Previously, in COMICS 101: When last we met, we’d been discussing Marvel’s adaptation of Mego’s cult-classic toyline the Micronauts, as realized on the page by writer (and Rocket Raccoon creator) Bill Mantlo and artist Michael Golden. We’ve just been introduced to the Micronauts: stellar explorer and man out of time Commander Arcturus Rann, royal princess in exile Marionette, the stoic warrior and banished king of his people Acroyear, insectivorid thief and jester Bug, and Biotron and Microtron, Rann and Mari’s roboid companions. The six are on the run from the despot Baron Karza, who fears Rann may have learned something in his thousand-year journey through the stars that could endanger his reign over Homeworld. Rann and company are about to attempt to breach the Spacewall, the very edge of the Microverse, with Karza’s forces in hot pursuit. Let’s get right to it, shall we?
With the second issue of Mantlo and Golden’s MICRONAUTS came the real genius in Mantlo’s concept for the series. As the Micronauts passed through the Spacewall and found themselves on Earth (where else?), they discovered that, on Earth, they were miniscule, only about four inches in height; coincidentally, the same size as Mego’s toy line. It’s a brilliant idea by Mantlo, not only reinforcing the real-life commercial product, which was bound to make the licensor happy, but also playing off of that common childhood fantasy of one’s toys coming to life, the same notion that helped make Pixar’s TOY STORY films the runaway hits that they were.
Anyway, the Micronauts find themselves in Florida, in the backyard of a young boy named Steve Coffin, whose dog is unfortunately the first Earth resident the Micronauts encounter. Steve himself is the second, as he and his lawnmower meet up with Acroyear with rather violent results.
Thanks to Microtron, the Micronauts are able to learn English by keying into the boy’s brainwave frequencies, and introductions are soon made. Unfortunately, they’re interrupted by Acroyear’s traitorous brother Shaitan and his crew at the controls of a Battle Cruiser, which had followed the Endeavor from the Microverse. The Micronauts do their best to repel the attack, but are forced to retreat, leaving Bug behind.
Steve Coffin’s father, a retired astronaut, is shocked at the wreckage of their backyard after the melee, but begins to believe Steve’s story when he finds the tiny wreckage of one of the enemy ships, with the tiny corpses still inside. Meanwhile, the Micronauts engage in aerial combat with the remainder of Shaitan’s forces all over Daytona Beach, with Acroyear and Rann taking flight themselves while Microtron and Mari man the Endeavor’s guns, a command decision that doesn’t go unnoticed with Mari:
Meanwhile, back on Homeworld, we begin to get a disturbing hint of what has become to Mari’s brother Prince Argon, captured by Baron Karza and subjected to his twisted genetic experimentation…
The Micronauts’ battle with Shaitan comes to an abrupt end, when Acroyear decides he’s had enough of his brother, and tackles the issue head-on:
Shaitan’s return to the Microverse is not a welcome one, as Karza, disappointed in Shaitan’s failure, reverses the spell he had cast on the Acroyear people, which had led them to believe that Shaitan’s brother, the true heir to the throne, was dead. His treachery revealed, Shaitan’ returns home to an uncertain fate.
The Micronauts head back to Steve Coffin’s house to repair their damaged vessel and attempt to find Bug; unbeknownst to them, the insectivorid had hitched a ride with Ray and Steve Coffin, who were taking the wreckage of the battle cruiser to Ray’s old bosses at NASA. While Biotron stays behind to conduct repairs on the Endeavor, Rann, Mari, Acroyear and Microtron take off in search of their missing teammate in the Astro Station, tracing Bug’s unique brainwave patterns to Cape Canaveral, to the ominously initialed Human Engineering Life Laboratory (you’d think being a government agency and all, someone might have noticed that and recommended a name change). As the Micronauts figure out a way to get inside, Ray and Steve Coffin are having their own problems. It turns out Ray’s old boss Philip Prometheus already knows about the Microverse, and has been working on a way to access it himself, having created his “Prometheus Pit” for just such a purpose. The bigger problem is, Prometheus is already quite insane, having suffered horrendous injuries on his last space mission, with half his body being replaced with cybernetic bionics. When Prometheus hears that Steve has actually communicated with inhabitants of the Microverse, he loses it and begins throttling the boy, demanding answers, prompting Bug to come out of hiding and protect his new friend:
Events continue to transpire back on Homeworld, where a new character, the rebel leader known only as Slug, risks everything and infiltrates the Body Banks in search of Prince Argon.
Slug learns the shocking truth of what’s been done to Argon when the Prince attempts escape, only to be viciously put down once more by Baron Karza.
Meanwhile, back at H.E.L.L. (really, no one at NASA thought that was a bad idea?), the rest of the Micronauts arrive and help out Bug in his battle to protect Steve from Prometheus and his robot minions.
In the end, though, it’s Steve’s father Ray who ends the matter, sacrificing himself by pushing both Prometheus and himself into the Prometheus Pit, taking what Bug had earlier referred to as a “one-way trip to the Microverse.”
Steve Coffin and the Micronauts make their escape from Cape Canaveral, while Ray Coffin and an increasingly whacked-out Philip Prometheus hurtle through endless subatomic space on their way to the Microverse. Coffin is soon pulled away from Prometheus, soon finding himself face to face with a mysterious figure we’ve not seen in a while: the Time Traveler.
Mantlo does an excellent job as the series progresses of cross-cutting between the various subplots of the Micronauts on Earth, Karza’s plotting, and Slug’s struggle to free Prince Argon, which she finally does here, with the two galloping off to rejoin the rebellion.
In case there had been any doubts whether or not the Micronauts were a part of the Marvel Universe or not, MICRONAUTS #7 settled the matter decisively, with the Micronauts, in hiding in Steve Coffin’s family cabin in the Everglades, running into, of all people, Man-Thing, Marvel’s resident swamp monster. Drawn by Steve’s grief over the loss of his father, Man-Thing attacks, and is repelled by the Micronauts until Steve backs into him with their swamp buggy, driving Man-Thing into its whirling blades and, well, yuck:
While the Micronauts clean up, Baron Karza has found away to swap bodies with Prometheus and is soon taking a nice trip to sunny Florida himself, courtesy of the Prometheus Pit:
Soon the army and the Micronauts are engaged in a full-scale war with Baron Karza at Cape Canaveral, with Karza (who emerged from the Microverse at human size due to his using Prometheus as a host body) clearly having the upper hand, until the Time Traveler imbues Ray Coffin with the power of the Enigma Force, transforming him into Captain Universe, a cosmic-level super-type with the power to go hand to hand with Karza.
In a surprisingly cavalier move. Commander Rann decides to head back down to the Microverse through the Pit, sealing it behind them, stranding Karza on Earth. Karza senses the maneuver, and swiftly abandons his battle with Captain Universe, pursuing the Endeavor back to the Microverse, leaving a happy Steve Coffin reunited with his father.
On their return to the Microverse, the Micronauts are intercepted by an Acroyear battle fleet and taken to the Acroyears’ home planet, Spartak, a harsh, frozen, unforgiving world that bred a race of warriors. Acroyear, still outcast from his people to his knowledge, is taken aback by the greeting he receives. Indeed, now that his brother’s treachery is revealed, leadership of his people is returned to Acroyear. Speaking of leadership, Prince Argon has taken on his own new role as leader of the Rebellion on Homeworld, now wearing the armor of Commander Rann’s father and taking on the title of Force Commander.
Baron Karza now finds himself fighting a war on two fronts, with the Rebellion in full force on the ground, with unexpected assistance from Karza’s own Shadow Priests who have elected for reasons of their own to aid the resistance, while his space fleet contends with the Acroyear space armada out in the void, with the Micronauts taking to the battle in borrowed Acroyear ships. And in a startling scene, Acroyear removes his armor for the first time so as to commune with the living spirit of his world to ask its assistance in defeating Karza, in an ancient Acroyear ritual known as “Worldmind.”
The space battle doesn’t go well for the Micronauts, with Bug seemingly killed when his ship explodes, and Commander Rann and Mari both captured by Karza himself, after Rann’s ill-conceived kamikaze-style attack turns out to be somewhat less than effective.
However, Acroyear’s communion with the Worldmind ultimately saves the Acroyears’ world when the planet itself begins hurling giant rocks at the enemy fleet, giving up pieces of itself to protect the Acroyear people. When some of Karza’s forces land on Spartak and begin slaughtering Acroyear women and children, even Microtron enters the fray, blasting at enemies with heretofore unrevealed cannons in his chest. The Acroyears win and Karza’s general begs for mercy from Cicilia, Acroyear’s mate. He doesn’t get it.
The story’s climax came in MICRONAUTS # 11 (November 1979), as Baron Karza presides over a now-burning Body Banks with a captive Commander Rann and Mari, and confronts Force Commander, taking on his own centaur form to engage the Rebellion’s leader in personal combat.
Karza vanquishes him, and it seems all is lost. That is, until the Shadow Priests reveal themselves for what they really are:
Yes, they’re Time Travelers, who unlock the potential of the countless lifetimes Commander Rann spent in hibernation, merging him with the Enigma Force, which he describes as “the spirit and the power of all the prayers and dreams of the Microverse for the past 1,000 years.”
Rann, now endlessly powerful, beats down Karza and shackles his power.
Unwilling to be defeated, Karza prepares to unleash a massive Mindshock that will destroy himself and Homeworld, but he’s defeated before he can by the Acroyears’ Worldmind, sucked from his armor like a nut from a shell and hurled down into the Great Pit which had once fueled his unholy Body Banks.
Its work finished, the Time Traveler leaves Rann’s body.
Leaving behind a confused and drained Arcturus Rann, who asks his newfound love Mari and his oldest friend Biotron “Is it over?”
Mari responds “Karza’s destroyed! The war is over! Thanks to you…there will be peace at last.”
Now that’s an ending. Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden, in these eleven issues, put together a piece of work I’ll hold up against anything being published at the time, and which still stands up today, with a unique combination of fairy-tale, sci-fi, fantasy and myth that gives it a timeless feel unlike most other books Marvel was publishing. Mantlo’s ability to weave a thrilling, tightly paced story was shown off here to its greatest effect, and his characterization and dialogue were sharper than ever. Golden was able to breathe life and vitality into a pile of lifeless toys with his gorgeous rendering and spot-on use of body language and expression, and create from whole cloth an entirely new world , archaeology, history and society thanks to his brilliant design work, making the world of the Micronauts seem brand-new and yet instantly familiar.
You’ll never see trades or hardcovers for this series due to legal problems, so do yourself a favor and track down the back issues. The MICRONAUTS series would continue for another 50-odd issues or so, and it would remain quite good, often extremely good. But never again was it this good.