Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Kid's Stuff, Part XII: Micronauts #1

Devil’s Due/Image hit a very foul ball

How do you define success when it comes to a toy line? It’s very hard to tell sometimes. Is it all based on profitability and sales revenue? Is it share of market and brand loyalty among your existing customer base? What about image recognition? Can you produce a toy product that will be beloved by hundreds of thousands of kids yet bankrupts the company and still deem it a success? That’s the strange terrain we find ourselves in when we look at the Micronauts line.

Mego was the parent company of the Micronauts. As a toy company, Mego had been doing very well by the late 70’s. Starting in 1971, Mego released successful lines of 12 1/2 inch action figures based on popular series like Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Wizard of Oz and both DC and Marvel superheroes. They became flush with cash because the characters were so cheap to make. They would mass produce generic bodies for these figures and then add a character specific head and costume. I’m sure Todd McFarland died a little while reading that last sentence. Children in the 70’s ate that stuff up though.

With all those profits sitting around, the company started looking for an original 3 inch action figure line to bring stateside. In 1975 they found just the one in Takara’s MICROMAN line. Takara was a Japanese company already successfully producing and selling the line in Japan for two years. After some cosmetic retooling such as changes in coloring and renaming the characters, the Micronauts were unveiled on October 1976 at Toy Fair in New York.

For the History of Mego go HERE.

Best site for details of all the toys is HERE!

A good overall site can be found HERE.

The Micronaut toys were holey. Not in a religious sense. I mean they were covered in 5 mm holes in various places on the figures and vehicles. There were also pegs that poked out on various pieces so you could attach parts to figures and figures to parts or parts to parts or … you get the picture. Mego called these figures “interchangeable” but any kid would have just called it loads of fun. Somehow Mego accomplished the same thing “Johnny-come-lately” TOMY would fail at over and over again with their Zoids five years later. Wanna see the coolest thing in the whole Micronauts line?

This was the Battle Cruiser. I had one. It’s since disappeared to wherever lost toys go. It had like 30 parts that could be recombined. The thing was motorized, so you could turn it on and let it carry your Micronauts across the floor. No pushing required. The rocket-looking things on the back fired choke-hazard missiles while the wings on the side fired the mushroom-headed dart gun ammo. The sides could even be detached and played with like they were toy hand guns. About the only thing that sucked about the craft were the stickers. All the detailing you see on it were stickers with a very weak adhesive. Within a few weeks almost all of them were peeling off the craft, leaving it white and colorless. Not a big negative, but an important one for those of us who were a bit anal as kids. I killed many hours with this bad-boy.

Before the Mego corporation slid into decline, Marvel comics secured rights to the comic book property for the Micronauts. Bill Mantlo was given the helm to write, and as with ROM, he did a masterful job. A stable of Marvel’s best artists assisted with the book including Michael Golden, Gil Kane, Pat Broderick and Butch Guice. The series was a hit with both fans and critics, winning the prestigious Eagle Award and running for 58 issues and two annuals. The popularity of the Micronauts owes its beginnings to Mantlo.

Still a decent seller in 1983, a five issue reprint of the first story arc was produced followed by a Chris Claremont-scripted four part limited series where the Micronauts crossed over with the X-Men. This lead to a new series (dubbed Micronauts: The New Voyages) that same year, lasting for 20 issues. After that, the series went into limbo, possibly due to Mego’s downfall and/or Marvel’s loss of licensing rights.

Palisades Toys picked up a license to reproduce various figures in the Micronauts line in 2002 and Devil’s Due/Image was brought on board to do a new comic series. Having had success with a similar relaunch of the G I Joe comic, the Devil’s Due series would have been a sure bet. Unfortunately the devil here was in the details.

Unable to secure rights to use Mantlo’s superb take on the characters or to follow up on his plotlines due to unspecified legal reasons (possibly squabbles with Marvel corporate. Who really knows?), DD was forced into a complete revamp of the Micronaut universe and characters. The resulting stories didn’t hold prior fans’ interest nor did they find an audience with people unfamiliar with the Micronauts comic of the 70’s-80’s. The book didn’t last a year, cancelled at issue number 10.

When I come across a book like this one, I first ask myself if it really deserved its fate. Does the story, however different from the prior series, entertain? What I see in issue one of the Micronauts isn’t very good, no where near Mantlo's take on the property. It’s also not horrible, however. In truth, it’s bland and tends to coast on the property license without showing the actual characters. It has too slow of a buildup and not enough follow through. We begin with this guy trapped in a cell, wearing future-glow handcuffs and singing the ole flashback blues.

Meet Ryan Archer, son of the famous scientist Dallas Archer. Father and son are introduced very briefly in scenes like this one that are heavy on exposition and pale blue neon lighting. The lighting is coming from “The Rift” which well learn about in a minute.

So we begin with a portal to another dimension, missing people and a secret government project. Where again are the cool interchangeable products from the title? Maybe they are off hob-knobbing with the missing rich people?

Well, it’s named like the title, but it’s not exactly what I’m looking for. However it is the reason that Ryan has snuck into the lab, as today they are firing the probe into the Rift to see what’s on the other side. Ryan has become emotionally attached to the probe, which should raise some questions about his sexual preferences. The science types send the probe fella through what looks like a square version of the Stargate (and a small part of my mind starts yelling “Ripoff! Ripoff!”). Then Ryan is discovered by his Father who tears into him for being in the lab without authorization.

Because Ryan made his Dad miss that warning light Daddy dearest will proceed to chew Ryan out for the rest of his life. By “rest of his” I mean because Daddy Dallas Archer is killed in the melee that follows. This dire warning beep we see here does not stop Archer senior from continuing his triad against Ryan instead of shutting down his science project, however. Not in the least. He continues to cuss him out until glowing figures start to emerge from the portal. Yay! It’s…

…dudes that look nothing like Micronaut action figures? 

(Checks name on cover of comic mag. Blinks.) I agree, it IS horrible. Why jump through the hoops and pay the expensive fees for a product license if you aren’t going to use it in the story. *sigh* And speaking of the story, the GoBot man depicted here and his fellow generic action figures trash and kill all the scientists. Including the famous Dallas Archer.

Everyone except Ryan, because he smells nice. No? Won’t believe that one? How about he is “The Chose One”. Still no? Ok, I admit that I can’t make an excuse up for why the armored guys spare Ryan. It’s as random as them just shooting up the place when they first arrive. But for some reason they pack him up like a Samsonite and drag him back through the portal. Now get ready for a big suspension of disbelief and a complete loss of story logic.

Ryan emerges from the portal smaller than he was before. Like cut down to around a foot or less. The guys carrying him do not shrink in size at all. Why? Because the story demands it. It seems the armored dudes are actually robot suits driven by guys less than a foot tall who sit in the helmet. Why? Because…they need a reason for the word “micro” in the title? So Ryan’s shrinking is just so he’s on the same size level as these guys. At this point I’m wondering if any of this is actually necessary. I get that the author has to invent some way to get all these guys the same size and this appears to be the best he can do, but I’m not even sure why Ryan is necessary in the first place.

Next they shoot poor Ryan in the ear with some translator microbes from the Farscape TV show and throw him in a cell. Micronaut fans get ready to be excited and then let down.

Acroyear! Finally a real Micronauts figure. What everyone has been waiting for since page one of the comic. Don’t get too keyed up yet, as he says about six lines and then Ryan passes out. When Ryan wakes, he’ll be gone. Next Ryan is chain ganged in with a bunch of other aliens including Acroyear and a four-armed alien called a Vaerian who will probably be a stand in for Mantlo’s Bug character. It’s really too soon to tell plus the guards and bounty hunters take up all the panel-time. It’s odd how few Micronauts are actually in the book.

One thing that is in the book is the idea of Baron Karza’s bodyworks. I’m not sure who came up with this, I think it was Mantlo, but Marvel’s version of BK had him swapping bodies as parts wore out. It looks like the same story is being setup here because the four-armed alien is said to more valuable because of the extra limbs. They also mention a Bio-Vault (which would be where you keep your Bio-valuables?) And there’s this scene of guards carting around the bodies of the scientists shot up at the beginning of the story. It should be a neat idea to rip off some material from the better, prior series. However in this book it comes off as a desperate attempt at saying coal is the same as diamonds.

The issue ends with the camera following a winged female who files up to the highest tower in the city to report to this gentleman that “the boy” is among those captured. Yeah it’s a nice rendition of Baron Karza, but like everything else in this series it’s just too little, too late. The story continued in issue 2 without me and many other Micronauts fans.

The same year the Micronauts debuted (1975), Mego went against type and passed on licensing a new movie property that came out. 

That movie’s name was Star Wars, which went on to be snatched up by rival Kenner. The movie was a huge success, the toy lines even more so, and Mego was setup for its big collapse. To hasten its departure, Mego began searching out a hot property to license that would fill the “Star Wars void”. Lines based on Moonraker, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The Black Hole, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture failed to capture market share. Also the combined punch of taking over manufacturing the Micronauts line themselves (as opposed to buying pre-built figures from Takara) and their policy of not discontinuing older Micronauts figures and vehicles further drained cash reserves. By 1982 they had filed for bankruptcy and in 1983 ceased to exist. A sad ending for a company that brought us so much joy.

  --Please Read --
Bill Mantlo: a Marvel hero who needs your help

Since we are ending on a down note already, I wanted to say a few words about Bill Mantlo. Bill was a great writer. The few issues I had the pleasure of finding in his Micronauts run were some of the best, most involving comics I’ve ever read. 

Unfortunately Bill Mantlo was struck by a car while rollerblading in 1992. He suffered severe head trauma and spent over two weeks in a coma. He has since been institutionalized and is not expected to fully recover.  An article covering Mantlo's condition that will tear at your heartstrings is located HERE.

A benefit project for Bill Mantlo has been set up offering a book called Mantlo: A Life in Comics filled with interviews of Bill and an unreleased story by him. All proceeds of the book were donated toward the costs of maintaining Mantlo’s daily care. Currently the book is out of print, but if you would still like to make a donation, see the link below.

If you can, please give generously to someone who has given us so very, very much.

 A link the project can be found HERE.

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