Micronauts and the Mysteries of Life

Even a toyline can become a classic work of science fiction

Original photo by D1_TheOne on Pixabay.

Transformers, My Little Pony . . . Sectaurs, anyone? Toys often become comics, even good comics, but it isn’t often they become great comics, much less represent the best the medium has to offer. And yet the Micronauts did just that. At its pinnacle, the comics were an imaginative and intense exploration of life, death and all the changes in between.

Toys Before Fiction

The Micronauts began as toys. In 1974, Takara in Japan began producing the Microman line featuring smaller versions of its Henshin Cyborg toys. The central conceit was that the action figures, which were roughly three to five inches tall, were life-size representations of tiny cyborg beings known as Micros who live on Micro Earth. Many of them had interchangeable parts and clear plastic revealing their internal workings. Microman products are still readily available in Japan, where they demonstrate a staggering variety of forms and names, from the winged Micro Sister Theon to the transparent Machine Kong, who operates a large transparent machine with a long transparent lever.

In 1976, Mego Corporation began marketing the toys in North America under the name Micronauts. They included various figures, vehicles, play sets and accessories from the Takara line but also introduced new items. The Micronauts Aliens line introduced animal-themed figures such as Antron and Repto, along with vehicles and mounts with names like Ampzilla and Sharkos. Over the years, other companies have tinkered with new lines, the most recent being Hasbro, which currently has an animated series in the works.

Despite the success of its toys, Mego Corporation went bankrupt in 1982, bringing an end to the original line of Micronauts and making them prized possessions of collectors to this day. The company didn’t go under, however, until after Marvel Comics had turned the Micronauts into a bimonthly series, ensuring that the wonders of the subatomic Microverse would not simply disappear.

Giant Acroyear patent. By Dulla73, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

The First Comics

The epic “Fantastic First Issue” of Micronauts appeared in January 1979. As the series opens, Commander Rann has just completed a 1,000-year journey telepathically exploring the fringes of the Microverse aboard the spaceship H.M.S. Endeavor with his roboid companion Biotron. He returns to find that the despot Baron Karza has Homeworld and numerous other planets in his iron grip. Karza farms his subjects for body parts and uses them to provide the ruling class with immortality. Karza throws Rann into a combat arena along with series mainstays Princess Mari, her roboid Microtron, the warrior Acroyear and the insectivorid Bug. After a fight, the heroes escape aboard Rann’s spacecraft.

So begin the adventures of the Micronauts. The main arc of the series covers their struggle to rid the Microverse of Karza’s rule, but it isn’t all rebels against the empire. Like the crew of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek, the Micronauts encounter strange, new life-forms. They visit our universe as tiny people for issues that play out like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. And they encounter members of the broader Marvel Universe such as Psycho-Man, Doctor Strange and (of course) Ant-Man. The Fantastic Four, having figured out how to cross between universes, makes several guest appearances.

One of my favorite guest appearances is in a storyline that perfectly bridges the gimmicky and heady aspects of the series. In issue 7, the Micronauts are in the Florida Everglades with a boy named Steve Coffin, who mistakenly believes his father has just died. Steve’s anxiety attracts the swamp creature Man-Thing, and a fight breaks out between him and the Micronauts, who are not more than three apples tall at the time. Man-Thing swats the Micronauts like bugs but then suddenly gives up the fight and allows the propeller of a swamp buggy to chop him up and spray him to the wind. This is the kind of ridiculous action that comics thrive on.

Yet the issue isn’t without poignance. The emotional core of Man-Thing as a character is scientist Theodore Sallis’s loss of humanity due to biochemicals and mystical forces. Now he’s a shambling mass of vegetable matter mindlessly preying on fear. Micronauts draws on this core by having Man-Thing recognize his opponents’ courage and, out of respect, bow out of the fight. After reconstituting himself, Man-Thing watches the Micronauts from the shadows, aware of his human past and the gulf that now separates him from the rest of humanity. Acroyear praises Man-Thing’s nobility, but the narrator notes that the swamp creature’s moment of lucidity will soon fade.

Exploration of the human in light of scientific marvels is the heart of science fiction. One example from high culture is Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris, based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel about what space travel would mean to human beings emotionally. The nuts and bolts of space travel are merely incidental. The best lowbrow space opera is equally incisive, and Micronauts excels at this. Transformation by superserum, travel between universes big and small, and futuristic gadgets serve as a platform for illuminating the human condition.

The high quality of the story is unsurprising, considering its storytellers. The writer throughout the entire run was Bill Mantlo, also known as the co-creator of ROM the Space Knight, Rocket Raccoon of Guardians of the Galaxy, and the superhero duo Cloak & Dagger. These are classic characters who have crossed over into television and film and accrued avid fanbases. Micronauts main penciler Michael Golden also has impressive credentials, including co-creation with writer Chris Claremont of the core X-Men member Rogue. Other series illustrators included Pat Broderick, Howard Chaykin, Butch Guice, Gil Kane and Steve Ditko.

All this talent is representative of the times, whose science fiction and fantasy exhibited a kaleidoscopic style of imaginative exuberance that has always appealed to me. In comics, Jack Kirby’s work around this time — New Gods, Eternals and 2001: A Space Odyssey — resembles Micronauts for its boundless creativity, vibrant color and pairing of metaphysics with in-your-face action. It was as if creators back then knew no boundaries but the ones they pushed. Like an army of Prometheus’s progeny, they came bearing a strange and dangerous gift and started the fires that would become the Modern Age of Comics.

Micronauts ended in 1984 after 59 issues and a couple annuals. Special editions reprinting the early issues and a limited series co-starring the X-Men soon followed.

However, the best was yet to come.

Image : Goodreads

The Transformation Deepens

I was 9 years old when I picked up my first issue of Micronauts: The New Voyages later in 1984. It was during an overnight visit to my grandparents, who may have bought it for me at the supermarket. I read it that night before falling asleep. The issue was dark and disturbing, and I was enthralled.

Still recovering from their earlier exploits, the Micronauts explore a planetoid only to discover it’s actually a volatile techno-organic creature. When radiation levels spike, the Micronauts evacuate, but the creature uses strange growths to seize the Micronaut known as Huntarr, spew gunk on him, and alter his genetic code. Faced with the possible loss of his entire crew, Commander Rann sees no choice but to abandon Huntarr to his fate. As the Micronauts leave aboard Endeavor, however, Huntarr comes in through the blast doors. He’s greatly changed and has new abilities that help the group escape, but not before they’ve suffered fatal doses of radiation poisoning.

“I can feel things melting, changing . . . It’s like when I was mutated in Karza’s body banks, only . . . By the Enigma Force, what am I becoming?” –Huntarr (Micronauts Vol. 2, Issue 2)

Reviewing the series recently, I was reminded of the essay “On the Sufferings of the World” by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860):

If the immediate and direct purpose of our life is not suffering, then our existence is the most ill-adapted to its purpose in the world. (translation: R.J. Hollingdale)

It may take a minute to parse that — it did for me when I first read it — but once you’ve got it, it’s heavy. Schopenhauer goes on to explore how the suffering of human beings outweighs their pleasure in duration and intensity. The glow of triumph quickly fades, leaving you back in the dark, holding your head and worrying over your troubles. That may not be your experience of life, but it is for many people. And so it is with the Micronauts.

Having run into trouble immediately upon leaving Homeworld, the Micronauts turn back . . . and run into more trouble. As the crew confronts new obstacles, each member struggles with personal tragedy. Sometimes they succumb and sometimes they rise as best mortals can in the face of vastly larger forces. Even Bug, the group’s comedic relief, wrestles with demons and makes dubious, even pitiful, choices. Like us, the Micronauts ask the big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What does it all mean?

Good existentialists, the Micronauts’ choices change them. In Existentialism Is a Humanism (1946), philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre illustrates his view of life through the story of a former student trying to choose between going to fight the Nazis and staying home to care for a parent. If he fights the Nazis, he’ll leave his mother alone in tumultuous times, but if he stays, he can’t fight for his homeland. There are moments when you can’t escape a choice and every option looks bad. With nowhere to turn for an answer, you turn to yourself, make a decision, and thereby define yourself for better or worse.

“I insisted. I wanted to. I tried to keep Eved from rescuing you, because I wanted him for myself. I betrayed you, and now I’m paying for it.” –Diarmid (Micronauts Vol. 2, Issue 15)

The creative team of Micronauts represents these changes through physical transformations such as Huntarr’s. Mari is another example. A princess deposed by Baron Karza in the original series, she became a street dancer and a revolutionary. As a Micronaut, she loves Commander Rann but watches as he retreats within himself due to depression. In The New Voyages, an encounter with the Enigma Force awakens repressed inner turmoil, paralyzing her from the waist down so she spends several issues in a hoverchair. From wardrobe makeovers to physical dismemberment, each Micronaut is always changing.

Creation, transformation, death . . . The themes are big, because writer Peter Gillis (The Defenders, Shatter) was launching a serious work of science fiction that would more closely stick to its central plot than the original series. Readers thought so too, writing to the letters page “Small Talk” about how impressed they were with the sophisticated tone. Gillis’s intense writing paired with unsettling and emotive art by Kelley Jones — who would later draw the iconic image of Bane breaking Batman’s back — ensured every issue of the series was unforgettable.

In the end, suffering as an actual cosmic force comes for the whole Microverse and there is a lot of death. But if you want to know the ultimate fate of the Micronauts, I encourage you to hunt down the series and read it for yourself.

Jean-Paul Sartre in Venice, 1967. By User:T1980, Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0.

Micronauts Beyond

The subsequent history of the Micronauts has been tangled. The change that was integral to the earliest toys via their interchangeability has proven to be part of the franchise’s DNA. Yet so is durability, because the Micronauts are still around and projects in various media are in development.

Early in the new millennium, Image Comics bought the publication rights to Micronauts and published a couple short-lived series. Then Devil’s Due Publishing took over for an even shorter series. Since 2015, IDW Publishing has produced several Micronauts series as well as a couple art books. Acroyear, Biotron and Microtron feature in all these incarnations of the series, but the rights to Commander Rann, Marionette and Bug remain with Marvel, which doesn’t seem to know what to do with them, relegating them to infrequent guest appearances here and there: Captain Marvel, Cable, The Incredible Hulks: Enigma Force. This leaves the Micronauts characteristically caught between two worlds.

Each new series has had its strengths. Image’s Force Commander was an interesting character, illustrator Steve Kurth (The Avengers, G.I. Joe) drew the meanest Acroyear ever, and Micronauts: Karza reached back to the Pharoid action figure of 1977 to craft a time-hopping story exploring the baron’s background. IDW has likewise made the franchise its own by beefing up Biotron into an army of pilotable mechs, introducing intriguing characters like Larissa (aka Orbital Defender) and pairing them with ROM. The more recent series have never fully satisfied me, but I keep an open mind. If you love something, you should want to like new takes on it.

And more new takes are on the way. In addition to Hasbro’s animated series, Paramount is working with the toy company on a feature length film destined for release whenever the COVID-19 pandemic permits. Recent toy franchise films such as G.I. Joe and Transformers don’t inspire much confidence, but each new work is, as Bumblebee illustrated in 2018, a chance to get things right. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Dean DeBlois, known for How to Train Your Dragon, is slated to direct. Early reports such as one on GeekTyrant indicate that the basic idea of a diverse band of space adventurers remains, but a new crop of characters, or new spins on old ones, is likely.

Maybe franchises are like living organisms and we should let them rest in peace when they reach the end of their life cycles instead of endlessly rebooting and reimagining them. Then again, The New Voyages teaches that death often precedes new life. Perhaps someday, even someday soon, the Micronauts will undergo a rebirth as glorious as their best years.

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I write about the intersection of arts and ideas, my small contribution to the #ThinGraphiteLine between civilization and its collapse.

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