Rom got the spotlight last week, now the Micronauts get their turn. In honor of the Micronauts getting the reprint treatment alongside Rom, I have decided to cover my own very personal (and rather idiosyncratic) favorite issue: Micronauts #36, “This Battlefield Earth!” Going back and re-reading this forty-two years later, it was still great fun.
Let me be clear up front: this is strictly an oddball favorite of mine. If you were checking out Micronauts for the first time and you asked me where you should start, I’d tell you the first twelve issues by Bill Mantlo with Michael Golden on art. If you wanted to know the very best run on Micronauts, I’d give the same answer: first dozen issues by Mantlo and Golden. Since this run has been well-covered elsewhere in the past, I decided to go my own way here today and give some love and attention to (what I consider) a hidden gem.
“They Came from Inner Space”
The Micronauts were a line of toys first released by Mego in 1976. As was the case with Rom, I owned the toy—or several pieces from the line, anyway. I remember them being expensive for the time, which is certainly part of why I didn’t own more of them. Many of the figures were made with die-cast metal parts, which is probably why they were a bit more pricey than other toys that were 100% plastic. I got started with a Space Glider and a Time Traveler figure, each 3.75” tall (so I could later have them fight my Star Wars figures, as they were about the same size). Other figures such as Karza and Biotron were significantly bigger.
Note that in that vintage commercial, Acroyear was portrayed as a villain and enemy of the other Micronauts, but in the comic he was one of the good guys.
Of the characters that appeared in the comic-book series, the following were inspired by (or taken directly from) the toy line: Space Glider, Baron Karza, Force Commander, Acroyear, Biotron, Microtron, and Time Traveler. Marvel characters Arcturus Rann/Commander Rann and Prince Argon represented the figures of Space Glider and Force Commander, respectively; within the comics narrative, they’re more often referred to by their Marvel names. Naturally, the backstories for all the characters (even those lifted completely and unaltered from the Mego toys) came from Mantlo.
The following characters were Bill Mantlo originals and the earliest designs were by Bob Hall; some of the later ones were presumably done by Michael Golden: Marionette, Bug, Prince Shaitan, the rebel leader Slug, Professor Prometheus, and Captain Universe. Other original concepts by Mantlo include: the Enigma Force, the Body Banks, the H.M.S. Endeavor, Spartak (world of Acroyear), the Spartak Worldmind, the Insectivorids (Bug’s race), Kaliklak (world of the Insectivorids), the Pleasure Pits, the Dog Soldiers, the Prometheus Pit, H.E.L.L. (Human Engineering Life Laboratories), the Shadow Priests, the Spacewall, and Homeworld (home of Rann, Mari, Argon, Karza, and Slug). Homeworld was actually a series of spherical, planet-like structures all connected together like atoms in a molecule, which was pretty darn cool. Really, all of this stuff was cool.
“They Came from Inner Space” ran on the earliest covers of Micronauts, as well as in some house ads. That’s inner space as opposed to outer space, which, again, I found to be cool wordplay. The very first issue was released in late 1978 with a cover date of January 1979.
Mantlo’s Best Work?
People may debate the best work of Mantlo’s career, and personally, I’d argue for Micronauts. Even if I can’t convince you it was his best work, I think I can make a strong case for it being his most creative work. Quite a feat considering it was derived from a pre-existing toy line, but look back at that list of original characters and concepts he brought to it—it’s rather staggering. I’ve expressed criticism in the past over Mantlo’s writing, particularly his propensity for plagiarism and his tendency to stay too long on a title and burn out, but the man was able to come up with ideas, boatloads of ‘em, and Micronauts may be his most prodigious work in this regard.
Funny thing about the Micronauts: the toy line kicked off in ’76, while the comic started in late ’78 (with a first issue cover date of January 1979). The toy line was discontinued in 1980 while the comic continued to be published until 1986. If the comic adaptation had started when the toy line started in 1976, maybe the promotion from the comic would have kept the toy line going longer.
Micronauts #35, “The Origin of the Microverse”
The issue I’m covering here today, Micronauts #36 (Dec. 1981), was a continuation of the previous issue, which I had also purchased, #35 (Nov. 1981). Now Micronauts was not a title I bought regularly; I would buy it in fits and starts. In this case, #35 was the first issue of Micronauts I’d purchased in a year and a half. I bought it because it was double-sized and seemed to concern some major event. Also, it had this big, hairy, wookie-type guy on the cover that looked like he was a new member of the team (he was and his name was Devil) and he intrigued me.
A lot had happened in that eighteen months between issues. I was surprised to learn that Biotron had been killed/destroyed and, in addition to Devil, there were other new characters, too: Nanotron, a robot companion to Microtron, and Fireflyte, a Tinkerbell-type fairy character attached to Devil.
The Enigma Force is the engine powering the plot this issue. The Enigma Force is what binds the microverse (the Micronauts’ microscopic universe of microscopic people and things) and holds it together, as well as keep it separate from the macroverse (our own universe of big people and things). Demons are seeking to destroy the Enigma Force so that nothing can prevent the microverse and the macroverse from colliding. As the Micronauts (along with guest star Doctor Strange) try to thwart the demons, Prince Argon (who turned to evil at some point) is determined to stop the heroes. To this end, he has put together a “Death Squad” to fight them.
The thirty-fifth issue of Micronauts was a pretty good comic in its own right. It’s got great action with the Micros battling the Death Squad and it also gets into the very origins of the Microverse (per the title), which involves the demons. The Micronauts recover three ancient keys that Rann uses to unlock the crypt of his ancestor, the Wayfinder, who was the first Time Traveler. Inserting the keys revive the Enigma Force, though Fireflyte does lose her life in the battle. All brought to us by Bill Mantlo with solid art by Val Mayerik and Danny Bulandi.
Though the demons are dispatched and Argon is thwarted, the now-evil prince is not done fighting, ordering the Death Squad to pursue the Micronauts wherever they go until they are all dead.
Micronauts #36, “This Battlefield Earth!”
With adult hindsight, I will concede issue #35 had more depth as a story than #36 and was better literature. But I much preferred #36 as a kid because it was nonstop action and an absolute ton of fun. (And if I’m being completely honest, I still prefer it as an adult. Your own mileage may vary.) Keith Giffen takes over on pencils for this issue while Bulandi returns on inks.
The flight of the Micronauts takes them back to Earth, more specifically an elementary school playground. (Running at the bottom of the cover: “Death Duel in a Grade School!”) I had just finished up with elementary school myself at this time, and if my personality back then was anything like today (and I’m pretty sure it was, at least in this respect), I was probably already feeling nostalgic about the setting, which may have also played a role in my fondness for this particular comic. The Death Squad also expanded this issue, adding new members based on other Micronaut toys that I happened to own. No doubt another factor in my fondness for “This Battlefield Earth!”
From the jump, the Endeavor shows up in the middle of a baseball game and get clobbered by a bat. Then they crash into the school while being pursued by the Death Squad, where it breaks down into some one-on-one combat.
It’s fun to see the tiny Micronauts interact with everyday items like this and make them tools in a life-or-death struggle. This particular struggle will go on the whole issue, making me happy as a clam.
Repto was one of those new figures I mentioned, one of the original pieces of the “Aliens” line of Micronauts released in 1979. A winged, flying reptile with a buzzsaw at the end of one arm and a laser rifle on the other is hard to beat, literally and figuratively.
I also need to take this opportunity to mention Bug’s speech. The “tik” sound, somewhat reminiscent (to me, anyway) of a cricket’s chirp, is a brilliant creative touch by Mantlo. It accents Bug’s alien nature and helps take you out of our ordinary world to a far more fantastic one. Such a seemingly small touch but it really goes a long way.
Galactic Defender was a hero in the toy line, but when he first appeared in Micronauts Annual #1 (1979), in a story by Mantlo with Steve Ditko on art, he was a more misguided hero playing the role of antagonist. Now here, as the Galactic “Destroyer” and member of the Death Squad, this version is a clear villain.
Again, using a push pin as a murder weapon was (and is) gloriously entertaining to me. Antron was also a part of the Aliens line of Micronauts. (In fact, the only figure from this line to not appear here was Membros.)
Always satisfying to me when a fight ended with a big haymaker punch like this. It made me a big Devil fan, too. I was five years into my regular comics buying at this point, and just as it was when I started, I loved action, particularly fight scenes and punch throwing.
In addition to the violence, I also appreciated comedy and found this very funny. Certainly a unique tactical use of one’s tunic. Were Bug’s naughty bits left exposed? Or was he wearing some kind of underwear? I don’t know. They seemed to hide this via his framing and positioning the rest of the issue.
This story is not deep. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of comics art or anything, but it is some of the most fun I’ve ever had reading a comic book in my life. Utter joy between comic covers is something to be celebrated and never taken for granted. Tremendous fun.
They tried to make a go of the Micronauts with several other comic publishers in later years, from Image to Devil’s Due to IDW. There were also three books based on the Micronauts, The Time Traveler Trilogy, released by Ibooks. None of these ventures enjoyed the same creative or commercial success of the Marvel series. These Marvel issues were good comics, especially the earlier part of the Mantlo run. It’s great to know these stories will be back in print in 2024.