Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ant Man vs. Bug

I haven't researched  this, but I'm going to guess that it was the enormous and unexpected success of the Star Wars toys in the late 1970s that inspired toy companies to put out action figure lines with identifiable characters and back stories. G.I. Joe, for instance, had usually consisted of generic characters who could be dressed and armed in various ways. But then the Joe line was re-vamped, with figures that represented specific characters with specific biographies and skill sets. Thus we got Snake Eyes, Duke, Destro, Scarlet, Duke, Storm Shadow and scores of other good guys and bad guys.

Whatever the impetus for this trend, it meant that these toy lines were now fodder for coherent and potentially good storytelling. Marvel Comics, which first published Star Wars comics, also got hold of the license for several toy lines not based directly on movies. They did G.I. Joe, the Transformers, Rom: Space Knight and the Micronauts. Interestingly, Joe and the Transformers inhabited their own self-contained universes, whereas Rom and the Micronauts were tossed into the Marvel Universe. 

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There's no denying that this was very much a commercial venture, with profits for Marvel, Mego and Hasbro being the driving force behind it all. There's nothing wrong with making money, but this is not always a situation that promises good storytelling. It could have turned out to be a crass commercial venture without artistic value. But in this case, talented writers were given an opportunity to play with new characters and tell some fun stories. In fact, Bill Mantlo, who wrote Marvel's Micronauts series, convinced editor Jim Shooter to acquire the comic license for that particular toy line after Mantlo saw his son playing with them. He recognized a good opportunity when he saw it.

I didn't read the Micronauts when it first came out in 1979--I did jump aboard the G.I. Joe bandwagon a year or so later and also enjoyed Rom and the Transformers on a more irregular basis. But for me, the little visitors from a microverse somehow got lost in the shuffle. 

From what little research I have done (meaning I've read the Wikipedia entry on them), I gather the Micronauts were from a microscopic universe consisting of different planets or habitats linked together like a molecule chain. A motley crew of warriors from the different habitats band together to fight a tyrant. On a couple of occasions, their ship breaks through a dimensional barrier to reach Earth, where the Micronauts are just a few inches tall, and have a variety of adventures there.

I recently scored Micronauts #19 & 20 (July & August 1980) from the back issue bin. The Endeavor, the Miconauts' ship, has returned to Earth. One of the crew, an insectoid named Bug, scouts around but gets captured by a mad scientist named Odd John, who is mutating insects (making them a little larger, smarter and aggressive) to wipe out humanity because... well, because bullies made fun of his love for bugs when he was a kid. Nothing good ever comes of bullying, kids. 

Bug gets mutated as well and is soon leading a swarm of insects in an attack on a supermarket. In the meantime, the other Micronauts tangle with Odd John. They have a bit of trouble--the mad man's shotgun is an effective anti-space ship weapon when the space ship is really small. Also, his bugs do make an effective fighting force. But by the beginning of the second issue, they've subdued him. But their mind-controlled comrade and an army of nasty insects are still on a rampage.

Some non-mutated ants call out to Scott Lang for help. If you aren't up on Ant Man continuity, Scott was a guy who got hold of Hank Pym's original Ant Man costume and some shrink gas, taking over that identity. (I think Hank was Yellowjacket by this time.) He also arrives at the supermarket to help fight the bugs. 

What follows is an entertainingly choreographed fight that makes good use of the setting and the small size of the various opponents to give a unique flavor to the battle. It's also interesting that Ant Man and the Micronauts spend much of the battle fighting the evil insects without being aware of each other, making it an unplanned two-front war. 

In the end, Scott learns that the shrink gas he carries will reverse the mutation, thus returning Bug and the bugs to normal. That part is a little contrived, but the rest of the story is fun enough to forgive this.

I have to say that this story has wet my appetite for the Micronauts. There's a nice variety of characters aboard the Endeavor, both in terms of appearance and personality. The background is rich in potential stories, especially with various story arcs jumping between the microverse and Marvel Earth. And it's always a good sign when Bill Mantlo was the writer. His stories always had a sense of fun infused into them. 

Sadly, because Marvel no longer has the rights to the Micronauts (or Rom for that matter) we probably won't be seeing any trade paperback reprints of the series. That's a pity--I admit that though it is sometimes fun to own the original comics, I'm more interested in enjoying the stories and I'm perfectly happy with collected reprint editions that hand be those stories in one convenient package. 

Oh, well, there's still the back issue bins and Ebay. My back issue budget is small, but I'll probably snatch up some more Micronauts from time to time.

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