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The Micronauts

Longbox Graveyard #2

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.

LBG UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who read my first blog, and for your many comments. My interest in writing this blog remains strong and your support is genuinely appreciated.

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

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978. There's a new blog every odd Wednesday at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on June 29, 2011, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 42 Comments.

  1. Wow, I never read the comics, but had a ton of the toys, which I considered *vastly* superior to the Star Wars action figures. The Micronauts had jointed wrists,elbows, knees and some were see through! The Star Wars figures were mannequins by comparison. They also had more interesting monsters like these:

    I distinctly remember owning the 3 on the right. And just reading the name “Acroyear” brought back a flood of memories. (I also distinctly remember pronouncing it “Ah-KROY-er”, whereas reading it now, it seems like it should sound like it’s spelled: “ACRO-year” – Judgment?)

    Good stuff.

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    • Pretty sure there was a letter column clarification in that first twelve issue run that said it was “Ah-KROY-er,” but in my head it was always “ACRO-year.”

      Not quite up there with MagNETo vs. MagNEATo or Sub MARINer vs. Sum MARINEr, but it probably belongs on the list of pointless geek arguments.

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  2. “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).”

    Awesome and agree.

    I started collecting in ’86 so I never had the pleasure of reading Micronauts but I definitely enjoyed ready your essay about them. Love the blog Paul.

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  3. Paul O'Connor

    It may be awhile before I review a book you collected, Billy, but I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. Did you collect any of Walt Simonson’s run on Thor from 1983-1987? I just finished the first dozen or so and will write about them eventually.

    I wish I could tell you to go track down Micronauts but my affection is purely nostalgic. The book did have a decent run, though, with some crossovers, a reboot, miniseries, and even a second publisher in the mix by the end. Looks like about a hundred issues over ten years, which ain’t bad, and some of the later books may well be superior to the first dozen, but I can’t quite gird up my loins to go back into the Longbox Graveyard to check.

    I even found a link somewhere saying geek maestro J.J. Abrams was attached to a big screen Micronauts project but that sounds like blarney.

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  4. Dave Olbrich

    Well done sir. And well stated. I’m always amazed how the excitement of youth can last a lifetime … even if a critical look back here and there reveals our youthful lack of critical analysis.

    I didn’t love Micronauts … even then … but I liked it and have fond memories of it keeping me company when “real” life failed to do the job.

    Dave O

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    • Paul O'Connor

      DWO!

      Awesome to have you here, buddy, I hope you subscribe and become a regular reader. Maybe my reawakened enthusiasm for “funnybooks” (as you like to put it) can cast a little halo and get Funny Book Fanatic back on it’s feet.

      Micronauts was an obscure subject, to be sure, but then this is an obscure enterprise. In the next couple weeks I’ll take a look at Rune (even more obscure, but not to us), and then Captain America just before the movie comes out. I’m ten weeks ahead on this blog, I should do it in print!

      Really nice to hear from you Dave.

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  5. Micronauts was best when they dropped the Marvel U tie ins and told Micro U stories. That came after the 12 issues you review. For example, the Tales of The Microverse backups in the 20s and 30s issues, and the battle over Acroyear’s homeworld. (I’ll be posting Tales of the Microverse later this year if you want to reminisce.)

    If you want better Micro sci-fi, you want the Micronauts New Voyages from the 1980s (Peter Gillis, Kelly Jones) which blows away the Mantlo run precisely because it drops the whole Marvel schtick and goes completely cosmic. Like this scene: http://marswillsendnomore.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/micronauts-breach-the-space-wall-part-1/

    Have fun with Walt Simonson’s Thor – I just read the whole run for the first time and while not impeccable there’s a whole lot of awesome to it.

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    • Paul O'Connor

      Hey, Mars!

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you’ll subscribe to LBG and become a regular. Love your blog, too — I’ve linked to you in my “Friends of the Longbox” section and will get over there to dig into your stuff shortly. You are definitely a kindred spirit.

      Now, this is exactly what I was afraid would happen when I bailed on Micronauts after the first twelve issues … that some wiser head would happen along and tell me I missed the best stuff that came later! Fortunately I have a pile of books still in The Accumulation, and on your recommendation I will give some later issues a look the next time I’m prowling around the Longbox Graveyard. I stuck with the book a good long time back in the day so I must have enjoyed it on some level — it’s just after reading those first twelve I decided that nostalgia had misled me and it was time to cut my losses. I’ll give the series a second look.

      Now … to achieve perfection in your eyes, perhaps Walt Simonson’s Thor would require Beta Ray Bill to utter, “Mars will send no more” … but SMILE when you suggest that run is less than impeccable or I will FIGHT you and all the saucer minions you may dispatch from the Red Planet! I’m actually taking a little break from the series but the first dozen issues or so are perfection in my book — modern storytelling without the angst and misplaced gravity of modern comics. I love that the run is broad, funny, visual, epic, cosmic, fun, heroic, and a story that can only be told in comics. It’s not a novel posing as a comic book, and it isn’t auditioning to be a movie. It respects the goofy past of the character, but isn’t encumbered by it, hanging a lantern on the property’s most ridiculous elements while sweeping under the rug anything that doesn’t work or might get in the way of the fun. It is a brilliant, brilliant run of funnybooks that in some ways is a bridge (a rainbow bridge?) between the Bronze Age and what was to follow.

      But that’s a whole ‘nother column! Thanks for writing, Mars, and I will give Micronauts a second chance. And if cosmic comics are your thing, be sure to stick around, because I’ll be writing in depth about Warlock and Captain Marvel here, and next week you get … Rune! (Huh? Yes, Rune. Just go with it).

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      • I look forward to reading your take on Simonson’s Thor. You’ve sumamrized its best qualities perfectly. Plus, Beta Ray Bill totally rules. My reservations are minor: Simonson handled less of the art eventually, mutilated old English dialogue for Norse gods is a stretch, and any god with a lick of sense would have liquidated Loki with cosmic fire long ago. Simonson’s powerhouse artwork brings it alive for me, regardless. I went nuts for Star Slammers and it led me to reevaluate his older work. But, I will leave the review in your capable hands, because Beta Ray Bill has already uttered our tag line to the universe-

        http://marswillsendnomore.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/release-the-enchantment-now/

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        • Paul O'Connor

          Odd’s bodkins! Beta Ray Bill speaks the space-bourne shibboleth! Well played, Mars … a rook move for the ages!

          I agree that the best part of Simonson’s run is the first — I’ll need to check before I do my review, but I think a letter column editorial comment indicated his initial commitment ran only through the end of the Surtur story (which is where I have paused). In short order, after that, we have Sal Buscema and Throgg and … well … the center cannot hold. But that first year-and-change is a golden age.

          As for why the Asgardians didn’t punch Loki’s ticket long ago … I think they understand that there are Gods and there are men and different rules apply to both. Loki has the right to be evil (just as Thor has the right to kick Loki’s ass), but killing a God takes things too far. It breaks the Gentleman’s Agreement. Besides, Asgardians are eternal, and eternity is a long time … likely they have developed a different sense of perspective and tolerance than we mere mortals. Finally, I think Loki is viewed as a necessary evil, and in the Lee/Kirby days he was more trickster than mass murderer. He livens things up, and he is charming in his way, and he does show up when the chips are down to protect Asgard from Surtur.

          He’s a rogue but Asgard would be worse without him. Plus the Gods all have their own allegorical roles to play, and that means a father must always be blind to his son’s faults, even as the brother knows the truth.

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  6. Paul, really really enjoyed reading about your experience with the Micronauts. I do have to disagree and mention that I also enjoyed the period that Pat Broderick penciled their adventures, especially a really exciting couple of issues in which they teamed with Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. to battle Hydra, Mentallo and the Tinkerer. Michael Golden of course was amazing as an illustrator. He is incredibly talented and gifted as a stroyteller. I, like you, could not get enough of the Micronauts’ adventures to satisfy the urges that Star Wars woke in me for thrilling sci fi adventure.

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    • Yeah, Mars Will Send No More beat me up for giving the Micronauts short shrift and I am due to return to that series for a fresh look. I have a run of books up through issue #50 or so; I gave up after the first dozen books when I did this review, but this was also early in my Longbox Graveyard experience and my outlook may have mellowed a bit.

      I remember Pat Broderick as a top second-tier guy (if that makes any sense); I actually have a lot of his books in The Accumulation, as in addition to Micronauts he was on Captain Marvel for a long time. Another artist that I should afford a second look. Too many books and not enough time!

      Thanks for the comment, G-Ray, please feel welcome to comment at any time.

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  7. I re-read all of my Micronauts (that’s every Micronuats issue Marvel ever published) and I enjoyed them thoroughly. Some artists were better than others (Michael Golden was among my favorites) but I thought Bill Mantlo gave us a good sci-fi Bronze Age style comic with plenty of action. I had been worried that one of my favorite series from my childhood wouldn’t hold up, but I think it did well. Granted, it’s not the greatest comic ever, but Mantlo & co. did very well offering us an intersting Microvers loosely based on the toys (whichI also collected back in the day). I’d probably rate these issues more like a B+ myself, thoughI always was an easy grader. :-)

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    • I should give Micronauts a second chance. The series had the disadvantage of being the first thing I looked at when starting the Longbox Graveyard project, and probably got graded down because of it. Almost a year later, with a whole lot more context, I would probably rate it differently. I know that I have come to have a renewed appreciation for Bill Mantlo, who wrote absolutely everything at one time or another for Marvel, and was never worse than average (and frequently very good). Certainly he made the most of crazy concepts like the Micronauts. He was also the only writer to emerge from Super-Villain Team-Up with his dignity intact (and I’ll be publishing my review of that book here next month).

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  8. I used to read that series and I collected some of the toys. I always thought Bill Mantlo was a very mature writer for the subject material he was given. Michael Golden (sadly, no relation to me) is astonishingly good with such a minimalist style. The comic was, of course, heavily influenced by a certain other space opera and its style is a product of its time, but “The Micronauts” was a cool attempt at an original SF/Fantasy series that unfortunately fell victim to its formula and stock hero/villain conventions.

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    • Bill Mantlo is a vastly under-appreciated writer. He was a real work-horse for Marvel in the 1970s and 80s, and he made the most of every assignment. In his versatility and enthusiasm for reinventing Marvel’s older properties (or crazy new licenses) I see him as the inheritor of Roy Thomas’ role at Marvel. It’s incredibly valuable to have a writer you can bring off the bench for a fill-in or to take over a book at a moment’s notice, and when Mantlo got a chance to build something from the ground-up — as he did with Micronauts and ROM — he also showed he could exceed expectations and make something out of nothing.

      It is the unexpected quality of a title like Micronauts that makes it the little jewel that it is … I’m sure Mantlo could have done a find job on Star Wars, too, but in a sense he almost would have been wasted on a project with such built-in appeal.

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      • I remember Bill Mantlo primarily for writing ROM (especially when paired with Sal Buscema!). That was my favorite comic for as long as it ran and I wish Parker Bros. would release the name/image rights so Marvel can resume it! (hope hope) I remember Mantlo for how well he handled the relationship between Rom and Brandy and especially the aftermath of the destruction of Clairton to the end of the Wraith War. Have you already covered ROM? If not, you have to! Haha Thank you for all the terrific comic memories, my friend.

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        • ROM was a book I didn’t collect back in the day, and it isn’t easily available now, so I doubt I will be covering it any time soon. It does fit nicely with the brief of Longbox Graveyard, though, and I would happily host a ROM guest blog here …

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          • I have a bunch of ROM’s, and I will eventually get around to re-reading them as I make my way through my old back issues (blog-less) and while I enjoyed them, Micronauts was my favorite toy based comic. Also, the second Micronauts series (written by Peter Gillis) was very good in its own way. A totally different type of comic from the first series – the original series was your typical action based comic book, while the second had less action, but was more thought provoking and a bit psychedelic.

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        • I recently finished my Roms. I thought the first half of the run was really good, but for me, it ran out of steam in the second half.

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          • Hey, Dave, how have you been?

            Micronauts was so good that I granted a temporary amnesty to toy tie-ins and sampled a bunch of them. I know that ROM has its fans (and as another Bill Mantlo book I don’t doubt that this is well-earned), but the Sal Buscema art put me off and I have only the first issue in my Accumulation. ROM does still have its fans, after all these years, and with IP rights presumably all snarled up somewhere, the collected ROM remains one of Marvel’s great missing pieces (right behind Master of Kung Fu).

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            • I’m doing well, Paul, though I haven’t had a chance to lurk here as much lately. Anyway, to be honest, I wasn’t too crazy about the Sal Buscema art either. He’s really good at drawing terrified/enraged faces, but otherwise his work doesn’t wow me. Howver, the latter part of the Rom run was drawn by Steve Ditko, and that REALLY made me long for Sal Buscema!

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              • Sal Buscema was another pro’s pro … but the problems he solved weren’t reader problems, they were publisher problems. When you’re running a comic company it is invaluable to have a guy who can turn in a large volume of mid-quality pages on time. Sal’s pages weren’t thrilling, but his storytelling was clear and he could draw every character Marvel had (and make them all look the same, of course, but remember — on time!)

                Thirty years ago, those were positive qualities. Now, as a collector, picking up a Buscema book is usually a let down. I don’t care that he was on time or could draw a book in a weekend after Gerber turned the script in late — I just care about the book I’m holding now, and in that context, Sal’s work rarely measures up. You’ll find a story or two where he had some extra time and did a decent job, but for the most part, he was grinding out the pages, which kept the company going but doesn’t earn him a spot in my affections as a reader.

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  9. I think I have the same 12’or so issues in my boxes as well; as a art fan the Michael Golden stuff was hard to ignore. Looking back I still think Acroyear looks totally awesome! Did you ever take a look at the early 2000s revival?

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    • The Michael Golden issues are essential. I have several more in my Accumulation that I bought out of loyalty to the series but I haven’t looked at them in decades. I missed the reboot … but truth to tell, that first year is all I need.

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    • There was an early 2000’s revival? It probably sucks, but I’ll have to look into it.
      I have the whole run of both 80’s series, and Michael Golden was my favorite Micronauts artits. Acroyear was my favorite character because he looked so cool!

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  10. Oh come on, issues 9-12 was simply an amazing run, especially 12.

    Broderick’s S.H.E.I.L.D./Hydra run was pretty epic too but after that the book just died.

    I think that was about the time that Bill Mantlo was becoming a lawyer and his writing suffered for it.

    If you don’t know he was struck by a car leaving him mentally impaired ending both his legal and comics writing career.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Mantlo

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  11. Wondering what it would take to make replicas of Acroyear and Karza Helmets……

    Like

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