Marvel Toys with Sci-Fi

Star Wars - Howard ChaykinA bleak landscape. Casualties by the score. A desperate pack of misfits doing what they can to survive in increasingly hostile terrain. A premise for a post-apocalyptic film? No. What Marvel Comics and its artists were facing in the late seventies.

In my first article, I explained how the plummeting sales of mainstream comics nearly caused the collapse of DC and Marvel and how creators outside of these companies planted the seeds of non-genre comics in the early eighties.

The Big Two comics companies weren’t going down without a fight. Well, maybe more accurately, they were waiting out the downturn and hoping something, anything, would come along as their salvation. Meanwhile, desperate for some sales spark, Marvel in particular fell back on a strategy that many companies had tried in the past: produce a whole bunch of books of various genres, throw them at the wall and see which ones would stick.

To their credit, some of these genre comics were quite inventive. Bruce Lee was a movie sensation in the late 70s so Shang-Chi, Master of Kung-Fu comic was created; Evel Knievel the stuntman had captured imaginations so The Human Fly, a comic about another real-life stuntman was produced; Japanese giant robots and monsters were appearing in cartoons on TV (along with various merchandise) so Shogun Warriors and Godzilla were offered up; horror reappeared in a tamer Comics Code* form in books like Frankenstein,  Tomb of Dracula and Werewolf by Night; adaptations of other successful genre literature were created such as Conan the Barbarian. Blaxploitation film was channeled into a book called Luke Cage, Powerman and Jack Kirby (who always marched to his own drum) tried a book based on the further adventures detailed in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Strangely, previously accepted genres like romance comics were not revived nor were war comics. DC had an on-going title Sgt. Rock whose sales may have played a part in discouraging others. MAD Magazine was still going strong so imitators like Plop! from DC were attempted. DC also tried to capture the zeitgeist by paring Mohammed Ali with Superman for a prize fight but the effort was widely mocked.

These books of course met with various levels of success. Conan was a hit but Shogun Warriors, Godzilla, 2001, and The Human Fly were big misses. Further, none could staunch the bleeding of sales of Marvel’s bread & butter: The Amazing Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Mighty Avengers, Captain America and Thor.

Then Marvel got lucky.

Roy Thomas, an editor, had heard Hollywood was creating a sci-fi movie that would be released in 1977 and asked the director permission to adapt it for comics. Luckily the director was a fan of Marvel Comics and gave the go-ahead. The adaptation’s publication would coincide with the film’s release but as the final edit was not finished, the artist and writer would work from the script, some rushes and production stills. The result was one of Marvel’s best-selling comics of all-time and by far its most successful adaptation: Star Wars.

Those who have read the Roy Thomas scripted and Howard Chaykin drawn Star Wars know what a funky book it is. It has scenes and dialogue that hit the cutting room floor, a different progression and story structure and some crude likenesses of characters. Star Wars #1 was on newsstands before the film’s release. It would be the first piece of merchandise from the franchise.

Many in the comics industry credit the Star Wars comic alone for turning around Marvel’s late 70s fortunes. (Marvel, of course, continued the adventures of Han Solo et al long after the 6-issue adaptation had finished). It had whet the appetite of Marvel for other space opera properties so when Battlestar Gallactica the film (and later TV series) came along, they bet on lightning striking twice. It didn’t.

Marvel was still casting about for other properties to adapt when one of their lower-tier writers approached them with an idea of adapting toys to comics. As Marvel had little to lose, he was given permission and two books were produced in close succession: the Micronauts, based on a line of Japanese-made interchangeable mini-figures, and ROM, a big clunky robot doll made by Parker Brothers.

The writer was Bill Mantlo, a guy whose comics career up to that point had been based around how fast he could write. That may sound absurd, but in the monthly grind of comics production, a writer who could turn in a reasonable script on a dime when a previously-planned story was delayed for whatever reason was a God-send for many editors.

Mantlo was a “true believer,” a term Stan Lee used to describe die hard Marvel fans, yet he had greater ambitions than writing fill-in issues of Iron Man. He wanted to produce a sci-fi comic and Marvel had given him the green light to produce two. His first would be his greatest.

The Micronauts

Micronauts toys were based around a Japanese anime TV series in 1974 but Mantlo only knew of them as cool toys his mother had given his son one Christmas. The concept was clearly sci-fi with various space ship accessories, futuristic weapons and advanced and impractical architecture. The unique selling point for the toys though was the mini-figures, the robots, parts of vehicles et cetera were interchangeable. You could mix and match the heads, hands, weapons etc with almost any other Micronaut. (This was long before Playmobil or Lego mini-figures it should be pointed out.) One character, Force Commander, had a horse, Oberon, that could blend together to create a centaur for example. Some weapons on the Astro-Station could be mounted on the chest cavity of a normal Micronaut .

The main baddie was a Micronaut named Baron Karza, clad in black armour and mask that looked suspiciously like Darth Vader but actually pre-dates the Sith Lord by at least 3 years.

Based only on the look of the toys and this idea of interchangeable body parts, Mantlo went about creating his comics masterpiece.

He started lucky. Michael Golden, a virtually unknown artist at the time who had done some fill-in work at DC and worked part-time as a plumber, was brought in. Golden was a cagey guy, a bit of a hippy, who loved sci-fi  and Mantlo’s concept intrigued him. He could draw like a dream.

Seizing on the word “micro”, the adventure would take place in a microscopic universe. The evil Baron Karza, a former Chief Scientist, has seized control of the planet Homeworld and slain the monarchy. Prince Argon and Princess Mari escape the coup and go underground to form a rebellion against the tyrant. The dictator doesn’t hold power by sheer force of arms alone, however. The key to his power and popularity is a business he runs, the Body Banks, which allows the Homeworld population to live forever by renewing body parts. Where do these parts come from? Where else? The poor underclasses of Homeworld sell them or gamble them away in the Body Bank casinos while the rich bask in eternal young and beauty at their expense. Indeed, the Baron himself is over 1000 years old.

The seizure of Homeworld is in fact the final move for the Baron to dominate the entire Microverse. Like the emperor he is, he now goes about keeping the population docile and amused by hosting gladiatoral games wherein his enemies are publicly executed. There is one loose end, however.

A former student from 1000 years ago named Arcturus Rann is set to return from his futile exploratory mission of the Microverse. Why futile? Because during Rann’s trip, warp drive (a faster method of travel) had been discovered on Homeworld and the Baron used the data beamed back by Rann to conquer all that had been explored. Rann is also the last of the line of Lord Dallan and Lady Sepsis, monarchs the Baron snuffed out centuries before while their son traveled around in suspended animation as a micronaut.

Upon his return, Rann is quickly imprisoned while the Baron, always the scientist, can examine his protege for any side-effects from the journey. While in prison, Rann meets two other political prisoners, a mischievous insectvorid thief named Bug and Prince Acroyear, another deposed monarch but from the warrior planet Spartak.

Finally they are all set to be destroyed in the arena of the Great Games but things don’t go the Baron’s way as Princess Mari and her rebellion set off explosive charges, cause mayhem and the Micronauts: Rann, Mari, Bug, Acroyear plus two “roboids” of theirs, Microtron and Biotron, escape in Rann’s ancient ship, the Endeavor. With the Baron’s forces in hot pursuit, Rann’s only remaining evasive tactic is to pierce the Space Wall, which lands them as 4″ mini-figures on planet Earth.

What would follow over the next 12 issues was some of the best comics Marvel has produced. The story of surviving as little people on Earth, the forces of the Baron pursuing them there, befriending Earthlings, the discovery that the Micronauts were not the first from their microverse to land there, an encounter with another mad scientist, taking the rebellion back to the Microverse and ultimately defeating the Baron had breath-taking pace and scope. It was a tour-de-force and importantly for Marvel, it sold like gang-busters. It was of course helped by the popularity of Star Wars and some of the elements Mantlo “borrowed”: rebellious princess, funny robots, and the main character’s connection to a mysterious power, in this case the Enigma Force.

The concept itself was strong on its own though. It was also brought to beautiful life by the skill and creativity of Golden who peppered his visuals with odd alphabets, inventive layouts, and excellent renderings of duct work. The rapid pacing was also due to Golden.

After Micronauts #3, Marvel and Mantlo knew they had a hit on their hands and the latter’s ambition grew. Mantlo began to draft a 50-issue epic that would culminate in the defeat of Baron Karza at the hands of Arcturus Rann. Golden would have none of it.

He had committed to a 12-issue run and after that would be happy to do a few covers but that would end his association with the book. Mantlo, the Marvel fanboy, had introduced some superhero elements that irked Golden and Golden had been told his beautiful drawings weren’t “Marvel enough” and he should ape Jack Kirby like everyone else.

So Mantlo changed tacks and crammed the important elements of his 50-issue master plan into 12 so that Golden would be the artist to realize them.

Other artists would take over after Golden. Chaykin, hot off his Star Wars success, was a natural choice but he handed in some rather pedestrian work. Pat Broderick, another newcomer, revived the book with some stellar illustrating. A year after Broderick left, Jackson Guice would bring the book to another creative peak.

Mantlo ultimately got 58 issues of Micronauts, 2 Annuals, a 4-issue mini-series with the X-Men, but using all-told a dozen artists and a story-line that included 2 Baron Karza resurrections. The book rarely wavered from its core sci-fi premise and had a cadre of very loyal readers, so loyal that the Micronauts was one of three books Marvel selected to sell exclusively through a new form of comics retailing in the 80s: the comics shop.

Mantlo would pen another hit book based around another toy, the aforementioned ROM, Spaceknight. This toy had no backstory whatsoever except a blurb on the box saying his arch enemies were something called “Dire Wraiths”. Mantlo’s concept was a cross between the Silver Surfer, the Skrulls (concepts lifted from classic Lee and Kirby Fantastic Four) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Comparing the impact of ROM versus the Micronauts is a case study of the influence a talented artist can have. In the Micronauts there were the stunning visuals and compelling character designs of Michael Golden, whereas ROM was pencilled by a journeyman cartoonist Sal Buscema. The art was serviceable but hardly inspired. The dreaded Dire Wraiths, whom Parker Brothers had named but never visualized, were no more than Pillsbury Doughboys with fangs.

The concept was that the Dire Wraiths, a shape-shifting sorcerous race,  had threatened ROM’s home planet of Galador for generations but were ultimately defeated by the valor of the Spaceknights. The Spaceknights were selected from the best and brightest of Galador, but their humanity was transferred into an electronic suit of armour. The knights’ original human form would be restored once the war was over. Alas, upon defeat, the Dire Wraiths fled and scattered amongst all the populations of the universe. Feeling responsible for this outcome, the Spaceknights pursued the Wraiths to all corners of the universe. ROM’s assignment was Earth.

What followed was a McCarthy-esque hunt for the evil shape-shifters which ROM could detect with a special analyzer kept in an extra-dimensional “pocket” and which would appear in his hand at will. Upon discovering some evil-doers, ROM could switch devices and blast the Wraiths, compassionately banishing them to limbo. As the war progressed, however, and the casualties mounted, ROM began to feel his humanity melting away and being replaced by the cold Galadorian steel which housed his soul. His salvation? A pretty woman from a small town, of course, named Brandy Clark, who reminds ROM what is important in life.

In execution, ROM was more super heroic than the Micronauts. It was largely based on Earth with only an occasional sojourn into space. There were many super-hero guest stars over the course of the book and the story culminates in practically all the super people forming a massive army to help ROM kick Dire Wraith ass once and for all. It dealt with themes of duty, sacrifice, guile, and compassion with a sheen of sci-fi as shiny as ROM’s armour.

It sold well, helped in its early days by Michael Golden covers.

These three books together: Star Wars, the Micronauts and ROM Spaceknight helped to save Marvel from collapse in the late 70s. It could have been the beginning of a new era of sci-fi comics (or toy-based comics for that matter) except for the revival of super-heroes spearheaded by 4 prominent creators: Chris Claremont on the newly launched The New Uncanny X-Men, John Byrne on X-Men and later the Fantastic Four, Frank Miller on Daredevil and Jim Shooter on the Avengers and later Secret Wars.  These books and creators brought new life and concepts to long-in-the-tooth properties and were largely responsible for the boom in comics sales in the 1980s. The super-heroes were back, having narrowly escaped death, more powerful than ever.

Star Wars the comic finished shortly after The Return of the Jedi film came out. Micronauts finished in the late eighties. ROM lingered only slightly longer, but their work was done. Unfortunately for the creators and Marvel, these properties couldn’t be revived at a later date because they were not owned by Marvel, only licensed.**

Of the three, the superior book is the Micronauts, in particular the first 12 issues. You will have to hunt them down in whatever comic shops are left and in the few remaining back issue bins still stocked. Or if you want to be lazy about it, find them on-line.  You will be treated to a well-crafted and highly entertaining book, a book that could have been a new direction for mainstream comics but is now a fondly remembered footnote.

——

*The Comics Code was responsible for the demise of the strongest line of horror comics ever created, those being from EC Comics of the 1950s. Indeed, it was created to specifically target and neuter the conventions and violently graphic nature of these books.
**Recently Marvel and Lucasfilm were bought by Disney, so Marvel will be once again producing Star Wars comics.