Monday, October 24, 2011

J.J. Abrams is producing a Micronauts movie

It's official: geeks now rule the entire world.

J.J. Abrams is in talks with Hasbro to make a "Micronauts" movie, and he's bringing with him the writers from the likeable "Zombieland."

Was something like that even thinkable so much as five years ago?

By the way, that nerd-hating Brit Warren Ellis used to slam superhardcore fans of comics by saying "the reason us big time comic creators never listen to you is because all you do is talk about how you want the Micronauts back."

Well, who's laughing now, you limey beardo?

Ellis used the example of the Micronauts – the nerdiest property imaginable – to point out how hardcore nerd fans only like what they're comfortable with, and never support new ideas. I've always found this case to be meaningless because it's possible a clever redoing of an old property can have tons in the way of creativity and novelty, but an "original concept" that isn't all that original can have absolutely no creativity, soul or heart in it whatsoever.

Ellis made his case in 2001 or so, when Micronauts, like Tron, was a punchline: a forgotten eighties property beloved only by the most hardcore nerds.

How things have changed in the past few years. Tron received a big-budget sequel that did relatively well, and comic book movies, which previously worked by ditching the high-concept stuff cowardly studio heads feel turns off the Joe Sixpacks and Jane Wineboxes, have instead embraced the stuff ultra-hardcore fans love: genre-bending worldbuilding and continuity nods.

Maybe I'm gloating a little. Well, I can't stand Warren Ellis and others who demean the hardcore nerd fan audience in favor of "newbies," and besides, one of the great things about being ahead of the curve is you get to brag a little when everybody else catches up.

As for the Micronauts movie, I'm excited as hell if this happens...even if it does mean, if it's based on the Hasbro property, that Bug, Arcturus Rann, and Marionette are going to be absent, as will the cameo by the Marvel Universe's Psycho-Man, who was a major villain of the series.

If the movie has the robot Biotron, serpent-tanks and Baron Karza transforming into a rocket centaur….baby, I'm there on a bear.

Micronauts was an imaginative and impossible to dislike Star Wars-esque space opera property about a "microverse" inside an atom conquered by a black-armor wearing malevolent scientist named Baron Karza with an alternate mode as a cyborg centaur, and the rebel heroes on the run who oppose him. The heroes include Arcturus Rann, a Buck Rogers-esque space explorer unfrozen after a thousand years; Marionette, a princess who survived by pretending to be a robot, Prince Acroyear, an ultra-strong prince of a proud, martial warrior-race who never removes his helmet and armor, Bug, a fighter, crowd-pleasing wiseass and master thief from an insect race with cool bug powers (I'm sure the fact Bill Mantlo is well known as a Spider-Man writer is entirely a coincidence), and Microtron, an R2-D2 esque feisty, courageous "cute robot" who finds himself in the midst of battles saying "this is no place for a little robot!"

The "hook" is that when entering our world from the Microverse, the Micronauts are several inches tall…the size of their action figures.

The series has a lot of cool science fiction ideas and visuals. The planet of the Acroyears is a living rock-world, and Bug has a bug girlfriend who shouldn't be sexy…but thanks to Howard Chaykin, totally is!

My favorite character is probably everybody else's favorite, too: Bug, a cutpurse, cocky wiseass insectoid who was a former gang-leader on his bug home planet. The best story of the series comes when Bug returns to his homeworld and leads his gang against his own crooked father who took over in his place, and then urges his gang against their planet's colonial garrison. A lot of women have told me they think Bug has a lot of sex appeal, in the same "unusual" way Nightcrawler has a lot of female fans.

With a lot of stories about an evil, tyrannical empire, I always wondered what could possibly compel anyone to become their cannon-fodder, disposable stormtroopers who's lives are basically meat for the grinder. Here in Micronauts, there actually is an explanation. The villainous scientist Baron Karza achieved power over society by inventing cloning and organ transplant technology to keep people young, healthy and immortal (at the expense of the body parts of others). In other words, becoming a soldier of his is an easy way to achieve immortality.

There was one element of the original Micronauts series I think is deeply relevant in the age of Occupy Wall Street and the protests of the 99% who can't get by: the wealthy and elite supported Baron Karza and in return lived a parasitic existence, kept immortal and young by literally stealing the body parts of the poor.

See that? Damn, not even Sergei Eisenstein got that hardcore.

It helps, by the way, that Bill Mantlo had a social conscience became an attorney and public defender for the Legal Aid Society, which provides legal counsel for the indigent and homeless. A good counterpoint to many comic authors, who, just like science fiction writers, tend to favor a self-absorbed Heinlein-esque libertarianism.

I've often wondered why vampires have become so popular and their portrayal so alluring and sympathetic since at least the mid-1980s, and the answer occurs to me: since the rise of the "greed is good" Reagan eighties, our sympathies have first and foremost been with predators.

One of my favorite bits was how Mike Golden, without consulting anybody, actually created an entire alphabet for the Micronauts comics.

Bill Mantlo loved Micronauts and its concepts enough he took its ideas and applied them elsewhere. For instance, Peter Parker once assumed the Captain Universe identity.

By the way, I always wondered if the race of Acroyears inspired the Mandalorians in the Star Wars expanded universe. Sure, the Acroyears are hardly the first proud warrior race ever, but they certainly are the first proud warrior race to wear distinctive and individualized armor and helmets and never show their faces. The Acroyears first appeared in 1978, two years before Boba Fett's first appearance. Hmmm...!

If so, that would be hilariously karmic because of numerous accusations of plagiarism levied against Bill Mantlo over the years, including his theft of a Harlan Ellison "Outer Limits" story. According to legend, Jim Shooter prevented a lawsuit by merely giving Ellison a lifetime subscription to all Marvel comics instead. The accusation was also made that Mantlo borrowed from an in-production graphic novel about the Hulk which would debut a background with Bruce Banner's abusive childhood resulting in pent-up rage issues. Mantlo took that background and beat its debut to the punch in issues of the regular comic. In fairness to Mantlo, he might have seen the photostats for the graphic novel and just figured that was the new continuity and status quo.

Likewise, Micronauts is very similar to Star Wars, but that's so ridiculously obvious I don't need to say it. Arcturus Rann's background in particular as a space explorer in suspended animation for a thousand years whose voyage was superseded by faster than light travel discovered in the interim, reminds me of Steve Gerber's Vance Astro in Guardians of the Galaxy. In fact, there couldn't be a character with more Gerber-esque, trademark poignancy.

Friday, October 21, 2011

My Branch of the Wold-Newton Tree

I have a pretty distinct physical feature: a superfluous third nipple.

I don't have any other relatives with it I know of, and I didn't think about it much, until I received a weird request for an interview by Phillip Jose Farmer in 2007, a couple years before his death. PJF wanted to ask me some questions about family history.

This surprised me because #1) I'm not the family historian, #2) my father is, and he's a better known public figure. It only occurred to me later that PJF would get in touch with me first because I sent him some fan mail.

Man, what a thrill, and surprise, to have the macho post-pulpster author of "Riverworld" in my apartment!

I told Farmer how, as a kid, I read "Venus on the Half-Shell." My favorite scene was where, trapped in a Cairo museum in an upended sarcophagus after a flood that kills mankind, the hero is forced to feed the penis of the mummy of Ramses II to his dog in order to survive. Ever since then, I've always speculated what mummy flesh tastes like. I've come to the conclusion it's like a really dry, excessively spiced beef jerky.

At first I wondered if PJF meant to ask me about my distant relative, Lisandro Perez, who was the first Secretary of the Treasury of the Cuban Republic. But no…PJF was trying to compile a timeline of the real people whose identities were obfuscated by fiction. Previously, he'd connected the backstory of fictional characters like Tarzan, Doc Savage, Fu Manchu, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes together in something he called the "Wold-Newton Tree."

The first question he asked me was about a great-uncle, Hector Francisco Perez. I was unfamiliar with the name, until I remembered my father mentioned a "Tío Paco" a couple times. My grandfather was one of ten children – five of which migrated to the United States after the Cuban Revolution, one of whom went to Spain, and four who stayed in Cuba.

According to Dad, he barely remembered his Tío Paco, who was one of the youngest of that generation, because like my great-Uncle Rubén, he got along badly with his father (my great-grandfather) who was a notoriously serious, authoritarian man from an authoritarian, serious generation: a circus and tobacco company owner.

According to all accounts, there were very serious rumors about why Tío Paco ran away, including that he shot a policeman.

Dad only met Tío Paco once, when he came to visit the family in the city of Miami for a brief time in the early sixties because of his job: teaching trick shooting to a wealthy expatriate Latvian. According to Dad, Tío Paco talked about how he did more than that on occasion, killing on command, and even passed on to his employer his own unsettling habit of shooting through the right eye. This was the way where Tío Paco killed a policeman, his first and most meaningful murder in Trieste, Hungary.

The early sixties meeting in Miami was extremely disturbing, but not an extraordinary one in a family of crazy people. And anyway, it was well known in the family Tío Paco did work for the Batista Regime and later for Castro, and had unwholesome Mafia connections. This background is relatively common to people who were unfortunate enough to grow up in interesting times, and anyway, when it comes to the Mafia most Cubans and Cuban-Americans at the very least know a guy who knows a guy.

That was all Dad knew, though it seems PJF put together some of the pieces together.

"Hector Francisco Perez," according to Philip Jose Farmer, was the real name of the Cuban assassin author Ian Fleming later fictionalized as "Francisco Scaramanga," also called the "Man With the Golden Gun."

Even more incredibly, Farmer turned up proof the "Man With the Golden Gun" appeared once before in Ian Fleming's James Bond stories. On that previous occasion, he was under a cover identity incorporating his real name, as the hired assassin Hector Gonzales in the short story "For Your Eyes Only." There, Hector Gonzales was the killer who, under orders from von Hammerstein, murdered the Havelocks. James Bond did shoot Gonzales, but under the chaos of the shootout Hector's death was never definitively confirmed.

An innately vengeful person good at keeping grudges, but unsure which MI-6 agent shot him during the Batista years, Hector Francisco Perez took special relish in killing every double-0 agent he would later come across just in case it might have been the man who shot him in Vermont.

Based on what I told him from family history, PJF put together one later occasion where "Hector Francisco Perez" just missed interacting with the famous 007. The "wealthy Latvian expatriate" he worked for in Miami was Auric Goldfinger, who "Scaramanga" taught in shooting. Hector Perez and Goldfinger first met through the Spangled Mob, who were, at the time, assisting Goldfinger with Operation Grandslam and who also regularly made use of Hector's assassination skills.

It was from "Scaramanga" Goldfinger later picked up his distinctive means of execution: shooting through the right eye (the way Scaramanga performed his first kill). In turn, it was from Goldfinger "Scaramanga" picked up his trademark gold bullets. The gold-plated firearm, incidentally, was a gift from Goldfinger to his shooting instructor.

Additionally, I speculated that Tío Paco's strong Catholic streak might have come from his sister (my great-aunt) who was a Catholic Nun in Cuba.

Here's another interesting coincidence I only discovered later: my friend Alex Niquette in Vermont lives by Echo Lake…at the very property owned by the Havelocks prior to their murder at the hands of "Hector Gonzales."

All of this was a lot to take in, and I thanked PJF both for his enlightening visit and the fiction he produced over the years.

I thought a lot about that meeting in the weeks to come. I'd never considered owning a gun before that meeting, for instance. I didn't worry about personal protection much, and I don't hunt either...mostly because I hate nature and don't like being anywhere near it. Right after that meeting, I felt the urge to get one.

And holding and shooting a gun...well, it just felt right, somehow, that's all.