(Micronauts, 1st Marvel Comics series, #1-12 (+#13-14) 1979-1980
Written by Bill Mantlo. Pencils by Michael Golden. Inks by Joe Rubinstein, Al Milgrom, Bob MacLeod.
The inaugural story arc for the original Micronauts comic was hardly without flaws, making it seem, perhaps, an odd selection for my section about the "great" comic book sagas. But despite some bumps in the road, it had a lot to recommend it. The Micronauts was a line of toys that Marvel Comics turned into a comicbook series and, surprise surprise, the comic did better than one might expect, commercially and critically. It continued being published for a few years after the toys themselvs had been discontinued.
The original story owed a lot -- a lot -- to Star Wars, in that it featured a group of spacefaring rebels battling an evil, black armoured dictator. There was a feisty robot, a confusing use of political terms (royal familes...yet who claim to be fighting for democracy), an all pervasive cosmic force (the Enigma force) and more that was remiscent of George Lucas' cinematic epic. But there were also a lot of original ideas, not the least being villain Baron Karza holding sway, in part, by securing loyalty by offering a chance at immortality through his body banks. There's also a strong sub-plot involving the micronaut Acroyear, whose turncoat brother has joined with Karza, and turned Acroyear's own people against him. In fact, that emerges as such a crucial part of the saga, that after Karza is defeated in #11, issue #12 is dedicated to Acroyear's showdown with his brother. And because the characters exist in a sub-atomic universe, when they arrive on earth for a few issues, there was an unusual Land of the Giants vibe happening, as the Micronauts were only a few inches tall.
Re-reading these issues recently, I got a real rush remembering the characters and re-living the plot threads. One review I read of these issues was more dismissive (though still complimentary), describing, for instance, Bug as having a speech impediment in place of a character. But I'd disagree. Mantlo does an decent job of subtly creating personalities, without necessarily belabouring it.
The early stories are made up of, often, self contained issues and adventures, that nonetheless contribute to the whole, as well as being threaded through with sub-plots. In fact, of the early issues, the only blatantly "to be continued" sections are #5-6, and #9-11 -- the rest could be sampled on their own (though they're still part of the greater story). At the same time, because of that, there are a number of issues than can seem a little like, well, fillers, as we get an action story of the Micronauts fleeing Karza's patrols, or an earth-side encounter with the Man-Thing, that aren't exactly masterpieces of plotting. And even with the story arc itself, there are spots that seem a bit like Mantlo is making it up as he goes, and things that don't make sense. For instance, Karza usurped the throne a thousand years ago...yet there still exists a royal family that only now seem to be being overthrown. Huh?
There are also ethical qualms. Being a "Star Wars"-style war series, the violence is more ruthless, of a kill or be killed variety. Worse, though, there are a couple of scenes where Mantlo has (supporting character) good guys kill bad guys who are their prisoners! That's precisely the sort of scene you'd put in a story to show how sleazy and reprehensible the villain is...yet here, Mantlo has the good guys doing it. Ugh! There's also elements of anti-egalitarinism, as the "rabble" support Karza against the heroic blue bloods.
Of course, one can't begin to ignore the beautiful, at times stunning, art work by Michael Golden. At times breathtaking, richly fluid and organic, with Golden even keeping some of the look of the toys when drawing the ships and machines, giving the mechanics their own unusual style. Occasionally the art falters with a guest inker less sympathetic to Golden's style (such as Bob MacLeod), but generally it's exceptional, and I'm shallow enough to recognize that part of my fondness for the series is Golden's art.
That brings us to the tricky question of what comprises the "story". #1-11 chronicle the first war with Karza (he would later come back), and #12 is an epilogue focusing on Acroyear. But #12 is Golden's last issue. What's next is a two part story featuring Bug, who the micronauts, and the reader, thought was dead. It's not till #14 that the team is fully reunited, and sets off for new adventures. In other words, for those looking for complete closure, the full epic is from #1-14 (though by then Mantlo has begun introducing a foreshadowing of the next story). The Bug two-parter is O.K., and allows more shading to Bug's background and character, but it's not great. Worse, it's drawn by Howard Chaykin and inked by Al Milgrom. Chaykin is generally a good artist, and Milgrom, though a problematic inker, did some good work on Golden's pencils for the previous issues, but the two combine for a sloppy, haphazard job.
The bottom line is #1-11 are essential, but #12 is a good addition, and #13-14 are worth getting for completists.
Although I've always retained an affection for the Micronauts in general, and these issues inparticular, what brought home to me the strengths of this original epic was reading the recent revival -- which wasn't half as good.