Sunday, July 31, 2016

Episode 3 - "I Wanna Be Clay Man!"

I was at my fifth birthday party in some park in rural Ohio. 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.
Flipping through 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, I would inevitably proclaim "I wanna be Clay Man!"

If you don't happen to own a copy of Avengers # 172, if you haven't bothered to do a Google search of the cover, or if you can't tell from the description above, 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 defeated 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 current series 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 copies 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.

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