Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Micronauts, vol 1: Rebellion

2003 - available in soft cover

Written by Scott Wherle. Illustrated by Eric Wolfe Hanson, E.J. Su. Inks by Barbara Schulz, with Steven Hall, Clayton Brown.
Colours: Hi Fi Color Design. Letters: Dreamer Design. Creative direction: Josh Blaylock.

Reprinting: Micronauts (Image series) #1-5 (1992)

110 pages

Published by Image Comics for Devil's Due Productions

Cover price: $12.95 USA

The micronauts was a line of sci-fi toys in the late 1970s, early 1980s -- inspired, presumably, by Star Wars. The villain of the toys, Baron Karza, looked a lot like Darth Vader (no, I mean, a lot). The toys gave rise to a Marvel comic book spin-off that, surprisingly, proved not only a decent commercial success, but also wasn't regarded too badly by critics (Marvel would score a few reasonably successful toy tie-ins, including Rom and G.I. Joe). Although I believe the comics out-lasted the toys, both had their day and were discontinued. But there remained a lingering affection for both in the consciousness of those who grew up with them.

And now, the toys have been re-released, along with some novel tie-ins and a new comic book series. Made by Devil's Due productions, not Marvel Comics, and distributed by Image Comics, the new series isn't a continuation of the Marvel series, but a re-invention of the concept. But the current creators are well aware that the Marvel comics left an impression, so there are plenty of subtle and not-so subtle homages to the original series. There's even a dedication to Bill Mantlo -- creator and chief writer of Marvel's version.

The story begins on earth, and a scientific investigation into a mysterious dimensional rift in the U.S. desert. Before too many panels have passed, armoured beings emerge from the rift, killing everyone save teenage Ryan Archer, who is dragged back through the rift. For what reason is the question...and it kind of remains the question for a long time to come.

Just out of nostalgic curiosity, I picked up the first issue of the new series and thought it was an O.K. but vaguely unsatisfying read. The art by Eric Wolfe Hanson was good, with detailed backgrounds and a kind of eerie, glowing cityscape that put one in mind of the 1980s sci-fi flick, Tron (also about an earthman drawn into an alien reality, ruled by a despot) -- although Hanson's Ryan didn't look much like the teenager he was supposed to be. The dialogue was O.K., but there wasn't a lot to the story. I picked up the second issue...and got more of the same. It wasn't bad...but there was nothing much to excite, either. The characters were largely ill-defined, the action was minimal (as Ryan continued being a prisoner), and the plot seemed to progress at a crawl. Without any hard feelings, I declined to continue with the series.

Recently, though, Image has collected the first story arc in a TPB. Knowing, then, that there was some sort of resolution after issue five, I decided to track down the issues I missed, and give it one more try.

And the result remains pretty much the same. It's not that this is truly bad...but not enough really occurs to make it good. The art chores switch in mid-story to E.J. Su, who does decent work, similar enough to Hanson that the change isn't glaring, while not being as good, and with Su evincing a slight Japanese Manga influence. Su also ratchets up the gore a little.

By the end of this story arc, Ryan is still a vaguely defined character who spends most of his time saying: "I don't understand" or "what's going on". Allies he acquires, like the armoured Acroyear are not badly depicted, but you don't get much sense of what their driving motivations are. There's eventually a prison break -- this first story arc is basically about how Ryan is captured and then escapes with some friends. And there's some running about and shooting and fighting. But a character briefly explains to Ryan the machinations involved in arranging the break...and you're left thinking depicting that might have made a more interesting story than what we got. By the end of these issues we have a sense of why villain Baron Karza captured Ryan -- apparently he has some ill-defined je ne sais quoi that makes him important, and by the end is even demonstrating strangely prescient abilities. But it all seems just a tad...wishy-washy. There isn't even much use of the "Land of the Giants" concept -- that the micronauts, when on earth, are only a few centimetres tall.

Reading it, you find yourself assuming the reason writer Scott Wherle is taking so long to get the ball rolling is because he's got some grand plan mapped out in his head and, confident of his great epic, he's letting it unfold gradually. But then it turns out issue #5 is his last issue and one begins to suspect the opposite. Wherle's taking so long to go anywhere...because he's got nowhere to go. He's just keeping the writer's seat warm until the next scribe comes along, who may or may not have a vision for the series. Perhaps the fact that Devil's Due president, Josh Blaylock, is credited with "creative direction" is the problem. The actual writer isn't given a creative freehand, the way Bill Mantlo was with the Marvel series.

What makes this all so glaring is comparing it to the original Micronauts comic -- where Mantlo stuck around for some 60 issues or so. Whether Devil's Due's version is derivative, or an intentional homage, there are clear parallels in this story arc to the first issue of the Marvel series, in which the hero -- Arcturus Rand -- is imprisoned and hooks up with Acroyear and Bug, a bug-like inmate (in this series we have a Vaerian). Rand -- a more proactive character than Ryan -- escapes with his new allies, but not before we learn there is something mysterious about Rand that Karza fears.

Sounds like a synopsis of this story, doesn't it? But all that took place in just one issue!!!

And Mantlo still managed to work in weirder and more esoteric ideas, little hints of characterization, and even made things a little more plausible in that we at least had some idea of why Rand might have something special about him...whereas here, we still have no idea how Karza even knew Ryan Archer existed! In that one issue alone Mantlo established, not just the primary conflict with Karza, but a secondary one between Acroyear and his traitorous brother Shaitan. Plus it was all beautifully illustrated by Michael Golden.

When trying a comic, it can be argued that you need to read a couple of issues to get a sense of the story, or the characters. But after five issues, I still felt I had very little sense of either. Granted, since a new creative team will be assuming the mantle, perhaps one can't judge the whole series by this. But, frankly, if you're looking for a blast of space opera, miniature people and nostalgia, I'm inclined to suggest that you hit the back issues bins of your local comic shop for the original series. Issues #1-12 are nicely drawn by Michael Golden, and though many of those issues feature self-contained adventures, they comprise an epic story arc (there's a lingering plot thread, so I'd say #1-14 brings full and satisfying closure to the first storyline). It's uneven, with some logic lapses and some questionable ethics, but overall, it's by far a more satisfying, faster paced, and exciting read.

This initial story arc of the current Micronauts is not bad in scripting or art but, so far, it's been a tad underwhelming.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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