So my favorite Marvel film has been taking a pounding this week, from the usual nay-sayers who wanted it to be Batman, or who wanted it to be just the first one again (suggestion – watch the first one again!) I’ve heard Ultron called a generic villain, and read that Evan Peters was a better Quicksilver in Days of Future Past.
And then, of course, there are the social justice warriors, who love tearing down everything around them because they might once have been exposed to injustice and it’s everyone’s fault. They especially love tearing down things that most other people love. So the SJWs have claimed that it was “sexist” that Black Widow mourns her inability to have children… in the same scene where Bruce Banner, her lover, is mourning his… inability… to… have–did I miss some inequality there somewhere? The point of the scene is that they both consider themselves monsters because forces beyond their control have made them hurt people, and they both can’t do something that most “normal” people take for granted being able to do. The fact that Patriarchal tradition holds that women are defined by their ability to have children and men are not does not enter into it. In fact, I call reverse sexism here. I’ve never heard a man say that women are defined solely by being mothers, or that only women bond with their children in that special way. I’ve heard a lot of women say it.
And I call bullshit. A man–a real man, whether he prefers to sleep with women or men–can place the same value on being a parent that a real woman does–with the same disconnection from sexual preference. Nothing in my life is as important to me as having children, and I would be devastated if I could not have children, or if I couldn’t be with my children. So don’t impose your stereotypes on me or my choice of fiction. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff are not characters hidebound by anyone else’s traditional gender roles. As the saying goes, Chewbacca is riding a giant squirrel and fighting Nazis. Your argument is invalid.
Where was I? Oh yeah, some movie viewers, particularly those who call Ultron a “generic” villain, might be wondering where characters like Ultron and the Vision come from, other than Joss Whedon’s considerable imagination. If Age of Ultron is their first exposure to this synthetic father-son duo, they missed a lot of rich history.
Actually, Ultron appeared first, in Avengers issue #54, back in 1968. But we didn’t know he was Ultron, or even a robot, until issue #55. He spent two issues masquerading as the Crimson Cowl, who we assumed was just a guy in a cloak, before divesting himself of his robes and telling us his name. We still didn’t know more than his name until after his creation, The Vision, had first appeared in issue #57.
The Vision, like Ultron, was created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. Having been banned by Editor Stan Lee from using heavy hitters Iron Man, Thor and Captain America as team members, Roy felt he needed to add some power and intrigue to the team lineup, which consisted of Hawkeye, Goliath (AKA Ant-Man, film to follow soon), the Wasp (see Ant-Man) and the Black Panther. (Prince of Wakanda, the African nation mentioned in Age of Ultron as the source of the metal used to make Cap’s shield.) Roy had (not sure why–they weren’t being used elsewhere) written out mutant twins Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. The Hulk, modern readers and viewers may not realize, was not an Avenger but for maybe five out of the first 500 issues of the Avengers’ comic run. He was considered too brutish to be effective in a team book, and Mark Ruffalo hadn’t brought Bruce Banner the cool factor that made him a decent leading character yet.
So Roy, eternally a fan of the comics of the 1940s, which he’d read as a child, decided to resurrect one of Marvel’s heroes of the Golden Age to be an Avenger. Stan had done this with the Sub-Mariner in issue #4 of the Fantastic Four’s title, with moderate success. He had done it with Captain America in issue #4 of the Avengers’ title, with somewhat more than moderate success. (One begins to wonder if Stan had a note on his desk which read, “Always bring back an old character in Issue #4 of a comic about super-teams.” But he didn’t do it in X-Men #4. He was too busy introducing Magneto, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.) Roy figured it was his turn, so he decided to bring back the Vision. The Vision, who first appeared in Marvel Mystery Comics #13 in November, 1940, was an alien policeman from another dimension (“Smokeworld”) who could appear and vanish on Earth in a puff of smoke.
For whatever reason, Roy changed his mind and introduced a new Vision. He was not the alien Aarkus, he was a synthezoid, a human being built of artificial parts. His costume and coloration look much like Aarkus’s, but his skin is scarlet, not light green. He is not other-dimensional and cannot teleport, but he can alter his density and make himself able to pass through solid objects. He can also assume diamond hardness. And he can change between the two states quickly, allowing him to really mess with his enemies when he sticks an ethereal hand into them and then partially solidifies. (While his powers are not explained in Age of Ultron, he is shown doing this to an Ultron drone at one point. In the comics, he never (rarely?) solidifies all the way, so he doesn’t actually kill anyone by doing this, just hurts them a lot.) Showing that Roy Thomas was an author fully versed in all things SF, as well as a forward thinker, the Vision was also solar-powered. The gem in his forehead collected energy from the sun and stored it.
In his first appearance, the Vision attacks the Avengers, seemingly determined to kill them. He quickly passes out, however, and then admits that he was created by the robot Ultron-5, programmed to kill… but he doesn’t want to. Instead, he leads the Avengers to Ultron’s lair, confronts his maker, and seemingly destroys him. Quickly, the Vision is invited to join the Avengers. Captain America, in a brief appearance, makes the immortal observation, “We ask merely a man’s worth, not the Accident of his condition.” Proving he’s no emotionless stereotype himself, the Vision walks away from his new teammates for a moment to collecting himself, giving us, in a final panel, visual proof of the story’s title–“Even an Android Can Cry.”
As noted last time, Roy Thomas eventually paired the Vision romantically with fellow Avenger the Scarlet Witch. The two had an up-and-down relationship, as her anger at the human race for rejecting her fellow mutants and the Vision’s recurring crises of self-esteem over not being a “real” man got in the way. Fans reacted well to the pair, and the Android Avenger soon found himself the most popular member of the team. It was Marvel’s practice, from its earliest days, to place an iconic image of the title character of the comic in the upper left-hand corner of every cover. This served two marketing purposes. One, in the days when comics were sold on racks which tended to obscure all but the top couple of inches of the cover, it gave a quick, visual cue to shoppers as to exactly what comic they were looking at without having to pull the issue out to see the whole cover. Half the “Iron Man” logo might be obscured, but there was an inch-and-a-half tall Iron Man at the top, drawing the viewer’s eye. Second, this allowed cover artists to not have to obsess over always showing the hero in an iconic pose on every issue. It even allowed the hero of the book to not appear on the cover art, leading to imaginative, striking covers. The marketing department could rest assured that, even if the cover art showed Tony Stark in plain clothes, Iron Man would still be there on the masthead.
For team books, these little icon squares could be a challenge. Did you show all the characters in action? Some of them would be pretty hard to see. Did you show a grid of faces? Again, pretty small and hard to recognize, not fulfilling the needs of marketing. In the 1970s, Marvel settled on showing the most iconic member of the team by himself, like the Thing in the Fantastic Four. For years, the Vision was the Avengers avatar. To kids picking up the book for the first time, he was advertised as the core character.
Over the years, the Vision slowly learned the secrets of his origin. His plastic brain contained the brain patterns (nobody knows what that means, but it sounds cool) of the dead Avenger Wonder-Man. His body was not constructed by Ultron, but was, in fact, the recycled body of the World War II hero the Human Torch.
The Vision had his share of trials which were unique to him and his origins. He was prone to claustrophobia, a result of being trapped from months in an in-ground pool when he was the Human Torch. He questioned the nature of his immortal soul when Wonder Man, his brain-pattern-donor (whatever that means) returned to life. The two eventually accepted each other as brothers. Even Wonder Man’s mother accepted the Vision as her son. But the Vision was also taken over and controlled by an alien computer, ISAAC, causing him to make a bid to rule the world using artificial intelligences.
Under the guidance principally of writer Steve Englehart, who wrote at least 60 issues of comics featuring the Vision, he overcame all obstacles, however, and lived life as a human man. He lost his cold, electronic voice and gained a sense of humor. He got married, and, through his wife’s magic, became a father. Marvel now pays no heed to the fact that the twins Billy and Tommy were, in fact, the Vision’s children. Only the Scarlet Witch is credited as their mother. But, from the moment of their conception, it was stated that they had two parents. Indeed, at their birth, acting obstetrician Stephen Strange even noted that one of them had hidden from all medical tests, and therefore must possess some of his father’s matter-manipulating abilities.
Like his wife, however, the Vision fell prey in the late 1980s and onward to writers who wanted to make him more “interesting” by tearing him down and (badly) rebuilding him. In his case, the tearing-down was literal. Still smarting from his remote-controlled attempt to rule the world, US Government forces had him dissected. When he was re-built, he was no longer himself. He was white, not red, and, most bizarre, he was shown naked, and having no genitals. Some fans like to believe that he never had them, but I really find that idea repulsive. It adds an extra note of freakishness to his relationship with Wanda, and I think that relationship has been trashed enough by the shock and awe crowd.
His “brother” Wonder Man refused to supply another set of brain patterns (whatever they are, they must be like kidneys–you can only donate once) so that the Vision could be himself again. So the Vision’s previous life, marriage and all, was over. And he didn’t even care that, while he was being reassembled, his sons had ceased to exist. (See last week’s entry for more explanation of that bizarre happenstance.)
This awful new status quo stuck, and the Vision remained the stereotypical emotionless machine, throughout the 1990s. (Note: The 1940s are referred to as “The Golden Age.” The period from 1956 until 1968 is “The Silver Age.” On up until 1985 is “The Bronze Age.” I think of the 1990s as “The Dark Ages” of comics.)
Beginning in 1998, writer Kurt Busiek worked hard to fix all this. He revealed that the Vision had not, in fact, forgotten who he was and lost his emotions when he was dissected. Indeed, he’d realized what a heart-break it was for Wanda, his wife, to see him torn apart. He resolved to spare her future pain and simply let her believe that the man who loved her was effectively dead. He hoped she could move on. He grudgingly accepted that she was in love as well with his brother, Wonder Man, who, after all, was his mental twin. There was depth and subtlety to this potrayal… but it, and the Vision himself, were soon to be torn asunder.
Marvel “Architect” Brian Michael Bendis, (architects build new structures–shouldn’t he be called an interior decorator, instead?) in an attempt to make the Avengers more interesting, destroyed the team. Specifically, he made the Scarlet Witch insane, and had her use her reality-bending powers to kill a lot of people. One of those people was the Vision. Wanda drove the She-Hulk mad, and the jade giantess ripped the Vision in half.
A backup of the Vision was used later to create Jonas, Vision 2.0, a member of the Young Avengers. This character, while intriguing, didn’t last long. Eventually, Tony Stark sort of off-handedly said, “Oh, yeah, I built a new Vision body and restored his memories to it a while back. Vision’s fine. Didn’t I mention?” And the Vision was back.
We’ve yet to see if he’s going to be “interesting,” however. The modern Avengers comics are pretty frantic and hard to follow for those of us who grew up in the Silver and Bronze ages, so I don’t always keep up.
But, portrayed by Paul Bettany in Age of Ultron, the Vision is back to his rightful heritage as one of the team’s power-houses. I was heartened to hear the audiences cheer him when I saw the film, and to be able to tell my wife, “THIS is why this guy you never heard of has always been one of my favorite super-heroes.”
Crap, that’s a lot of words. I’ll save Ultron for next week.