Of Micronauts and Men

Baron Karza: Remind you of anyone?

Choice meant cool in 1977, at least among my fellow eight-year-olds in Madison, Wisconsin. Anything really cool was "choi."

Micronauts were choi: three-and-a-quarter-inch action figures so detailed and stylized, they could have held their own as stop-motion background extras in Star Wars--whose toy franchise eventually buried them. Ornately molded in translucent plastic or die-cast metal, Micronauts were shiny, shogun chic, and overloaded with mechanisms that fired little missiles (no manufacturer would make such eye hazards now). Every figure had movable knees, feet, wrists, and elbows. Time Traveler had a silver head that looked like the early Elvis; Space Glider was more David Cassidy. Even kids who lived and breathed Star Wars had to admit that Micronauts were more choi than the plastic Luke, Obi-Wan, et al., which couldn't even bend their arms.

If you sense budding indie snobbery in all this, you might be on to something. "Micronauts were always more amazing than Star Wars toys," writes one former eight-year-old on the website YesterdayLand (www.yesterdayland.com), "and in my tiny rural hometown it was kind of fun to feel a little like a rebel in my preference for Micronauts over their more popular, less-articulated plastic competitors." This is the target audience for a recent revival of the 1970s Micronauts by Palisades Toys, who have replicated the vintage figures down to their rocking hairstyles.

The company that first produced the things was no underdog. Launching with an 18-inch Joe Namath doll in 1969, Mego International, Inc. became one of the top American toy makers of the 1970s by introducing "lines" based on movies and television: The Wizard of Oz, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, and, um, Cher. Still in his early 30s, CEO Martin Abrams had a knack for the details kids love: His Muhammad Ali figure failed only because six-year-olds don't watch boxing. His other mistake was a doozy: turning down the manufacturing rights for Star Wars. He was in Japan at the time, negotiating with Takara, the company that invented Micronauts (which were called Micromen there), so you could say the toy was his downfall.

No kid could miss the resemblance between Baron Karza--a dark, masked warrior held together by magnets--and Darth Vader. But connoisseurs note that Karza and with his white-colored counterpart Force Commander were actually based on the Japanese television anime character Kotetsu Geag. Maybe Lucas pilfered Takara along with Kurosawa.

At any rate, Mego fared well against Star Wars at first: Kids just went to Kmart for Micronauts, and JC Penney for Star Wars figures. After discovering both on Christmas morning 25 years ago, I threw all the toys in the same box. But the less popular line grew stingier with metal figures and put out fewer new characters. The company must have been suffering. By the end of 1982, Mego had filed for bankruptcy and Abrams was convicted of defrauding his stockholders.

Yet "The Interchangeable World of the Micronauts" lived on in different ways. The brand name was adopted by a punk band, a techno duo, and a hip-hop crew (Minneapolis's own Micranots). And the toy became one of the few to spawn a sci-fi myth, not vice versa: a classic Marvel Comics series that ran from 1979 to 1986. Early issues were written with surprising depth by Bill Mantlo, and sensuously penciled by Michael Golden. When Marvel's contract with Mego went poof, the tyrannical Baron Karza disappeared, never to be mentioned again.

Until now, that is. This year Devil's Due Publishing and Image Comics struck up a deal with Palisades, whose freshly molded Micronauts reached shelves last month. Now in its third issue, Micronauts launched this summer, dispensing with Marvel-created heroes but reviving the trademarked Baron Karza and others.

I hear rumors that George Lucas has dusted off his own little franchise in recent years, though the toys' arms reportedly still don't bend. Someday I'll tell my own kids the whole story as an illustration of how commerce can trump quality. But then they'll probably be too busy shooting Micro-missiles into their eyes.

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