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, 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!

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