Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Comic-Book of the Week: The Micronauts

It's strange and little disconcerting for me to admit that more than a few of my favorite comic-books of all-time originated; with merchandise. 

This means these epics were born of -- essentially -- marketing "synergy."

Somehow, that makes me feel remarkably shallow. Still, it's useless to deny the truth: the comic-books that I fell in love with as a youth in the late 1970s carry titles such as ROM: The Space Knight, Shogun Warriors and the best of all: The Micronauts.

The Micronauts
comic (from Marvel) premiered in January of 1979 (for just thirty-five cents!). 

This was the era of Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica, and I suspect that one of the reasons I adored this comic so much is that this complex book serves as an excellent combination of all the genre elements I appreciated in both those franchises, and in Star Trek as well. 

The stories of the Micronauts are rife with colorful and heroic characters, spectacular space battles, and even a sense of galactic "exploration" in terms of the characters leaving their "Microverse" and ending up on Earth in the twentieth century.

The first issue sets up the premise for the epic saga (which begins a "micro-cosmic NEW SERIES in the MIGHTY MARVEL tradition!"). 

Written and drawn by Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden, "Homeworld" lands the reader on a far away world ("once the proudest planet in the subatomic microverse...") that has been torn apart by political and class strife.

In a clever nod to Russian history and the story of the Czars, an insurgency led by the evil scientist Baron Karza wipes out the upper class and royal family. Or, as the comic puts it, "The elite of Homeworld have been overthrown by a small body of insurgents." 

The entire world, it seems, has "turned upon its hereditary rulers!"

In turn for destroying the ruling class, the people have been promised virtual immortality by Karza, who runs the planet's grim "Body Banks," which ensure replacement body parts and eternal life for all those who obey the despot. 

In this world, organs and body parts are a commodity to be traded and used, and one suspects there is a Cold War parable here about Communism and a perceived lack of individuality amongst the Marxists.

The noble ruling family, led by Prince Argon and Princess Mari, can't compete with the promise of never-ending life, and is all but massacred in the rebellion. Argon is captured by Karza (and submitted to experimentation in the body banks...), and Mari is forced to cloak her identity, becoming "Marionette," a kind of pleasure-bot. 

Meanwhile, Karza's Dog Soldiers and his Acroyear minions destroy the so-called elitists with their "hovering strata-stations" and other weapons of mass destruction. These devices are given beautiful life in the comic; essentially the Micronaut toys made to appear hyper-realistic, and extremely cool.

While the peoples' revolution burns hot on Homeworld, an old starship called Endeavor returns from a thousand year voyage of exploration. The ship is "old...pitted and pocked by the ravages of time and space." 

Aboard the ship is Commander Arcturus Rann and his robot servant, Biotron. He expects a hero's welcome on return to Homeworld, but instead is termed a dangerous "X-Factor" by Baron Karza (Rann's former instructor at school...) and greeted with a firing squad.

After being blasted by Dog Soldiers, Rann awakens to find himself an unwilling gladiator in Homeworld's deadly games (bread and circuses for the bored populace.) As a prisoner, Raan meets a noble Acroyear warrior/prince who refused to submit to Karza (and whose Brother, Shaitan, is the primary collaborator with the Baron). 

Rann also encounters an "Insectorvid" named Bug from the planet Kaliklak ("hive world of the Insectivorids")...and teams with them, as well as Princess Mari, to escape the games. An attraction grows between Ran and Mari, and he even learns that his parents -- Dallan and Sepsis -- are revered as symbols of the Resistance because they were the first to defy Karza nearly a millennium ago.

Before long, Rann, Mari and the others flee the planet in the old Endeavor (kind of a cross between the Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon...) and are pursued by Karza's "Thorium Orbiters." In an attempt to escape from the dedicated pursuit, Rann takes his straining ship beyond the very limits of the "space wall" separating the tiny Microverse from another reality all together...and these dynamic characters are soon bound for adventures on Earth.

For a comic-book based on a set of (highly-popular) toys, there's a commendable amount of complexity to The Micronauts; complexity which makes many issues a highly-involving read, even thirty-five years after original publication. 

For instance, Rann spent a thousand years probing microverse space "telepathically" aboard the Endeavor, and in the process, accidentally created a mysterious doppelganger for himself, called "The Time Traveler," (also known as "The Enigma Force." ) This character plays a crucial role in the resolution of the rebellion and the destruction of Karza. There are also the mysterious "Shadow Priests" of Homeworld, pursuing their own strange and hidden agenda.

Some characters certainly appear reminiscent of Star Wars, particularly the big droid/little droid combo of Biotron (a 6000 series of "thinking roboids") and Microtron. And some elements seem familiar from Dune (the priests), and Buck Rogers too (the man returning to a world changed after several hundred years), but overall the comic boasts a deeper grounding in human history. 

I mentioned the story of the Czars, but the Prince of the Acroyears is another example of how our history has been re-cast as cosmic history. This character is often described as "Spartan" in nature, and in essence is a representative of a warrior race dedicated to combat and honor (think Leonidas, I guess...).

To some extent, Star Trek: The Next Generation picked up on this idea in the late 1980s, when the Mongol-like Klingons of the original series were transformed into honor-obsessed Spartan-type warriors in episodes such as "Sins of the Father." 

In issue #12 of The Micronauts, ("Blood Feud"), for instance, Prince Acroyear had to return home and combat Shaitan (a character not unlike Duras), for the ruler-ship of their rough world called "Spartak" (again, the Spartan reference...). I'm not saying that TNG stole anything (any more than Micronauts stole from anything in particular...), only that this comic is a place of intelligent, fascinating ideas; ones that reflect our history in interesting and telling ways.

I remember in 1980 and 1981 -- when I was in fifth grade -- I would stay home sick from school some days and spend the entire time reading Micronaut comics. This was before VCRs were common-place, and so the Micronauts -- in a very important way -- represented the only space epic at my fingertips. 

Through my entire adult life, I've kept those Micronaut comics and in going back and re-reading the adventures, I can't help but suspect that the time has come for a (faithful) movie adaptation. The saga features a distinctive look and style (based on the toys); colorful characters, some great metaphysical mysteries, and an epic, historical sweep.

The Micronauts: Andromeda

This is Baron Karza's "Star Stallion," with "magno-power action firing missiles."  The great thing about this horse is that he could be combined with Baron Karza to become an "Evil Centaur."  Also, you could remove Andromeda's legs and give the animal...wheels.

On the side of goodness was Baron Karza's opposite, Force Commander.  Force Commander rode a white steed named Oberon, and could also combine with his rider to become a centaur.

The Micronauts: Biotron

When I turned seven, one of the toys I wanted most for my birthday was "Biotron" a huge interchangeable robot from the Mego Micronauts collection.

My granny -- Tippie from Texas -- came through, and I was thrilled.  And incidentally, she came through for me again for Christmas that year with the glorious Micronauts Battle Cruiser.  But that's another story.

Biotron is a "motorized robot" who "holds up to three Micronauts" and "adapts to other Micronaut accessories," according to the box legend.  The same legend instructs kids to "use him four ways."

Fully assembled, Biotron is a huge robot, standing approximately a foot tall.  He runs on two "C" batteries, and when activated can kind of shuffle around on his jet-like, blue-plastic feet.  He's the perfect companion to another Micronauts robot, Microtron, and in the Marvel Comics, indeed, they were matched up together often.

One of the Micronauts (Space Glider, Galactic Warrior or Time Traveler) can ride inside Biotron's transparent chest panel, and I always loved Biotron's gripping, snapping hands, which could catch the enemy, the Acroyear.  

I don't know if I'm remembering it exactly right, but I think that Biotron was my first big Micronauts toy.  I had a few action figures (Galactic Warrior and Time Traveler) at that point, but none of the "big" items.  That soon changed, but I always had a love for this chrome-faced, goliath of a robot.

Today, Biotron has a good home in my office, though his box is showing a great deal of wear, and so are his hands.  The chrome has worn off his grippers in some spots, revealing a kind yucky green under-color.  (I hope it's not mold...).

The Micronauts: Hornetroid

It would be a tough call to select my favorite Mego Micronauts toy from the 1970s, but leading the pack would be 1979’s Hornetroid, “the fearsome Myriapod from the far-off galaxy of Thoraxia.”  The baddest MF in the Microverse, the Hornetroid is an interchangeable aerial attack ship that resembles a giant, malevolent insect.

The Hornetroid features a front cockpit which opens to house Micronaut action figures, gripping mandibles, four translucent purple wings, a cockpit canopy that resembles compound eyes, laser cannons and more.  The Hornetroid’s wings, for instance, could flap up-and-down by pressing a tab on the ship’s dorsal spine. 

Released at the same time as the “Terraphant” (a terrestrial vehicle resembling a monster elephant…) and personalities such as Membros (with the glow-in-the-dark brain), Hornetroid also shared an awesome quality with toys such as Milton Bradley’s Star Bird and Mattel’s Space: 1999 Eagle One.  In particular, the Hornetroid could come apart, and re-form into a scout mode by joining the aft and fore compartments and discarding the middle module. 

Mego’s Hornetroid was perhaps my most desired toy of 1979 because it looked so damn scary and cool.  I still own the one my Granny bought for me that year, but it is in really, really bad shape after three-and-a-half decades.  The back dorsal wing/spine is snapped off, along with one of the front compartment’s antennae.  

I’ve also managed to lose the weird transparent purple “bomb” to the ship.  I had it just a few years ago, but now it is gone.

The Hornetroid, though not the right scale, also appeared in the popular Micronauts comic-book series from Marvel.

The Micronauts: Micropolis

This is the Micronauts “building set that never stops growing” from Mego  

As the box art suggests: “Make this and dozens of fantastic space age structures for your micronauts.” 

These space-age construction sets “enable your child to build any number of different toys that can be taken apart and put together over and over again.  Using a simple five millimeter plug and receptacle system, Micropolis building sets will adapt to all Micropolis figures and accessories."

I have two Micropolis sets in my collection, the Interplanetary Headquarters and Mega City (which consists of 579 parts).  

Joel and I have a lot of fun building new configurations together, but the "plug and receptacle system" can really, really hurt your fingers...

Jigsaw Puzzle of the Week: The Micronauts (Baron Karza)

World of the Micronauts Colorforms

Halloween Costume of the Week: The Micronauts (Ben Cooper):

Board Game of the Week: the World of the Micronauts

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (January 10, 1969)

Stardate 5730.2

The Enterprise proceeds to a critical decontamination mission on the heavily-populated world of Ariannus, but en route the sensors detect a shuttlecraft in distress. The ship was recently reported stolen from Starbase 4, and there is one inhabitant aboard: Lokai (Lou Antonio).

Lokai is a strange individual, at least in terms of physical or biological characteristics. He is white colored on half of his body, and black colored on the other side. Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) believes he may be a one-of-a-kind, a mutation.

This theory is proven wrong, however, when another being from Lokai’s planet, Cheron, arrives aboard an invisible spaceship in pursuit.

At first blush, Commissioner Bele (Frank Gorshin) seems to resemble Lokai, possessing white skin and black skin, in opposition.

But all of Bele’s people are black on the right side, whereas Lokai’s people are white on the right side.

This (apparently minor) color difference seems to be the source of huge distress and anger between the two individuals. Bele claims to have been hunting Lokai for 50,000 years, and wants to return him to Cheron to pay for his crimes of insurrection. Lokai, by contrast, wants disciples to follow him, arguing that Bele and his people are violent, tyrants, and that his people are enslaved.

When Captain Kirk (William Shatner) refuses to hand over Lokai, determining that he should stand trial for the theft of the shuttle, Bele takes control of the Enterprise, forcing the ship to alter course for Cheron. 

With no choice, Kirk demonstrates that his authority over the Enterprise is final by activating the self-destruct sequence. He aborts the one minute countdown only after Bele relents, and returns control of the ship.

After the decontamination mission at Ariannus, Bele again takes over directional controls. This time, he burns out the self-destruct mechanism, so Kirk cannot stop him.

On arrival, the Enterprise crew finds that Cheron is a dead world, one that has been engulfed in the flames of hatred and division for too long. Lokai and Bele’s people are all dead, having been unable to overcome their race hatred.

This knowledge, however, does not prevent them from continuing to fight and chase one another.

Originally titled “A Portrait in Black and White,” this episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) from Gene Coon (writing as Lee Cronin) is often described by critics and fans as being heavy-handed or preachy. 

I reply to those criticisms (perhaps as an “idealistic dreamer,” as Bele terms Kirk) in the following manner:

Preach on, Star Trek.

“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is a brilliant episode, I would argue, for the way it addresses the utter stupidity and subjective nature of racism, or race hatred.

The message is heavy-handed or preachy? Really? If that’s the case, how come in fifty years man still suffers from this brand of stupidity? 

If the message of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is so blooming obvious, it seems that this is a lesson would have taken hold. And for so many people, it has not done so.

I term the episode brilliant specifically for the manner in which it explains racism, or rather reduces the concept of racism to its most basic (and therefore ridiculous) tenets. In a remarkable scene between Kirk, Spock, and Bele, the Starfleet officers attempt to talk reason to the commissioner from Cheron. They note that Bele and Lokai seem to be of the same race.

Bele responds, offended: “I am black on the right side. Lokai is white on the right side. All his people are white on the right side.” 

The inference in Bele’s response is that being white on the right side (rather than on the left side) is inherently, obviously, inferior to being white on the left side.

But no supporting evidence for this belief is offered. It’s just an assumed fact; something unquestioned by Bele’s people. It's a self-reinforcing, comforting myth, or bias, with no grounding in science.

Naturally, they are superior! They’re black on the right side!

And if you gaze at racism here on Earth, in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, racism makes no more sense than Bele’s statement does.

Why are black, brown, yellow, or red considered, often, inferior to white by some? Are these skin colors encoded with quality ratings, a hierarchy?

Or are they the product, instead, of self-righteous, comforting beliefs? 

The definition of racism is “a system of belief that all members of one race possess characteristics specific to that race in order to distinguish it from other races.” So if you are black on the right side, you are good, smart, and hard-working. If you are black on the left side, you are violent, uneducated, and lazy.

See how that works? Your skin color is your destiny; never mind your individuality. Never mind your experience. Never mind your achievements.

Spock responds to Bele’s statement by offering up the example of Vulcan. The Vulcan people would have destroyed themselves over such irrational, unfounded beliefs, had they not found the discipline of logic. He recommends that Cheron should adopt the same policy, lest its people be destroyed.

Kirk also attempts to talk reason to Bele, noting that a dialogue could be started between Lokai’s people and Bele’s people. 

Bele refuses to believe that Lokai’s people are capable of change (another trope familiar to racists), and Spock then speaks one of the core tenets of Star Trek; one paraphrased again just this weekend in the new Star Trek: Discovery (2017) trailer:

Change is the essential process of all existence.”

Racism can’t exist with new input, with new facts, with new experiences. It thrives on ignorance, and stereotyping (the failure to note a person as an individual). 

If Bele lets himself believe that Lokai can change, or grow, then he can no longer cling to the myths around his own superiority.  He would have to re-examine the world, and find, perhaps, that he is not better than all others. Instead of being God's chosen, or biology's chosen, he might learn he is  just one star in a constellation of worthy beings. Clearly, at least from Bele's example, racism stems from the desire to be viewed as superior, while all others are inferior.

That idea of racial superiority based on skin color, as this episode points out, is antithetical to Star Trek and its messages. 

We may all be different. 

We may possess different strengths, and different weaknesses. 

But we are all worthwhile, and we all possess individual gifts that are separate from skin color, gender, orientation, and so forth. 

That is the heart of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), a concept introduced to the series earlier in the third season.

When I was a child, I did not fully understand the episode, I admit. I thought that one Cheron-ian was evil (Bele), and that one was good (Lokai). 

As I matured and re-watched the episode, I saw that the episode is not heavy-handed and obvious, because it recreates the complexity of the social unrest of the 1960’s in an even-handed way. 

Bele represents bigoted, unreasonable, privileged authority and racism, it’s true. But Lokai represents the counter-culture, and its willingness to overturn everything, in a day, without considering what could be lost by throwing the baby out with the bath water. 

Another way to put this: Bele wants to preserve the status quo, at all costs, because he strides atop it. There can be no change, especially from inferiors, that would lessen his seat of power, privilege, and prestige on Cheron. 

Oppositely -- like a cracked mirror reflection -- Lokai is against the status quo, at all costs, and sees nothing worth preserving there. He would overturn all laws, cause violence, and undertake sweeping change to the social order without recognizing the good things in the status quo.

They are diametrically opposed, and neither character is angel. They are both devils in their own way. Remember, "fundamentalism" isn't about what you believe, it's how you believe that thing. Bele and Lokai share their extreme brand of fundamentalism, even if they believe different things.

But the episode’s ultimate message is that it doesn’t matter who is right, or more right in this, or any conflict. 

Irrational hatred, for or against the status quo is destructive, divisive, and has no positive end. The episode’s final imagery, of cities in flame, is a potent warning to the riot-struck America of the 1960’s that unremitting hatred from any corner, is unproductive, and worse than that, self-destructive.

Looking around at the world today, I don’t see why this episode is considered preachy or heavy-handed.  On the contrary, I would say that Star Trek found a way to fully expose how stupid and destructive racism and hatred can be. 

Sure, it’s all about the color(s) of skin, but that, of course, is the tether that racism is often bound to. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is not stupid or obvious. Contrarily, it is about how stupid and obvious racism is, as a belief system.  

As Kirk compassionately notes to the survivors of Cheron, “You must both end up dead if you don’t stop hating.”

As America grows more divided, more ill-informed, more enraged about “the other” in our midst (liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, gay, straight, atheist, Christian, white, black, male, female), this is a message worth repeating. 

Hate, finally, is not a governing strategy. Hate, in the final analysis, is not a way forward. It is a path, ultimately, to a burned-out cinder of a planet, where no partisans survive, and where no one can claim victory, moral or otherwise.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore hate when we see it, or fail to call it out. Only that, we must always remember Spock’s axiom that “change is the essential process of all existence.” Those whom we think can’t change….can change. 

We can’t give up hope that they will.  “Idealistic dreamers” must not give up on those dreams of a better future.

This message is the essence of Star Trek. Think about Kirk’s journey in The Undiscovered Country (1991), or the relationship of the Federation and the Klingon Empire over the whole franchise. Hate cannot be allowed to carry the day. Racism falls when we have to see our perceived enemies as people capable of compromise.

I love that “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” exists in the episode canon, and I hope that those who call it obvious or heavy-handed go back and actually experience its messages, again.

In terms of continuity, the episode is vital to the franchise because it sets up, precisely, the parameters of starship self-destruct sequences in the 23rd century. The codes, the multi-officer input, and the countdown are all featured again in The Search for Spock (1984), and the connection is a wonderful touch of continuity with the series. Even the auto-destruct in The Next Generation (“11001001” and “Where Silence Has Lease”) is based on the process we see explored in this particular episode.

Also, as I have noted above, it looks like Spock’s line about “change” in this episode has been re-parsed (and spoken by a young Sarek) in Discovery (2017), an indication that it will continue to carry importance across the Trek-verse.

What is the end-game for an episode such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield?” 

Where do such idealistic dreams lead us? 

Sulu and Chekov share a conversation in this episode, wherein it is clear they have no first-hand experience with bigotry or racism. “There was persecution on Earth once. I remember reading about it in my history class,” they say.

That is the world worth building. 

This is the world we can build. And episodes such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” light the way, as Star Trek often does. We can either end up like Bele and Lokai, dining on the ashes of hatred, or like Sulu and Chekov, looking back and wondering how people could have ever been so damned hateful.

In two weeks, another episode laced with social commentary: “Mark of Gideon.”