Welcome to another edition of “Back Issues”, the weekly column where I examine a character, concept or theme making waves in comics today through issues from the past. Earlier this week, HBO’s latest culturally omnipresent TV hit “Westworld” wrapped up its inaugural season. For the myriad of fans out there missing its trippy and unsettling exploration of sentience, free will and exploitation of the other, not to worry, comic books have got you covered!
This week in “Back Issues”, I take you through the Freudian bag of cats that is Marvel’s first family of Artificial Intelligence, namely the collection of beings spawned from the experiments of the debatably stable Dr. Henry Pym. Welcome……to Pymworld!
Hank Pym is one of the earliest creations of Marvel’s famed Silver Age, though his path to super-heroism is an unconventional one, even by Marvel standards. The character first appeared in 1962’s Tales to Astonish #27 in a story called “The Man in the Ant Hill”. Plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by Larry Lieber, and drawn by Jack Kirby, the tale was a frankly unremarkable science-fiction story involving a scientist who finds a way to shrink himself and is subsequently pursued by insects. At the time, the publisher was just beginning its transition away from cowboy, romance and sci-fi titles that were its bread and butter in the 1950s. In their place, after the groundbreaking success of “The Fantastic Four”, the company was putting its new take on super heroes front and centre.
And so, eight issues later, Pym returned. But now he was in a costume, using his ability to change his size and a high-tech (and goofy) helmet to talk to Ants. Ant-Man was born. From there, Pym would become a founding member of the Avengers, the one that everyone forgets about when you ask them to list off the founders at geek trivia nights. Over time, Pym lost his starring feature in “Tales to Astonish” to more popular characters, and his continual battle to gain popularity saw creators add the ability to grow to massive proportions well as shrink to ant size. Arguably, it worked, and Pym found more luck as Giant-Man and Goliath, though he still never cracked the A-list.
But, as with any Silver Age scientist worth his salt, he never stopped experimenting. To comics creators of the era (and to this day, actually) a gifted scientist was skilled in every discipline equally, from theoretical physics to engineering to biology to chemistry. And it’s Pym’s science skills that eventually land him in hot water while also providing him with his greatest achievement (aside from the whole shrink/growing thing and the questionably useful ability to talk to ants); in the Marvel Universe, Hank Pym basically created artificial intelligence. And given his own battles with mental health, the results wind up being…troubled.
The First Generation – Avengers Vol. 1 – #54-58 (1968)
Roy Thomas took over writing “The Avengers” after Stan Lee left the title with issue #35. Thomas was only in his 20s, a lifelong comic fan and public school teacher who had gone from being one of the industry’s earliest and most well-spoken boosters to professional. And though he initially started off as an effective parrot of Lee’s bombastic style, he soon brought an amazingly versatile voice to comics, made all the more effective by an encyclopaedic knowledge of genre fiction far beyond the medium and a willingness to inject greater naked emotion into his stories. Thomas was also one of the first writers to start stretching out storylines beyond a single issue, or even over two or three issues. He had subplots and narratives that simmered over a bunch of issues, and regularly dispensed with done-in-one adventures to have main plots spill out over three or four issues.
By Avengers #54, Thomas was hitting his stride on the title. Paired with the legendary John Buscema, one the greatest Marvel artists ever, the team would produce some of the cornerstone Avengers stories, and few are more influential than issues 54-58. The first half of the storyline deals with a mysterious and frankly bog-standard hooded villain called the Crimson Cowl assembling the Masters of Evil to fight the Avengers. The Cowl is eventually revealed to be a sentient robot called Ultron-5, a new antagonist for the Avengers who is for some reason obsessed with destroying them. Though the Avengers eventually thwart Ultron-5’s plot, they don’t learn anything more about him.
In issue #57, another new character, a bizarre and powerful being the Wasp dubs a Vision, attacks Avengers Mansion. He is revealed to be a robotic creation of Ultron-5, and in the end, the Vision breaks his programming and aids the Avengers in finally destroying Ultron. The next issue, titled “Even An Android Can Cry”, wraps up the storyline as the Avengers ponder whether to admit the Vision to the team. The Vision begins to recall even more memories, some of which reveal a connection to earlier experiments Hank Pym had been working on before mysteriously abandoning them. Pym returns to his lab to jog his memory, and succeeds in recalling an event he had been forced to repress; he had created what he had thought had been an advanced robot, only to discover it had achieved sentience and now regarded him as a father. Troubled by this development, his uncertainty enrages his creation and the two enter into a pitched battle, which ends with the robot, calling itself Ultron, defeating Pym and using a form of hypnotic suggestion to repress the event in Hank’s mind.
So, in a way, if Pym is Ultron’s father, he is some kind of father/grandfather to Vision as well. As for Vision, Ultron created the synthezoid in order to defeat the Avengers, and used the brain pattern of a comatose Avengers enemy called Wonder Man to craft Vision’s brain. The issue concludes with the Avengers offering Vision membership on the team, and a home. And, yes, the issue proves its title with a touching and justly lauded final page rendered beautifully by Buscema.
The Vision would prove to be a popular and enduring member of the Avengers, becoming a firm fan favorite almost immediately. And the subsequent issues would subtly explore the nature of his intelligence and growing emotional awareness. His journey towards greater sentience and deeper understanding of his nature and role among humans captivated readers of the title. As for Ultron, he would soon reappear, cementing his status as a signature foe of the Avengers. While the Vision depicted the evolution of an artificial intelligence in a sympathetic and natural way, Ultron’s solution was depicted as the worst version of our fears of advancing technology. Ultron’s development was ravenous, immoral and in opposition to humanity in all forms. His emotional development was unstable and neurotic, consumed by resentment and betrayal by Pym in the first moments of his creation. With each encounter, the Avengers and Pym would hope that Ultron had been destroyed, but the being would always return and in an improved, upgraded form.
Real Love? (1971-1986)
Though in the midst of the epic “Kree-Skrull War” storyline, Roy Thomas never forgot a long-simmering subplot vital to the development of the Vision. The Scarlet Witch had returned to the team after Vision had joined, and for some time Thomas had been indicating a growing attraction between the two. Though it hadn’t been made overt, it was clear to readers that Wanda Maximoff was fascinated by the synthetic Avenger, while the Vision’s overprotectiveness and concern for the Witch clearly went beyond teamwork and loyalty. But in Avengers #91, Thomas made the attraction explicit:
Wanda and the Vision would go back and forth on whether to fully commit to a relationship, with she being more certain while he was held back by feelings of inadequacy steaming from the perception that he wasn’t a real human being. Eventually, however, the two would take the plunge and marry in 1975’s Giant-Size Avengers #4.
The relationship and subsequent marriage of Vision and the Scarlet Witch provided Marvel writers of the day a chance to explore a number of different real-world issues and concerns with the safe distance that science fiction had provided creators since the genre began. Vision and Wanda could stand in for any relationship that posed a challenge to traditional views of love/partnership, be it interracial marriages, gay marriage, what have you. But, the darker side of the relationship is also present, in that these are two people with significant problems. One is a mutant who has suffered from bigotry and intolerance, and became a radicalized terrorist before reforming, and whose power set involves altering the nature of reality. And the Vision is a person who is constantly questioning how own humanity, his own sense of worth and his own identity. In their two miniseries of the 1980s, the respective creators have varied success in utilizing this relationship effectively.
The first volume of Vision and the Scarlet Witch (1983), written by Bill Mantlo with art by Rick Leonardi, misses a solid opportunity to explore the difficulties Wanda and Vision might face living in a suburban community alongside humans. Instead, the story has them face off against an assortment of baddies while cleaning up Wanda’s convoluted backstory regarding her parentage. It’s probably most well-remembered today for having confirmed that Magneto is the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver’s father, a great continuity detail that I’m no longer sure is still canon.
The second mini-series, published in 1985, and written by Steve Englehart with art by Richard Howell, fares better, but largely in retrospect. Englehart is too good to write uninteresting comics, so the individual collection of narratives within this 12-issue series are all fascinating in their own way, showcasing his skill at merging the ridiculous with the thrilling. As a whole, though the miniseries is pretty overwrought and hammy, there’s still something compelling about it. I’d say it’s the overall thread throughout of Wanda’s desire to start a family, and her use of her magically-augmented reality-warping powers to arrange it, that makes it work. She becomes pregnant with twins early on in the series, and the story climaxes with her giving birth to Thomas and William. While the miniseries clearly was written to make this event a joyous one, subsequent stories have instead repositioned this whole storyline into something way more ominous, as we’ll soon discuss.
Dysfunctional Family – Avengers Vol 1 #157-166
Even as Vision and the Scarlet Witch were living in married bliss, the deeply dysfunctional family from which their relationship sprang was continuing to grow, and it’s in this particular run of issues that much of the problems and themes that continue to define Hank Pym and his “family” were first defined.
At this point, Jim Shooter was writing the Avengers. To label Shooter and his place within Marvel history as controversial is seriously understating things. While he has many successes and innovations for which he can take credit, that same drive also resulted in several catastrophes for the company and motivated massive interpersonal conflicts. His tenure as editor-in-chief is perhaps the most controversial period in Marvel’s history, even as it might also be its most creatively successful. This run of issues encapsulates his style; bold, melodramatic and focused on the soap in soap opera. Shooter’s run on Avengers favoured huge feelings, loudly expressed. And he wasn’t afraid of establishing troublesome or far-reaching continuity that creators would have to deal with for years, even decades.
This run of issues, featuring some superb art from George Perez, don’t really form a set storyline, but elements of each issue contribute depth to Marvel’s artificially intelligent characters. At this point, Wonder Man, an early Avengers villain who had long been in a state of suspended animation following an injury, had been healed and reformed as an ally of the team. If you’ll recall, it was Wonder Man’s (aka Simon Williams) brain patterns that had formed the basis for the Vision’s brain. Simon and Vision had a fractious relationship initially, with Simon understandably resenting and being freaked out by an synthetic being who was based on him. For his part, Simon’s presence called Vision’s own personality into question, especially as Simon and the Scarlet Witch began to exhibit a growing bond. Things boiled over into a confrontation, though the two reached an understanding. Over time, they come to see each other as brothers, though the Scarlet Witch’s relationship with both Vision and Simon becomes hopelessly intertwined over the years.
This run of issues also features Hank Pym having a nervous breakdown and then being manipulated by a returning Ultron into constructing a female-identified robotic mate. Pym, who is still not anywhere close to healthy, mentally, chooses to use his wife Janet as the template for this being, and abducts Jan to forcibly copy her brain patterns and create Jocasta, Ultron’s companion. The best word to describe the whole thing would be icky. But it’s absolutely in keeping with how both Pym and the beings he creates are hopelessly mired in Freudian neuroses. Shooter is one of the signature creators responsible for taking Pym from second-class but respected super hero with a decent history of accomplishments and transforming him into troubled and guilt-ridden man struggling with mental health issues.
Similarly, though Ultron had been overtly saddled with Freudian complexes from the very beginning, this story made replicating, and thereby surpassing, Pym’s life and achievements a driving factor in his motives. Jocasta would of course rebel and turn to the light, flirted with becoming an Avenger, but basically never really caught on. She is important and memorable in that she is the first instalment in the extension of the Pymworld family beyond Ultron and Vision, and the success of this storyline meant that she wouldn’t be the last. From here on out, Pym/Ultron/the Vision/Wonder Man would form the nucleus of a series of stories about dysfunctional familial resentments and the nature of artificial life vs organic life.
Vision Quest – West Coast Avengers #42-53
In 1989, John Byrne took over as writer/artist of “The West Coast Avengers,” a second Avengers title that dealt with a satellite team operating out of California. At this point, the Vision and Wanda were on the West Coast team following a rocky period. You see, prior to this, Vision had tried to seize control of every computer on the planet in an effort to try and guide humanity down what he considered to be the right path.
Byrne felt (somewhat justifiably, to be honest) that there ought to be some sort of consequence to the Vision’s actions. Therefore, once he took over the book, he immediately set into motion the “Vision Quest” story arc which saw the Vision disappear. The team tries desperately to track him down only to find that most of the world’s intelligence agencies had abducted and completely disassembled the Vision in an attempt to neutralize what they perceived as a threat and to find out how exactly he worked. That leads to this incredible double-page splash from Byrne:
Once reassembled, the Vision is decidedly not the same man he once was. His emotions are gone, and Wanda is devastated. Topping it off, Wonder Man is in love with Wanda and when asked to provide his brain patterns once more, he wavers, knowing his only chance for he and Wanda to be together is if Vision is not in the picture. This may seem pretty heartless, and it is, but Simon also knows that maybe it’s the copying of his personality responsible for the relationship in the first place, which begs the question of whether or not emotions derived from a copy of a personality are as legitimate as emotions from the originator of that copy. Did Vision fall in love with Wanda on his own? Or was it because she was the kind of woman Simon would have loved, had he first met her? Where does free will enter into the equation?
Byrne didn’t stop there either. Not only did he pretty much irrevocably demolish Vision and Wanda’s marriage, he also completely destroyed their children. Since she used magic and her powers to make an impossible pregnancy happen, Byrne revealed that Thomas and William didn’t truly exist, but only manifested themselves when Wanda was thinking of them. She had used black magic to create the babies, and so a demon named Pandemonium returns to claim those components, which make up the kids when they do exist.
So Wanda loses her husband and her babies in one fell swoop. At the end of the storyline, she and Vision separate, and they remain so to this day, ending Marvel’s great mixed-marriage metaphor. But this run, when combined with the dysfunctional family aspect of Pym and Ultron, form the basis of the modern interpretation of this collection of artificial beings and their human progenitor. There have been subsequent storylines that are excellent, notably the “Ultron Unlimited” story from Kurt Busiek and George Perez‘ Avengers run that confirmed Ultron as an above-the-title villain in the team’s Pantheon.
But after this story, the pieces are all pretty much in place so that this synthetic family possesses all the emotional complexity, all the love both twisted and noble, all the warmth and regret, of a real family.
Today, each of the three main pillars of Marvel’s Pymworld continue to examine different aspects of what it means to be an AI, or to create one.
Hank Pym is the troubled and guilt-ridden genius, struggling with mental illness and constantly being forced to confront the fact that his greatest achievement always returns to do harm and destroy in ways he never envisioned. That is, when he’s not dead, which I’m pretty sure he is? Maybe?
Ultron continues to be a modern Frankenstein’s Creature, a kind of eternal teenager forever telling his dad he never asked to be born, taking his anger and ambition out on everyone around him as he tries to construct a place for himself, one that he can control and define and one that constantly justifies his own worth. He knows he’s superior to the humans from which he sprang, but he can’t understand why it doesn’t feel that way to him.
The Vision continues to be the character that best exemplifies an AI’s struggle to define himself, a machine in a world of organics, constantly recognizing he’s not all that different even as he can never forget that he’ll never truly be one of them. He’s just different enough. He can build a family, emulate a family, but can he ever truly understand what it means to have a family? Recently, in one of the best books Marvel’s published in years, writer Tom King and artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta examined this perfectly. Over twelve brilliant, unsettling, heartbreaking issues of “The Vision”, King and Walta (and other collaborators) showed us a family marred by good intentions and a fundamentally different way of looking at the world that winds up destroying them. They have love for each other, but the way they express it causes harm to each other and themselves. For me, this is the culmination of Marvel’s decades-long experimentation in using artificial beings, created by a flawed man, to examine what makes all of us human, even if the beings themselves never quite achieve the connection they’re looking for.
All of the comics mentioned here are available in collected editions and/or wherever digital comics are sold.
That’s it for this edition of “Back Issues”. Until next time, see you by the quarter bins!