Friday, May 12, 2017

Special Announcement

For a few months I've been giving a lot of thought to expanding my blogging repetoir, to finding a new subject over which to obsess day and night (because, let's face it, I have a lot of time to myself and I live in a retirement town...I gotta have something to do). I knew I wanted to tackle something outside of the Marvel Universe, but what?

Those of you who follow the Unearthly Visions Facebook page may remember that I toyed with the idea of writing a blog about indie and smaller press science fiction and fantasy novels and audiobooks. I am honest with myself enough, however, to admit that I am flighty. I can rarely finish a single novel before my interest will shift to a different genre, let alone finish the two or three that I'm often juggling at a time. What else, boiled down to just the "essentials", do I do in my spare time when I'm not fulfilling my sacred duties as steward of my household?  I work out, I keep with our current political shenanigans, and I read comics. Let me also be very clear that in no sane world to I work out because I enjoy it, and I do things like blogging to take my mind off of politics, so it looks like everything comes back around to comics.

But which comic, or more specifically, which comic book character? While I have been really enjoying a lot of titles that Image has been publishing over the past few years (specifically Saga, Wicked + Divine, Nailbiter, and East of West, just to name a few), and while I think that Valiant does a superb job of maintining the connectivity of their shared universe, there's still something very visceral about following a character with decades of back story from one of the Big Two. Since, as I mentioned earlier, Marvel and I are on something of a break at the moment, the burden fell on DC.

I'll be honest; this was, at first, a daunting proposition. I haven't been overly thrilled with DC's creative output for the past few years. While I thought Man of Steel had it's good points, I have very little desire still to watch Batman v Superman, and I actually find what little I've seen of the Suicide Squad movie to be somewhat offensive (especially as the father of a six year old girl who finds the antics of the various cartoon incarnations of Harley Quinn to be delightful). While I enjoyed a lot of what DC was doing in the late 90s and most of the 00s, especially with titles like JLA, JSA, Green Lantern, and the Flash, I wasn't overly thrilled with the direction most titles went with the New 52.

All is not dark and dismal, however. In terms of movies, I think the upcoming Wonder Woman film looks amazing. Regarding even the New 52 there are a handful of titles that I truly enjoyed. The Court of Owls arch in Batman. The first twenty something issues of the Flash. Various archs throughout the Aquaman title. I even initially enjoyed I, Vampire.

There was one title, however, that I picked up the week of the launch of the New 52, and stuck with gleefully until that book's cancellation almost four years later. Regular readers of Unearthly Visions may recall that I have an affection for off beat characters, ones that defy the traditional boundaries of what it means to a a super hero, or even to be human, and this DC character certainly fit that description. This was a character I'd thoroughly enjoyed as a child, but had lost touch with during my teens and twenties, while still maintaining something of a distant fondness​. The New 52 title reinvented this character in a way that I personally found more accessible, while still maintaining the mythos that I respected and that other fans had cherished for years, a mythos that I became inspired to explore in greater detail.  This is a character with over forty years of publication history, plenty of material to keep me blogging for some time to come.

It is with great anticipation, then, that I announce the upcoming arrival of Avatar of the Green: a Swamp Thing blog. I'll be launching the introductory post in a few days, and explaining how the format will be different than that of Unearthly Visions. I'll also be starting an Avatar of the Green Facebook page, and sending out regular updates via my Twitter account @GrantRichter9. I hope everyone that follows along with me enjoys the journey as much as I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Episode 12 - "You're a Damn Toaster!"

Those of you who have been with me on this strange exploration of arguably the Avengers least relatable character since Episode 3 (lovingly titled "I Wanna Be Clay Man" - you'll just have to go back and read it if you don't get the reference) will no doubt be with familiar with the fact that I am not fond of the story arc titled "Vision Quest" from West Coast Avengers circa 1989, and the repercussions that would befall the Ethereal one from it. At this point, however, it would be appropriate for me to explain exactly why I dislike "Vision Quest" so much. Yes, I realize there's the obvious factor of everything that made the character interesting being removed and him being recast as a one dimensional place holder. No, this is an accepted hazard of the experienced comic book aficionado, that one's treasured character may be passed to the hands of a creator with ideas for that character that deviate from your own expectations. It's more the reason behind this creative decision that concerns me.

When John Byrne took over the art and writing chores of West Coast Avengers (soon to be Avengers West Coast) with issue 42, he had a storytelling objective in mind: turn the Scarlet Witch, at least for a time, into a villain. Whatever else I may have to say, Byrne is not a heavy handed writer. He didn't just, in an issues worth of flashbacks, retcon a series of hitherto unknown fractures into Wanda's mind to neatly wrap her into a villain's role (I'm looking at you Bendis). With Wanda's long history of being a good, if troubled, person, Byrne reasoned that the most logical way to make this happen would be to have Wanda go insane, to have her manipulated, first by Magneto and shortly thereafter Immortus, causing a darker, malicious personality to emerge. Byrne determined, again logically (I never said the man couldn't tell a good story), that the thing that would drive Wanda insane most capably would be the loss of almost everything she held dear. Wanda's children were effectively killed, revealed to be fragments of Mephisto. Feeling betrayed by her team for their inability to save her children, Wanda's grief was compounded when she was literally abandoned by her husband who, due to the events of "Vision Quest", no longer felt any emotional connection to her.

All things considered, this is actually a pretty good story about tragedy and loss. What bothers me about it, however, was Byrne's reasoning behind his decision to make use of the Vision the way he did. In 2006, in response to a forum question on his website, byrnerobotics.com, Byrne stated "The question becomes, I suppose, one of value. Knowing that the Vision’s complete personality/memory/intelligence was downloaded into a computer in Titan (was it Titan? Memory blurs) allowed me to scrape his brain in my VisionQuest story, since everything could be restored with a literal flip of a switch. Should something that can be so easily copied and retrieved be treated as having the same intrinsic value as a human being? Should any of the human Avengers, for instance, ever risk their lives on behalf of the Vision? My vote would be no (as some of you have probably already guessed)—but I would say that even if it were not possible to restore or “save” the Vision in any other way. He is a “toaster.”".

In Vision #7, writer Tom King referenced this sentiment in meta-context. King retconned the relationship of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch following the birth of their children and before the events of "Vision Quest".  Here, King reveals that the Vision realized that the twins were only a subconscious manifestation of Wanda's powers. When he tries to gently confront her with this reality, she yells at him in anger "You're a damn toaster!".

If you've read the Vision series you'll know that Mr. King thinks of the character as anything but. Sadly, though, the perception of some casual fans is that of the Vision as just an unfeeling android, Data from Star Trek with a cool cape and some density powers. As a reader with an arguably more in depth understanding of the character I have to respectfully disagree. Rather, I propose that as a synthetic being who can duplicate nearly all biological processes of a human, the Vision HAS emotions but doesn't always know what to do with them. He's not emotionless, he's just not emotional.

Most of the time.

Beginning with Avengers (volume 1) # 89, the Avengers became embroiled in the Kree-Skrull War. It being the early 70s, when female superheroes (especially at Marvel) were sadly often used as little more than a plot device for the boys to rescue, the Scarlet Witch is promptly captured by the Skrulls. In issue 96, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Vision storm the Skrull command ship and capture the ship's captain. The Vision, as stunningly rendered by the great Neal Adams, begins pummeling the Skrull captain again and again (keeping in mind they even at his normal density he can lift/press at least five tons), exclaiming "Where is the girl?!". Iron Man attempts to interject, saying "You'll kill him!  You don't know what you're doing!". The Vision's reply, at first eerily calm, and increasing with intensity with each word is "I know precisely what I am doing. I--am--KILLING--him!" (I imagine a crushing "THUD" with each punch).

Jump ahead eleven years (publishing time), specifically to the first Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries, written by Bill Mantlo. In issue 2, Vizh, Wanda, and Whizzer (the man believed to be Wanda's father at the time, and the worst character ever) are attacked by Whizzer's Golden Age nemesis, Isbisa. In the initial assault, Wanda and the Whizzer are knocked unconscious, and the Vision's left hand is melted. Incapacitated by the pain of his mutilated hand as Isbisa moves in to kill Wanda, the Vision removes the source of the pain, using his solar beams to sever his own hand in an act of agonizing sacrifice to save his beloved wife.

(For an outstanding review of the entire Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries, be sure to check out episodes 81 and 82 of Professor Alan's Quarter Bin Podcast)

Fast forward another twenty four years to Tom King's brilliant Vision series. In issue 1, Vision's daughter Viv is severely wounded, and by issue 2 is being kept alive only by equipment in Tony Stark's lab. In issue 3 Vision devises a plan to save his daughter, transferring his own life force to Viv in a highly risky procedure, with Stark regulating the equipment. As the procedure becomes potentially lethal, Stark threatens to shut down the equipment, which would save Vision's life but could end Viv's. The Vision replies "You are...a fellow Avenger. You are...my oldest friend. But if you touch that button...I will KILL YOU"!

Readers who have been with me for some time will no doubt remember that I propose that the Vision's strongest character beat - even more than is various amazing looks and his awesome powers - is his sense of family, of both his desire to have one and his desire to hold on to one at all costs. While the Vision's demeanor may come across as aloof, perhaps even Machevalian at extremes, these are clearly the defenses of a man who is awash with emotions but is uncomfortable with them, perhaps even afraid of them. History has shown, however, that the threatening of those he loves breaks through those emotional boundaries, bring forth a man of sacrifice, passion, and intensity.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Character Interlude - The Wasp

Those of you who have read my first couple of episodes may remember that one of my biggest thrills as a very young child "collecting" comic books was discovering characters who existed outside of the few superhero television shows of the time. Keep in mind this was the very late 70's and very early 80's. In a time when there weren't cable networks dedicated to around the clock attention-span-deficient children's programming and a store that specifically sold comics in every town, these options were few, especially when it came to Marvel characters.

When I got my first opportunity to pick up an issue of Avengers, then, I jumped on it. The issue in question was Avengers #222, picked up from the newsstand in 1982. The story within was a fill-in one-and-done by guest writer Steven Grant and guest penciler Greg Larocque. It revolves around a short handed team of Avengers fighting a conveniently small and short lived Masters of Evil team. From the Masters I knew the Scorpion from the 60's Spider-Man cartoon, and I at least knew of Moonstone from the metal Marvel lunchbox that every kid but me had (Karla was my first villain girl crush, by the way). In this issue I was introduced to Whirlwind, Tiger Shark (one of my favorite villains to this day, due to my open and unabashed terror of sharks), and the "mastermind" of the group, Egghead.

As far as the Avengers themselves active in this issue I knew Thor from one of the few Mego dolls I owned as a kid, Hawkeye from that same metal lunch box, and She-Hulk from ads in other comics. The fourth member getting into the action in this issue was one I'd never seen before. She was a young woman in a striking, asymmetrical blue and white costume who could shrink, grow insect wings, and shoot little energy blasts from her hands. What's more, she was the leader of the team (being naturally rebellious and growing up in a VERY conservative Midwestern family this was a huge deal for me and a big plus). She was, of course, Janet Van Dyne, the original Wasp.

As much as I enjoyed my first encounter with the character (my seven year old self didn't know why I liked that costume that hung off one shoulder and showed a whole lot of one leg, but like it I did), it would be a few years before I'd grow a significant appreciation for her. That happened in 1985 when Roger Stern and John Buscema began their epic run on Avengers together. Though Janet had been the Avengers leader for a few years but this time, Stern really emphasized her capabilities during this phase of his tenure, both in term of her powers and physical skill, but also, and especially, as the Avengers chairperson and tactical leader. Buscema also drew her as being as serious fitness enthusiast, rather than just being trim and pretty.

(I have a theory that this enhanced characterization of the Wasp, which started very shortly after the original Secret Wars, may have come as a response to Jim Shooter's portrayal of the character during that mini-series, where she was drawn in a frumpy green and purple jumpsuit with a bad perm, acquiesced leadership to Captain America almost submissively, and was dead for a while. Again, just a theory).

During this amazing era of the Avengers, Janet led the team against Terminus, Kang, the Beyonder, and the Masters of Evil in the classic "Seige on Avengers Mansion" story arc. As impressive as this is, however, it's nothing in comparison to her leadership of an ad hoc team of Avengers during the Destiny War. Brought together by a cosmically empowered Rick Jones in the pages of Avengers Forever (I really cannot praise Kurt Busiek's work on the Avengers enough), this team formed an uneasy alliance with Kang the Conqueror to protect their entire temporal reality. The Wasp's role in leading this group was so crucial, in fact, that the Captain America that was subconsciously chosen by Jones to be a part of it was pulled from a time when his confidence was at his lowest to ensure that he would follow her lead.

In more recent times, Janet was a vital member of the first Avengers Unity Squad (Uncanny Avengers volume 1), gave the eulogy at Hank Pym's memorial following his supposed death (Rage of Ultron graphic novel), and dealt with his return as part of a being merged with Ultron (Uncanny Avengers volume 3). Sadly, throughout her history, Janet has never been like family to the Vision, mostly like due to the fact that her connection to him was via marriage to Pym, a relationship that has always been shaky even at its best. One can hardly hold this against her. Janet Van Dyne remains one of a handful of my favorite Avengers, and favorite Avengers chairperson to date (easy Cap fan, easy).

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Episode 11 - "We Are Controlling the Transmission"

When I was a kid, my favorite thing outside of superheroes were old horror and science fiction movies and television shows. From the time I was four, growing up near Columbus Ohio, my mom used to let me stay up as late as I could to watch Double Chiller Theater on Friday nights, which usually consisted of sixties movies about haunted houses and the Christopher Lee Dracula movies. On Saturday afternoons I'd watch the Super Host movie double feature, which often showed Godzilla movies or the black and white Universal monster movies.

It wasn't until my junior high years that I would discover my great love in the realm of classic horror/science fiction. During the school year, on a school night, I had a reasonable bed time like most kids. During the summer I could stay up as late as I wanted. On Sunday nights on the local PBS station (we, living way out in the country in the mid 80s, having no cable) came the Outer Limits.
I had seen the Twilight Zone before of course, but it didn't have the same visceral impact on me that the Outer Limits did. Twilight Zone usually had a theme that was supernatural in nature: a gremlin on the wing of a plane, an evil kid with godlike powers, a dead man and his dog at the crossroads of heaven and hell. The events in Outer Limits were usually something to do with aliens or a science gone wrong, of terrors from beyond.

Beginning in 1963, the Outer Limits captured the fear of "the other" that was such a defining part of the Cold War era. It was into the popular culture of this time period that Roy Thomas and John Buscema introduced the Vision in Avengers (volume 1) #57.

Consider the other other Marvel heroes introduced in the early sixties. A teenager who could stick to walls like a spider. A girl who could turn invisible and her brother who could catch on fire at will. A boy who could shoot beams of force from his eyes and his girlfriend that could move things with her mind. Three scientists: one in a mechanical suit, one who could talk to ants, and one who became an uncontrollable behemoth. Today, these are merely staples, perhaps even over-wrought tropes if one were so cynically inclined, of the genre and industry. At the time, though, these characters were considered "strange" and "bizarre". What connected them and their contemporaries even more, however, was that they were all victims of science gone wrong or had harnessed science to their advantage. Even the thunder god and the sorcerer supreme wielded forces that were science that most mortals could not yet explain.

The horror/science fiction movies from the dawn of film, by comparison to the 50's and early 60's were all supernatural in nature. Dracula. The Wolfman. The Mummy. Even Frankenstein's monster, who had its fictional origins based in the the misteps of science, was, in Shelly's original novel, steeped in Victorian theological philosophy.

Following World War II, however, the entire American zeitgeist changed. We, as a country, had just drop kicked the world into the atomic age. Science had gone from something the common blue collar American saw as interesting and helpful to something that could be intensely terrifying. Radiation had become a thing that, even if the everyman didn't fully understand stand it, was known to be able to cause illness and biological deformities.

By the 1950s, the country had settled into a sense of xenophobia as Communism grew in Eastern Europe. The majority of Americans had established for itself a rigid identity of what was normal, comforting, and safe, and anything that threatened that ideal by deviating from it was weird, strange, and threatening. Also, the growing space race, fueled by the ever present US/Soviet competition for dominance, opened up a whole new realm of fascination, but also of speculative dread of beings that could be wildly different from us, not only as a culture of as an entire species.

These collective American anxieties became reflected in our movies. The monsters, the threats, now came not from the supernatural but from science. Radiation caused insects to grow to massive sizes. Atomic testing awoke gigantic ancient beasts from their slumber. Scientists became grotesque abominations at their the hands of experiments gone awry. Aliens came to our planet to destroy us or to threaten into not destroying ourselves.

As Marvel emerged in the early 60's it capitalized on many of these concerns of Western civilization. Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men were all steeped in the dangers of radiation (it was originally implied that mutants were the result of birth defects caused by ambient nuclear radiation). Iron Man was a tale of capitalist industry overcoming Communist aggression. The origin of Ant-Man was an inversion of the science-creates-giant-insect trope of the time. The Fantastic Four spun out of the American desire to win the race into space.

(Completely random note - I had a Power Record as a kid that told the origin of the FF. To this day I can hear the voice of the actress who played Sue exclaiming "Ben Grimm, do you want the Russians to beat us to the moon?!!!")

When it came time a few years later to add a new member to the Avengers lineup, Stan Lee wanted to bring back the Golden Age Vision from Timely Comics, a mystical law enforcement officer from an alien dimension. Writer Roy Thomas, however, a fan of Asimov's I, Robot, wanted to introduce an android character (and also doubtlessly recognized the thematic comparisons that could be made between the Golden Age Vision and DC's Martian Manhunter). The two would compromise on a new character that shared the name and a few design elements of the original Vision, though with an entirely different back story and powers. This new Vision had an "unearthly" appearance, something that would be an important factor in his first appearance regarding the name he chose for himself, and a power that could be interpreted as supernatural by an observer, but had is creation and the nature of his abilities firmly grounded in technology. He was something halfway between human and android, a "synthetic humanoid", or "synthezoid".

There's very little the modern science fiction and fantasy fan hasn't seen in movies, television, and comics. To a modern fan unfamiliar with the intricacies of 1960's sci-fi, there probably isn't much about the Vision that is startling or unsettling. At the time of his creation, however, the Vision was an expression of many of the tropes that had been a metaphor for America fears for over two decades.

If you want a look at the Golden Age Vision head over to my companion feed, unearthlyvisions.Tumblr.com. As always I welcome any comments here on the blog or on my Twitter feed @grantrichter9. If you want to support the blog be sure to share with any like minded folks on social media.

I'll be back soon with the first of a series of interludes focusing on other Avengers that I'm a fan of and that have at least a peripheral relationship to the unearthly one. Until then, stay heavy Visionaries!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Unearthly Visions Special - Kurt Busiek

I've made it no secret that Kurt Busiek's run in the Avengers, partnered first with the great George Perez and later with the legendary Alan Davis, is one of my favorite periods in Avengers history. The first issue of Avengers volume 3 is one of that hallmarks of the mainstream comic book industry returning to a standard of solid, proportionate art and nuanced, character driven storytelling. While Mark Waid's Kingdom Come and Grant Morrison's JLA, the other two corners of the trifecta of the 90's return to comic book greatness, predated Avengers volume 3 by over a year, both had a certain sense of darkness to them. In Waid's case, they darkness was a necessity as Kingdom Come brought the cynicism of 90s comics dragging kicking and screaming into adult scrutiny. JLA was, expectedly, very Morrison-esque. Busiek's Avengers was like a beacon of light, showing us that comics could not only we well written and entertaining, but also fun again, without resorting to barely covered boobs, gritting teeth, and every other characters code name containing the words blood or death.

A few weeks ago, Mr Busiek agreed to answer a few questions for my sassy little corner of the internets. Read on below for all the Busiek goodness.

*****

Unearthly Visions: One of the things that seems to define your run on the Avengers is your level of characterization. One of these elements that stands out the most for me was the love triangle between the Vision, Wanda, and Wonder Man, while also emphasizing the relationship between Vision and Simon as brothers. How much of this subplot was mapped out ahead of time, and how much of it emerged organically as the series progressed?

Kurt Busiek: It was mostly pretty organic. I knew we were going to start with the Vision distancing himself from Wanda, because I just didn’t want to put them back together, I wanted them to explore different paths, and then eventually come back together in a new way, after finding out more about      themselves as people.
  Obviously, I didn’t get all the way through that, but that was the idea.
And I knew Wonder Man would be resurrected because he was hanging on to life using his love of Wanda as an anchor, so I wanted to see where that led, too.
But beyond that, it was a matter of seeing where the stories led.

UV: One of my favorite things about your run was how you were able to "fix", or at least reconcile, a lot of the splintered continuity that had been laid down by previous writers over the years, both through the main Avengers series and in Avengers Forever. How challenging was it to find a way to streamline the Avengers history in a way that would be embraced by long time fans?

KB: I wasn’t thinking about that too much. I wanted to clean up a few things for myself, like Wanda’s powers — I thought I’d come up with an interesting way to merge her magical abilities and mutant abilities, so it wasn’t two separate things — and there were other bits that were old mysteries that never got resolved — who is Benedict, what’s the deal with Madame Masque and Masque, stuff like that that I could get story material out of.
So I wasn’t so much looking to clean them up for the audience, I was looking to get story material out of it or to rationalize things for me as writer.
In AVENGERS FOREVER, most of the continuity bits we played with, I could have just as easily left alone, except the premise of the series was that Immortus had been messing with Avengers history, so we needed examples of it. And it’s always more fun to use actual established comics history rather than make something up.
So there, I think we were following the needs of the story. And there were things along the way, like getting rid of the Terminatrix and the Anachronauts, that were pretty much a matter of me just not liking them, so I shuffled them off-stage in a way that gave me a cleaner, simpler Kang to work with, but did it in a way that any future writer who wants to use them can easily say that what we saw in AVENGERS FOREVER wasn’t quite what it appeared to be, that they were lost in time or something, rather than killed. And presto, they’re back.

UV: Speaking of splintered continuity, what aspect of the Vision's history, beyond his relationship with the Scarlet Witch, did you feel needed the most attention?

KB: In the main book, I wanted to delve into his personality — explore it a little. If he was based on Wonder Man’s brain patterns, I wanted to see how that worked. He was the bookish Simon Williams that Simon had been as a kid, without the memories of his father’s abuse or his own failures and shame. So he was that personality’s nature, while Simon is what it had become through nurture (not a very positive nurture, though). And I wanted him to explore the world and his role in it, try things out.
In AVENGERS FOREVER, we had to deal with his whole relationship with the Human Torch, something that Immortus could well have been involved it — especially since various of the stories contradicted each other. I thought it was key to his history that he had buried memories of the Torch’s claustrophobia, but if he was never the Torch, why would he have that? So I used the Forever Crystal to make both the Torch’s existence and the Vision’s being based on him true. Not the most elegant of solutions, but I didn’t have a better one, without negating either the Vision’s history or the Torch’s modern existence.

UV: For my last question I want to jump track and ask about another of the Vision's family members, the Wasp. She was easily my favorite character of the Destiny team in Avengers Forever, and it felt to me like she had come into her own more than in any previous iteration. What was your inspiration for Janet's characterization in AF?

KB: Her whole history, pretty much. But probably the two touchpoints that I thought about most were her early days, when she was a goofy ditz in that Stan Lee “women are are shopping-obsessed” way, and Roger Stern’s later use of her as a serious, competent leader. I tried to marge the two, deciding that the capability she showed in Roger’s stories had always been there, she just enjoyed goofing around and playing the ditz when she was younger, in part to keep nudging Hank out of his shell.
So that gave me a serious, skilled leader with a sense of fun, who liked to play and have a flighty side when there weren’t more crucial things to do. It worked out well, I thought.

******
So there you have it Visionaries. I can't imagine a better wrap up for the year. As we venture into 2017 I have quite a few things in mind for future posts. Coming up next week I'll be exploring the science fiction and horror elements behind the Vision's creation by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. In the meantime, be sure to check out my daily countdown of my top five favorite Vision visuals, on unearthlyvisions.tumblr.com. Any questions or comments you want to share you can leave here on the blog or on my Twitter feed @GrantRichter9. Until next time, though, stay heavy Visionaries. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Interlude - Back in Business

Sometimes we all go a little nuts. To say that 2016 has been challenging would be something of an understatement. There's only so much socio-political shenanigans one can take before you have to forcibly withdraw your head (mostly) from the news media miasma and defiantly resume your joy. Thus, my trusty Marvel Infinite 3.75 inch Vision action figure in hand, I proudly announce the triumphant return of Unearthly Visions!

What's in store for the immediate future of my little corner of the comic book blogosphere, you may ask?  I thought I'd end 2016 on a high note, with my interview with one of my absolute favorite Avengers writers, Mister Kurt Busiek. Following that, as we progress on into 2017 I'll be starting a new series of episodes deconstructing some of what makes up the character of the Vision. I'll be exploring how, given the mentality of the 1960s and how science fiction was viewed by popular culture at the time, it could be argued that the Vision was originally something of a horror character. I'll be expounding upon my theory that, rather than being a souless, emotionless "toaster", as suggested by some fans and creators, that the Vision is, in fact, the equivalent of a a person with severe but highly functioning autism. I'll be discussing what sort of villain I'd most like to see become his arch-nemesis, and what hero I'd most want to see become his buddy-cop partner. Additionally, I'll also be doing a daily countdown on my Tumblr feed, unearthlyvisions.tumblr.com , of my top five favorite and least favorite of the Vision's many looks over the years in various media.

I'm very excited to get things going, and I'll see you back here soon. Until then, stay heavy Visionaries!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Episode 10 - Avengers A.I.

When I first saw the solicitations for Avengers AI a few years ago, I said to myself, "I'm not sure  I want to read this".

Shortly thereafter, though, the part of my brain that thinks in shades of green, red, and gold spoke up and said, "Yeah, but the Vision's in it".

"Well it's not my Vision. He's got all these funky nanite powers now, and they changed his look".

"C'mon, you're a completest. You know going to read it eventually anyway".

"Yeah, but...".

"CMON!"

OK fine!". So I read it.

After the first issue I thought "Alright, this isn't bad".

After the second issue I though "OK this is really good".

By the end of the third issue I thought "Wow. This is amazing".

Why, after my initial skepticism, did I end up enjoying this series so much? Take some of the psychedelia of Morrison's Doom Patrol, stuff it inside the super science of Ellis's Planetary, and inject it with some of the humor of Giffen and DeMatais's Justice League International, and you have a rough approximation of Avengers AI. I'm not going to go through the series issue by issue, but I am going to touch on those elements of it I found the most interesting or entertaining. The premise of the series is that Dimitrios, the artificial intelligence Hank Pym created to defeat Ultron in the Age of Ultron miniseries, has taken on a life of its own, and is determined to wipe out humanity. A great deal of the book takes place in Dimitrios's virtual world, expressed through a level of surrealism that rivals the visuals from Steve Ditko's work in Strange Tales.

Before I get into things, though, I should add a little caveat for those of you unfamiliar with the book. Avengers AI is not a series you can take, to use the phrase of a certain podcasting Match-Head, "at a thousand foot level" in terms of the greater Marvel Universe. As much as I enjoy it, there are some elements that (at least to my humble observation) haven't necessarily translated as seamlessly as possible into subsequent and concurrent series (although I believe it could have been done with a little creative editorial intervention). As such, I prefer to view Avengers AI largely in its own encapsulation.

So, what are those elements that I enjoyed?  Well, obviously the Vision is in it. In fact, out of a relatively small cast of characters, he takes center stage for much of the book. He also has great characterization, with a dry sense of humor and a sharp intellectual wit.

As I mentioned above, though, this may not be the Vision you were expecting. It was established way back in the 70s that all of Ultron's creations have a directive programmed into them known as the Ultron Protocols, which compel them to recreate their own creator, often at the worst possible times. With Ultron recently defeated, and sensing the Protocols beginning to initiate, the Vision creates a device which reconfigures his entire body, thus overriding this embedded programming. His new form is entirely made up of nanites, and he is able to change his shape, an element which writer Sam Humphries and artist Andre Lima Araujo put it innovative, sometimes almost surrealistic, use.
I had the opportunity to ask Humphries as to what inspired him to initiate such a dramatic change in the Vision. He replied, "A lot of it was just having fun and coming up with cool stuff for André to draw, which he did beautifully every time. And of course, looking at his power set and extrapolating -- if you were Hank Pym, and you were to upgrade him with near-future abilities, what would you pick?"

The presence of the Vision is not my sole character-based joy regarding this comic, however. With Avengers AI, Humphries has done what no other writer in the sixty-plus years of Marvel history has been able to accomplish: he made me like Hank Pym.

For the most part, with the exception of the visual of the Yellowjacket costume, and of the portrayal of Giant-Man in Avengers Forever, I hate Hank Pym. I hate the wishy-washiness of his different identities. I hate how he treated the Wasp in the Englehart and Shooter eras of the Avengers. I hate how he sold off Jocasta to Ultron in Mighty Avengers like a fifteenth century nobleman marrying off his daughter to cement a peace treaty. I've mentioned before that Pym merging with his creation in Rage of Ultron feels like the logical and fitting evolution of the character, and I stand by that opinion.
For the twelve issues that comprises Avengers AI, however, I didn't hate Hank Pym. The reason for this is pretty simple: within the series, Humphries reveals that there's actually something wrong with the character, specifically that he has bipolar disorder. As illustrated in the book, Hank goes through highs of manic enthusiasm, followed by periods of suffocating depression, and that the only thing that balances him out is playing superhero. While this doesn't (and doesn't try to) excuse some of Pym's more erratic behavior over the years, it does go a long way toward putting it into something of a more understandable context.

Yet another Pym family member appearing in Avengers AI is Victor Mancha, the cybernetic "son" of Ultron, and former member of the Runaways. I was happy that Humphries made use of Victor's relationship to both the Vision and Pym early in the book, and I asked him if that was an aspect he had been particularly looking forward to writing. He replied, "Yeah absolutely. I love RUNAWAYS so I jumped at the chance to include Victor. And that bro-brother dynamic really appealed to me -- the exuberant Victor and the stoic Vision. What would they even talk about?! I have a large and complicated family so that aspect intrigued me."

The truly breakout character of the book, however, was the Doombot. As the name implies, it is a robotic duplicate of Victor von Doom, complete with the Latverian dictator's megalomaniacal personality cranked up to the Nth degree. This unit, though, has been repurposed by Pym to follow his instructions, and has been fitted with a miniature black hole bomb in its chest, rigged to explode if it goes haywire. As such, the Doombot fights alongside the team, and does so very well, all the while vocalizing it's disdain for the Avengers and lamenting it'd desires to crush all of humanity. My favorite Doombot moment came in issue 7, an Inhumanity event tie-in. The team encounters a newly transformed Nu-human, an elderly woman who has taken on a tentacled Cthulu-esque appearance. Doombot calms the woman, and halts her rampage in a New York alley, by waltzing with her, and in a bizarre form of compassion, convincing her to use her new gifts to "teach the world a lesson and show them who the real monster is".

The team is organized by SHIELD agent Monica Chang, a leader hard enough to get in Steve Roger's face, and also notable as being one of the few practicing Muslims in comics. Rounding out the group is the enigmatic Alexis the Protector, an AI that exists in a physical quantum state, and sister of Dimitrios.

Would I recommend this book to my fellow Visionaries?  If you feel the need to follow a strict adherence to traditional Marvel conventions this series may honestly not be for you. If, however, you enjoy books with rich characterization, witty humor, and revolutionary takes on long standing characters, you should definitely check it out.