I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
Much as I would have loved to be one of those fabled Marvel Zombies when I was a kid, the apparent beneficiaries of unlimited disposable income who would march right into the comic shop (or, given the era, up to the spinner rack at their local supermarket or drugstore) and snatch up each and every last publication shipped out by the House of Ideas, I was stuck being more selective. That made me especially susceptible to those moments when the Marvel marketing mavens threw all of their weight behind a particular storyline, insisting that “If you aren’t already collecting this mighty Marvel mag, then NOW is the time to grab it, True Believer!” Later that sort of storyline would be promoted as the “perfect jumping-on point,” but back then everyone was too breathless with excited urgency to offer such a gentle suggestion. It wasn’t something you should maybe sorta do; it was an ever-lovin’ necessity!
That was the level of promotion that got me clamoring to get my hands on Micronauts #53. Based on a failed series of toys, this was exactly the sort of licensed claptrap that I usually steered clear of with snobbish resolution, even though the company was very willing to incorporate those titles’ storylines into the Marvel Universe proper back then. But something about the promotions for this particularly storyline won me over. Maybe I had just dropped something and had a little extra room in my comics budget or maybe I was craving something completely different. Whatever the reason, I made a point of getting the issue that Marvel insisted was an absolutely necessary addition to my collection.
Any implied assurance that this would be a clean, clear starting point was misguided at best. The issue began with a tangle of lingering storylines, many of which were dependent on the dense sci-fi lore that had been established for the characters. At least the comic was written by one of Marvel true pros, Bill Mantlo, who had a seasoned skill (now almost entirely absent from superhero comic book writers) for providing histories, motivations and other vital exposition in the space of just a few word balloons. So when the Micronauts loaded back into their towering robot spaceship, he wasted no time in having Marionette acquaint new readers with the overarching conflict of the whole series.
Indeed, this was full-on quasi-tragic space opera with noble but fallible heroes and a grand menace whose cruel reign of terror extended across vast spans of the starscape. It’s the sort of forlorn saga in which sometimes the only shoulder a sweet warrior woman can cry on belongs to her sentient spaceship.
Naturally, I had an inkling that this was the sort of swampy pool I was diving into, but that’s not what drew me to these issues. Instead, it was the tremendous two-part story that this titanic tale launched. Our titular heroes traveled to a place called Prisonworld, which was where the evil Baron Karza relegated the various unsavory, criminally-inclined beings who were unwilling to do his bidding. With a whole planet to themselves, they decided to build the society the way they wanted, taking inspiration from old crime drama radio programs that somehow radiated out from Earth to their monitoring devices. Therefore, to go undercover, the Micronauts needed appropriate disguises.
I’ve no doubt that it was some old, lingering affection for a certain Star Trek episode that made this premise plainly irresistible to me. Given enough time, I could probably concoct some nicely erudite, academic-sounding theory about seeing the appeal in the cognitive dissonance of disparate eras brought together into a single, unstable story, or perhaps a thematically hefty notion about the cyclical nature of history itself being represented by the forced return of futuristic beings to a bygone era. The truth is, though, that I think I really just liked seeing spacemen in gangster clothes.
The stealth efforts of the Micronauts didn’t go especially well and they found themselves caught by the law, which provided a new opportunity for Marionette to drone one about the galactic tyranny that enshrouded her very soul.
I know he’s the main bad guy, but she comes close to tiresome obsession. No wonder the humanoid, cyborg rocket is the only one who will listen to her endless laments at this point. Even the tri-headed, gaping-maw, android judge has had enough of her bellyaching.
Despite the ominous threat of the electric chair, our heroes would indeed live to fight another day. A battle ensued and a daring jailbreak, leading to the strange moment when a puggish space alien doing an Edward G. Robinson impression reference a film that came out around twenty years after the era otherwise being aped.
Give this to the Micronauts series: it was surprisingly hard to pin down.
The hyperbole that inspired me to buy these issues was clearly a last-ditch attempt by Marvel to bolster a fast-fading series. Less than a year later, the bimonthly series published its final issue. I’d like to say that I stuck with it to the end, but I abandoned it shortly after the Prisonworld story. (I did, however, briefly collect the relaunch that immediately followed the cancellation of the first series. If anything, it was even more impenetrable in its commitment to the insular universe of the characters.) Though I found it enjoyable enough, it just wasn’t for me. After all, a major part of the reason I was firmly devoted to Marvel heroes was because they were–at the time, anyway–highly grounded. Space sagas weren’t really what I was after.
Typing this out now, I’d be highly remiss if I didn’t note that a major reason this particular series came to mind is because of the recent attention paid to the heartbreaking state of Bill Mantlo’s life, almost twenty years after a tragic accident. He was one of the true stalwarts of Marvel through the nineteen-seventies and eighties. In particular, he struck me as the guy who willingly (maybe even eagerly) took on the assignments that no one else was particularly enthused about and always made the most of them. For example, at the same time he was writing Micronauts, he was also penning Rom, which was similarly published in conjunction with unpopular toy. It’s a testament to his sterling professionalism that Mantlo approached these assignments with a commitment to creating intricately detailed stories rather than lazy exercises in corporate mutual back-scratching.
Thankfully, there are ways for those who derived pleasure from his creative energies to show their appreciation by making a donation that will hopefully provide some small improvement to Mantlo’s life. In fact, I think that’s what I’ll go do right now.
Fantastic Four by Stan Lee and John Buscema
Contest of Champions by Bill Mantlo and John Romita, Jr.
Daredevil by Frank Miller
Marvel Fanfare by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and Paul Smith
Marvel Two-in-One by Tom DeFalco and Ron Wilson
Fantaco’s “Chronicles” series
Fantastic Four #200 by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard
The Incredible Hulk #142 by Roy Thomas and Herb Trimpe
Uncanny X-Men by Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Godzilla by Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe
Giant-Size Avengers #3 by Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas and Dave Cockrum
Alpha Flight by John Byrne
Hawkeye by Mark Gruenwald
Avengers by David Michelinie and George Perez
Justice League by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire
The Thing by Dan Slott and Andrea DiVito
Nexus by Mike Baron and Steve Rude
Marvel Premiere by David Kraft and George Perez
Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars by Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck