They Came From Inner Space
Once upon a time, there was a monthly space opera comic full of thrilling daring-do, with larger-than life villains and swashbuckling heroes battling across the cosmos for the fate of a stellar empire. Every month the series topped itself with cliffhanger endings and tantalizing glimpses of one of the most original and fascinating science fiction universes in all of comics.
Micronauts … is not that series.
Micronauts is the kind of book that’s right in my wheelhouse for Longbox Graveyard. I have fond memories of the book, I own a pile of issues, and they’re of no particular worth to anyone but me. But unlike many books in my Accumulation, something about this series fired my imagination — when I found them in the Longbox Graveyard, it was, “Oh, cool!” and not, “Oh, no!”
I read the first twelve. That’s as far as my nostalgia-powered unicycle could carry me.
I admire Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden for bringing their A-game to what could have been a desultory, marketing-driven comic adaptation of an obscure Japanese toy series. (And after thirty years in the videogame business, I know all about desultory, marketing-driven adaptations!) The book has no shortage of enthusiasm, and while Micronauts wasn’t the minor space opera classic I remembered, it’s still a fun read, if only for the first few issues.
Micronauts follows the adventures of a rag-tag group of rebels fighting to free their homeworld from the villainous Baron Karza, who rules through terror and evil science. The series has robots, aliens, spaceships, mysticism, a little romance, and a surprising amount of violence.
The big reveal is when these heroes escape to our world from the “microverse” and turn out to be the size of toys, and that’s where the series struggles. When Micronauts is a two-fisted sci-fi pulp with Body Banks and Dog Soldiers, I’m all in. But when our heroes are menaced, Land of the Giants-style, by giant puppies, well …
In 1979, though, I thought the book was awesome, dude! I was seventeen and buying comics with my own money. I had a job and would soon be dropping out of school. (Yeah, comics taught me well.) My mind was open and hungry for adventure. Star Wars was still cool and I was young enough to embrace space opera tropes.
I fell in love with Micronauts from the very first page.
I still love that page.
Pretty much everything I wanted was here. Ray guns, princesses, aliens, spaceships. Micronauts promised a sword & planet adventure in the tradition of John Carter. Everything here had been done better by George Lucas (and Jack Kirby did it better than all of them), but starved as I was for space opera in those pre-home video days, this book didn’t have to be Mr. Right. It was enough to be Mr. Right Now.
And it got some things right.
That first issue, especially, was magic stuff, sweeping us up in a world of familiar surprises, peopled by unabashed Star Wars archetypes mixed up in a galactic rebellion tinged with undertones of eugenics and religious fundamentalism. The villains sneer, the heroes act heroic, and everything moves at a breakneck pace.
Issue #1 is a breathless little thrill ride that unfortunately marks the high water mark for the first year of the series. The Earth-based stories that follow featuring Florida Highway Patrolmen and NASA security guards bewildered by realistic flying spaceship toys run out of wonder before they run out of pages.
(And you can read issue #1 in it’s entirety over at Mars Will Send No More!)
A recurring subject here in Longbox Graveyard will be examining how Marvel’s “Cosmics” like Captain Marvel, Warlock, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, and even Thor and Fantastic Four fare when they are integrated into the “mainstream” Marvel Universe. Unlike some of those other titles, Micronauts lost it’s mojo when hammered into the same world as the X-Men. But I gather “pure” science-fiction books were the kiss of death, sales-wise, in those pre-direct market days, and so Micronauts sees its sometimes-compelling space opera derailed, time and again, by weak “toys in peril” stories that only serve to diminish the book.
Michael Golden’s career was just getting started with this book, and it shows, but he had a unique style. Especially when compared to other Marvel books of the day, his work was fresh, clean, and imaginative. Golden’s pencils are primitive in places but so full of joy and motion that they are impossible to resist, particularly when inked by pro’s pro Joe Rubinstein.
The writing is no better or worse than most Marvel comics of the era, and Bill Mantlo gets extra points for godfathering the series — without him, we wouldn’t have Micronauts at all. It did read better in 1979 than it does today. Mantlo’s scripts are enthusiastic and his plots are imaginative, but his dialogue is expository and his grim-toned captions get tiresome. A few bravura flourishes stand out — like when our characters (and their word balloons) go tumbling and must be read upside-down — but for the most part, this is straight-forward Marvel-style storytelling.
I liked the characters a lot more back then than I do today. What at the time seemed inspired by Star Wars today reads as third-rate Star Wars (which by my math makes it twice as good as Phantom Menace).
Commander Rann is a stiff, make no mistake, a knock-off of Vance Astro from Guardians of the Galaxy (!), and Princess Mari and the robots are little better. All these years later I did still like Bug and Acroyear — they’re one-note characters, but it’s a good note. Among the bad guys, Baron Karza is properly operatic, seeking to rule an entire universe (microverse!) through the promise of eternal life. Sure, Karza is a bargain basement Darth Vader … but it’s weird and wonderful beyond measure when Karza changes shape and stomps around as black armored centaur. Really.
In 1979, this book was my monthly ticket to a space opera world that excited my sensibilities. Reading Micronauts in 1979 felt like you were part of a cult. It was easy to imagine that regular comics readers were dismissive of Micronauts because of it’s toy license premise, and to feel like you had discovered some unique little jewel.
Maybe no one was watching closely. Maybe no one had any expectations at all. And maybe because of that, Micronauts felt like a book where anything could happen. That’s the paradox of Micronauts — with its stock characters and space opera cliches it managed to feel like one of the freshest books of its time. Imaginative, adventurous, and fun, it was the first book I took off the weekly stack, and with every glimpse of the world and characters I wanted to know more, go there, be a part of this crazy thing (at least until those damn toys came to Earth). Micronauts may have been a joke … but no one told Micronauts. It pushed past parody, past tripe, past pastiche. This book just went out and had fun each month and didn’t worry if there would be another.
Thirty years later, I can’t mount much defense for this book. From the imaginative explosion of that first issue, things spiral down quickly. Our heroes come to Earth, discover they are toy-sized, fight dogs and cats and Man-Thing (Man-Thing??). The series picks up a bit when it returns to the Microverse and the rebellion against Baron Karza gets rolling, and the first year of the series does come to an appropriately apocalyptic conclusion, with space fleet battles, living planets, fratricide, and wholesale slaughter of prisoners. But really, this is a pretty ridiculous book, and if it weren’t freighted with nostalgia I wouldn’t have made it through re-reading the first dozen issues.
It’s too bad I didn’t like these books more, but not every Longbox pulled from the Graveyard will be filled with rubies. I doubt I’ll read Micronauts again, and my kids have shown zero interest in the series. I have a shocking number of these books in my Accumulation, but I’ve rescued, bagged, and boarded only the first dozen issues. That’s as far as Michael Golden went with the book, and that seemed a good place to step off.
These issues are probably in their bags to stay.
But I’d regret giving away the Micronauts. So stay they will.
- Title: The Micronauts
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1979-1986
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: #1-12, January-December 1979
- Your Crappy 1970s Spacey-Sounding Soundtrack For This Series: A New World Record – Electric Light Orchestra
- LBG Letter Grade For This Run: C
I am ten weeks ahead on blog posts but I have several new subjects I am eager to tackle. I’ve finished the first dozen or so issues of Walt Simonson’s run on Thor, and am gearing up to write about them. Saturday I found Volume Six of Dark Horse’s Chronicles of Conan reprints, so I should be able to press forward on that series, too (this was the last volume I needed to complete my collection, and I was excited to find it on the rack at the excellent Southern California Comics, as it has been out of print for several months and the eBay prices for this one are outrageous).
That trip to So Cal Comics was the start of a pretty golden day — Miles got the latest Walking Dead and got started on Sin City while he was there, so comics are taking root with him a bit. Later we saw Tree of Life together and finished off the day with dinner in the Gaslamp and some jazz at Dizzy’s. Good times.
NEXT WEEK: #3 The Accumulation