Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Comic Book Flashback #10: The Micronauts, Chapter One: Homeworld (1978)

It's strange and little disconcerting for me to admit that more than a few of my favorite comic-books of all-time originated with...toys; with merchandise. This means these epics were born of -- essentially -- marketing "synergy." Somehow, that makes me feel remarkably shallow (and a little embarrassed). Still, it's useless to deny the truth: the comic-books that I fell in love with as a youth in the late 1970s carry titles such as ROM: The Space Knight, Shogun Warriors and the best of all: The Micronauts.

The Micronauts
comic (from Marvel) premiered in January of 1979 (for just thirty-five cents!). This was the era of Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica, and I suspect that one of the reasons I adored this comic so much is that this complex book serves as an excellent combination of all the genre elements I appreciated in both those franchises, and in Star Trek as well. The stories of the Micronauts are rife with colorful and heroic characters, spectacular space battles, and even a sense of galactic "exploration" in terms of the characters leaving their "Microverse" and ending up on Earth in the twentieth century.

The first issue sets up the premise for the epic saga (which begins a "micro-cosmic NEW SERIES in the MIGHTY MARVEL tradition!"). Written and drawn by Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden, "Homeworld" lands the reader on a far away world ("once the proudest planet in the subatomic microverse...") that has been torn apart by political and class strife.

In a clever nod to Russian history and the story of the Czars, an insurgency led by the evil scientist Baron Karza wipes out the upper class and royal family. Or, as the comic puts it, "The elite of Homeworld have been overthrown by a small body of insurgents." The entire world, it seems, has "turned upon its hereditary rulers!" In turn for destroying the ruling class, the people have been promised virtual immortality by Karza, who runs the planet's grim "Body Banks," which ensure replacement body parts and eternal life for all those who obey the despot. In this world, organs and body parts are a commodity to be traded and used, and one suspects there is a Cold War parable here about Communism and a perceived lack of individuality amongst the Marxists.

The noble ruling family, led by Prince Argon and Princess Mari, can't compete with the promise of never-ending life, and is all but massacred in the rebellion. Argon is captured by Karza (and submitted to experimentation in the body banks...), and Mari is forced to cloak her identity, becoming "Marionette," a kind of pleasure-bot. Meanwhile, Karza's Dog Soldiers and his Acroyear minions destroy the so-called elitists with their "hovering strata-stations" and other weapons of mass destruction. These devices are given beautiful life in the comic; essentially the Micronaut toys made to appear hyper-realistic, and extremely cool.

While the peoples' revolution burns hot on Homeworld, an old starship called Endeavor returns from a thousand year voyage of exploration. The ship is "old...pitted and pocked by the ravages of time and space." Aboard the ship is Commander Arcturus Rann and his robot servant, Biotron. He expects a hero's welcome on return to Homeworld, but instead is termed a dangerous "X-Factor" by Baron Karza (Rann's former instructor at school...) and greeted with a firing squad.

After being blasted by Dog Soldiers, Rann awakens to find himself an unwilling gladiator in Homeworld's deadly games (bread and circuses for the bored populace.) As a prisoner, Raan meets a noble Acroyear warrior/prince who refused to submit to Karza (and whose Brother, Shaitan, is the primary collaborator with the Baron). Rann also encounters an "Insectorvid" named Bug from the planet Kaliklak ("hive world of the Insectivorids")...and teams with them, as well as Princess Mari, to escape the games. An attraction grows between Ran and Mari, and he even learns that his parents -- Dallan and Sepsis -- are revered as symbols of the Resistance because they were the first to defy Karza nearly a millennium ago.

Before long, Rann, Mari and the others flee the planet in the old Endeavor (kind of a cross between the Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon...) and are pursued by Karza's "Thorium Orbiters." In an attempt to escape from the dedicated pursuit, Rann takes his straining ship beyond the very limits of the "space wall" separating the tiny Microverse from another reality all together...and these dynamic characters are soon bound for adventures on Earth.

For a comic-book based on a set of (highly-popular) toys, there's a commendable amount of complexity to The Micronauts; complexity which makes many issues a highly-involving read, even thirty years after original publication. For instance, Rann spent a thousand years probing microverse space "telepathically" aboard the Endeavor, and in the process, accidentally created a mysterious doppelganger for himself, called "The Time Traveler," (also known as "The Enigma Force." ) This character plays a crucial role in the resolution of the rebellion and the destruction of Karza. There are also the mysterious "Shadow Priests" of Homeworld, pursuing their own strange and hidden agenda.

Some characters certainly appear reminiscent of Star Wars, particularly the big droid/little droid combo of Biotron (a 6000 series of "thinking roboids") and Microtron. And some elements seem familiar from Dune (the priests), and Buck Rogers too (the man returning to a world changed after several hundred years), but overall the comic boasts a deeper grounding in human history. I mentioned the story of the Czars, but the Prince of the Acroyears is another example of how our history has been re-cast as cosmic history. This character is often described as "Spartan" in nature, and in essence is a representative of a warrior race dedicated to combat and honor (think Leonidas, I guess...)
.

To some extent, Star Trek: The Next Generation picked up on this idea in the late 1980s, when the Mongol-like Klingons of the original series were transformed into honor-obsessed Spartan-type warriors in episodes such as "Sins of the Father." In issue #12 of The Micronauts, ("Blood Feud"), for instance, Prince Acroyear had to return home and combat Shaitan (a character not unlike Duras), for the ruler-ship of their rough world called "Spartak" (again, the Spartan reference...). I'm not saying that TNG stole anything (any more than Micronauts stole from anything in particular...), only that this comic is a place of intelligent, fascinating ideas; ones that reflect our history in interesting and telling ways.

I remember in 1980 and 1981 -- when I was in fifth grade -- I would stay home sick from school some days and spend the entire time reading Micronaut comics. This was before VCRs were common-place, and so the Micronauts -- in a very important way -- represented the only space epic at my fingertips. Through my entire adult life, I've kept those Micronaut comics and in going back and re-reading the adventures, I can't help but suspect that the time has come for a (faithful) movie adaptation. The saga features a distinctive look and style (based on the toys); colorful characters, some great metaphysical mysteries, and an epic, historical sweep.

Hey, if you can make a movie based on Transformers...

6 comments:

  1. jason6:16 PM

    Ah, Micronauts... big fan here, especially of that first issue, which I think is one of the tightest, most beautifully drawn debuts of all time.

    A movie would be cool, but unfortunately, I think, not very likely. The Transformers have retained visibility, both the toys (which I believe are still being made) and the old cartoon series. By contrast, the Micronauts toy line didn't survive through the mid-80s, as I recall, and the comic was one of Marvel's niche titles, well-remembered by those who knew it, but not recognizable to the mainstream.

    Never say never, of course, but I think this property would be a tough sell as a movie...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Jason -

    Nice to know another Micronauts fan. I totally agree with you about the merits of the debut issue. It's a visual treat and a great read.

    It probably is a tough sell as a movie, but it could be glorious, if done right...

    ReplyDelete
  3. John, I agree this was a great comic. I am still a huge fan of Micahel Golden's artwork even today. Thank you for the reminder. : )

    ReplyDelete
  4. A movie could be made if the Microman toy line was brought to North America by an American toy company and given wider distribution; then, the movie might take off because of the popularity of the toys, otherwise, no go.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Never think your entries will ever grow old as someone like myself comes along to appreciate them.

    John, I swear we might have been separated at birth. : )

    I'll have to write my own take on the Micronauts some time, but I'll begin here by mentioning some of the wonderful memories you've brought back.

    You articulate the depth of the Micronauts mythology so beautifully. I know it's a comic but it was like opening the pages to another world.

    I remember the comic well and I would quickly run home from school in the hopes of the latest issue arriving in my mailbox. At the time, it was fairly normal to receive Marvel comics via a brown paper sleeve of your latest issue in the mail. It would not take much for me to curse my mailman for any damage incurred to my books [God bless my father who was a delightful mail man]. Certainly the safest thing to do was buy the books at an official comic book shop rather than risk delivery by mail. In those days it was special to have it delivered though.

    I also had the Astro station which made for many a splendid adventure with Space Glider [Rann] and my other toys.

    Anyway, great comic.

    Your opening is hysterical. It's so true. Who knew Micronauts and ROM would become favorites alongside classics like the Uncanny X-Men and Fantastic Four. Crazy!

    ReplyDelete
  6. John,

    Only because you would appreciate this, the latest issue of SFX interviews J.J. Abrams who is apparently working on a Micronauts motion picture. Crazy! But terrific news!

    ReplyDelete