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. 

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.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Episode 9 - "Love and Recriminations"

I fell in love with Wanda Maximoff at an early age, almost as early as I'd become enamored with the Vision. I know that's easy for me to say, what with her traditionally being the significant other of my favorite character and all right? 

Maybe not. I think that if I'd first run across her as drawn by Al Milgrom during the "Vision Unlimited" arc by Roger Stern in Avengers, or by Richard Howell in the second Vision and Scarlet Witch series, I might not have developed the prepubescent crush that was a big part of my elementary school years.

As it happens, my first exposure to Wanda was in, what I would find out years later, a single panel of Avengers (volume 1) #171, which I saw as a promotional image without word balloons in a few different comics I owned in the late 70s or early 80s. Drawn by George Perez, the panel shows Wanda, the Wasp, Ms Marvel, Yellowjacket, Captain America, Wonder Man, and the Beast. Without captions it just looks like they're standing around mingling at a party, and, other than Cap, I had no idea who any of them were. They all looked extremely cool though (because George Perez), and for some reason I latched onto the image of the pretty lady in pink and red with the funny thing in her hair. A few years later, when I learned who she was and about her relationship with the Vision, my reaction was something like "Oh, well that works".

The Scarlet Witch hasn't always had an easy time when it came to characterization. In the Silver Age, and sometimes even into the late Bronze Age, Wanda was often depicted more as a plot device than a character, as many women appearing in comics in were at the time. More often than not, women in Marvel comics until about the late seventies (and sometimes beyond, depending upon the personal politics of the writer) were there to get captured to give the boys someone to rescue, to get injured to give the boys something to rally around, or to say something dumb to make the boys look smarter.
The late 80s began the trend of Wanda's mental instability, with her first breakdown in Avengers West Coast. While this period of emotional fugue would prove to be short lived, it would be the foundation for her much more pronounced psychotic break during "Avengers Disassembled"". Also, her manipulation by Magneto in AWC would prove to be a trend as Quicksilver would manipulate her again after "Disassembled", leading to both the "House of M" and "Decimation" events.

The Wanda Maximoff we're going to be discussing in this episode of Unearthly Visions, however, is the Wanda to re-emerged at the precipice of Avengers vs X-Men. This a Scarlet Witch who isn't defined by her romantic relationships, a Wanda Maximoff who is struggling to overcome the stigma her own emotional wreckage has brought on her.

As much affection as I have for Wanda as a character, though, I have to stop and remind myself that the focus of this blog, at least during these posts that I refer to as "episodes", is about our friend the Vision, and this post is about how the Vision and the Scarlet Witch have effected each others lives in more recent times. Perhaps appropriately, then, it could be said that the fates of the two characters somewhat mirrored each other during what I think of as the Bendis era of Marvel.

For those of you not familiar, "Avengers Disassembled" revolves around the catastrophic dismantling buy an unhinged Scarlet Witch as her reality warping powers go haywire. As part of the chaos, the Vision begins spewing large metal spheres from his mouth, an act that appears to cause him tremendous internal damage. The spheres unfold and expand into drones of Ultron, which begin blasting away at everything in sight. Already weakened from the triggered Ultron protocol, the Vision is literally ripped in half moments later when the She-Hulk's rage at the attack becomes uncontrollable. Once the dust settles, Wanda, who is now nearly catatonic, is taken away by Magneto to convalesce, and the Vision (along with Clint Barton, Scott Lang, and Jack of Hearts) is considered dead.

The Vision would return fully from the dead(?) roughly seven publication years later in Avengers (volume 4) #19. The Scarlet Witch would return to active duty just a few months later in Avengers vs X-Men #0. While inactive, both were replaced by analogs in Young Avengers, Vision by a namesake with a similar but more youthful appearance, and Wanda by Asgardian (later Wiccan, and again later Demiurge). They also both appeared in limited series' and events, the Vision in the aforementioned Chaos War: Dead Avengers, and the Scarlet Witch in both House of M and Young Avengers: Children's Crusade. Though the two hadn't been a couple for roughly fifteen years as the time that "Disassembled" was published, it's clear that writers nonetheless perceive an inseparable connection between them that has emerged as repeated parallels.

In past episodes I've given fairly equal billing to the members of the different branches of the Vsion family tree. I'm not going to do that with the Maximoff's. In future interludes that include character spotlights I may go into the question of the twins parentage, the convoluted origins of Tommy Shepherd and Billy Kaplan, and about just how much I don't like Quicksilver. In the meantime though I think Wanda deserves the spotlight.

When the Scarlet Witch made her return in Avengers vs. X-Men # 0, as drawn with the Fanboy service that is Frank Cho, Vision has been back in active duty for some time. When Wanda is taken to Avengers mansion by Carol Danvers, she is greeted at the door by her former husband. The Vision explains that he sympathizes for what Wanda has been through. He tells her that he forgives her for what happened to him. What he cannot forgive, he says, is the fact that she used him, out everyone available, to hurt their friends. With that, in a truly heart-wrenching scene, he turns his back on her, shedding silent tears, as she crumbles in despair. The pain that they both evidence in what each perceives as the betrayal and rejection by the other shows how much love, no matter how deeply buried beneath suffering, they still harbor between them.

Neither has time to brood, however, as the Avengers are thrust into a conflict with the X-Men over Hope Summers and the Phoenix Force. By the end, Wanda has proven herself to the Avengers that she can once again be a trustworthy teammate, and has helped reverse some of the damage she caused to the mutant race. Wanda would face first a psychically powered Red Skull, and later Kang and the Apocalypse Twins as part of the newly formed Avengers Unity Squad. The Vision faced off against the genocidal Dimitrios as a member of the Avengers AI unit.

Their various individual trials overcome the two lovers would not meet again until the end of the second volume of Uncanny Avengers. Having learned that the mutant Magneto is not their true father Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver journey to counter earth seeking answers from the High Evolutionary. Fearing for the safety of her teammate, and also fearing the damage she can do, Rogue forms an ad-hoc Avengers Unity Squad, including the Vision, to go after them. On Counter Earth, the Vision meets, falls in love with, and creates thousands of self replicating children with Eve, the sentient artificial intelligence of the planet. In the sixth and last issue of this volume, he aids Wanda and Pietro against Luminous, the genetically perfect creation of the Evolutionary and "sister" of the twins.
In the epilogue, the Vision comforts Wanda when she unable to locate Wonder Man, who's energies were dispersed from Rogue earlier in the arc. He tells her that he will always be there for her as a friend, to which she kisses him, not necessarily in a romantic way, but in a way that implies a tenderness that has not been seen between them for some time.

In a story written by Mark Waid in All New All Different Avengers #0, the Vision meets Wanda at her home. Though it's clear the two aren't romantically involved, there is a familiarity about them that is akin to that of a couple that have fallen into a routine of comfortable, casual affection. The Vision recounts to Wanda how he has been having hallucinations, with "ghosts" of old memories interfering with his perceptions, to the point where accidentally allowed an innocent civilian to die in a rescue attempt. He elaborates that the problem is not the memories themselves, but the emotions attached to them. His manner and speech suddenly becoming stiff and formal, he then informs her that he has severed all emotional ties to his previous memories, and that his meeting with her was the final test to see if the process was a success. At first stunned, Wanda asks in a small voice "Where is the man knew?". When the reality of the situation sinks in, however, she screams in horror "WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!"

This is not the reaction of a concerned teammate, or even that of a close friend. This reaction carries years of pain and love behind it. Despite Wanda's assertions during a phone call at the beginning of the story that "there's nothing there", this is the reaction of seeing what was and what could have been shattered into shards of memory and possibility.

I liked Vision and Wanda as a couple. It bothered me when their relationship fell apart, and I like the idea of them one day being together again. Out of the fifty-plus year history of the characters, however, they were only married for a small percentage of the time, roughly fifteen years. They have a longer history of hurting each other, both physically and emotionally, than loving each other. It is ironically through those hurts, and more importantly through the intensity of their reactions to those hurts, that we see how much they truly love one another.

That, Visionaries, wraps up my exploration of our hero's immediate family. Over the next few weeks I'll be discussing stories and short lived series featuring the Vision that I've particularly enjoyed (if I'm very fortunate I may be able to get some creator interviews along the way). I'll be beginning this run in the next episode with my coverage of Avengers AI, featuring my interview with series writer Sam Humphries. Interspersed among these will be my general thoughts on various aspects of the character, as well as explorations of characters to whom the Vision has a more tertiary relationship, such as the Wasp, Scott Lang, Victor Mancha, Jocasta, Wiccan, and Speed.

Unearthly Visions is just getting started!  Stay heavy!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Interlude - Fred Van Lente

In the last episode of Unearthly Visions, during our exploration of the character of the Grim Reaper, we discussed the 2010 miniseries Chaos War: Dead Avengers, written by Fred Van Lente. Mr. Van Lente, who also co-wrote the core Chaos War series, was kind enough to answer a few questions for me recently via email.

Van Lente began writing for Marvel in 2007, became coauthor of Incredible Hercules in 2008, when the focus of the title switched from the Jade Giant to the Lion of Olympus following the events of World War Hulk. Additionally, he co-wrote several Marvel Zombies miniseries, the Marvel Noir limited series, and the 2011 Power Man and Iron Fist mini at Marvel. He was the author of the 2012 Archer and Armstrong series, as well as 2015's Ivar: Timewalker for Valiant. He is slated as coauthor on the upcoming Slapstick series for Marvel as well.

As those of you who have been following my little diatribes might suspect, I can be rather fervent when it comes to the Etheric Avenger. When changes are made that make the character into something less than he is, like removing his emotions and dismantling his personal relationships, I get ...let's say disappointed. I don't get internet fanboy rage or anything, but I do settle in for a good sulk while I wait out the return to the previous status quo.

When :Avengers Disassembled" came out in 2004, then, I was (and I think understandably) less than enthusiastic about the events within. I'd seen the Vision get taken out before. In the early 80s he suffered severe internal damage fighting Annihilus, leading to a story arc where he interfaced with the world computer of the Eternals and attempted to become benevolent dictator of the world. In the late 80s he was dismantled so thoroughly that it would take a body swap with an alternate reality duplicate to return him to a semblance of his former self. In the late 90s he was blasted in half, the lower portion of his body severed, his physical form taken out of action for a year of publication time, reduced to a hologram while his body rebuilt itself.

"Avengers Disassembled "was different though. He was ripped in half again, this time by a raged out She-Hulk, courtesy of a mentally unstable Scarlet Witch. In every previous instance, the response was to hook the Vision up to some impossible Kirby machine and wait for him to get better. Not this time. The Vision had been so thoroughly destroyed that he was considered to be officially among the deceased. A teenage analog even took his place for a few years.

When the Vision turned up in Dead Avengers, then, I was extremely happy, buy also a little surprised. While I believe that the Vision, as a character, is as alive as any other character within the confines of the fictional universe, he is still essentially an artificial intelligence housed in a synthetic body. Even in fictional settings, the possession of a soul is often considered the purview of biological beings born of biological means (not that I'm complaining mind you).

I asked Fred how the concept of the Dead Avengers book came to be. He replied "Chaos War" was initially conceived just as the climactic storyline of the "Incredible Hercules" comic, the Big Finish for what Greg Pak and I had been building toward for six or seven arcs or so. By the time we finally got to it, though, the marketing people thought it would sell better as an independent mini (and they were probably right), and so Marvel made it their big fall event for that year. Well, having a it becoming a big company event means that you need ancillary titles and one-shots, and as a god-themed story Thor and Ares got theirs. Part of the "Chaos War" storyline had the big bad, Amatsu-Mikaboshi, come through and wipe out all of the underworlds so the dead people had nowhere else to go but the land of the living. So we could do fun things like bring back Alpha Flight, and that set up the basic scenario of "Dead Avengers," having the dead heroes being the only ones able to make a last stand against the forces of evil because the active -- as in "living"! -- Avengers had been defeated over in the main book. I really liked the appeal of this tiny group of capes making a last stand against impossible odds -- a "300" with superheroes, if you will. "

Returning to the topic of the whether or not the Vision has a soul, this has been a topic of some contention for both fans and writers. In a possibly less theological context, does the fact that the Vision possessed sentience indicate that he is more than just a series of electrical impulses? I would say yes (obviously). Others, not so much. One author, in fact, who has a history of writing the Vision was quoted as saying, "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. He is a toaster".

I asked Fred if there was any editorial conflicts concerning the Vision having a soul that could exist in any form of afterlife. He said, "Not that I remember. As long as we promised to send everyone back to being dead again, they let us do pretty much what we wanted. But I loved the Vision, so screw the theological implications, I was doing the series, I was putting him in there."

He went on to say, "I was a huge Vision fan as a kid, having read the original Thomas/Buscema origin stories in an old paperback, and devoured the Vision & Scarlet Witch miniseries, particularly the 12-issue Englehart and Richard Howell one, where, of course, Grim Reaper and Nekra were the main villains, so that inspired me to put them in DA. Besides who else would worship a nihilistic death god like Amatsu-Mikaboshi other than those two nutcases? "

Great sentiments from Mr. Van Lente.

Thanks to everyone for following my exploration of the Vision's family tree so far. I also want to extend a big thank you to Fred Van Lente for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions. Join us back here next week when I'll be finishing up this particular thread of familial dynamics by discussing the Vision's relationship with the Scarlet Witch in the aftermath of Disassembled.

As always I welcome any feedback, from my fellow fans of the Etheric Avenger, as well as others of the internet superhero fans community. Feel free to leave comments here on the site, or you can contact me through the handle @GrantRichter9 on Twitter.

Until next time, stay heavy!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Brothers in Ions part 2

I'm going to begin this episode by probably offending the greater comic book community by saying I don't like Batman.

Gasp!

It has nothing to do with the character's over saturation since the release of Frank Miller's Year One (though that is certainly a contributing factor). I don't have anything against the character, but as a whole he has just never done it for me.

I am, however, a fan of writer and director Kevin Smith, and of his run on Green Arrow in the early 2000s. One of my favorite contributions Smith made to the series was the hero killer Onomatopoeia. When I found out a few years later that Smith would be bringing Onomatopoeia back in the miniseries Cacophony I grabbed it up.

At the climax of Cacophony, the Joker is injured, captured, hospitalized, and given mediation to balance out his mental instability. During the epilogue, Batman visits the Joker in the hospital. He asks the Joker if his mind were to stay lucid would things change between them. The Joker replies "I don't hate you because I'm crazy. I'm crazy because I hate you".

That is the mark of what makes a villain a hero's true nemesis: a single minded obsession that drives one beyond the event horizon, to feel the abyss staring back at you and to give in to its overwhelming pull. This quality, if nothing else, is what I feel makes the Grim Reaper the Vision's greatest foe.

(For those Sons and Daughters of the Bat out there, I'm not in any way implying that the Reaper has the same gravitas as the Clown Prince of Crime. I'm simply comparing one admittedly unequal quality between the two characters. I don't have the energy for an internet argument.)

Appearing as far back as May of 1968, the Reaper predated the Vision by only a few months. While the Vision's origin is partially centered around the use of Wonder Man's brain patterns as the basis of his personality, the Reaper originated out of revenge for what he saw as the Avengers' responsibility for Wonder Man's death. He would return in 1970, leading the first incarnation of the Lethal Legion against the Avengers, where he would learn that the Vision was essentially a mental clone of Wonder Man, the Reaper's estranged brother. It would be under writer Steve Englehart, as covered in the Unearthly Visions special, that the Reaper would become a more persistent foe for Wonder Man and the Vision, plaguing both heroes, as well as the Scarlet Witch, in Avengers, West Coast Avengers, and both Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries'.

Eric Williams has returned in many iterations over the years. Originally just a fit and angry human with a cybernetic scythe in place of his right hand,


 he died, and was resurrected with supernatural powers, though with the vampiric need to kill one human being every twenty four hours. He later becomes the avatar of an other-dimensional death god, complete with a demonic appearance that more closely resembled his name namesake.


Even later he was resurrected to be a Horseman of Death by the Apocalypse Twins using the Celestial Death Seed.



Most recently, Eric Williams made a very brief, but very severe impact on the life of the Vision, and on the of the Vision's self-made suburban family, in the Etheric Avenger's recent eponymous series.


What we'll be exploring in this episode of Unearthly Visions, however, will be two appearances of the Grim Reaper that take place, somewhat ironically, in what I think of as "extreme sleep mode", the time frame between the events of "Avengers Disassembled" and the Vision's reactivation in Avengers (volume 4) #19.

The first of these entries is Dark Reign: Lethal Legion, released in 2009, written by Frank Tieri, with art by Mateus Santolouco and Chris Sotomayor.



As should be obvious from the title, this miniseries takes place during the "Dark Reign" era of Marvel, in which the insane Norman Osborn has become one of the most powerful men in America, and has replaced the peacekeeping organization SHIELD with his own unit HAMMER. As such, the Vision is still dead, and does not appear in this series. That's an unusual choice for me I know, but I really enjoyed this book and I think it's a great modern insight into the character of the Grim Reaper.

The mini opens with the members of the Legion having already been defeated by Osborne's Dark Avengers and currently incarcerated on the Raft. Livingston, an attorney, is sent to interview the Legion members for the case. Before he can interview the Reaper, though, Eric is stabbed in the heart by another inmate, an Osborne loyalist, and dies.

Through his interviews with the different Legion members, Livingston learns of their motivations for joining. Tiger Shark and Mister Hyde were out for revenge for past humiliations. The Gray Gargoyle was jealous over being excluded from the Thunderbolts and the Dark Avengers. Absorbing Man felt that Osborne being in charge was "bad for business". Nekra joined out of loyalty to the Reaper.  Wonder Man had joined to try to keep the destruction to a minimum in what he believed was his brother's attempt to do the right thing by removing Osborne from power. At the end of the series, it is revealed that while Eric did physically "die" from the prison attack, he is incapable of truly being killed due to Nekra's voodoo machinations and the Reaper's own vampiric tendencies.


It's also shows that the Reaper had reformed the Legion at Osborne's behest, partially as a PR device, to give the Dark Avengers a team of overt villains to fight to help them win the public trust, and partially to discredit Wonder Man, who had been publicly outspoken against Osborne's administration. Though he shows regret at the thought of leaving Simon and Nekra behind, Eric does not hesitate when Norman smuggles him off of the Raft and sends him off to Europe to further HAMMER's interests.  While, again, this series takes place when my favorite red, gold, and green hero was more or less dead, it does a great job of showing exactly how cold blooded and self serving the Reaper can be.

The other series we'll be discussing on this episode is Chaos War: Dead Avengers, published in 2011, written by Fred Van Lente, with art by Tom Grummett, Cory Hamscher, Andy Troy, and Sotocolor.


In the main Chaos War mini, also co-written by Van Lente, the god-like Chaos King has disrupted the afterlife, causing millions of dead souls to return to Earth and causing every human to fall into a coma-like sleep. In Dead Avengers, a small group of Earth's Mightiest Heroes who count among the deceased materialize in New York where the Avengers have collapsed, and where a horde of demons are attacking and destroying other returned souls. The returned Avengers are Captain Mar-Vell, the original Swordsman, the second Yellowjacket, Doctor Druid, Deathcry, and, of course, the Vision.  The Swordsman rallies the ad hoc team to protect both the civilian dead and the unconscious Avengers, and Mar-Vell takes command as the field leader. By the end of the first issue, the Grim Reaper, with Nekra as his first lieutenant, is revealed to be leading the demons in the Chaos King's name, and, in the second issue,"kills" Mar-Vell.


Throughout the series, each of the remaining heroes laments either the circumstances of their death or an unresolved aspect of their former life. In the third issue, each of these heroes earns redemption. The Vision has probably the most spectacular moment of the series in the finale. In the opening of issue 3, Vision confronts the Reaper and the two are shown charging at each other. The Vision is shooting solar beams at the Reaper, his face set in grim determination. The Reaper is deflecting the blast with the blade of his scythe, his eyes ablaze with supernatural energy. 

With an action shot this dynamic, one would expect the dialogue to be some sort of highly dramatic declaration of intent of the characters to stop and/or destroy the other. Nope. As they bear down upon one another, the dialogue between the hero and the villain, respectively, is simply:


I love this!  I love the casual familiarity that these two have fallen into over the years, as if battle after battle their enmity has become something that just has to be done every once in a while, an extremely unpleasant inevitability. It reminds me of two coworkers that can't stand each other that regularly get assigned to the same project, or (perhaps more accurately) squabbling family members that only see each other out of obligation during special occasions. It feels like every harsh words that could be said has already been spoken, so let's just get down to it. Really good stuff. 

By the end, Druid and Deathcry (now calling herself Lifecry) have died in battle. Seriously wounded by the Reaper, the Vision chooses to sacrifice himself, detonating his body, killing his dark brother and allowing Swordsman and Yellowjacket to get the Avengers to safety. 

According to editor Tom Brevoort, the souls of all of the Dead Avengers returned to the afterlife once the Chaos War was resolved. The Vision, of course, came back to life a few months later in the pages of Avengers volume 4, and the Grim Reaper apparently just can't stay dead. 

That wraps up our exploration of Simon and Eric Williams as they pertain to the Vision. If you're a fan of the Vision and his family dynamic, I highly recommend any of the storylines I've mentioned in this episode, as well as Tom King's outstanding Vision series.

As always, I welcome any and all feedback here in the comments section of the blog. Also, if you want a more immediate discussion the best place to reach me is @IamGrantRichter on Twitter. 

Join me back here at Unearthly Visions where I'll be doing a creator spotlight interlude on writer Fred Van Lente and posting the answers to a few interview questions that he was kind enough to answer for me. Until then, stay heavy Visionaries!







Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Brothers in Ions part 1

Astute comic book aficionados may have noticed similarities between the Vision of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the cosmic Messiah analog Adam Warlock. For those of you unfamiliar, Warlock is an artificial being created by a group of evil scientists. In one of his first appearances he emerges from a cocoon and attacks Thor. He is later given the Soul Gem (later revealed to be one of the six Infinity Gems), which he wears on his forehead, becomes a universal champion of life, and has something of an aloof personality. In the MCU, the Vision is an artificial being, created by scientist being controlled by an evil entity, who emerges from a cocoon like incubator, instinctively attacks Thor, has one of the Infinity Gems, sets himself up as a champion of life, and has an aloof personality. Given that the Infinity War movie is right around the corner (at the time of this revision), and that we haven't heard rumours of Adam appearing in any Marvel movies any time soon, it's looking like the Vision will be the MCU's answer to Warlock.

There is, however, another similarity that those of you haven't obsessed about either character for years may not recognize at first glance. During the Infinity War and Infinity Crusade mini series' of the early 90s, it's revealed that, while he was in possession of the Infinity Gauntlet, Warlock purged evil/chaos and good/order from his soul, leaving him a being of total logic and balance. These cast off elements of Warlock's soul became sentient beings, the Magus and the Goddess respectively. While the Vision has never been through such a cosmic convolution, it could be argued that he does stand in the same position as Warlock in a similar, if metaphorical, triumvirate.

When he was first created by Ultron, the Vision's mind was based on the recorded brainwave patterns of Simon Williams. Simon had been transformed months prior into the iconically powered Wonder Man, and had been believed dead at the time of the Vision's awakening. Wonder Man would later be revived, to become a long standing Avenger, and would come to regard the Vision as his mental twin, men of identical beginnings who have grown into their own distinct identities. Shortly after Simon's apparent death, his unstable brother Eric would have his right hand replaced with a cybernetic scythe, becoming the criminal Grim Reaper, a murderous renegade for that would plague the Avengers, and specifically Wonder Man and the Vision, again and again. It could be argued, then, that with the valiant but brash and sometimes naive Wonder Man on one side, and with the obsessive maniacal Grim Reaper on the other, the Vision stands as a noble but calculating balance between his two "brothers".

In this episode of Unearthly Visions, however, we'll be focusing specifically on the Etheric Avenger's heroic brother. While the Vision, as mentioned in my special Steve Englehart episode, has always come across to me as a character defined by his relationships with others, Wonder Man has always felt like a character trying to define himself. In one of the first issues following his "resurrection", it's revealed that what had been interpreted as death by Grim Reaper and the Avengers had in fact been a sort of metamorphic coma, with his body changing from organic to ionic matter. He struggles with the fact that he is no longer Simon Williams the human being, but the mind of Simon Williams in control of an ionic body.


Despite his virtually indestructible form, he suffered from an irrational fear of death and also claustrophobia, due to his extended time in a death like state trapped in a coffin-like capsule. After eventually overcoming his fear of death, Simon became more daring, sometimes to the point of recklessness.


In early 90s he died, then later was resurrected and became morre balanced and well intentioned during the Busiek/Perez run of the early 2000's,


and most recently a pacifist who would go to great lengths to curtail superhuman violence.


This may, of course, be an issue of various writers over the years trying to put a definitive spin on the character to keep him from just coming across as a generic powerhouse, but I think the end result is a sense of a man not knowing who he truly is and trying to find his place and his own validity.

As mentioned above, Simon came across as the most well balanced when written by Kurt Busiek (with art by Gentleman George Perez). This would be a prevalent theme in the early Busiek run on the Avengers, stripping away much of the deconstructive angst heaped onto characters in the previous ten or so years of storytelling, of showing personal drama not through a string of ever more epic tragedies, but in the every day emotional conflicts through which we all struggle.

One of my favorite issues of the Busiek/Perez run, Avengers (volume 3) #23, highlights the emotional turmoil of the Vision and Wonder Man, both internally and with each other. At the beginning of the "Ultron Unlimited" story arch, the Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man discover that the Vision has been frequenting a restaurant that features the traditional food, music, and dance of Wanda's home country of Transia. They both interpret this, in conjunction with the Vision's growing emotional distance toward them both, as the Vision begrudging the romance that has blossomed between Wanda and Simon.

In issue 23, with the battle with Ultron behind them, Wonder Man confronts the Vision, demanding that his synthezoid brother open up so that there are no lingering resentments. The results are explosive, with the Vision physically attacking Simon in frustration. Coming to his senses, the Vision explains that though he is supportive of Wonder Man's relationship with Wanda, he is distraught over the fact that he has come to see himself as a pale reflection of Simon Williams. It's not only a physical and emotional attraction to the Scarlet Witch that they share, but a love of jazz, chess, satirical literature; all the little things that help define a person as a person.

On the heels of this revelation, Simon discloses that he is actually jealous of the Vision. Wonder Man argues that while the Vision did begin his life as a mental copy of Simon Williams, the Vision has since evolved into his own being with his own identity, one free of the mistakes Simon made before and during his life as Wonder Man. The Vision flies off to reflect on their talk, with their emotional conflict not yet fully resolved, but with the sense that barriers between them have begun to become undone.


This scene, even more than almost manic bonding between with Wonder Man in the 1985 Vision and Scarlet Witch miniseries, highlights the brotherly relationship between these two characters. In the last couple of years Wonder Man was "permanently" absorbed by Rogue, then later purged from her and dissipated by a scientist of Counter Earth, then reconstituted in part due to Deadpool (because of course it had something to do with Deadpool), in all three volumes of Uncanny Avengers respectively. Having recently fought on opposite sides of the HYDRA takeover of the United States (due to a malevolent AI inserted into the Vision's consciousness), what will come of these two brothers' relationship remains a matter for future storytellers.

Unearthly Visions will be back in a few days with part 2 of "Brothers in Ions", where I'll be focusing on Eric Williams, the Grim Reaper. In the meantime you can take a look at images for this episode, such as different iterations of Wonder Man's appearance and some panels from Avengers (volume 3) #23, over at unearthlyvisions.tumblr.com. As always, you can leave me questions and feedback here on the blog or on my Twitter feed @GrantRichter9.
Until next time, stay heavy Visionaries!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Unearthly Visions Special - Steve Englehart

The Vision, as a character, doesn't necessarily evolve. In a fictional universe that has largely made its name on character development, this does tend to make him stand out.

Spider-Man, for example, has gone from a nerdy high school student, to a confident college and grad student with a full love life, to a married man to trying to help make ends meet, to a spokesperson for a government registration program (and then all of the shenanigans that followed). Wolverine went from an amnesiac berserker, to a warrior seeking peace through Zen, to a leader, and eventually a teacher. So forth and so on.

Not so much with the Vision. Yes he changes costumes, or body designs, or whatever every so often. He gets "killed" when a writer wants to create some tragedy for the Avengers, yet wants to leave a way for another writer to bring back a "dead" character with little convolution. Sometimes he has emotions, sometimes he doesn't. Essentially, who the Vision is, though, doesn't really change. This is part of the appeal of the character to me. The Vision simply IS. He is the unchanging rock in the stream of human acquaintances that flow around him. As such, it is often the nature of those acquaintances that help shape who he is as a character as those friendships and enemies come and go, hence my preoccupation with his extended family.

In the almost fifty years since his introduction in Avengers #57, few have added to the Vision's sense of family more than legendary comics writer Steve Englehart. Steve was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions for me recently about contributions he's made to the Marvel mythos that include the Vision and members of his family. In this special episode of Unearthly Visions we'll be exploring storylines Steve has worked on that, over an almost twenty year period, made the character one with a rich and detailed family background.

Though the Vision made his first appearance under Roy Thomas's tenure on the title, Englehart would introduce an element that would add a greater element of history, an element that harkens back to one of Marvel's earliest creations. In 1974, in Avengers #129, the Avengers became embroiled in what would be known as the Celestial Madonna Saga.

The classic story involves the time traveling villain Kang trying to ensure that he becomes the father of the Celestial Messiah, a being destined to bring peace to the universe. Kang had narrowed the candidate for the woman predetermined to give birth to this entity to one of three women: the Scarlet Witch, and Avengers allies Mantis and Moondragon. During the team's adventures through time in their efforts to stop Kang, the Vision learns, through the intervention of Immortus (who would be revealed to be another incarnation of Kang years later), that his body was created from that of the original android Human Torch, a Golden Age hero who fought alongside Captain America and Namor during World War II. This revelation gave the Vision more gravitas than he'd possessed previously, tying him to Marvel's earliest days as Timely Comics.


I asked Steve how the decision came to be made to tie this spectral conflicted character of the 60s and 70s to the fiery hero of the Golden Age. He answered,

"That was Neal Adams’ idea (I think). If not, it was Roy Thomas’s. Either way, it was well-known in-house when I started the Avengers, and I made use of it when it fell into place in my continuity."

At the climax of the Celestial Madonna Saga (Giant-Sized Avengers #4), Mantis is revealed to be the chosen Mother, and she is married to an alien being that has taken the form of her former lover, the Swordsman. In a double ceremony, however, officiated by Immortus (ironically so, which we'll explore in later episodes, if you're not familiar with the Byzantine twists of Wanda's history), the Vision and the Scarlet Witch are also married in this issue.


Steve would return to the Vision and the Scarlet Witch in their second eponymous mini series, beginning in October of 1985. During this run, Wanda becomes pregnant by way of her hex power/magic, and gives birth to twins in the series finale.


The romance between Vision and Wanda had begun under Roy Thomas' term as writer of Avengers, though it had been something distant and hesitant at the time, with the feel of a love not meant to be. It was under Englehart that their relationship blossomed into mutually expressed love and matured, with the Vision and the Scarlet Witch becoming one of comicdoms most well known couples. I asked Steve if there had been a long term plan in place for the evolution of their relationship, or if it been a more organic process. He said,

"Totally organic. Again, I inherited the concept, and I developed it as seemed fitting…to where an actual marriage seemed especially fitting. Just as their having children seemed fitting the next time I turned to them."

One thing that's always troubled me, and this is often the case for heroes who don't usually carry their own book, is the fact that I could never identify a specific arch villain for the Vision. Bob Harras brought back the evil alternate reality version of the character, and Geoff Johns introduced a Nazi robotic saboteur called the Gremlin, but neither really stuck. Ultron seems like a probable choice, but his ire usually seemed directed at Hank Pym, with the Vision either just an obstacle too, or a pawn in, his plans.

Looking back through Steve's writing in the 70s and 80s, however, it became clear how often Eric Williams, the Grim Reaper, has plagued the Vision's existence. In one of his earliest issues on Avengers, Englehart picked up a subplot that had been previously established, that of the Reaper tempting the Vision with the promise of a human form in the body of the then-deceased Wonder Man. In Avengers #107, the Reaper reveals that his price for the Vision's humanity is the synthezoid's betrayal of his fellow heroes.


Later, after Wonder Man had been returned to life, the Reaper would try repeatedly to destroy the Vision, even attacking him as a zombie while the Scarlet Witch was giving birth.


Though their levels of power are vastly different (at least during Englehart's runs), the Reaper's sheer tenacity and his obsessive vendetta against the Vision would certainly seem to qualify him as the Etheric Avenger's primary nemesis. I asked Steve if he agreed. His answer, short and sweet?

"Absolutely".

Good enough for me.

(That being said, guess what homicidal, cybernetic, sometimes undead villain will be getting some special recognition here on Unearthly Visions?)

One month after the beginning of Vision and Scarlet Witch, Englehart started writing the new ongoing West Coast Avengers series. He explored the relationship between Wonder Man and the Vision in both titles, with the two of them coming to view each other not only as brothers of sorts, but also as good friends.

John Byrne took over as writer on West Coast Avengers with issue 42 in March of 1989 (yep, here we go). He remained on the title until issue 57 in 1990, by which time the title had changed to Avengers West Coast. During his initial four issue story arc, "Vision Quest", Byrne removed the Vision's personality and his distinctive appearance, ruined his relationship with Wonder Man, destroyed his marriage to the Scarlet Witch, removed his children from existence, and severed his connection to the android Human Torch, essentially dismantling everything Englehart had built up for the character since the early 70s. I asked Steve if he'd had any strong feelings toward these changes at the time the issues had been published. He said

"Yes. I hated them. I was very in tune with Wanda and Viz and did not like seeing them hurt."

I couldn't agree more.

Thanks so much to everyone for checking out this special edition of Unearthly Visions. I also want to give a very special thank you to Mister Steve Englehart for taking the time to contribute his thoughts for my little blog.

Feel free to leave a comment here on the site, or you can hit me up on Twitter @IamGrantRichter. I'll be back soon, when we'll begin exploring the Vision's relationship with the Maximoff family in greater detail. Until then, Visionaries, stay heavy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Of Ants and Androids part 2

Welcome back Visionaries!  In our last installment of Unearthly Visions I touched briefly on the convoluted relationship between the various members of the Pym family. Hank Pym (the original Ant-Man, also Giant-Man, Goliath, and Yellowjacket) was married for a while to Janet Van Dyne. Hank created the android Ultron, who became one of the Avengers most terrifying foes. Ultron created the Vision to destroy the Avengers, though our hero quickly came to his right mind and joined the ranks of his intended targets. Ultron also created Jocasta, who shared Janet's brain patterns, to be his robotic bride. Things get even more awkward later when Jocasta becomes attracted to the Vision, Ultron takes on a female form based on Janet's body, and Hank almost has a relationship with Jocasta, but later marries her off to Ultron as a kind of peace treaty arrangement.

Things tend to get a bit House Lannister in the Pym family .

We discussed the "Ultron Unlimited" story arc in Avengers volume 3, by Kurt Busiek and George Perez, where Ultron planned to wipe out the human race with an android army and to replace humanity with artificial duplicates based on his extended family. In part 2 of "Of Ants and Androids" we'll be exploring the graphic novel Rage of Ultron, by Rick Remender and Jerome Opeña.  I'll be breaking down this book in loving and extensive detail in Phase Two of Unearthly Visions, but for now we'll just be reviewing the highlights as they pertain to the Vision/Ultron/ Pym dynamic.


The basic premise is that an iteration of Ultron was launched into space some years and has recently taken over Titan (a moon of Saturn and home to a branch of the Eternals) with a nano-cloud that infects all life with copies of his personality, then uses the entire moon to invade Earth.


Hank Pym has a plan to defeat Ultron, though it very much has a "scorched earth" factor to it, causing the rest of the Avengers, particularly the Vision, to object. The Avengers fight Ultron's horde of converted humans both on Earth and on Titan, with the team getting picked off one by one, either converted themselves or otherwise  taken out of the action, until on Pym and the Vision remain.


The story climaxes with Pym and Ultron merging into a single being, with the Vision's phasing powers as a catalyst. 


I'm going to flat out say that I  completely loved this story. Rage of Ultron focuses heavily on how unappreciated Pym is (at least in his mind), both by his teammates and the general public, despite his genius and the fact that he is a founding Avenger. Remender returns to the concept established by Busiek in "Ultron Unlimited", that Ultron's brain patterns are based on Pym's own, that all of his violence, murderous rage, and hatred for humanity is a reflection of Hank's insecurities and resentment.


The Vision is portrayed as deeply passionate, especially regarding Pym's initial solution of the Ultron invasion, at Pym's demonstration of its effectiveness earlier in the book, and at how humans often easily dismiss artificial life as disposable (I took this last bit as a meta-commentary on how quick writers sometimes are to destroy the Vision as a means of pushing a plot forward).


The scenes of the different Avengers being taken out as the story progresses have an eerie, horror-survival feel to them, especially in a moment when Sabertooth, who throughout the book has been questioning his decision to be a hero, sacrifices himself so that the others can get that much closer to Ultron.



(The mad dash from point A to point be to achieve objective C is a trope that Remender uses often in his creator owned works such as Black Science and Deadly Class, and is one that he pulls off especially well here.)

In addition to the story, the art by Jerome Opeña is absolutely beautiful. Given that most of the 90s was influenced by the style of artists like Jim Lee, and that much of the costume designs of DCs New 52 and now Rebirth are either created or inspired by Lee, it's always refreshing to find an artist that has a more gritty style, who can make the characters look less than pretty but still bold and heroic, and Opeña has those qualities in abundance. I fell in love with Jerome's art in the first story arc of Avengers volume 5, especially his rendering of the robotic Aleph, and every bit of what I was enamored with in that title carries over to Rage of Ultron.

I simply cannot recommend this book enough. In terms of the Pym family dynamic, this story brings it to its pinnacle so far. Ultron is evolved into a completely new being. Hank Pym is taken to what feels to me like the inevitable progression of the character. The Vision is given a tremendous amount of focus, in terms of both characterization and action.

As always, feel free to leave a comment, follow, like, and retweet on Twitter @IamGrantRichter.  Also, be sure to check in with me next time for a special episode featuring my interview with comic book legend Steve Englehart.

Until then, stay heavy Visionaries!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Of Ants and Androids part 1

I've mentioned before that one of the things that has always fascinated me most about the Vision is the fact that he has a bizarre and intriguing family dynamic. In the next several instalments of Unearthly Visions I'll be focusing on stories featuring the Etheric Avenger that will also revolve around the different branches of his intricate family tree.

I can't honestly say that the Vision's family diagram is the traditional tree. I usually think of it more like a wheel with three large spokes, with the Vision at the center.  One of these spokes or branches, the one which has been arguably the most influential on his history beyond his fictional creation, is that of the Maximoff family, to which he was connected for many years via his marriage to Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch. The second, as a product of his creation, is the Williams family, through his connection to Simon Williams, alias Wonder Man.

While the Maximoff and Williams branches of the Vision family are equally important, and I will definitely be exploring them in detail in later episodes, the focus in the here and now will be on the branch responsible for his actual creation. In this episode we'll be discussing the Pym family.
(Originally I had just planned one episode for each family branch, but by the time I dug into some background information and the details of a couple of stories, things kind of started evolving on their own.)

In Avengers #57 (now-often mentioned within this humble blog) in which the Vision makes his debut, it is revealed that he had been created by Ultron, the robotic enemy of the Avengers, for the purpose of destroying the team.


In the next issue, it's uncovered through a flash back that Hank Pym, the scientist and Avenger known at the time as Goliath (formerly known as the original Ant-Man, later Giant-Man, and soon to be known as Yellowjacket) had actually created Ultron as an experiment in artificial intelligence some time ago, and had been hypnotized to forget the incident when the android had gained malevolent sentience.


Oh, the Silver Age. Sigh.

This establishes the beginnings of the Vision's family, with Ultron as his "father", and Pym as his "grandfather". This branch of his family would quickly grow, however, when Pym would marry his long time girlfriend Janet Van Dyne, the Avenger known as the Wasp, who would one day go on to become one of the team's most capable leaders.

In a world of intangible synthetic men, indestructible killer robots, and size changing superheroes, the Hank and Janet wedding is one of the most bizarre things on Avengers history. When the original Ultron hypnotized Pym, it apparently loosened a few screws in Hank's psyche. The realization that he was responsible for the creation of the Avengers most deadly foe (well, deadly in a "wait here in my slow moving death trap while I go into the next room to gloat to myself" Silver Age kind of way) knocked those screws completely out of the engine. This, combined with the pressure of being a guy who can change his size working alongside heavy hitters like Iron Man and Thor caused Pym to have a complete nervous breakdown. Adopting the new costumed identity of Yellowjacket, he claimed and believed that he had killed and replaced Hank Pym. After attacking the rest of the Avengers, Yellowjacket kidnaps the Wasp and almost sexually assaults her. Despite everything, when the rest of the team shows up for a rescue, Jan announces that she and Yellowjacket are getting married.

(I should mention that the Wasp is probably my favorite female Marvel character. I have a LOT to say about how she was written in the 60s and 70s, as well as in Secret Wars. Maybe some other time though.)

Hank does snap out of his seemingly temporary bout of dissociative identity disorder, but only after Jan is placed in peril by the Circus of Crime (again, the Silver Age), and then only after they were married while he wasn't in his right mind. Still, everything for some reason is viewed by everyone involved as being a-okay, and the couple are more or less happily married for years.


Things would get even more bizarre for the Pym's a few years later. Ultron would arrange another kidnapping of the Wasp (revolving, ironically, around another Hank Pym signature breakdown). Along the vein of Shelly's Frankenstein, Ultron had decreed that he should have a bride. To that end, he created an android with a female appearance, based it's mind on Janet's, and attempted to transfer all of her life force into his creation. Given that his would-be "wife" was also his "child" with the mind of his "mother", it shows tremendous self-awareness on Ultron's part that he dubbed his creation Jocasta (Wikipedia is your friend).


Despite the fact that, story wise the Vision owes his existence to this branch of his family, he does seem to be the odd man out. While a lot has been made out of the relationships between Hank and Jan, Ultron and Jocasta, Hank and Jocasta, and even Ultron and Jan, the Vision is usually only referenced as a member of the family on a passing basis. Jocasta once expressed an unrequited romantic interest in the Vision, and Ultron would invariably referee to him as a weak and flawed creation in several encounters, but for the most part the Vision was rarely at the center of the Pym family drama.

There are, however, two stories (that I'm aware of) in which the Vision has been involved that deal with the fallout of the very existence of Ultron and how it effects their entire family. The first takes place in Avengers (volume 3) issues 19 through 22, by Kurt Busiek and George Perez. In this arc, the most up to date version of Ultron creates hundreds of lesser  duplicates of himself, including his reprogrammed prior incarnations. Using this army, he completely destroys the eastern European country of Slorenia (if this sounds familiar it's the basis for the plot of the "Age of Ultron" movie). Ultron also captures Pym, the Wasp, Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and Wonder Man, as well as Simon's biological brother, the villainous Grim Reaper. Ultron plans to continue his swath of destruction across the globe, and to utilize his human and synthezoid family as the basis for a new mechanical race to populate the world. The Vision has a great scene in issue #22, when he uses his fairly recent power of interfacing with electronics to project a holographic image of himself to try to reason with Ultron. He tells his creator, in kind a reverse Luke/Vader moment, that if he (Ultron) gives up his plan, Vision will forgive him for everything he has done so far, and that the two of them can leave together to start a new life as mechanical father and son. Ultron violently rejects his son's offer, and it is revealed to have been a distraction while the Vision simultaneously works to effect the escape of his fellow captives, but the Vision does say that he would have been good to his word had Ultron accepted, as he understands what it is to be a mechanical life form rejected by the human he loved the most.  In the end it is Pym who defeats Ultron, but not before he reveals that Ultron's mind, with all of his hatred and murderous designs, are based on Pym's own brain patterns.


In "Of Ants and Androids" part 2, I'll be reviewing my other favorite story regarding the Vision and his place in the Pym family, the Rage of Ultron graphic novel. In the meantime, feel free to drop a comment or two on me. Is there a particular story arc featuring the Vision you want me to cover. Do you just want to shower me with some cool Vision swag? Let me know!  Feel free to hit me up on Twitter @IamGrantRichter.

Until next time, be heavy Visionaries!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

"I Wanna Be Clay Man!"

I don't remember exactly where I was, probably the state park somewhere in rural Ohio where I would eventually have my fifth birthday party. Someone, I don't remember who, had let me look at a copy of Avengers # 172 (it would have been nice if they'd just given it to me, but it is what it is). While the details of the story, which I've only recently read, did not stick with me at the time, the layout of the cover certainly did (which is the only way I know that this is the issue in question). It featured a figure in purple striking a dramatic pose, surrounded by the stunned close-up faces of four of his comrades.

Although I didn't know who most of these characters were at the time, I eventually learned that the guy in purple was Hawkeye, and three of the close up faces were Captain America, the Beast, and Ms. Marvel.

It was the fourth close-up character that really got my attention though. He was a man with a red face, and eyes that were so hooded and dark that they looked like pinpricks of light in a pair of dark chasms.
In the upper right hand corner of the book, I saw that he was dressed in a green costume that contrasted boldly with the color of his skin, as well as a flowing cape with a high dramatic collar. I didn't know what this guy was or what he could do, but I knew that this was my new favorite superhero.

Don't ask me how, but my four year self could tell this wasn't supposed to be a guy wearing face paint, and I didn't think he was an alien. Somehow I got the impression that he was supposed to be artificial, and that he was supposed to be heavier than everyone else. My little kid mind, with absolutely no other grasp of the character, then made the leap of logic that he was supposed to be made out of clay. For the next couple of years then, whenever I'd play superheroes with my elementary school classmates or the other kids in my grandparents neighborhood, when every other boy would lay claim to Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man, I would inevitably proclaim "I wanna be Clay Man!"


Obviously,the character I had once decided was named "Clay Man" is, in actuality, the Vision, a fact that I stumbled upon with the release of Vision and Scarlet Witch (volume 1) #1, in 1982. I was walking past the magazine rack of a grocery store with my dad, I saw the issue and I remember thinking "That's him!". Sadly, my ownership of that issue was not to be at the time, but I felt like a piece of a puzzle had been fit into place, at least as far as his name and somewhat (judging by the cover art) of what he was able to do. I've been fascinated ever since.



I'd be lying if I said the Vision has always been my favorite character. I was, after all, a teenager during the late-80s and early-90s. This was the time period when, if you wanted to boost sales on a title, you had Wolverine guest star in it for at least one issue every six months. This was the time when mutants were Marvel's gold mine, when dark edgy characters made more traditional characters look dull and old fashioned. If it wasn't a guy with spikes, or blades, or a big gun (with requisite big shoulder pads), if it wasn't a girl with a Barbie doll physique and a costume made out of tape and dental floss, it didn't sell.  I can admit that I, as a part of their target audience at the time, bought into it.

The Avengers aren't "edgy" (though writer Bob Harras did his best to give then an edgy feel while still telling a solid story), and while I still picked up a few issues from time to time, they were never at the top of my wish list is those days. That being said, however, the Vision was the character that always made me jump back into the Avengers whenever the creators put him back on the title, and was always the character that made me curse the writer and editor whenever some new tragedy would inevitably befall him.

The Vision first appeared in Avengers (volume 1) # 57 in 1968, written by Roy Thomas, with art by John Buscema. The story opens with him infiltrating the Avengers Mansion, where he encounters the Wasp, who names him "an unearthly, inhuman vision". Through the expository dialogue that was typical of the late-Silver/early-Bronze Age, the newly christened Vision declares that he is a "synthezoid" (a synthetic humanoid), created by the robotic villain Ultron and sent to destroy the Avengers. When the Wasp flees the Vision gives chase and attacks her, then fights and easily defeats Avengers members Giant-Man, the Black Panther, and Hawkeye, demonstrating his abilities to alter his density and fire beams of heat from his eyes. Before he can carry out his task, however, the Vision rejects his orders and agrees to help the Avengers against Ultron. Though he inadvertently leads them into a trap, the Vision single handedly defeats this version of Ultron (there will be many more) and frees the Avengers. He is inducted into the team the next issue.



When I was finally able to get a hold of a few issues of the Avengers featuring the Vision I was fascinated by the dichotomy of his abilities. Here was a character that could be an ethereal wraith one moment, and a blazing powerhouse the next. I would come to see this, over the years, as a metaphor for the Vision's very nature. Though he was often distant and aloof, he was very capable of feeling emotions, as shown at the end of his second appearance, when he sheds a tear of gratitude over being accepted into the Avengers' ranks. These emotions were often foreign and somewhat confusing to him, though. He would keep them restrained for long spans of time, only for then to erupt in moments of tremendous fury or grief.

Beyond his look, his powers, and his personality, another aspect of the Vision I found captivating was the fact that family relationships were played up as such a focus for an artificial being. As mentioned earlier, the Vision was created by the android Ultron, who in turn had been created by then-Avenger Hank Pym (also known as the original Ant-Man, Giant-Man, and Yellow-jacket, among other identities), with those two treated as the Vision's metaphorical father and grandfather respectively. The Vision and teammate Scarlet Witch fall in love and get married during Steve Englehart's run on Avengers. The Scarlet Witch's brother, Quicksilver, became the Vision's reluctant brother-in-law by default (it was believed for many years that X-Men antagonist Magneto was the siblings' father, though this has been retconned away in recently). Additionally, it was revealed shortly after his introduction that the Vision's mind was based on the brainwave patterns of the character Wonder Man, and the two would grow to view each other as something like brothers, which would earn them the ire of Wonder Man's biological brother, the villainous Grim Reaper. Family is such an important part of who the Vision is as a character that his recent miniseries revolves around the concept of the Vision creating a new family in his likeness and the results of forcing such a dynamic.

The Vision hasn't always been a very likeable character. During a run by Roger Stern, the Vision interfaces with the sentient world-computer of the Eternals (a powerful race of beings that live on Titan, the moon of Saturn) to speed up his recovery following a devastating injury. The side effect of this interface, however, is that it alters his way of thinking, causing him to decide that the best possible course of action was for him to take over all of the world's computer systems and set himself up as a benevolent dictator. This subplot ran through the Avengers title for many months before culminating with him becoming an actual antagonist. The Vision eventually overcame this change in his personality and all was set right, with the rest of the team understanding that he hadn't been in his right mind and hadn't been responsible for his actions.


All, however, had not been forgiven by everyone. As an eventual consequence of his earlier actions, the Vision is captured and dismantled by a shadow organization within the US government, an operation orchestrated by former teammate Mockingbird. Unable to restore the Vision's original synthetic skin, West Coast Avengers member Hank Pym creates a new one that is chalky white, giving him a truly spectral appearance. What's more, Wonder Man is unwilling to allow his brainwave patterns to be copied again to restore the Vision's emotions. Now cold and purely logical, the Vision informs the Scarlet Witch that he considers their marriage null and void as he no longer has any emotional connection to her (writer/artist John Byrne even renders the Vision as no longer anatomically correct, the contrary of which had been implied by previous writers of his former body). He soon abandons his wife to go serve on the east coast team, where he feels his abilities would make him a more logical component. Rather than being a long running subplot building toward a well defined resolution, however, this would be a status quo change for the character, one that would go undisputed for roughly five years.


(I want to go on record as saying that this was one of the most disheartening story arcs, as part of one of the most disheartening runs, I've read in comics. I'll be talking about it in much greater detail at a later time).

While these stories might not of been great for the Vision himself, they were devices that advanced the plots of several Avengers story arcs, and events that affected the Marvel universe as a whole, years, and even decades, later. Since then, he's been returned to his true nature, destroyed, and revived over and over. Every time he's been out of circulation for any significant amount of time, it has always felt like the Avengers have been somewhat lacking. Every time he's been incorporated back into the team it's felt like a little piece of my childhood has come home.