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.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Saturday, June 03, 2023

Micronauts #7 (the back-story)

Micronauts #2 and #3 included full page "pin ups" of Time Traveller and Karza respectively. This was relatively common in the olden days. No-one actually cut their comics up and pinned pages to walls. But artists drew "studies" and "reference images" of the main characters during the pre-production phase, and editors used the art when issues needed to be padded out. There were often spare pages in the first few issues of a title because there was nothing to print in the letter-column. 

Issue #4 included a diagrammatic schematic of the Endeavour. I assume this was also repurposed reference material. But I am a sucker for this kind of thing. The Fantastic Four sometimes showed a diagram of the Baxter Building and the Teen Titans included layouts of the Titans Tower. I think Stan Lee even offered us a map of Peter Parker's apartment. No-one expected the writers to actually refer to these layouts: but they established that the Avengers mansion was the sort of place of which a map could conceivably exist. It was a signal of how we were supposed to approach these stories. The main reason to put a map at the front of a fantasy novel is to tell the reader that this is the sort of fantasy novel that has a map at the front of it.

It's a cool diagram. The Endeavour seems a lot bigger than it is generally drawn in the comic -- maybe 60 feet tall relative to Rann, or about 30 inches when it is toy-sized. We can see that the ship's bridge detaches to become the Astrostation; which is fun; and there is a hanger containing something called a Hydrocopter which we will catch a glimpse of in a few issues time. Rann's suspended animation chamber is "now" converted into a rec room and library, although it is hard to see how anyone has found the time to reconfigure the ship in the last few issues.

You might expect the small print (in typescript rather than comic book lettering) to be a technical description of the ship's capabilities. But it's actually a description of its mission; which amounts to a fresh re-telling of the History Of The Microverse. One wonders whether it comes from Mantlo's private notes: it could even be his original pitch document. It's an odd thing to do: the fullest explanation of what is going on in the comic, buried in very small print under a diagram of a toy spaceship. A lot of readers probably skipped it.

Alan Moore would do a similar thing in Watchmen, years later: hiding part of his world-building in story-internal newspaper clippings at the end of each issue. Some readers found them too boring to even contemplate reading. When Dave Sim started to incorporate prose passages into Cerebus some readers took it as evidence that he hated his readers.

We don't feel, reading this text, that much new data is being revealed. We have known from the beginning that Rann has been away from Homeworld for a millennium. It's written on his character sheet, the thing which makes him more than a generic action figure, and it's restated every issue. "I've only been in suspended animation for the last 1,000 years." "You're at least 1,000 years older than the princess." "1,000 years in suspended animation doesn't dull the hurt." 

We are also told from the beginning that he is "hooked into the telepathy channels of his ship, that he "explored space telepathically"; that he is telepathically linked to Biotron and that on his voyage he encountered a mysterious Something which Karza is afraid of. The cheat sheet in issue #1 talks about "the X-factor that Karza fears"; and Karza says Rann represents "the unknown that must be made to reveal itself". In issue #2, Rann repeats that Karza "wants the telepathic data locked in my brain".

The text piece attached to the spaceship plans ties all this together:

"His body slept while his mind explored the universe via a telepathic linkage with his Roboid companion. As the long centuries passed, the combined consciousness of man and roboid melded, became inseparable."

The language drifts into the religious:

"They had become two coequal, co-existent entities."

One could very easily imagine a comic book about a human who shares his consciousness with a machine; but Micronauts is not that comic: Biotron never presents as anything other than Rann's friend and co-pilot. They banter on the flight deck like mates, but not, in any sense, like the first two person's of the Trinity.

We suspect that the Time Travellers are related to the X-Factor in in Rann's head -- we know that they first popped up during his long voyage -- but his relationship to them is now made more explicit: 

"Baron Karza knew that Rann had encountered mysteries on the fringes of the Microverse that might shake (his) rule."

"Time Travellers manifested, strange beings who seemed to belong to no reality save their own..."

"Baron Karza knew that Commander Rann was somehow linked to the Time Travellers and the elusive Enigma Force they represented..."

So: Rann's background has been alluded to in dialogue; and then described again in text. In issue #7, while Steve is fishing, and before Man Thing attacks, we hear the story again; narrated by Biotron while Rann is asleep. But this time, Mantlo shows us what he has previously told us about. We get a three page flash-back. We see the Endeavour being launched; we see a not yet deified Dallan and Sepsis saying farewell to their son, and a not-yet-evil Karza in the background. There are flags and horses and doves and some very silly costumes: if contemporary Homeworld looks like Star Wars, it is fair enough that Olden Days Homeworld looked like Flash Gordon. Dallan is described as the regent of Homeworld, although his relationship to Argon and Mari's royal family is unexplained. Chief Scientist Karza was described in issue #1 and on the schematic as one of Rann's tutors at the Science Academy but here he is described as "the man who has tutored the commander from birth". We see Rann and Biotron making first contact with some very silly aliens with very silly names. We see them travelling to the Space Wall and we see them encountering the Time Travellers. 

Up to this point, Time Traveller has been presented as a deus ex machina; a familiar spirit that haunts the ship and gives advice and aid to Rann and Mari. But he is now part of an angelic choir, singing "Welcome to the Enigma Force."  Up to now it has been implied that Biotron and Rann merged because they spent so long in telepathic contact; but now we are told that it is a mystical event which occurred as a result of their contact with the Time Travellers. They are coequal and coeternal because of the Enigma Force.

Allude, imply; then tell directly; finally, show. Mantlo does a similar thing with Karza's back story. That Karza is a conquerer, and that he controls his people by offering them infinitely extended life is taken for granted from the very first issue. "Karza gave the people a more concrete offer -- the assurance of immortality"; "he offered them immortality...for a price"; "those who defied him served as organ donors to extend the lives of those who submitted." The whole Slug/Belladona sub-plot through issues #2-#7 shows us the process happening: Belladonna reserving Mari's body; naked captives being deloused and prepared for ghoulish experiments. But a full page montage in issue #5 gives us a good look at how Homeworld functions. The rich can buy immortality; the middle class earn credits to extend their lives; the workers gamble for life points and the rebels are recycled in the Body Banks or recruited as Dog Soldiers. This never really becomes relevant to this story: sometimes we feel as if we are reading the campaign notes for a Science Fiction Role-playing Game that no-one has quite got around to running.

What is happening? Are we watching ideas coalesce in Mantlo's own head, as he himself gradually figures out what he means by the Enigma Force and the Time Travellers? Or is he responding to editorial pressure to damn well give the readers some clue as to what is going on? Or did the writer intend from the beginning for the Microverse to have this fractal quality; so that the closer you look, the more you see. 

We rarely feel that we are learning a new fact. No-one says "Good heavens the butler" or "No, I am your father". But things become clearer and clearer on each repetition. Our reaction is not "Wow! A new twist!". It's more like "Ah, Time Travellers. Did we know that already?"

Intentionally or not, Mantlo has again put his finger on one of the things that made Star Wars so genre-defining. George Lucas has a scatter-gun approach to backstory: Jedi Knights, Dark Side of the Force, the Clone Wars, the Spice Mines of Kessel, Kessel run, Jundland Wastes, Imperial Senate, Jawas, Sand People, moisture evaporators... Some of the material is decoded in the actual movie. We hear about the Rebel Alliance in the opening crawl and see their hidden fortress in the final act; we are introduced to Darth Vader in the opening scene and gradually learn that he is a former Jedi, Ben's apprentice and the murderer of Luke's father. But most of the details are under-defined. Fans wanted very badly to know how the back story worked. Lucas made them wait twenty six years, and his answers met with near-universal disappointment. But by alluding to mysterious events and explicating them almost immediately, Mantlo is giving Star Wars fans the exact experience that they wanted. 

Or thought they did.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Friday, June 02, 2023

Micronauts #6 and #7

Micronauts 6: The Great Escapes
Micronauts 7: Adventure into Fear

Prof Prometheus and Ray Coffin have fallen into the Prometheus pit. Rann and his friends are engaged in a super-heroic romp in Marvel Florida. And Argon is still unrelatedly imprisoned in Karza's body banks. It's going to take a little bit of effort for Bill Mantlo to get his plot threads back in sync.

You could sum up Micronauts #6 by saying "There is a confused whirlwind of action and everyone escapes". And that is hardly the worst thing you could say about a superhero comic. For eleven out of the seventeen pages, Steve Coffin and the Micronauts effect their escape from Prometheus's lair. As usual, the artwork and the speed of exposition make it a little hard to keep track of what is going on; but that feeling of information-overload is rather exhilarating. Rann and Acroyear make their escape by flying the Astrostation along the obligatory ventilation shaft. Steve and Muffin (being too large to take that route) bluff their way out of the front door. Everyone is threatened by Prometheus's humanoids (for one panel) but they manage to regroup and return to Steve's house, where they find Biotron being menaced, rather ineffectually, by a cat. They power up the Endeavour and fly away, pursued by the police, who still think that they are a UFO. There is an overwhelming sense that the purpose of the HELL sub-plot has been to get Phillip and Ray into the Microverse, and with that accomplished, Mantlo wants to whisk our heroes to the next plot beat with all possible haste.

Very conveniently, Steve's Dad owns a cabin in the Everglades (a mere four hundred miles away) so that's where our heroes head, to rest and take stock. Issue #7 opens with the team fishing, watching TV, narrating new bits of the back-story to each other and grabbing a few hours sleep. It's quite a canny move on Mantlo's part. Rann has been engaged in a non-stop chase scene for the past six issues, and a bit of down-time cements our sense that the Micronauts are a team -- even a family -- and not merely a collection of playing pieces. It's a bit like that transitional scene in the Millennium Falcon where everyone plays chess and practices fencing for three minutes. Readers are much less inclined to say "Hey! But you guys have only known each other since this morning."

But the Gods of Marvel say that you can't have a whole issue without a fight scene; and even if we hadn't seen the cover, we would know that the Everglade Swamps are where the Man Thing hangs out. And also the Lizard, but he's contractually obliged to only fight Spider-Man. 

Fans like cross-overs; at any rate, editors believe they do. And everything Marvel publishes has to intersect with the wider Marvel continuity. The big question fans asked about any new comic was not "Is it good?" but "Where does it fit into the Marvel Universe?" The expected answer was "Right in the middle!" Some fans had thought that the existence of a Star Wars comic book logically implied a Spider-Man & Chewbacca issue of Marvel Team Up, and were most put out when it failed to materialise. Bill Mantlo had, of course, started his career as the Cross-Over King, and Man Thing was between comics. His own title had come to a post-modernist conclusion in October 1975, and he wouldn't get another one until November 1979. (His first regular title had been an anthology comic called Adventure into Fear which is also the title of Micronauts #7.)

Man Thing is not, truly, a particularly interesting character. He's a scientist who, as a result of an experiment gone wrong, has been turned into a swamp-dwelling monster. Unlike DC's Swamp Thing he doesn't even get any dialogue. But he had a distinct fan-following due to the the surreal and politically switched-on writing of Steve Gerber, who had parted company with Marvel in 1979 due to a well-documented duck-related dispute. Fans tend to follow characters rather than authors and a big picture of Man Thing on a cover very probably shifted titles. In our content flooded streaming era, it is hard to believe that back then a character could be popular but underexposed. As iconic a hero as the Silver Surfer was not allowed his own comic between 1970 and 1987, making his rare cameos seem like Very Important Events. 

It may be that Mantlo intends the encounter with the Man Thing to develop Steve Coffin's character. The monster (who has empathic powers instead of a personality) homes in on Steve because he is Sad. He nearly destroys him because he is Scared, and whatever knows fear burns at the Man Things touch. But he goes away because Steve is Brave. Apparently, he has never come across anyone brave before and impales himself on a rotary fan. The heroes think he is dead, but we know that Man Things can re-form after they get squished. I don't know if this new-found courage would have been part of a character-arc, because Steve will be pretty much written out at the end of next issue. The overall sense is of a nice, change of pace character-based interlude being hijacked by a rather silly fight scene.

Meanwhile back in the Microverse...the other two storylines carry on failing to intersect with each other. The same "logic" which says that our heroes are three inches tall on our side of the Space Wall means that Prometheus and Steve's Dad manifest in the Microverse as Celestial-sized giants. They naturally come to the attention of Baron Karza, who "senses in Prometheus an evil not very different from his own".

Stan Lee used to be very proud of the fact that Doctor Doom was not evil in his own eyes -- he honestly believed that he could rule the universe better than anyone else. The best supervillains, like Thanos and Galactus, have a genuine nobility to them. Granted, Darth Vader consciously follows the Dark Side of the Force, but extended continuity is inclined to say that the Sith are heretical Jedi with their own outlook, not pure Manichean evil. (It's even been said that the Dark Side is "Dark" in the sense of being secret.) But Karza, like David Mitchel's iconic Nazi soldier has evidently considered his place in the narrative structure of the war and realised that he is one of the baddies.

At any rate, Karza hatches a brilliant scheme: he will use Prometheus's gigantic form to conquer the earth. "Prepared the subject for mind-merge!" he announces. The final frame of issue #7 shows a fully armoured and human-sized Karza climbing out of the Prometheus Pit. But while Karza is being Evil, Ray Coffin is drawn towards the Light which turns out to be (of course) a group of Time Travellers. It should not be too difficult for readers to work out where all this is going.

In issue #5, Karza identified Slug (the rebel leader) as a possible body donor for Belladonna (the old lady). In issue #6, Slug blasts through the wall of Argon's cell. Mantlo's habit of skipping transitions adds to the breathlessness of the narrative but frequently makes readers say "Did I miss something?" even on the eighth or ninth reading. Last issue we were pointedly told that all the captives were nude (and the Dog Soldiers were unashamedly leching after Slug) so Argon is puzzled about how she smuggled a gun into the prison. "There are places even Karza's dog soldiers sometimes forget to search, my prince" she explains. It's only a mildly indecent joke, but it does make you wonder whether the comics code was still paying attention. Bionic fascists are evidently more respectful of boundaries than the average airport drug-squad and haven't come up with X-Rays or metal detectors yet.

The two pages of issue #6 (9 and 17) in which the Shadow Priest tells Karza that Prometheus has materialised near the space wall and the two pages (10 and 11) in which Slug rescues Argon don't cross over or reference each other in any way, which tends to confirm that all the Argon material in the last five issues were originally intended for a stand-alone comic. The thread is wound up in a couple of panels in issue #7: Argon and Slug leave the pits and are greeted by one of the Mysterious Shadow Priests who tells mysteriously to prepare for the Final Battle.


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.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Micronauts #4 and #5

Micronauts # 4: Death Duel at Daytona Beach Part 2 /  A Hunting We Will Go

Micronauts # 5:  The Prometheus Pit

OK, so that means that our whole solar system could be like one tiny atom in the fingernail of some other giant being. This is nuts! That means that one tiny atom in my fingernail could be one tiny little universe!.... Can I buy some pot from you?

National Lampoon's Animal House

"Sheesh! This Prometheus character is like a bargain basement version of Baron Karza" observes Bug in issue #5 of Micronauts.

Well, quite.

The Marvel Canon Keepers seem to take the view that the Microverse is not literally an itsy bitsy teeny weeny universe; but simply an alien dimension that humans access by shrinking. If you mutter "quantum realm" authoritatively, makes more sense.

Bill Mantlo equivocates on the point. The Microverse is another cosmos, separated from us by something called a Space Wall. Prof. Prometheus speculates that it may be one of many "microscopic universes". But the writer is clearly thinking in terms of sub-atomic particles which have been blown up to planetary size.  Homeworld is depicted as a collection of spheres joined together with little sticks, very much as chemistry teachers illustrate chemical compounds. It's described as "the molecular planet of Homeworld" (issue #4) and "the spiralling molecular chain which is the planet Homeworld" (issue #6). Prior to the 1920s, this would have been tolerably good science fiction. Back then, atoms really were tiny little spheres zooming around according to more or less Newtonian principles, so there's no reason they might not look like planets, from a certain point of view. But it's now 1979 and news of quantum theory really ought to have reached the Marvel Universe. 

Once you have invoked the idea of a Microverse and a Macroverse, it is hard to avoid thinking in terms of  microcosm and macrocosm in the Platonic sense: "as above, so below". Whether this would have occurred to Bill Mantlo I couldn't say. Unlike Jim Starlin or Steve Engelhart, he doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who would have been into mysticism, although the aforementioned Sword in the Star has a distinct hippy vibe. But when he needs to bring his earthbound and microcosmic storylines together, what he comes up with is an earthly conspiracy that mirrors and foreshadows the politics of the Microverse.

Professor Phillip Prometheus is a scientist, and therefore, it almost goes without saying, mad. He was injured during a space mission, and his spaceship's automated repair systems rebuilt him. Better than he was before: stronger, faster, better. He's a cyborg, which given the action-figure genealogy of the Micronauts is quite ironic in itself. 

Cyborg was also the title of the 1972 novel which introduced a very expensive multiple amputee named Steve Austin. The TV show based on the book ended in 1978, but Mantlo uses the term "bionic" to refer to augmented humans without explanation. One side of Prometheus's face is human, but the other side is robotic. A 1973 proto-cyberpunk superhero, Deathlok ("the demolisher"), had the same disfigurement, as did a made-up bounty hunter named Vallance in a 1978 issue of the Marvel Star Wars spin-offs. Deathlok and Valance seem to have had half their faces replaced by machinery: Prometheus is robots all the way down. But he tears off half his face so we can see the robot beneath the skin. He is, incidentally, a black man: but this is not relevant to the story and is never mentioned by any other character: a minor but significant victory for 1979 comic book diversity. Interestingly, DC would introduce a black cyborg called Cyborg the following year.

Prof Prometheus is obsessed with prolonging human life. He has robot minions ("humanoids") who call him The Master and obey his every whim. And he has created a kind of boom-tube or star-gate which connects his laboratory to the Microverse. He calls it, portentously, the Prometheus Pit. When we first meet him in issue #4, he talks like a perfectly sensible scientist ("Welcome, old friend") but when his back story is revealed in issue #5, he shifts to Villain Voice: "I can transcend the small portion of humanity left in me! I can become like unto a god!" 

Prometheus is a former colleague of Ray Coffin, Steve's Dad. Ray Coffin was an astronaut; he and Prometheus served together. Before long, Ray will be having an extremely close encounter with the Enigma Force, just like Rann did on the edge of the Microverse. It's not a terribly subtle analogy: Prof Prometheus is the human equivalent of Karza and Ray Coffin is a lot like Arcturus Rann. As the storyline plays out, the two humans will become explicit avatars for their Microversal equivalents. 

Oh. And while he is on the Endeavour, Rann still likes to sleep in the cryogenic pod he used while he was exploring the Microverse. It is shaped, quite distinctly and explicitly, like a coffin

In one way, it all hangs together. Prometheus has become obsessed with the Microverse because he has discovered the remains of Karza's Dog Soldiers who (it appears) keep getting killed while trying to get through the Space Wall. The Dog Soldiers have been said from the beginning to be half-human and half-machine, so it makes sense that a a person with an interest in bionics would want to know more about them. We were told that the roboids of the Microverse were a synthesis of man and machine in the very first issue. This might be dense foreshadowing -- Mantlo might have put a lot of cybertech into Homeworld because he had foreseen the character of Prometheus from the beginning. But it might equally be a sort of retrospective mining of his own material: when he needed an earthly villain, what he had already established about the Microverse suggested an evil bionic man. Prometheus's transformation from skeptical scientist to full on ranting super-baddie in issue #5 is rather sudden: if you told me it was the result of an authorial rethink between issues I would not be entirely surprised. 

DIGRESSION: When our heroes first encountered Muffin in issue #2, they didn't know what sort of a creature he was. Later, Mari explains to Rann that he is a "dog" and that "dogs" are extinct on Homeworld. Even allowing for translation, why would Karza name his stormtroopers after an obscure extinct animal? ("Because it's cool, that's why.")

But even by Marvel Comics standards, quite a lot of belief has to be suspended. When he's first mentioned, Steve's Dad is merely a NASA astronaut who served on Starlab. Starlab is obviously meant to make us think of Skylab which was real and in the news. It crashed out of orbit and into the sea in 1979. It's quite a big jump from the 1970s space programme to super intelligent computers that can rebuild human beings; and quite a big jump from being a US astronaut to creating intra-dimensional portals and secret robot armies. Marvel generally keeps the "real world" and "super science" in separate boxes: we are allowed to believe in the Fantastic Four and the Avengers, but New York Police generally don't have ray guns. But even if we can accept that Steve's Dad's friend is a Reed Richards level genius, it requires a huge leap of faith to accept that Rann just happened to crash his ship in the garden of the human being who is his exact analogy on earth. 

Unless Time Traveller planned it that way. 

The Enigma Force is the manifestation of our old friend, The Plot. When Arcturus Rann was at the very edge of the Microverse, he encountered The Plot. Karza is scared of Rann because Rann seems to have inside knowledge of The Plot. When Mari was imprisoned she was able to summons The Plot to get her out. And in issue #7, one of the mysterious Shadow Priest will quite literally tell Argon that they know the ending of the story but that he won't be needed until the final chapter.

Issue #4 is, truthfully, a bit of a muddle. It tends to confirm the theory that the first issues of Micronauts are the result of a hastily executed cut and paste job, a superhero comic and a Star Wars comic glued together at short notice. For one thing, it has two different titles. The main splash page takes us back to the Microverse, showing us Karza's dog-soldiers raiding "the underground" on Homeworld. (This seems to represent a shift from the opening issue, where "the rebels" were specifically insurgents against the Royal Family.) This is entitled A Hunting We Will Go. The first two issues went with science-fiction lettering and single-word titles  (Homeworld, Escape, Earth) but from #3 onwards we've reverted to standard Marvel bombast. Strangely, the splash-page is enclosed in a larger frame, with head-shots of the main characters in the margin, and a second title at the top: Death-Duel at Daytona Beach Part Two. It's very unusual for a Marvel comic of the era to call a story "part two". Although the story follows on directly from the last episode, it isn't really a duel, and it doesn't take place anywhere near the beach. It seems pretty clear that one comic (Rann and his friends lost on earth) and an entirely separate comic (Karza, Belladona and Argon) have been fairly clumsily edited together. 

Baron Karza himself appears on the cover, for the first time since issue #1. Had Jim Shooter come around to the idea that space opera and Darth Vader lookalikes sell even better than lawnmowers? But in fact, we only get five pages in the Microverse before cutting back to Steve Coffin's yard. Anyone who judged the comic by the cover would have been sorely disappointed. 

The Dog Soldiers arrest the rebels: Karza is primarily interested in a rebel leader called Slug. One of the other rebels does the noble "I'm Spartacus" routine, laying down his life so that Slug has a chance to contact Argon in Karza's cells. The astonishing twist is that Slug is, like, not a boy. In issue #5, the captives are taken to the slave pits. (The captions draw attention to their nudity, but the art coyly contrives that limbs are positioned over private parts.) Duchess Belladonna identifies Slug as the captive whose body she would like her mind transplanted into; and we discover that Karza has turned Argon, for no particularly good reason, into a centaur. I think we are supposed to think he has been amalgamated with Oberon, his telepathic horse from issue #1, but this is not stated directly. 

Meanwhile, Ray takes Steve (who has put some clothes on) to his place of work, to show his old friend Prof Prometheus the wrecked space-craft which proves that they have encountered extraterrestrials. (Just to remind us that we're in the 1970s, Prometheus initially thinks that Steve's imagination has been fired up by Close Encounters of the Third Kind.) Prometheus's institution is called the Human Engineering Life Laboratories, but otherwise there is absolutely nothing sinister about it. Rann, Acroyear and Marie limp back to Steve's house to pick up Bug, but Bug has followed the Coffins to HELL, so they fly off after him in the Astrostation (another detachable section of the Endeavour) leaving Biotron to fix the main ship in Steve's kitchen. 

Left by himself, Biotron wonders out loud if Rann and Mari are in love, and the comic just kind of stops: you could hardly describe it as a cliffhanger. The American reworking of Battle of the Planets introduced a comedic robot called 7-Z-7 who narrated the action for the benefit of the viewer; and Biotron's habit of talking to himself feels like a similar breach of the "fourth wall".

But issue #5 distinctly gets its mojo back. (I am not quite sure what mojo is, but issue #5 definitely has some.) It has some of the qualities of the first issue: an awful lot is going on, and we have to keep our wits about us to avoid getting lost. (For example, the fact that Prometheus's orderlies are robots, referred to as Humanoids, is tossed out in a single speech bubble on page 10.) Mari befriends Muffin (the dog) and gets into Prometheus's lair riding the furry pup like a very big horse; while Acroyear cuts through the electric fence with his light sabre energy sword. He says that he using the ship's blasters would be a waste of energy, but we know perfectly well that it's just cooler that way.  Prometheus rips off his own face, reveals his back story, and drags Ray Coffin into the Pit. One thinks of Holmes and Moriarty.

It is often said that Microtron, the short "fiesty" robot is a stand-in for Artoo Deetoo, while Biotron, the tall, pompous one is a cover version of See Threepio. And this may be true up to a point: although we are repeatedly told that Biotron has a kind of mystical union with Arcturus Rann, we never feel he's much more than a robot butler and side kick. A lot of the time, it is Microtron who gets Threepio's lines: this exchange, just before the big battle is pure Anthony Daniels.

-- What do you think we'll find here, Mr Acroyear?

-- Battle! Glory!

-- Oh dear.


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.) 

 Pledge £1 for each essay.

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Micronauts #2 and #3

Micronauts #2: Earth

Micronauts #3 Death Duel at Daytona Beach

"Tell me why are smurfs so small?"
"We're not small but you are tall."
           The Smurfing Song

Micronauts 3 contains a small mis-print.

Or perhaps it isn't a misprint. Perhaps it is like the barefoot Paul McCartney on the Abbey Road cover, desperately trying to warn his fans that he is no longer alive. Or like that tiny piece of paper that says "Help, I'm being held prisoner in a fortune cookie factory."


Shaitan (the Dark Lord's lieutenant) is chasing Arcturus Rann (the thousand year old Buzz Lightyear Action figure) across a Florida skate-park. Because of course he is. It's 1978; everything which isn't Star Wars is skate-boarding. 

Not that the location is particularly important. There is a tracking beacon on Rann's ship. Because of course there is. It's the only explanation for the ease of their escape. Shaitan's Battle Cruiser could perfectly will  have been chasing Rann's Endeavour through an asteroid field or across a forest moon. It happens to be chasing it through Florida -- along a freeway and in a skate park and into young Steve Coffin's back garden. It's clearly a Star Wars scene: people keep saying things like "Rear deflector breached" and "Man the thorium guns".

Shaitan's Battle Cruiser splits into six smaller modules. Because of course it does. Modular vehicles were all the rage that season. Judge Dredd had crossed the Cursed Earth in a big land rover that split into two small land rovers. It was called a Killdozer and it was based on a line of Dinky toys, for reasons which have never become entirely clear. Cyborg (Time Traveller's forbear) had a big spaceship, the Invader with a little spaceship, the Interceptor, inside it. Even Gerry Anderson was in on the act, selling his Star Cruiser model kits. It had a detachable cockpit at the front and a piggyback star-fighter on top and a Thunderbird 2 type landing pod on the undercarriage. He never made a TV show to go with it, but there was a cartoon strip in Look-In and the Airfix kit was cool. It was snap-together and came with stickers so it could be assembled by relative klutzes. 

There is probably some deep seated reason why little boys think that big machines which divide into smaller machines are cool. But Shaitan's Battle Cruiser just isn't cool enough. Michael Golden's art is still too sketchy, too small, too distanced; and it's all over and done with in a panel. A big triangular spaceship splits into six tiny small doodles. We needed a double-page schematic at the very least. That's Micronauts all over for you. Cool ideas that don't stay long enough for you to get a decent purchase on them. Perhaps Mantlo just assumed we all had a Battle Cruiser on the bedroom floor and knew what it was meant to look like.

Acroyear (the good guy, the one who looks like a knight in armour) proposes jumping out of the Endeavour (the spaceship) and taking on Shaitan (the bad guy) hand to hand. Biotron (the robot) is left in the pilot's seat and Marie (the princess) is left manning the guns. Acroyear leaps onto one section of the Battle Crusier with a lightsaber energy sword, yelling "Tell your traitor prince that his brother has come for him!" Acroyear gets all the best lines. Until Time Traveller moves to the centre stage, he will provide most of the Fizz in the comic.

And then. We cut back to the Microverse. For just one page.

We are in Baron Karza's body banks. He is standing on a yellow glowing square, surrounded by short green monks who on a bad day could be mistaken for Jawas. They are the mysterious Shadow Priests. Their job is to be mysterious. They don't do anything apart from be mysterious until the big reveal in issue # 11. (It will, in fairness, be a very big big reveal.) He, Karza, is talking to a little old lady, Duchess Belladona. One of the perils of living on the intersection between Mego Action Figures and Kirby's Fourth World is that everyone has very silly names. One of the Baron's underlings is called Major D'Ark. Belladonna wants to buy a new body from Karza. Ideally, she wants Princess Marie's body; but Karza has to admit that she has escaped. Alternatively, the duchess would like Prince Argon, which suggests an admirably enlightened attitude to gender. Karza hisses that he, Argon, is slated for a "rather special experiment ".

And in neat lettering, just under the final panel are the words "To be continued".

And then we cut back to Earth. The US airforce is being scrambled, skateboarders are being tripped up by toy spaceships and Acroyear is yelling "Traitorous Dog!"

"To be continued." At the bottom of the page. Half way through the issue. I can imagine Stan Lee cutting away from a subplot with a wink to the reader "We'll learn more about the mysterious Mr Osborn next issue, but for now..." But To Be Continued comes at the end of an issue. And there are still ten pages to go.


The second and third issues of Micronauts entirely fail to pay-off on the promise of the first. Issue # 1 felt more like Star Wars than Star Wars: issues #2 and #3 feel a lot like any other late 70s Marvel Comic. Everyone banters and wise-cracks in the face of certain death. Rann and Marie fall in love at first sight. ("She's one helluva of a girl"; "I like that in a man".) The adjective "feisty" is applied to Microtron. The first cover was a pastiche or half memory of the Star Wars poster: a hero; a princess; a knight; a dark lord. The cover of #2 shows us the same group of characters...threatened by a suburban lawn mower. The tone is comedic; even parodic. Our heroes are running away. Marie has her arms around Rann a little too exaggeratedly, a little too much like a silent movie heroine. There is something of the Warner Brothers cartoon about Bug's demeanour. Only Acroyear seems to rise above it all, literally and metaphorically.

It's perfectly good fun. "Star Wars but Marvel Superheroes" is by no means a terrible selling point. But the consciousness expanding first issue has been relegated to a prologue. Marie and Rann helpfully tell each other things they already know for the benefit of the reader. "The Homeworld you left died ages ago, commander, enslaved by Karza's science; the royal family fought back, but..." "He slew my parents, but that's the least of his evil. He wants every living thing subservient to him..." Characters in 1970s comics did have a bad habit of stating and restating the premise ("Eternals can't die..."). But this feels like a rear-guard action to make sure we're au fait with the salient points after the information-dense first issue. If you started reading with issue #2, you wouldn't feel you'd missed very much. 

I've sometimes called it conceptual story-telling. You can read, say, a late John Carter story, or one of the Conan adventures when Howard wasn't really trying, or anything at all by David Eddings -- and find that you are enjoying the idea of swords and dragons and martians even though the story is doing nothing to make the swords and the dragons and the martians particularly interesting. Kids in particular fill in details for themselves -- you only need a cursory sketch of a pirate ship or the barest hint of a haunted house and they are off on a day dream of their own. (For grown ups, this really only works with soft pornography.) Conceptually, Micronauts #2 and #3 are an absolute blast: tiny epic spaceships zooming through suburbia, tripping up skaters and stunning puppies. But the execution feels perfunctory.

Issue #1 ended with our heroes reaching "the fringe". Issue #2 begins with them crashing through something called The Space Wall. This seems to be a physical barrier which encloses their universe and separates it from ours. Karza's dog soldiers periodically hurl themselves at the barrier and get killed; but Time Traveller, in his primary role as mysterious deus ex machina, has helpfully blasted a hole through it. Rann's thousand year voyage took him literally to the edge of the universe: he is now going to infinity and beyond. 

The hole-in-the-space-wall ought to have been something like the Hellmouth which causes Buffy Sommers such endless trouble. Or even like the Boom Tube from the New Gods tetralogy: a ol' hunk of plot device through which goodie toy space ships and baddie toy space ships can endlessly pour into Steve Coffin's back yard. But it never becomes particularly central to the story: Shaitan chases Rann from the Fringe to Earth and returns home with his armoured tail between his legs, and the story moves on. It's one of the things which makes Micronauts such a dizzying, exasperating, but ultimately thrilling experience. Mantlo bleeds out premises for stories; uses them once; and discards them.

On our side of the Space Wall, the Micronauts are about three inches tall. This is kind of necessary to justify the title. Things which seen small to us appear big to them. It's possible to make this kind of thing interesting. Jonathan Swift wrote a moderately well known satirical novel around the idea. Land of the Giants ran to two whole seasons. The Incredible Shrinking Man was quite scary. There is a black and white Doctor Who story called Planet of the Giants in which our heroes spend an inordinate amount of time wondering why anyone would bother to build a giant matchbox and if they are on a planet where giant ants have evolved. Within three minutes the audience is shouting "You've been shrunk you dozy buggers!" at the TV screen. It's quite fun and has a certain sense of wonder: but it helps that Ian and Barbara can be assumed to already know what a box of matches is.

Marie and Rann have never seen a lawn, or a garden swing, or a dog. Earth would be strange to them even if they were normal sized. Bug is surprised that earth-fauna is so much bigger than the forests on his own planet; they think the giant metal structure has some religious significance; and they use stun-guns on a puppy. But it all gets sorted out with a couple of pages. They encounter Steve Coffin, a semi-naked teenager, who instantly realises that they must be aliens and is only mildly surprised ("Oh wow, I mean wow.") Marie explains the entire backstory to him off panel, and he's pretty fine with it. ("We'll, sure I'll help you.") The issue ends with the lad surveying his wrecked garden and wondering what he is going to tell Dad. He decides to tell him that "It was a war, dad, between two forces from a microscopic planet called home-world. They had spaceships and ray-guns and..." His Dad believes him. He is, very conveniently, and ex-astronaut; something of a Buzz Lightyear himself. His plot arc is going to be one of the most bizarre things in the comic. 

When John Byrne rebooted Superman in 1986, he stuck with established tradition; starting the story on Krypton and following baby Kal to earth. He later said he regretted this: he wished he had started with Jonathan and Martha Kent finding their star-child, and only gradually revealed his origins. The narrative would have had the quality of surprisingness, even if the readers were not actually surprised. There is something to be said for dramatic irony. 

I think there would have been a strong argument for making Steve Coffin the viewpoint character in the Micronauts. It makes a lot more sense to see space-aliens through a teenager's eyes than teenagers through space-alien's eyes. (This is largely how Mantlo constructed Rom, showing us the Space Knight from the point of view of his human girl-friend.) We readers could have first perceived the Endeavour as strange toys clogging up Steve's lawnmower, and only gradually learned about their epic origins. Our confusion could have been his confusion; and the Microverse might have seemed more wonderful because we had never been there. Kirby showed as Darkseid from Jimmy Olsen's point of view before showing us the inside of Apokalips. Alternatively, the aliens-eye-viewpoint could have been used to defamiliarise the mundane: we could have stayed with Rann and Marie, seen a strange new world through the windscreen of the Endeaour, and only gradually working out where they had fetched up. The shifting viewpoints tend to melt the sense of wonder: no sooner have they seen the strange religious artefact than they have realised that it is a child's back-garden swing, and no sooner has Steve seen the Micronauts than he has understood that they are visiting aliens.

How many of Stan Lee's Weird Wonder Tales and Tharg's Future Shocks ended with mighty space fleets being destroyed by house-wives with fly swatters and alien diplomats deciding that ants are the dominant life-form on earth. Douglas Adams sent the whole idea up, having the battle fleets of the Vl'Hurgs and the G'Gugvuntt swallowed ("due to a terrible miscalculation of scale") by a small dog. But Mantlo is slightly too at ease with his own sense of wonder. When young Steve smashes Shaitan's ship with a garden rake, it ought to be awesome. A whole Star Destroyer full or Evil Mandalorians destroyed in a single blow; Godzilla pulling a jumbo jet out of the sky. Or else it ought to feel uncanny: a whole civilisation of tiny two inch scale human beings. But we don't really feel the narrative disjuncture between the physical size of the heroes and the narrative size of the story. We see a kid breaking a toy spaceship. Awe fails to be inspired.


So: a chase and a dogfight; some Lilipution silliness; and multiple statements and restatements of the backstory. But threaded through this: two tiny-small cutaways to the Microverse. Two pages in Issue #2; a single page in Issue #3. Prince Argon spread out cruciform on some luminous platform; taunted by Karza and warned that he is going to be experimented on. The old lady demanding Argon's body and being told she can't have it. The inset scenes are part of the same world, artistically and tonally, as issue #1. The Daytona Beach material seems to come from a different comic-book. 

I wonder. Did Mantlo originally envisage Micronauts # 2 as a direct continuation of Micronauts #1: swashbuckling, intrigue and exposition in a space-fantasy cosmos? Had that second issue already been drawn when Stan Lee admitted that issue #1 left him baffled; resulting in a much more mainstream second issue? And did Mantlo chop up the unpublished #2 and distribute the pages through the rewritten issues? 

There is a precedent for this sort of thing: material from an abortive Inhumans comic was repurposed as a subplot in Fantastic Four #51 - #64. I've argued that the Silver Surfer material in Fantastic Four #49 was added after the fact. 

I assume that in the Real World, the "To Be Continued" caption was a mistake. The Duchess Belladonna story was originally scheduled to come at the end of issue #2 (or perhaps to be presented as a separate "Tales of the Microverse" feature) and someone forgot to erase the lettering during the editorial process. But as a piece of text, it does seem to be an acknowledgement that what we are reading is two conceptually different comics, glued together. A warning that the comic we really want to be reading and the one Bill really wants to be writing has been carved up and served in bite sized chunks? Or even a secret message from Bill: "Stan has told me to make this comic more Marvel Style. Like he told Jack to put a robot Hulk in the Eternals. But don't worry. We'll get back to the kosmic stuff before too long."


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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