Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Episode 8 - "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 at least a candidate for 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, 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 resembles his name namesake. Even later he emerged as a being in an ionic state similar to that of his brother, Wonder Man.

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 current eponymous series (which, sadly, is scheduled to end in only a few weeks from this writing). 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 and 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 do to Nekra's voodoo machinations and the Reaper's own vampiric tendencies. It's also shown 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:

"Eric"

"Vision"   

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, which is scheduled to end in October.

As always, you can take a look at images for this episode on my visual companion feed, unearthlyvisions.tumblr.com (I highly recommend it for the Vision-Reaper showdown image).  Also, if you want to share your thoughts on anything from this episode, feel free to leave me or a comment, or you can hit me up on Twitter @GrantRichter9.

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!







Thursday, September 22, 2016

Interlude - "Token Marvel Guy"

This would normally be the installment of Unearthly Visions where I do a brief creator spotlight of a writer and/or artist who's work was featured in the most recent episode. The majority of of the material I covered in Episode 7, however, was by Steve Englehart and Kurt Busiek, and I think I've already waxed their respective cars enough for the moment. I still need a bit of a mental sorbet before I jump back into the shenanigans of the Williams brothers, though, so I'm just going to use this as an opportunity to ramble on little before jumping fully back into the swing of things.

I am fickle. Maybe it's a Gemini thing. I don't know, but I can admit this about myself. I mentioned back in episode 3 that the Vision has been my favorite superhero since I was about four or five, and for the most part this is true. When I was a kid, though, I had a favorite superhero the way an unfaithful boyfriend has a steady girlfriend. I'd wander, and often, but I'd always come back to the Vision. All-Star Squadron, one of the few DC titles I picked up on something resembling a regular basis, was my biggest temptation. After a single issue, I spent a week one summer with Starman, the Golden Age Atom, Doctor Fate, the Tarantula (in his original yellow and purple costume), and the Golden Age Green Lantern taking turns as my favorite character for a day or two. (Notice a pattern with capes?) I'd always eventually get bored with the others ("they meant nothing to me, I swear") and return to the Vision.

The group of bloggers and podcasters I've chosen to follow and to network with are mostly focused on DC characters. In terms just of individual characters, blogs and podcasts I follow are dedicated to Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Firestorm, the Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Captain Atom, Batgirl, and Swamp Thing, not to mention Twitter feeds and Facebook pages dedicated to Hawkman and Supergirl.

Why did I decide this very DC specific group of internet superhero fans, to network with them and latch on to them like the kid brother from the Christmas Story following Ralphie and his friends to school from twenty feet behind?  Surely there are some fan created Marvel presences on the internet?  Of course there are. As far as blogs and podcasts dedicated to individual characters (not to Marvel superheroes as a whole), there doesn't seem to be the same sense of community. The people I follow continuously reference each others expertise in their respective characters, interview one another for their blogs, guest star on each other's podcasts, and recommended one another to new readers and listeners. It's a very admirable thing.

Inundated by this fandom of DC, and feeling the lingering tendrils of childhood fickleness, I began to question my memory. Is there a deeply entrenched love of a particular character from DC comics, maybe a Super Powers figure, or a member of one of the many teams of the 80s, that I'd forgotten, that had perhaps been melted from my waking consciousness by the spikes, pouches, shoulder pads, and giant guns of the 90s?

Not really. That's not to say that I didn't collect and don't enjoy DC comics. I do and I have. I think Crisis on Infinite Earths is far superior to the original Secret Wars. I liked Legends. I collected both JLI and JLA (Morrison). I'm a huge fan of both of Geoff John's JSA series. I even collected a few series in the new 52. I love the teams and (most of) the big events, there's just never been one individual character that I've really ever thought of as mine.

(I will say that I've had an affection for Swamp Thing over the years. I'm not including him here because I don't necessarily think of him as a "superhero", and there is already a really good blog out there about the character that I follow).

At the time I started writing this little diatribe I was reading for the first time, through the miracle and wonder that is Marvel Unlimited, a classic Avengers story that reaffirmed not so much why (because the logic is actually pretty counter intuitive), but just how much I love the character of the Vision. The issue in question is Avengers (volume 1) #165, written by Jim Shooter, with art by John Byrne.

Those of you that have read some of my earlier instalments may be surprised at my appreciation of this creative team. I've mentioned briefly here, and also on a couple of social media outlets, that there is one particular Shooter story in Avengers, as well as some decisions he made regarding certain characters in Secret Wars, that tend to color my perception of the other work that's he's done that I do like. Taken in a forest-from-the-trees view this story, and honesty the majority of his work on Avengers is very good. Also, those of your that have read episodes 3 and 4 will remember that I have a particular dislike of Byrne's take on the Vision in West Coast Avengers. As I mentioned in an earlier interlude, though, I am still a huge fan of his art in the 70s and 80s, and this is issue is an excellent example of his work from that time.

Within the issue itself, the Avengers are fighting Count Nefaria, who has gained Superman-like abilities, in the streets of New York, and are fairing poorly. The Vision is not a part of the battle. In fact, he is only shown on one page, inside Avengers Mansion, recuperating from a recent battle with Ultron in a kind of coma inside a transparent coffin-like device, with Jarvis lamenting that the synthezoid is not able to help. Just seeing him in this very limited capacity, rendered so well by Byrne, gave me a "yay, there he is!' moment. Weird?  Maybe, but I guess that's how it is when you truly have an affection for a character.

With all of that out of the way, let's take a look at what's in store for Unearthly Visions in the immediate future. Episode 8 will be coming out very soon, continuing our exploration of the Williams brothers as they pertain to the Vision. Following that will be a creator spotlight interlude, featuring interview questions with current Valiant writer Fred Van Lente, who wrote the 2010 miniseries Chaos War: Dead Avengers, featuring both the Vision and the Grim Reaper. In the weeks beyond I'll begin a discussion of arguably the most formative branch of the Vision's family tree, the Maximoff's, including the ever complex Scarlet Witch.

Until then, stay heavy Visionaries!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Episode 7 - "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 his first appearance he emerges from a cocoon and instinctively 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 Infinity War is looming closer and closer, 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. Writer Jim Shooter and artist George Perez, in the first redesign of Wonder Man's costume, even gave a nod to the parallel of the Vision being a copy of Simon's mind in control of an artificial body, with the new costume having a color scheme similar to that of the synthezoid. 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 arrogant and belittling of his teammates. In early 90s he became darker and more violent (because the 90s), more 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 last 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 (see Unearthly Visions episode 5), 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, in the first two volumes of Uncanny Avengers. The Vision also has more than his share of problems in his own eponymous title, the penultimate issue of which is out soon as of this writing. With any luck, however, these two brothers will reunite again sometime in the near future.

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 (I've commented on Twitter before that, as much as Firestorm is a Marvel character in the DC universe, the Vision is a DC character in the Marvel universe). 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, no one has 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.

As always, you can take a look at some images for this episode at my visual companion feed, unearthlyvisions.tumblr.com. Feel free to leave a comment here on the site, or you can hit me up on Twitter @ GrantRichter9.

I'll be back soon, when we'll begin exploring the Vision's relationship with the Maximoff family in greater detail. Until then everybody, stay heavy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Interlude - Busiek and Perez

Most comic book fans "of a certain age" (in other words, those of us who had been in our late teens and early twenties at the time) will probably agree that the majority of the 1990's was a rough stretch. Though some might debate the time line, this period of unease began for me personally when Marvel put all of their creative and promotional eggs in the basket of the X-franchise, allowing the popular artists working those titles to have tremendous input on the stories (to ensure that those stories were filled with elements that would showcase their individual artistic styles), only to have said artists leave the company. For the next few years, most of the mainstream industry was filled with gimmicks and one dimensional storytelling and characterization.

Thankfully, this phase began to wan after a few years. A lot of fans will argue that the beginning of a return to richer storytelling in comics was the Kingdom Come mini series, by Mark Waid and Alex Ross, which ran from May to August of 1996, much of which was a commentary of the dark and ultra-violent "heroes" that made up a good deal of the industry at the time (I was so burnt out on comics during the summer of '96 that I actually wouldn't read KC until several years later).

For me, however, the return of comic books to the standard I missed from my younger years was the release of JLA #1, by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter, in January of 1997. While certainly telling stories with a more modern sensibility, this series brought back a sense of grandeur and, most importantly, fun that had been missing for some time.

Over at Marvel, however, things were still lagging a bit behind. "The Clone Saga", an event which ran through the many Spider-Man titles at the time and which had proven unpopular with fans and critics, had just wrapped up the month prior.
"Heroes Reborn", which saw the Fantastic Four, Bruce Banner, and many key members of the Avengers supposedly killed in the Marvel Universe and existing in a separate continuity, was in full swing.

When this gimmick also proved to be unpopular, Marvel  released Heroes Reborn: the Return, a mini series which brought the characters back into the main Marvel Universe. Afterwards, Captain America, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, and  Avengers were all relaunched, each starting with a new issue 1, and each under the "Heroes Return" banner. As part of this endeavor, the Avengers was given to the more than capable hands of writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez.

The assigning of Avengers to Busiek and Perez was (at least by all appearances) Marvel's answer to DC's revitalized JLA. It was also exactly what Marvel needed at the time. Busiek already had great success with Marvel in the 90s, writing the critically acclaimed Marvel's mini series, as well as creating and writing the popular Thunderbolts. Much like Morrison on JLA, Busiek clearly had a love for the Avengers, and a fondness to spinning a modern take on classic villains. While Morrison was focused on taking the adventures of the JLA close to the extremes of what the mind is willing to wrap itself around (as Grant Morrison does), Busiek's run in Avengers was more geared toward the team dynamic, on viewing these powerful individuals under a microscope, of them dealing with their personal problems and how those problems effected the group as a whole. This was mostly closely demonstrated in new member Justice's idol worship and stage fright around the more experienced heroes, and with Carol Danvers' (then known as Warbird) struggle with alcoholism while dealing with what she saw as a loss of personal identity.

George Perez had worked on the Avengers in the 70s, alongside both  Steve Englehart and Jim Shooter, and has long been considered one of the great classic Avengers artists. It would be in the 80s, however, as artist and co-creator of the New Teen Titans, as the artist of Crisis on Infinite Earths, and as the original cover artist for DC's Who's Who series, that Perez would rightly earn his reputation as a legend of the comics industry. It was during his time with DC that he would become famous for his ability to fit a tremendous number of characters, each with their own distinct details and body language, on one page, or even in one panel. Perez highlighted this skill in the first story arc of Avengers volume 3, when every character who had ever been Avenger joined together (or at least made a cameo appearance) to battle Morgan le Fey. Perez was also specific ensuring that each character had very distinctive features without their mask or costume (not an easy feat on a team with three fit men with short blonde hair).

Following the events of "Ultron Unlimited" (covered here in Episode 5, in case you missed it), Busiek and Perez went on to explore how the Vision dealt with his ex-wife, the Scarlet Witch, being in a relationship with his "brother", Wonder Man. They also detailed a restructured Avengers roster, and the team's conflicts with Kulan Gath, the Exemplars, and the Triune Understanding. If you looking for classic Avengers stories, at a time before superhuman registration, secret invasions, and a government agency run by supervillains, be sure to check out the Kurt Busiek and George Perez run on Avengers volume 3.

Episode 6 - "Of Ants and Androids" part 2

Last episode 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.

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.

Given that this book was published in the last year and is only recently available on Marvel Unlimited, I don't want to go too deeply into the details of the story (there are tons of sites that will give you spoilers if that's your thing). The basic premise, though, 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.

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. I read Rage of Ultron on Marvel Unlimited, but I guarantee I will be buying a hardcopy for my personal collection.

As always, feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions, concerns, or (dare I say) compliments. You can also drop me a line at stormchaser2162@gmail.com, or on Twitter @grantrichter9.

Check in with me next time for a special episode featuring my interview with comic book legend Steve Englehart.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Episode 5 - "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 episodes 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 claims and believes that he has 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 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. You can also drop me a line on Twitter @grantrichter9, or hit me up at stormchaser2162@gmail.com.

Until next time!

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Interlude - John Byrne

Between each actual episode of Unearthly Vision's where I talk about specific story arcs or story elements concerning the Etheric Avenger, while I do research for the next episode (in other words, rereading old back issues), I thought I'd start using these interludes to spotlight a creator mentioned in the previous episode. Since I devoted quite a bit of respect to Bob Harras and Steve Epting in Episode 4, I thought I'd take this time to talk a little about John Byrne.

Now, I've mentioned at least twice in previous episodes that I am not a fan of Byrne's run on West Coast Avengers, and I'll very likely bring it up again as I begin my discussion of the Vision's family dynamic beginning in Episode 5. The four issue "Vision Quest" story, which comprised the figurative and literal deconstruction of the character, was a set up for a larger arc, one of a series of catalysts that culminated with the nervous breakdown of the Scarlet Witch and her turning evil for a brief time. While there some elements of characterization in Byrne's run that I find somewhat questionable, I can't say the stories themselves are flawed beyond my personal preferences. Still, they just never sat quite right with me.

That being said, I should clarify that, for the most part, I have no problem with John Byrne as a creator. In fact, I have a tremendous respect for his work. This is the artist who, along with the immortal Chris Claremont, made the X-Men great in the 70s (plus there's the whole Storm in a Savage Land bikini thing, so...yay!). This is the writer who transformed Susan Richards from an almost apologetic girl who often had to be rescued as a plot device into a confident woman and the most powerful member of the Fantastic Four. This was the creator who evolved Superman from a character with deus ex machina powers into one with more believable limitations, and Luthor from a mad scientist in a purple and green jumpsuit to a commentary on late 80s capitalism.  Also, his art in WCA is just phenomenal (take a look on his ghostly interpretation of the Vision on my visual companion feed unearthlyvisions.tumblr.com).

Does all of this change my mind about his run on WCA?

Nope.

Do I agree with ninety percent of his personal philosophies and politics?

Certainly not.

Do I think, regardless, that he is still one of the all time great comic book creators of all time?

You betcha.

Unearthly Visions will be back in a few days (I have a lot of free time) with Episode 5, "Of Ants and Androids". In the meantime, I would love to have your comments. What are your thoughts on the Vision?  Do you think it's weird that I'm the token Marvel guy interacting mostly with a community of DC bloggers? Want my unfiltered thoughts on the "Vision Quest" story? Drop me a line!  You can leave a comment here on the Blogspot page, you can find me on Twitter @grantrichter9, or you can send me an email at stormchaser2162@gmail.com. You can also find my posts on Facebook by searching for unearthlyvisions.