Showing posts with label The Micronauts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Micronauts. Show all posts

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.

As ever: I am trying to make part of my living writing niche stuff which interests me, and if you think it is worth reading, it would be incredibly cool if you either subscribed to my Patreon (pledging $1 per short article) or bought me a metaphorical cup of coffee on Ko-Fi.

With the effective demise of Twitter, it's increasingly difficult for micro-journalists to promote their work, so if you have found this, or any of my other material, in anyway interesting, please do mention it to your online communities. 

Thank you, and may the Plot be with you.

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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Saturday, July 01, 2023

Andrew, Why Are You Wasting Your Headspace Thinking About All This Shit?

Some people can read War and Peace and come away thinking it's a simple adventure story. Others can read the ingredients on a chewing gum wrapper and unlock the secrets of the universe.
                    Lex Luthor

And the big question, obviously, is "What would CS Lewis have said about all this?"

For Lewis, there were no "good books" or "bad books": there were only good readers and bad readers. Good readers, he says, receive books; bad readers merely use them. Good readers pay attention to what the writer actually wrote. They want to laugh at the passages the writer intended them to laugh at, and feel sad in the passages the writer intended them to feel sad in. (That's where criticism can help: by explaining obscurities and difficulties so the book can affect you in the way it is supposed to.) Good readers read the same book over and over again, and would notice if a single word were changed. Good readers want description which really describes; which shows them things they haven't seen before or which makes the familiar seem strange.

Bad readers, on the other hand, are only interested in the general shape of the tale; they read in order to find out what happens next. They forget the book once they have read it, and they wouldn't think of reading the same book twice. Once they know how it ends, the book is exhausted. Bad readers don't want proper description: they just want stock phrases which trigger stock responses. They are happier with a few words about a pirate ship or a penthouse or sexual encounter: they fill in the details from their own imaginations. They regard stylistic and literary effects as embellishments or distractions. 

It's a bit like music, says Lewis. The true aficionado cares about the arrangement, the performance, the placement of every note. The unmusical listener just wants a tune he can sing along with, dance to, or (most likely) completely ignore.

It follows that a good (high brow, serious, literary) book is one that allows for a good reading, or which is generally read in a good way. And a bad (low brow, pulp, popular) book is one which only allows for bad readings or is almost always read in bad ways. 

CS Lewis made this argument in a book called An Experiment in Criticism which he wrote primarily in order to annoy FR Leavis. It probably shouldn't be regarded as the last word on the matter. 

When I was a child, I could become completely absorbed in a book. The characters became real to me; and the places became real; and I became almost unaware of the world around me. I have sometimes returned to childhood favourites and been surprised at how slight they are; how little of what I remember is actually present in the text. AA Milne told me that Winnie-the-Pooh had a larder; but my mental-image of Pooh's larder isn't in the book. It's probably a combination of my Granny's larder and the one my Mum had before we redecorated the kitchen. Before fridges were ubiquitous, houses did often have walk-in cupboards to store food.

I keep being sent Facebook memes from groups with names like Book Lovers, Books Are Awesome and Awesome Librarians. These memes take it for granted that this is the whole point of reading. They perpetually tell me that they feel lost in books; that the places in the books are more real than the rooms they are reading them in and that the characters are more real than any of their friends. In extreme cases, they seem to say that engagement with real people or real places (as opposed to fictional ones) is weirdly deficient. Tellingly, there are groups called Book Addicts, Lost In Book Land and Books: An Escape. 

They rarely point out brilliant descriptive passages or point me to a pithy phrase or some telling dialogue. They often imply that close attention to the text is an affectation perpetrated by nefarious people called Critics or Teachers. Ha-ha, they say, there was once a teacher who told me that there was some reason that Thomas Hardy keeps on drawing our attention to red things. The poor booby didn't understand that the writer told us about Tess's red dress because that was the colour of the dress that Tess was wearing in the story. Ha-ha, they say, there was once a teacher who said that Moby Dick was a metaphor for the human race's struggle with the natural world and Ahab's personal conception of God. But the author had already told him he was a white whale! 

Dave Sim said that he was fascinated by comic books as a medium: the infinite creative ways in which words and pictures can be combined on a page. He contrasts his approach with that of Wendy Pini who (he asserts) read the Silver Surfer and the X-Men because she wanted the Silver Surfer and the X-Men to be her friends. She disliked Batman because she would not have liked to be a friend of his. When she became an artist, she created the elves and wolves that she would like to be friends with. Sim, being Sim, treats this as a gender issue: Wendy Pini's approach is characteristically female and therefore bad, and his approach is characteristically male and therefore good. But I think the distinction is a recognisable one. Sim's own masterpiece is a triumph of form over content: if you were to read Cerebus in order to find out what happens next, you would go insane. And there is no reason to read Wendy Pini's comics except in order to find out what happens to Cutter and Skywise. If you ever stop thinking of them as real people, with real problems, whose sorrows and joys you really care about, you would never pick up an issue of Elfquest again. Which indeed I haven't.   

On Lewis's terms, Sim's way of reading is good and Pini's is bad. So, by his logic, we would have to say that comics like X-Men and Silver Surfer, which invite bad readings, are bad (non-literary, low-brow) comics; and conversely, comics like A Contract With God or Maus are good (serious, literary, high-brow.) 

Which, very conveniently, is exactly what we would have said in any case. 

When the Books Are Awesome crowd sing the praises of reading, they are largely singing the praises of "bad" reading: and, indeed, they tend to advocate books of pure narrative and deprecate books of style and experimentation. When I regret or mourn the loss of my ability to perceive the Hundred Acre Wood as if it were an actual place, I am in fact saying that up to the age of eight, I was a "bad" reader: but when I began, precociously, to tackle War of the Worlds, a Study in Scarlet and Frankenstein, my reading was starting to become "good". The books I remember getting lost in were by any sensible standards very bad indeed. We aren't talking about Black Beauty or Alice in Wonderland. Think Blast Off At Woomera and South Seas Adventure and the "Great" Lensman Saga. Reading the final page of Galactic Patrol remains the most vivid literary experience of my entire life. 

"First Kinnison, the bullets whining, shrieking off the armour of his personal battleship and crashing through or smashing ringingly against whatever happened to be in the ever-changing line or ricochet. Then Helmuth, and as the fierce-driven metal slugs tore in their multitudes, through his armour and through and through his body, riddling his every vital organ, that was....THE END." 

It's the very definition of bad writing. 

I don't think that Lewis's distinction between good and bad books is necessarily a moral one; or indeed that he thought that everyone ought to read only "good" books. One of his quarrels with Leavis is that Leavis thought that literature was morally and psychologically improving, and didn't allow much room for simply enjoying books. Lewis liked to tell the the story of the Serious Student who was very offended that he, Lewis, had said in a lecture that Chaucer put fart jokes into the Canterbury Tales in order to make people laugh. 

There are plenty of people who would rather look at old buildings and old paintings without understanding them: their enjoyment of the pretty ladies with funny hats and the naked babies with wings would be spoiled if they knew which Biblical characters or allegorical figures they were meant to represent. Fair enough, says Lewis: they have their reward. If you want to sit dreaming in your chair, taking the words "It was a dark and stormy night..." as a cue to create a vivid daydream of a thunderstorm out of your own imagination, no-one in the world is going to tell you that you shouldn't.

Perhaps, rather than "good" and "bad" we could try saying "serious" and "playful". When I was in Miss Beale's class I could read a very bad boy's book about moon rockets and honestly feel as if it was me who had flown to the moon. But equally, I could spend a whole day building a moon rocket out of Lego and creating the same journey in my head, with the same vividness. The book and the toy were points of departure; but they were not the core of the experience. I didn't even go as far as Lego most of the time: old cardboard tubes and cooking foil did the job just fine. Bad reading is, in that sense, a ludic activity: reading and playing require you to flex the same imaginative muscles. 

I wonder if devotees of the Books Are Awesome school of criticism are likely to be, or to have been, Dungeons & Dragons players? And do those of us who no longer Get Lost In Books also find it difficult to get back to RPGs? A good D&D game is very like a "bad" book, The places and the characters seen real; but they exist only in the imaginations of the players; with no pesky text to mediate the experience. Can a person who enjoys Middlemarch ever really enjoy Dungeons & Dragons? Can a person who plays Dungeons & Dragons ever really see the point of Middlemarch? Is it a coincidence that college RPG clubs recruited more from the Science and Computer departments than from English Literature and Creative Writing?

But there is a catch. Very many of us study low brow literature extremely closely. We watch old TV shows and old comic books over and over again: we pay close attention to the actual words, the actual pictures, and what actually appears on the screen. We would notice and indeed write a jolly stiff letter to the BBC if a single line were changed. People with discerning and informed musical taste do, as a matter of fact, sometimes listen to show-tunes, boy-bands and bubble-gum pop music with critical appreciation.

So are we engaged in a perverse activity -- reading "bad" books in a "good" way? Or do we have to say that if even one person can do a "good" reading of the Amazing Spider-Man or Conan the Barbarian -- nay, of Rentaghost or Fifty Shades of Grey -- then these must, after all, be good texts? Or should we just retreat into subjectivism and say that HP Lovecraft became English Literature on the day Penguin put him in their "classics" range in the same way that Duchamps' loo became art when he put it in the Tate Gallery? 

It is certainly true that many fans engage in "bad" readings -- in the sense of pretending that Harry Potter is their best friend or imagining themselves on the bridge of the star ship Enterprise and generally looking through the text and imagining lots of things that aren't there. That could almost stand as a definition of "fan". But it is also true that "fans" engage with texts in subtle, sophisticated and creative ways. They write fan-fic, create role-playing games, make models and reproduce character's costumes in great detail. They write probable outlines of the careers of fictional characters and calculate the date of Peter Parker's birthday from internal evidence. "Sherlockians" (the amateur scholars who pretend that the Sherlock Holmes stories are historical documents) are arguably "using" Conan Doyle's texts rather than "receiving" them; but they are also doing something interesting and clever and fun. It may be "bad" but it isn't bad.

So maybe the field isn't divided into Good Books and Bad Books. Maybe there are good Bad books and bad Good books. Maybe we can distinguish between Good good-bad books and Bad good-bad books. Maybe there are even Bad bad-good books, and good Bad bad-good books. Little fleas have lessor fleas, and so ad infinitum.

When Germain Greer said that The Thorn Birds was the best bad book she had ever read, she meant, I think, only that its literary ambitions were not high -- it's a melodramatic love story -- but that it achieves its modest ambitions to the highest possible degree. Umberto Eco's judgement of the Count of Monte Cristo is more nuanced. It is, he says, very badly written; but if it were well written, it would not be such a good adventure story, and since it is the best adventure story ever written, it follows that it must be very well written indeed, The academic who told C.S Lewis that The Prisoner of Zenda was the best bad book he had ever read was (I think) using "Bad-Book" as a label for a particular genre and saying that Anthony Hope wrote that genre superlatively well. If someone said that Cyrano de Bergerac was the funniest tragedy ever written or that Twelfth Night was the saddest comedy, you would understand what was being said. 

It is interesting, by the way, that Umberto Eco and Lewis's friend both treat swashbucklers as their example of good good bad books. Are adventure stories, I wonder, a special case?

I would happily defend Jack Kirby and Steve Gerber and even Stan Lee as creative geniuses. Anyone not hopelessly mired in ideology and snobbery can see that Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Dave Sim are good writers and even Good Writers. No-one on earth would place Bill Mantlo in the same league. It would be a category mistake. He's corny and derivative and in the nicest possible way, a hack. Michael Golden is a decent draftsman, but he's no Kirby and he's unfortunately badly served by his inkers and by 1970s four-colour reproduction. So, when I typed that Micronauts was the best bad comic I have ever read, I was really only thinking that I had a great deal of affection for it, but couldn't really defend it as a work of art.

In CS Lewis's terms, Micronauts is a "bad" comic. What I carry in my head is not the words and the pictures. What I carry in head is my first reading of it. My memories of my first reading of it. My memories of what was undoubtedly a bad, non literary reading. Not necessarily the words and pictures I found in the back of Star Wars weekly. The story and images I built in my own head.

In some moods I could wish that my life had fallen our differently. I wish I could tell you that if you drilled down to the core of my being you would find Anna Karenina or On The Road. But you wouldn't. What you would find would be Micronauts #11.

Maybe not that specific comic. But that mythology; those myths. Third-hand, discarded myths. Myths that were based on a series of children's play-things. Myths that grew out of a father's observation of a child playing with action figures. A game. A day-dream. 

Bill Mantlo is derivative; the fill-in king. But Bill Mantlo is transmitting Jack Kirby and Stan Lee; and Kirby and Lee were transmitting their own European Jewish cultural traditions on the one hand and a kind of obsolescent Great Tradition on the other. When you cut through all the bullshit, Stan Lee admits that he stole his ideas from Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stevenson and William Shakespeare and the Christian Bible. 

Bad readings of good books. A child playing with action figures. Toys as text. 

Why do I waste my headspace talking about these comics? Because these comics are not what I am talking about. Have you not been paying attention?

I have a bunch of my old Superman comic books. It's pleasurable to flip through them once in a while. But... if I ever read the stuff and say, "This is so good!" Please. Shoot me.
     Dave Sim


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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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.

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