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...".


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!