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From Toys to Terror: The Marvellous Mind of Mantlo

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Mention the words grim n’ gritty in relation to comics, and most people think of the eighties, when writers like Alan Moore and Frank Miller made a career out of turning something that had been regarded as a children’s medium into something that seemed rather more adult.

But in fact, grim n’ gritty was nothing new by then. Some of the grimmest and grittiest stories saw print in a couple of books licensed by Marvel Comics from a couple of children’s toy lines! The first was Micronauts, the second Rom, and both were written by one Bill Mantlo.

The Micronauts , which first saw print in Jan 1979, was a space opera about a band of minuscule heroes trying to free a subatomic ‘Micoverse’ from the tyrannical Baron Karza, based on a line of toys from Mego Corp which can best be described as prototype ‘Transformers’.The toys were quite clever, had interchangeable parts, and featured names like Biotron and Galactic Defender.

The comic, though, was something else entirely. Superficially, many characters resembled their plastic namesakes, but as scripted by Mantlo and beautifully drawn by (initially) Michael Golden, Arcturus Rann, Marionette, Acroyear, Bug and Co were real people in an often brutal world in which, perhaps because of its being slightly disconnected from the mainstream Marvel Universe most of the time, Mantlo could do pretty much what he wanted. Frequently, it wasn’t very nice!

The difference between the Micronauts and Marvel’s superhero characters was that they were warriors, and not bound by the kind of morality that kept Spider-Man, for instance, from simply blowing his enemies away. Which was just as well, given that Baron Karza and subordinates such as the sadistic scientist Degrayde or Acroyear’s evil brother Prince Shaitan made Doctor Octopus look like Wile E. Coyote. By the end of the first year (and Golden’s departure) several of the cast were already dead (though Baron Karza would be repeatedly resurrected) and the planet Homeworld devastated by war. But, still, this was ‘only’ an alien planet…

Rom, Spaceknight, however, which was launched in Dec 1979, was set very much on Earth, and consequently events were rather closer to home. Therefore, Rom , based on a toy robot produced by Parker Brothers, was at first rather more in the Marvel tradition: heroic alien is sent to Earth to save us from unsuspected alien invaders, and picks up the obligatory Earthling supporting cast (and love interest) along the way. Yet, even in the first issue, there is horror of a kind, as Rom recounts in graphic detail how the best and brightest of the planet Galador’s youth sacrificed their humanity in order to become cyborg Spaceknights for the greater good.

Rom’s first year was dominated by a saga of redemption as cheap hood Archie Stryker allowed himself to be grafted to the Firefall armour and set against Rom by the devious Dire Wraiths, only to change sides and perish saving him after discovering his new condition was permanent. Things started to become a little less grim for awhile after that, though over in Micronauts, what seemed an attempt to lighten the tone by bringing the ‘Nauts to Earth as six inch high superheroes was brought to a premature end when a reborn Baron Karza invaded the planet, his defeat costing the life of Micronaut Biotron and Acroyear’s entire home world.

The end of 1981 was a high point for all our space faring heroes, as Rom returned home to Galador only to see the portion of his humanity still stored there destroyed, dooming him to live forever as a cyborg, while the Micronauts discovered that their ally Prince Argon (Marionette’s brother) had become a crazed megalomaniac as bad as Karza, and had to flee back to Earth to escape him.

A year-and three more dead Micronauts-later, the book celebrated its fiftieth issue with the revelation that Argon had simply been incubating a reborn Karza all the time, and the deaths of most of the rest of the supporting cast.

Bill Mantlo’s Micronauts was possibly one of the bleakest, most unremittingly harsh and nihilistic titles Marvel ever published, and he ended the saga in fine style. Following a four part limited series in which the group teamed up with the X Men-and lost another member along the way- issue #58 (May 1984) saw them return to Homeworld for a final confrontation with Karza which ended with the bad Baron dead once more. Unfortunately, our hopeless heroes were too late to save the planet, which was left a lifeless ruin. As our few surviving Micronauts left Homeworld for new adventures, though, Mantlo’s final page offered new hope as, in the ruins, a cocoon brings forth the first new life on the seemingly dead planet.

A new writer, Peter B. Gillis, took over Micronauts with #59, its last issue, and guided the tiny titans through a new series of adventures in Micronauts: the New Voyages . But without Mantlo it wasn’t quite the same, and the title folded after only twenty issues. Gillis did manage to kill the remaining Micronauts in the final issue, though, perhaps as a tribute to Bill. Naturally, Marvel being Marvel, they’ve since returned.

Meanwhile, as the Micronauts situation had gotten nastier, Rom had continued on his not so merry ways, battling the Dire Wraiths and assorted villains alongside girlfriend Brandy Clark, neophyte superhero The Torpedo and the rest of his supporting cast in comparative safety. This all changed when Rom, too, reached it’s fiftieth issue in Jan 1984. Perhaps inspired by the success of Micronauts # 50 , Mantlo celebrated by having the Dire Wraiths slaughter Rom’s adoptive home town, The Torpedo, and pretty much everyone else except Rom and Brandy (herself now trapped in cyborg form).

After more than four years of Rom fighting a secret war against hidden invaders, Mantlo now took the book in an unexpected new direction, as Earth became aware of the Wraith threat and joined with the Spaceknights in fighting back. In Rom #65 , the menace was finally defeated, Earth’s superheroes collectively routing the Wraiths, and Rom left Earth in #66, bound for new adventures among the stars.

Unfortunately, Rom had been about a secret invasion of Earth, just as Micronauts had been about the war with Baron Karza, and as with Micronauts, the loss of the signature villain left Rom floundering, directionless. The book limped on for another few issues, but the stoic, noble Rom just wasn’t an interesting enough character to keep it afloat alone, so in issue #73, Mantlo began to wrap it up with Rom and a human again Brandy returning to Galador to find it (you guessed it) devastated, the other Spaceknights having gone crazy and turned on their human brethren.

Rom’s story concluded in #75, with our hero defeating the renegades and miraculously rediscovering his lost humanity, preserved after all in a crypt on the planet. In a strangely unsatisfying and rather illogical due ex machine ending, Rom is restored to human form by a glowing ball and he and Brandy set off to repopulate Galador as a kind of new Adam & Eve, possibly proving that the one thing the talented Mr Mantlo just couldn’t write convincingly was a truly happy ending!

Bill Mantlo had a long and memorable career in comics, working on, among other titles, The Defenders, Howard The Duck, Spider-Man, Alpha Flight, The Champions, Cloak & Dagger (who he created), Iron Man, Thor, Daredevil and Marvel Team-Up.

In 1992, some years after leaving comics to practice law, he was struck by a hit and run driver and suffered a severe brain injury from which he has never fully recovered. The world of comics has lost a tremendous talent, and our sympathies go out to Bill and his family.

Readers who wish to help support Mantlo's care can do so by downloading the Mantlo:  A Life in Comics tribute book for free at wowio.com--every download means that advertiser money gets contributed towards Mantlo's care. 

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