Children’s toys and entertainment don’t change over time as much as we may assume they do. I watched Looney Tunes and read superhero comics with my father when I was a boy because that’s what he liked to do; now, my daughter raids my collections of Calvin And Hobbes and Little Orphan Annie. My grandparents played Monopoly; my future grandkids will probably do the same. I was too old for Pokémon when it debuted in the States, but the franchise has endured long enough—in videogames, in trading cards, and on TV—that I’ve gotten to know it through my kids. The repertoire grows larger every year, but the true classics endure.
Except for Micronauts. Man, those things are just gone.
I don’t mean to go all, “Hey, remember Micronauts?” on you, but seriously… do you? Because there was a time when the Micronauts were huge, both as a toy line and as a lucrative generator of ancillary products. Originating in Japan in 1974 under the name “Microman,” Micronauts debuted in the U.S. in 1976 under the control of the forward-thinking Mego Corporation, which manufactured some of the most innovative, popular action figures and playsets of the early ’70s. Mego was thriving with toys based on known properties—such as Star Trek, Planet Of The Apes, and DC Comics’ superheroes—but the company was reportedly so invested in the Micronauts’ success that it passed on the opportunity to make Star Wars toys. (Though there’s some disagreement over whether this was a conscious choice of one line over another, or just general short-sightedness.)
No matter. Thanks in part to the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom, the Micronauts became a huge hit among the children of the late ’70s, and had Mego not gone bankrupt in 1982, there’s a good chance that Micronauts would still be on the shelves today, alongside Transformers, Pokémon toys, and all the various merchandise bearing the likeness of Nintendo’s Mario World characters. Micronauts had the potential to be a lasting, Lego-level hit, given that Mego and the originating Japanese company, Takara, augmented their spacemen and robot characters with elaborate playsets, each of which had interchangeable parts. (And some of which featured projectiles, which earned the Micronauts line some free publicity when parents’ groups complained that the tiny missiles could be choking hazards.) Overall, the pitch for Micronauts was that kids could use the action figures to stage their own elaborate playroom space-operas, and could modify both the habitats and the characters to fit the story.
It was this notion that inspired writer Bill Mantlo to ask his bosses at Marvel Comics to acquire the Micronauts license. Seeing his own son playing with the Micronauts he got for Christmas, Mantlo started dreaming up a story to go with them, about an intergalactic explorer named Arcturus Rann who returns to his home world after a thousand years in suspended animation and discovers that his royal family has long since been deposed by the malevolent Baron Karza. Before Karza can eliminate his last big threat, Rann and a handful of imprisoned rebels flee from their “microverse” to our full-sized universe, where they’re tiny, and in constant danger.
But Mantlo wasn’t just along for the ride. He processed elements from Star Wars, Jack Kirby’s Fourth World saga, and assorted ’70s science-fiction and fantasy novels into an entertaining little epic, with heroes who squabbled and sometimes had a dark edge, in keeping with Bronze Age trends in adventure comics. Mantlo even found a way to spotlight Mego’s Micronauts vehicles and accessories along with the characters—some taken from the toy line, some original. He delivered the monthly 18-page toy commercial that Marvel undoubtedly promised Mego, but he also created a series with its own integrity, such that even after Mego shut down and the toys left the shelf, The Micronauts remained a going concern.
I started thinking about the Micronauts again a few weeks ago, following the path many of us do here in the 21st century: A casual mention of the comics by a friend
Maybe it’s too late for the Micronauts. On the comics side, Bill Mantlo has been dealing for decades with the debilitating head trauma he suffered in an accident, and has been the periodic subject of industry fundraising efforts on his behalf; while Golden hasn’t really been a rank-and-file comics professional since the ’80s; he prefers instead to work on a variety of art projects that only occasionally include drawing comics. And on the toy side, Lego and some other companies have done so well at developing science-fiction/fantasy playsets and characters with interchangeable parts that there may no longer be any room in the market for Micronauts.