurian energy: we think of Lancelot and Tristran, fighting for a whole day, knee deep in earth other's blood. Mantlo says that Karza fights Argon for "hours or days". The lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi also had chivalric overtones -- they were both knights and Vader is distinctly dark -- but it doesn't particularly look like a medieval joust. Mantlo wears his allusions on his sleeve. These are figures in suits of armour straight out of Excalibur. (This was before Excalibur.) It's less subtle and therefore more exhaustible than Lucas; but by the same token more immediate and more awe-inspiring. Roy Thomas told us that Vader and Obi-Wan were "two powerful warriors who stand motionless like titans out of some lost time". Mantlo seems to echo this. "Time seems to stand still as the two titans clash again and again".

Titans. It's a word out of greek mythology, but it was also what Stan Lee loved to call his superheroes. Every third Marvel Comic was called When Titans Clash. There was a British superhero anthology a few years before Star Wars which was called simply The Titans.

But this is a mere hors d'oeuvre. A pre-credit sequence before the main event. Force Commander is John the Baptist, and he knows it. 

"In the sacred armour of Dallan Rann he has become our Force Commander -- holy herald of Homeworld's saviour." 

"Saviour." Did I mention that this was a funny book based on children's toys?

Deaths are sufficiently rare in comic books that they often count as Selling Points. But advertising in advance that such-and-such a character is going to be killed off rather spoils the effect. When George Stacey died in Spider-Man #90, the cover depicted Spider-Man holding a dead body; but the face of the corpse was concealed in shadow. (Regular readers cannot have been all that surprised: if ever there was a character who was introduced in order to be killed off, it was Daddy Gwen.) Issue #120 sported an abstract cover in which Spider-Man announced to the world that someone close to him was about to die. ("But who...who?") There was no title on the splash page: writer Gerry Conway only revealed once the story was over that it was called The Night Gwen Stacey Died. A good stunt. Giving the episode that title underlines the fact that Spider-Man's one true love had really and truly been deaded: but only revealing the title on the final page maintains the sense of surprise and tension. It is a sufficient violation of the normal comic book structure that it makes the issue seem that much more significant.

Micronauts #11 is entitled The Enigma Force. Or possibly We Are The Enigma Force. The title appears on page 10 -- more than half way through the comic. The placement of the title makes a virtue of the comic's unusual structure. Page 1 - 8 -- the fight between Karza and Argon -- is essentially a preamble; and the delayed title reduces it almost to a pre-credit sequence. The real story begins with the transformation of Rann on page 9. The arrival of the Enigma Force has been foreshadowed and indeed foretold for several issues, so revealing the title on page 1 would hardly have counted as a spoiler. But, in a small way, it violates the normal architecture of a comic book (much as Acroyear's monologue did the end of issue #9). It makes what is already a strange comic that little bit stranger, and it lends a sense of importance to the final revelation.

Page 10

Lyrical, mystical, kosmic: a single image which justifies everything which has happened up to this point. As revelatory, in its way, as Charltan Heston discovering the Statue of Liberty; the best page in the best issue or the best bad comic book I have ever read. 

Captain Universe pulled on the imagery of superheroes -- spandex costume, melodramatic dialogue, heroic name. Rann is more like an angel than a long-underwear character. But at the same time, it's the purist piece of super-heroics there has ever been. It's more like a superhero battle because it doesn't really look like one.

Rann: fluorescent yellow, surrounded by those little cosmic fireflies which seem to represent the Enigma force. Floating, or perhaps falling, at forty-five degrees to Karza, legs together, arms outstretched, with a full-body halo. Light from his feet flows down towards Karza. Argon was white and Karza is black; but this scene is more directly about light and darkness in some mystical sense. Argon and Slug in the foreground, so far out of the frame that you might not see them. A huge speech bubble coming out of Rann's mouth, which serves as the delayed title for the comic.

"We are the one and the many, man and immortal, Micronaut and Time-Traveller. WE ARE THE ENIGMA FORCE."

The only other dialog comes from Mari, very small, but near the centre of the picture. "Arcturus, my love." A subtle bit of writing, this: reminding us that the transfigured figure is still the space-hero we've been following for eleven months.

Three caption boxes. The language is that of the olde worlde story teller, not the voice of a Lee or Thomas hype machine. Perhaps we are supposed to think that it is a continuation of Time Traveller's dialogue:

"Take a man through time a thousand years. Even though he sleeps in suspended animation, with each passing second he is born anew into the Time Stream. Now collect the infinitude of individuals arising from that first man into a single collective whole..."

Well: yes. Obviously. That makes complete sense.

The sensible thing, the obvious thing, would have been to turn Arcturus Rann into Captain Universe. But this is genuinely unexpected. It's as if the Force had turned out to be Luke Skywalker; as if Gandalf had turned out to personally be the text of the Silmarillion.

Rann doesn't look like a superhero. 

He looks like a glowing green holy floaty science fiction Jesus action figure.

Like a lightsaber.

Buzz Lightyear has turned into a lightsaber.


A man on the letters page of Micronauts #18 says that he read issue #11 through an old pair of 3D glasses. (The red/blue perspex kind.)

"I couldn't believe my eyes!!! The cover literally comes alive! Many pages glow with an otherworldly light, giving the mag a more cosmic aspect than you originally intended."

The colouring is certainly odd. Since Ray fell into the Prometheus pit, Bob Sharen has been using single, bright colours and geometrical forms to represent otherworldly forces; as if photographic ink had been superimposed onto the four-colour spot art. I want to call it "fluorescent" but comic book ink can't actually achieve that kind of effect. There are certainly lots of reds and blues.

Does it glow? I don't know if it glows, But it tells you a great deal about the comic that it would occur to someone to try the experiment. It's very much the kind of comic you might expect to be apparelled in celestial light. I can assure you that Judge Dredd and the Bash Street Kids never glowed.

"A more cosmic aspect."

I don't, actually, imagine the comic in terms of light. When I think of Micronauts #11 I seem to hear an audio soundtrack. Was it a high pitched drone? Or was it Gregorian chant? Am I in fact thinking of the Dresden Amen? It comes on strong and I am lifted. Can you hear the drum, Zarathustra? 

If Marvel can make an agreement with Mego to publish a Micronauts omnibus, is a reprint of Kirby's 2001: A Space Odyssey really not on the cards?

Have I mentioned that it was 1979 and Mrs Thatcher had just become Prime Minister and that Clause 29 and AIDS were just around the corner and that I was being systematically bullied and my dad was sick and I am pretty sure that the PE teacher liked looking at undressed adolescent boys a little bit too much and even if he didn't, compulsory group showers, damn, damn, damn. The olden days were not better than nowadays and it is impossible to detach my own subjectivity from the memory of what were disposable funny books. 

Very disposable funny books. 

Based on toys.



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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