There's nothing more frightening than politics, and that includes, disturbingly enough, the politics of a long-cancelled Marvel Comics book that was apparently concerned with little more than the never-ending punch-ups between very little Japanese toys.
The politics of the first issue of "The Micronauts" are as fascinating as they are strange. On the one hand, it's a story of how a society is utterly corrupted by the promise of eternal life. On the other, "The Micronauts" is a tale of how only hereditary monarchies, whether micro-human or micro-alien, can, if allowed to proceed according to custom, ensure that civil society is ethically governed.
Of course, it's also a comic full of super-heroes and science-fiction spaceships, but we're only going to be concerned with the fundamentally scary stuff here.
Normally, the reader might expect that a tale which seems to so obviously satirise capitalism, and the corrupting effect of the market upon the human propensity for greed, would present some kind of democratic opposition to the evil powers corrupting the people with the temptation of endless youth. But Bill Mantlo positioned the royal family of Homeworld as the only legitimate protectors of the people's freedom in "The Micronauts", a confusing matter, since hereditary, ruling monarchies aren't historically known for standing up for the freedom of the people. But, perhaps Baron Karza was refusing to cut the aristocracy in on the profits of his immoral and highly popular invention of eternal life, and, perhaps, that caused the King and his family to fly the flag of "abstract choices (such) as ... freedom" in the absence of popular support and firepower.
Or, perhaps, Prince Argon of Homeworld really is that rarest of creatures, the blue-blooded man of the people, though obviously not so much of the people that he's ever actually permitted a democracy to arise on what's obviously his planet.
"Homeworld" opens with the Royal Family and their few "Elitist" supporters being hunted down "by an entire world that has turned upon their hereditary rulers". After all, it is at times hard to imagine that the people, and just about any people too, wouldn't sign up to a regime which promised eternal life and good health, regardless of how noble their "hereditary rulers" might have been. "Burn the elitist swine!" screams a soldier in a crowd of rebel troops closing in the Prince, mirroring, no doubt, the thoughts of those millions who, though not taking up arms themselves, want Baron Karza securely in power so they can join the ranks of the never-dying.
If the positioning of Homeworld's Royal Family as the only decent strata in micro-society is somewhat counter-intuitive, historically unlikely and disturbingly politically incorrect, it does lend "The Micronauts" a rather different spin where the polemics of the standard modern-era science-fiction fantasy are concerned. It's a strangeness which prevents the book from being just another left-of-centre rant against the market and the pernicious selfishness of various social elites, because in truth "The Micronauts" isn't typically left-of-centre and caringly inclusive at all. For instead of a suffering people alienated from a despotic ruling class, as we typically see in such stories, Mr Mantlo presents a Homeworld where the masses are utterly unreliable and self-interested, where scientists and academics - such as Karza - are dedicated to turning the established and virtuous order upside down, and where mortality and democracy are a far less popular option for the people than despotism and immortal life.
It's the oddness of these politics, combined with their strange feasibility where the appeal of an individual forever is concerned, that helps the first incarnation of the Micronauts breathe as it still does. Regardless of the plot's progress through familiar territory, half Star Wars, half Fourth World, there's always that disconcerting sense that the world we're seeing is essentially strange and disturbing even though it looks quite standard-issue for a comic book. That in itself creates an unease in the narrative, a suspense that makes the state created by Karza seem both stereotypically evil and yet quite disturbingly different too.
After all, this is world where the people, or a substantial mass of them, have not only opted to sign away their freedom in return for eternal life, which is at times a quite sadly believable proposition, and fundamentally scary in itself, but where a great deal of the raw material for the immortal strata of society will come from the bodies of their fellows who either resist the system, or are consumed by it regardless of their opinions one way or another. The people of Homeworld, in Mr Mantlo's script, are untrustworthy and faithless, they're easily seduced and led astray, and they need strong leaders to save them, and their royal betters, from absolute disaster.
In fact, the people of Homeworld aren't the victims of tyranny at all, as the mass of folks living under the rule of tyrants in such tales so often are. They've not been twisted and crushed and suppressed despite their longing for freedom by the brutality of a super-scientific state. Instead, the people here are Baron Karza's willing executioners. They're the underclass, they're the lumpen proletariat, they're the worst fears of those who believe that democracy, or indeed political freedom of any substantial kind, is a very bad idea because the people will just ruin everything, and they'll take the better kind who deserve to rule down to hell with them. Those commoners, they'll just breed and break the law and destroy the naturally virtuous order and then they'll be demanding to live forever too.
And so, Mr Mantlo's contempt for "the people" in "Homeworld" is as uncommon and challenging as his portrayal of "the people's" weakness in the face of the prospect of immortality is at times worryingly convincing.
There's a telling, though apparently quite accidental, moment in "Homeworld" where Prince Argon charges the proles bent on his destruction while shouting "For freedom!". The irony of this on the lips of a "hereditary ruler" isn't one that's deliberately placed into the text, but it is amusing that Argon's inappropriate battle cry is followed up by one of his retainers declaring in response "For you -- my Prince --", before being blown up by what seems to be the dread Baron Karza himself.
I think that's great. Argon's convinced himself that he's fighting for "freedom", but even his men know that they're really taking up arms for the "Prince", and taking up arms for the "Prince" gets those ordinary folk killed stone dead every time, although Argon himself, of course, is only stunned, and survives to rule again.
While Karza may in appearance look like a fusion of Dr Doom and Darth Vader, he's actually a mixture of Doctor Frankenstein and Dracula and whoever you'd choose, if choose you would, between the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao. He's a scientifically brilliant vampire who's extended his own life and power through stealing the futures of others, while he's used his demagoguery to convince the broad mass of the people to sign up willingly, indeed enthusiastically, to vampirism too.
And so, when Karza declares that Commander Rann is to be taken to the body banks, it's as if the worst fears so effectively encoded in Marx, Shelley and Stoker have been fused together. This is the totalitarian dictator who promises not racial purity, but personal immortality for the privilaged members of the race as he defines it, and who controls a command economy based on the appropriation of the actual bodies of the less favoured members of society which might just keep him in power forever. Well, of course so many of the people have signed up to his cause, Mr Mantlo seems to be saying. Who'd expect anything else? And for the few who'd resist, well, they're faced with being shipped to the body banks and serving as spare parts for the next round of renewed life for the privileged and compliant men and women of Karza's immortal new order.
Baron Karza scares me, scares me not because of his horses hooves and his silly chest insignia, but because he represents a particularly worrying suspicion about the nature of the people, if not their aristocratic and supposed-betters; with a product as seductive as living forever, Mr Mantlo is telling us, a tyrant might stay in power forever, and most of the mass of the people would be extremely happy to see him there too, as long as it isn't their hearts and kidneys and so on that were keeping the wheels of the immortal economy turning.
And Karza scares me because he chooses to build his new regime on the bodies of his opponents, imagined and real. A scientist that insanely brilliant could no doubt, in the best comic-book tradition, have devised cloning facilities to create an immortal life for his millions if not billions of supporters. But he doesn't, and the very act of speculating why that should be is a disturbing business in itself. Karza, quite frankly, is the type of vampire who wants to terrify, dismember and drain dry his victims rather than rely on even the most tasty and satisfying plasma. For it's not just the power he wants, it's the experience of taking it from others that he's made helpless and stripped of all hope first.
I'd support Prince Argon myself against such a beast.
By distancing itself so strangely and yet so slightly from the politics of both the real and the typically imagined worlds, "The Micronauts" carries enough of a sense of difference in its pages to scare the reader a little more than it should considering the relative conceptual poverty of the source material. And for that reason, the rebellion on Homeworld feels far more disturbing than it should. It seems to embody the fears of the right and the new right that the unworthy poor will strip the deserving affluent of their just rewards, and the fears of the left that the masses will be corrupted into following the trifles of the market rather than their own supposed best collective interests, and the fears of the centre that morality and reasonableness will be swept away by selfishness and irrationality. And it carries the shadow of regimes which literally wiped out the broad mass of their perceived enemies for no better reason than the vile chimera that everything would be marvellous once the tiresome industrial process of the slaughter of the dangerously unworthy was completed.
And so, while I can't bring myself to believe that Prince Argon's hereditary monarchy could be so virtuous and wise, royalty being as vulnerable to Baron Acton's dictum as the rest of we poor mortals are, I certainly can believe in a population which signs away its fundamental values, their very freedom, for forever. Or, at least I can if it's a population that's been raised in Prince Argon's splendid realm and encouraged to do what they're told and to not think for themselves where the business of governing is concerned. Hereditary rulers, after all, need their people to be stupid and compliant, and that's hardly going to promote the kind of free-spirited thinking that might encourage citizens to ask pressing questions of a bloke with horses hooves, a big black mask and promises of personal immortality.
And if there were such a people living on a science-fiction world, who'd never been allowed the chance to govern themselves, to think for themselves, then I can almost, almost, believe in Baron Karza too.
Next, indeed, tomorrow: the always interesting Paul Cornell & his short story "Secret Identity", a tale of superheroes and sexual identity set in Manchester that's well worth discussing, and one which is to be found in the print anthology "Masked". Yes, it's time to take a semi-regular look at super-heroes in books, real books, I think, and I've got an awful feeling that I'll not be able to avoid calling the pieces "But They Left The Pictures Out!". Mea Culpa!
The politics of "The Micronauts" became more confused, and even at times - shockingly! - clearly democratic, as time passed, but I jumped ship soon into the title's second year. I seem to recall that Prince Argon was later revealed to be a considerable super-villain himself, but the above piece was based on a single comic, and indeed a single panel within it, which has always disturbed me since I read it more than 30 years ago. --- I hope your day is splendidly as free as possible of immortal lures, ruling classes , faithless mobs and centaur super-scientist villains as well, and since you got this far, thank you very much for reading!
(And, of course, anyone with any somewhat-scary moments from their own comic-book reading history is strongly encouraged to add them to the comments. I thoroughly enjoyed the contributions last time round in "These Things Scare Me " number 1.)