Jun 11, 2012

Back Issue Ben: Micronauts: A Mini-Retrospective, Part 1

Back Issue Ben is a column written by Ben Smith for the Comics Cube! See his archives here.

MICRONAUTS: A Mini-Retrospective
Part One

by Ben Smith

For the next six weeks, Ben's ROM: SPACEKNIGHT retrospective will alternate with his new three-part MICRONAUTS retrospective. Have fun! -Duy

Hello friends, it's me again, here to tell you about another forgotten gem of the Marvel universe forever relegated to the back issue bins due to, you guessed it, licensing issues. But while you may not be able to stroll down to your local bookstore and pick up a nice glossy trade paperback or hardcover of this series, that should in no way prevent you from reading and enjoying its brilliance.

In the late 1970s, the Mego corporation (famous for their superhero toys) released a line of action figures named the Micronauts. Luckily for us, Bill Mantlo's son received some of the figures for Christmas one year, and the elder Mantlo was so inspired by the toys, he convinced Marvel to acquire the license to publish comic books based on them.

In January 1979, MICRONAUTS burst on the comic book scene and into in the hearts and minds of readers everywhere. I can't imagine what made me eventually decide to try an issue of MICRONAUTS (more than likely it was a "quarter box" gamble) since I was primarily a Spider-Man and X-Men kid, but the series very quickly became a favorite of young Ben's comic book collection.

Bill Mantlo, like he would eventually do with Rom, built an entire universe of characters (like Rom, some of which are still in use to this day), and developed a compelling conflict between the forces of good and evil. In retrospect, he may have "borrowed" quite a few elements from a hugely popular movie out at the time by the name of Star Wars, but the series was able to rise above that and become something special on its own. Actually, the beginning of this series was so good, I do not hesitate to call it a forgotten classic.

Michael Golden, credited as storyteller as well as artist, provided some beautiful artwork on this series. I'm not sure how much was inspired by the action figures, but the designs of the characters were excellent, and the world they inhabited was equally as unique and fully realized.

So without further ado, let's jump into the series.

#1. Prince Argon and Princess Mari are on the run. The people of Homeworld have risen up to overthrow their peaceful monarchy, led by the evil Baron Karza. Baron Karza has promised the people immortality in exchange for his rule.

Escaping the initial pursuit, Prince Argon is eventually captured when their hidden stronghold is invaded by Karza and his Dog Soldiers. Karza orders the Prince be taken to the ominous-sounding Body Banks.

A spaceship carrying Commander Arcturus Rann and his roboid companions closes in for a landing on Homeworld. Commander Rann has been away on a 1,000-year mission to explore the Microverse. His welcome home is less than friendly.

Commander Rann wakes up to find himself in a prison lovingly named "the Pleasure Pit", where he meets and is befriended by a gruff warrior that goes by the name of Acroyear, and the light-hearted Bug. He is shocked to learn that not only has his former professor become the evil Baron Karza, but that his entire exploratory mission was rendered pointless by the creation of the Warp Drive.

Commander Rann is stricken by a beautiful woman named Marionette that comes through the area as entertainment. The next day, the prisoners are thrown into a giant gladiator pit for the amusement of Baron Karza and his ally Prince Shaitan, who is the traitorous brother of Acroyear. Bug informs Rann that Marionette is actually Princess Mari, and that she plans to bust them loose during the bout. As they make their escape, Karza informs a nervous Shaitan that this is all part of his master plan. During the battle, a mysterious cosmic being by the name of Time Traveller introduces itself to Rann.

As Acroyear proves just how badass he is, Rann is once again shocked when he learns that his parents have become symbols for their parts in starting the resistance against Baron Karza.

Finally making their way into Rann's ship the Endeavor, they soar out into space, heading for the very edge of the Microverse itself, and then on to…Earth!

 My brain thoughts: An exciting, fast-paced first issue that only begins to set up the characters and their individual goals and struggles. Just enough information is given to be compelling, while still leaving more details yet to be unveiled. I have to imagine that Commander Rann being sent off on a thousand-year journey only to come back and find out that they developed a warp drive that made it all completely unnecessary has got to really sting. Well, that and the murder of his parents, his homeworld being overthrown by a ruthless dictator, and being captured immediately upon his return. I would call that a really bad day. Acroyear and Bug are awesome, just wait and see.

#2. The Endeavor breaks through the Spacewall, and makes a rough landing into some vegetation. The Micronauts are initially shocked at the apparent size of everything. The team takes some time to get Commander Rann caught up on current events.

So it seems Baron Karza's Body Banks are just that: organ-harvesting pits used to renew the lives of rich Karza supporters by recycling the bodies of the poor or the unfaithful. The team gets out to investigate the area, finding more and more strange gigantic structures. Suddenly they are overrun by a giant dog. Turns out they are the size of toys on this planet!

Back on Homeworld, Baron Karza prepares to operate on the captive Prince Argon.

The team is beset by a giant dog, and a large machine they don't know to be a lawn mower. Acroyear demonstrates his massive strength, to the surprise of the young boy that was mowing his lawn.

 Prince Shaitan and his fleet prepare to follow the path through the Spacewall made by the Micronauts. As the team introduces itself to the young Earth boy, Steve Coffin, Shaitan and his warriors attack.

Steve Coffin's backyard is set on fire as tiny spaceships attack. The Micronauts fire back, while all but Bug are able to quickly make it back to the Endeavor to escape. Steve buys them enough time to warp away with a well-timed rake to Shaitan's main ship. They are able to recover well enough to warp after the heroes, as Steve is left behind in a devastated backyard.

My brain thoughts: Clever little twist making the characters that were based on toys actually toy-sized when they get to Earth. This comic was Toy Story before there was a Toy Story. The Body Banks is a pretty heavy concept for a late 1970s comic book, harvesting the organs of the poor to extend the lives of the rich. The art and the writing continue to impress.

#3. Steve Coffin's dad Ray arrives home to find his back yard a smoking war zone. He is quickly convinced of the truth when he finds a tiny jet, with the limp body of a dead pilot in the cockpit.

Meanwhile, the Micronauts have warped into downtown Daytona Beach, with Shaitan hot on their trails. The battle is fast and furious as they battle all over the town. Acroyear suggests they use their glider-pacs to take the fight straight to the enemy. As Acroyear proves once again how deadly he is, Marionette finds herself admiring Commander Rann.

Time Traveller appears before Marionette to inform her that Karza has a tracking device aboard the ship, and his plan from the beginning was to follow them through the Spacewall and see what exists beyond the Microverse.

The battle continues as Acroyear and Rann swiftly dismantle Shaitan's entire fleet, leaving only Shaitan and his ship. Preparing to ram his brother with his ship, Acroyear proves why he is the mightiest there is with one massive kick.

Temporarily out of danger, Marionette breaks down the gravity of the situation to Rann.

They agree to return to Steve Coffin's yard to search for Bug. While back at the Coffin house, Ray Coffin makes a mysterious phone call.

My brain thoughts: The action is so well-executed and exciting in this issue. You can really feel the frenetic pace and the energy leap off the pages. Michael Golden was at the peak of his game here, and it is a sight not to be missed. Karza's grand plan to expand his rule is revealed. Acroyear slices his way through warships, and straight-up boots one back in mid-air. Do not mess with Acroyear.

#4. Dog Soldiers raid an underground compound, looking for a renegade leader named Slug. The caption says it all. "With grim deliberation, Baron Karza's Dog Soldiers continue their fire, raining death and destruction on the poor from whose ranks they themselves were recruited."

The struggle between the lower class and the upper class of Homeworld is depicted perfectly in this beautifully written and illustrated page.

Baron Karza comes to survey the captured renegades, taking time out to brutally murder a man that claims to be Slug.

Little does he know, that Slug is a woman, and is still very much alive.

Ray Coffin prepare to utilize his NASA connections as a former astronaut, to take in the remains of the alien and his spaceship. His son Steve accompanies him, and, unknown to either of them, so does Bug. They arrive at Human Engineering Life Laboratories, or H.E.L.L. for short, making their way inside, again accompanied by Bug without their knowledge, to see Ray's former colleague Phillip Prometheus.

The Micronauts find their way back to the Coffin residence, only to find no sign of Bug, and Acroyear makes a joke. They decide to set down in the Coffin's garage for repairs.

Baron Karza lets Shaitan know that his services are no longer needed, and that the mind control he was using to keep the Acroyear race in line has been removed.

Leaving Biotron behind to make the repairs, the rest of the team utilizes a smaller vessel to go track down Bug.

My brain thoughts: Between this comic and ROM, I really don't think anyone from either Marvel or the parent company was paying any attention to these tie-in comics. Baron Karza brutally chokes a man to death right there on the page. It's great. Marionette and Rann keep spatting, secretly keeping their feelings for each other buried deep inside. If the research center you're going to is named H.E.L.L., that's probably not a good sign. It's interesting to know that Shaitan gained the loyalty of his people through Karza's mind control, and just as interesting to find out what will happen now that it is no longer in place. Do not mess with Acroyear.

#5. Commander Rann, Microtron, Acroyear, and Marionette track Bug's bio-signature to H.E.L.L. and look to find their way inside. Biotron is making progress on the repairs to the ship, but it looks like he's going to have some cat-based trouble in the near future.

As the team makes their separate ways inside, Bug witnesses the Coffins learn that Prometheus has known about the Microverse all along. So far, they have only found dead specimens, but upon learning that Steve has interacted with live residents, Prometheus begins to get very aggressive. Prometheus has a pit he has developed, that he hopes will be a portal between Earth and the Microverse.

Turns out Prometheus had some prior issues in space, making him more than a little bit insane and machine-like.

Bug comes in for the rescue.

Back on Homeworld, the renegades are prepped for the Body Banks.

Slug has a nice body.
Prince Argon bursts on the scene, revealing his transformation into a centaur by Karza.

Argon is quickly put down by Karza.

Oops, looks like Slug has too nice a body.

The remaining Micronauts arrive on the scene just in time to aid Bug against Prometheus and his robot guards. Prometheus struggles with Steve, trying to throw him into the pit. Ray comes to the defense of his son, sending both himself and Prometheus falling over the edge, and disappearing into the pit.

My brain thoughts: Like I said, nothing good has ever happened when you get involved with a facility named H.E.L.L., or a man named Prometheus. Nothing! If you don't know by now why I love Acroyear and Bug so much, I really don't know what else to tell you. Go back to your boring comics, I guess; I'll be fine over here enjoying the awesome.

 Man, it must suck to wake up and find out you're a centaur.

My final brain thoughts: We'll stop here for now. Reading this series again has been such a joy for me. The pace is so quick, as the Micronauts move from one problem to the next, but never without taking time to flesh out the characters. Baron Karza has sufficiently been established as a force to be reckoned with. Acroyear and Bug are the standouts of the team, with Commander Rann and Marionette not far behind them.

Mantlo was truly at his best at the outset of this series, no doubt aided by the masterful artwork of Michael Golden and Josef Rubinstein. Like I said before, this series is a forgotten classic, doomed to never be recognized due to licensing issues. It is absolutely one of the great travesties of the world that this series isn't available at your local bookstore in a trade paperback or fancy hardcover. Hopefully I've peaked at least one reader's interest to go out and get these comics for themselves, as I seriously doubt they will be disappointed.

 If they do pick it up, and if they are disappointed, feel free to complain to Duy about it.

Join me next time friends, as it only gets better from here.

Go to Part 2!

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