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.
The Micronauts comic was, for a few years in the late ’70s and early ’80s, one of the bestselling, most respected books on the rack, up there with The Uncanny X-Men and The New Teen Titans. A lot of that was due to Michael Golden’s art, which used offbeat panel layouts and character designs that looked simultaneously heroic and cartoony. Plus Golden picked up on what was attractive about the whole Micronauts concept: These warriors, androids, and supervillains looked so bad-ass, even when dinky. Just on a visual level, the stories in the Micronauts comics often had the feel of something Golden sketched while watching kids play with the toys in their backyards.
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 never got to play much with the Micronauts toys when I was a boy, because the playsets were too expensive. (I had a couple of the smaller action figures, as I recall, and maybe one of the vehicles.) But my older brother and I were faithful readers of the comic, from issue No. 1 in 1979 to pretty much the end of its first run in 1984. After that, Marvel immediately plugged the Micronauts into a new series, which ended in 1986. Then Marvel lost the rights to the Micronauts name altogether, though not to the characters Mantlo and Golden specifically created, who’ve appeared up in other Marvel titles over the years. Other comics companies have revived the Micronauts in the years since, but without much success.
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 on Twitter got me wondering why Marvel never reprinted those Mantlo/Golden stories in a nice hardcover or trade paperback. A few clicks later, I’d pieced together much of the story: how Mego went under, how Marvel lost the license, how attempts have been made to bring the Micronauts back as an animated series or a feature film, and how at present, the property is still just sitting there, underexploited in an age where frackin’ Battleship is being made into a movie.
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.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped hardcore toy collectors from creating websites in tribute to the Micronauts, or from maintaining an active market in selling and trading the merchandise. But if J.J. Abrams has his way and gets to make a Micronauts movie—he announced that intention two years ago—will only the grown-up cultists line up? The best toys, games, comics, movies, and TV shows have a timeless quality, but that may be because their longevity has been artificially sustained by media conglomerates who keep the copyrights refreshed and make sure the properties are routinely repackaged. What chance does a five-centimeter high Galactic Defender have against that?