Friday, May 12, 2017

Special Announcement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of the time.

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Character Interlude - The Wasp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Episode 11 - "We Are Controlling the Transmission"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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