Friday, March 20, 2009

The Lady’s Not For Byrning/West Coast Avengers #44

West Coast Avengers # 44 (May 1989)

“Better A Widow…”

Writer/Penciler: John Byrne
Inker: Mike Machlan

Sharon: First things first: the cover of West Coast Avengers #44 has always reminded me of Avengers #161…you remember, the famous Wanda covered by ants and writhing in pain cover by George Perez, from 1977. Well, the cover for WCA #44 may be devoid of ants, but poor Wanda is in no less distress. The composition of the two covers strikes me as being very similar—on the Perez cover the emphasis is on an upstage frontal view of Wanda’s odalisque-like torso; on Byrne’s cover she’s also upstage but this time we get a dorsal view. Both covers have a central, overtly aggressive male figure who’s projecting something upwards, and who is flanked by (seemingly) impotent males. But enough symbolism, let’s turn to page one …

Sharon: Well folks, right away Byrne shows the remains of the Vision’s head and face and we see what exactly what Byrne thinks of the Vision—that the Avenger is a collection of wires and metal and plastic. Ugh. What’s even more chilling is the text, as the expository caption tells us: “He (the Vision) is no longer aware of anything.” There’s no doubt this is not a joke and this pile of circuits and plastic is meant to be the Vision…who has been one of Marvel’s most vital characters in every sense of the word over the preceding two decades.

Karen: This image filled me with dread way back when I first read it in 1989. It still unnerves me today.

Doug: The first two panels of this story really fly in the face of what Roy Thomas and Neal Adams had done in the classic Kree-Skrull War story where Hank had to infiltrate the Vision’s body – this mess of metal looks nothing like Adams’ vision (no pun intended).

Karen: You’re right Doug – that was something I noticed immediately when I read this. Byrne basically ignored what had come before to be able to tell his story. I believe he had to emphasize the mechanical aspect of the Vision in order to dehumanize him. But in the past, we’d never seen anything that looked so mechanical in the Vision.

Sharon: Yes, I agree with both of you…here’s where Byrne’s concept of the Vision really diverges from Adam and Thomas’s. In Avengers #94 (1971), in the sequence Doug refers to, it was clearly shown that the Vision had a circulatory system much like a human’s. In Avengers #81, the sight of Wanda in peril causes the Vision’s “synthetic blood” to course “more swiftly through plastoid veins.” And of course at the conclusion of Avengers #58, he shed what appears for all intents and purposes to be a tear. So it seems pretty clear that his creator (Roy) intended the Vision to be a sort of human clone. Heck, Thomas said it outright in #57 (Hank Pym: He (the Vision) is every inch a human being—except that all his bodily organs are constructed of synthetic materials.”) Now, all of a sudden, Byrne makes it a point to show us that the Vision contains mechanical parts and wiring and materials you’d see in a computer. So we get a picture of the Vision as a machine!

Sharon: Back to the WCA story: Wanda cannot believe her eyes and ears as Bobbi helpfully tells here, yes, that this is indeed the Vision and that the dismantling and erasing was part of the plan. It turns out the brains behind the plan is one Mr. Brock (who has been apprehended by Wonder Man). Bobbi had assumed that the group behind this was KGB, but as we learn, this is a “worldwide joint venture” and in fact, Brock, the leader, is Canadian—hey, just like writer-artist Byrne himself!

Sharon: Hank Pym is not overly concerned about the dismantling; he is fairly certain he can reassemble the Vision and reminds Wanda that the Vision is based on the original Human Torch, the “most sophisticated android ever created.” Hank is more worried about the erasure of Vision’s mind and its accumulated data; without inclusion of the Vision’s memories, the rebuilt Vision will be a blank slate. So it seems that Simon Williams’ “brain patterns” were just a matrix upon which the Vision had accumulated his own experiences and reactions and memories. If all of this were erased, the Vision would be starting over. Based on Hank’s description, it seems clear to me, then, that the Vision is no mere “machine” (or copy of Simon), since the Vision has (or had) memories and experiences of his own—a thinking mind of his own. Later in the story, Hank says that the cartel has “destroyed all trace of his (Vision’s) former personality. For all intents and purposes, he’s dead.”

Doug: I know Hank Pym is supposed to be one of Marvel’s heavy hitters in the brains department, but do either of you find it a bit of a stretch that he’s a master of biochemistry and robotics? Seems an odd combination – yet most helpful here!

Sharon: LOL, sort of like doctors on soap operas, where general practitioners can do everything from open-heart surgery to delivering babies…and they make house calls! I guess it’s not unreasonable, though, to assume that Hank has spent time studying and pursuing additional degrees over the years.Karen: It’s kind of maddening that on one hand, Byrne seems to recognize that the Vision was a thinking, feeling sentient being, and yet, he also seems to view him as nothing more than a hard drive that can be written over.

Doug: Karen, I guess I’d never fully examined my thoughts on the Vision before we started this arc. I always knew, of course, that he could think/reason/feel. But, and this is a huge but (again, no pun intended!), I guess my sense was that as an artificial construct his cognitive and emotive capabilities were reliant on a series of if-then statements (anyone else take computer programming classes way back when in the BASIC language?). I guess not to the extent that the Sentinels live as reactionary devices, but along those lines. Does that make him a less-valuable teammate? No, I don’t see it that way. Even if he did rely solely on brain patterns or Ultron’s programming, he operated with a sense of benevolence, loyalty, and compassion. But the artificial always supersedes the man for me.

Karen: I don’t know that you could place emotional responses in the framework of ‘if-then’ statements, and the Vision (and even Ultron) were exceedingly emotional! While I could buy that the Vision’s ability to feel is a result of ‘brain patterns’, I never understood why Ultron was so emotional – until Kurt Busiek revealed in volume 3 that Hank had provided his own brain patterns for that villain! I thought that was great idea. Although I still don’t have a solid idea of what a brain pattern is, as a plot device it does its job to move both story and character, and that’s good enough for me.

Sharon: Vision always seemed somewhat like the Doom Patrol’s original Robotman, a human brain/mind trapped in a synthetic body, though the difference would be the Vision’s body and organs are made of more lifelike, biocompatible materials than Robotman’s body. Before WCA #44 I’d consider Vizh to be a clone of a human: but here Byrne reduces him to a machine.

Sharon: We’ve spoken of Byrne’s way with expressions before; but I really love the panels here with Wanda and Hank. She is angry and distraught and incredulous and he’s facing a daunting task while trying to keep it together, for her (and everyone else’s) sake. Byrne manages to convey so much emotion here. You know, it’s not only their mouths (as Doug pointed out, a specialty of Byrne’s) but also their eyebrows. Unlike some artists, Byrne doesn’t give his characters uniformly big beautiful doe eyes; but we see realistic brows knotted with worry or fear or anger.

Karen: I’ve always thought he was a skilled artist, although for some reason, his work seems dated to me now. I can look at someone like Perez and it still looks fresh to me, but Byrne’s work definitely goes with a certain time period for me.

Doug: I’d agree that Byrne lives somewhere in my memories of comics in the 1980’s. He is instantly recognizable, with the elongated torsos and long striding figures.

Sharon: I actually have a better appreciation of Byrne’s art after rereading this. I was never crazy about his FF art (though his writing/stories were so strong there that the art was just an afterthought to me), but I really like what I see here. His depictions of Wanda and Hank are especially captivating: she’s presented visually as this über-feminine creature (wild flowing hair, perfect hourglass figure, sensual features) and he’s handsome, blond, All-American, smart—but he appears to be very much human, without the exaggerated physique of, say, Simon. And Byrne imbues the other characters, such as Jan and Simon and Bobbi and Clint, with individuality. Quite a difference from the uniformity imparted by the Silver Age artists I was weaned on.

Sharon: Regarding the original Human Torch (who, as mentioned, was considered pretty much human back in the Golden Age), who shows up but his creator, Dr. Phineas Horton (Jan had discovered him in WCA #42, being held captive by the same KGB—er, “international” group that duped Bobbi). Dr. Horton asserts that the Vision is “not” his Torch (as was commonly believed at the time, ever since the Vision’s origin was revealed during the Celestial Madonna saga many years earlier).

Karen: Well, I think this gets at the root of the problem: it seems like Byrne wanted to bring back the original Torch (which he does a few issues later) but couldn’t do it with the Vision in the way. So he just brushed aside years of work by other writers and artists to get his way. Yes, I’m biased here, but this does annoy me. My only solace is that Busiek came along with Avengers Forever and pretty much restored the old origin.

Doug: As I’d said earlier, if they’d only kept Toro alive back in Sub-Mariner #14, this might all have been unnecessary.

Sharon: At the time of Sub-Mariner #14, Marvel may not have wanted to risk another lawsuit by Carl Burgos, or bad feelings/negative publicity. Burgos created the original Human Torch and probably had a hand in creating Toro too and had previously sued Marvel over the Torch in the 1960s (and he received a settlement, even though back then comic characters such as the Torch were considered the property of the company and not the individual creator’s). So perhaps there were legal or ethical issues to consider at the time.

Sharon: Byrne then takes a couple of detours. First, he segues into the feral Tigra subplot (Hawkeye’s involved); and then we go back to Byrne’s X-Men roots as we see a display of all known mutants at the time, who are being scrutinized for —what else? — a nefarious plan of some sort. Of course, since this is an Avengers title, the baddies settle on Wanda (the Beast is deemed “too unstable.”) We’ll learn more next issue, but it’s an interesting concept. Did Byrne assume an Avengers reader would recognize all these mutants, most of whom were mainstays of the X books? Was this panoply a testament to the X-Men’s stunning dominance at the time? At any rate, in the space of only a couple of pages, Byrne economically and deftly integrates these subplots into the story.

Karen: Byrne really puts Wanda through the wringer in his run here!

Sharon: Back to the main story: Byrne then has an angry Wanda destroy the compound with her hex power. It’s destruction on a massive scale. I find it interesting how Byrne characterizes Wanda’s power (in the caption): as she uses her power, “reality itself begins to shift and flow…” What, no mention of probability shifting—now it’s acknowledged she in fact affects reality? Byrne then does cite the “odds” (probability) of the building crumbling, so I guess it’s the same thing, but I was surprised to see so overt a mention of her affecting reality here. And while I understand Wanda’s immense grief and anger, it just seemed like an excessively destructive reaction from her. I mean, if I were Wanda, I would have punched Bobbi’s lights out instead!

Karen: Well, I’ve always seen Wanda as being very emotional. In the past she has always been protective of the Vision and I was less surprised by her reaction than by the fact that she was powerful enough to cause so much destruction! But one has to wonder if this influenced later writers to treat Wanda’s abilities as though she had control over reality, and not the ability to affect outcomes. I think there’s a real difference there.

Sharon: Wanda wonders how anyone could have done this to the Vision; after all, as an Avenger he’s risked his life for mankind over and over again. Byrne has Hank explain that the group who dismantled/erased the Vision looked at him as nothing more than a machine. As if to underscore this view, Wonder Man is shown carrying canisters containing the “pseudo-organic” parts of the Vision. Not pretty.

Doug: I think Reed Richards seemed to have a similar attitude toward the Original Torch after the battle with Quasimodo in FF Annual #4. I’ve always found it odd that Reed didn’t confiscate the Torch’s body, if for no other reason than to keep him out of the hands of a potential do-badder. Here these “scientists” seemed to have seen the Vision as a bunch of components rather than as the sum of the parts.

Karen: I’ve never been comfortable with Reed Richards' decision in that issue. It still seems so cold – and of course, the Thing (the ‘monster’) is the one who appears to feel sympathy for the android Torch! That, at least, was in character.

Sharon: There’s more heartache in store for Wanda: the nanny says Thomas and William (Wanda’s boys) are missing! But Wanda comes upon them and they’re fine. Thinking the nanny is playing a sick practical joke, Wanda fires the confused woman. A couple of days later Wanda is with her children and Wonder Man stops by. Simon starts to say that he has never fully bought the Vision-Human Torch connection since Immortus—not exactly a trustworthy sort—is the one who related it. Wanda and Simon’s conversation is cut short as they hear terrible noises coming from Hank’s lab.

Karen: I have to admit, I never liked the idea of Wanda conjuring up children. It seemed utterly ridiculous and avoided what could have been some interesting storylines: Wanda wanting children, Vision feeling guilty or inadequate because he can’t give her a family, etc. I think Steve Englehart’s handling of the couple after their marriage really went in a bad direction.

Sharon: It surprised me that Englehart went the conventional route by marrying them off and then giving them children (which he intended to be real, not figments of anyone’s imagination or shards of anyone’s soul). As for the children’s conception, it certainly strained credulity (yes, even in a comic book) because Wanda had used her seemingly amped up hex power (along with some help from Agatha Harkness) to defy probability and become pregnant (in the second Vision and Scarlet Witch series). I agree, Karen, that the more interesting angle would have been to show the couple as barren and their struggles to cope with their feeling about that.

Doug: Englehart was never afraid to be “out there” with some of his storylines.

Sharon: Back to WCA #44: Wanda and Simon are attacked by a partially reconstructed Vision. And if there was any doubt as to Byrne’s intention, it is dispelled here as he presents a truly grotesque interpretation of the Vision, sheaths of muscles, tendons, etc. attached to a metal (I think) framework. I will say Byrne is extremely imaginative, and goes for the jugular; but did he have to reduce a once proud, noble character to—this? Hawkeye joins the battle and but the Vision is too powerful; it’s apparent Wanda’s power is needed to even the odds. But even though Simon and Clint are in danger of losing their lives, Wanda is paralyzed—she can’t bring herself to use her hex power against the one she loves, her husband the Vision. “What if I make him explode?” she cries. I found that to be a very canny statement by Wanda, but it’s kind of an odd statement from her since it implies that she sees him as “manufactured” (capable of exploding). Is this really how she thought of her husband? In the meantime, Hank saves the day. I really like this depiction of Hank; he’s smart and composed but compassionate. After Wanda, of all the characters involved, he’s the most vocal about the humanity of the Vision.

Karen: This reconstructed Vision reminded me strongly of the Terminator. The first film in that series had come out five years before. But the image does present us with a much more frightening Vision than we’ve ever seen. But on the other hand, human skeletons also arouse fear in some people.

Doug: I find the imagery of the metal and the synthetic muscle to be very strange. I keep thinking back to Ultron, a robot, creating the Vision. With Ultron’s obvious hatred for humanity, I’ve wondered why he would have gone to such great lengths to make his construct so outwardly (and, we thought, inwardly) human-looking. It really is a big mess – maybe there were more questions than we thought when the Vision was allegedly the Original Torch.
Sharon: That’s Byrne’s point. He’s dismissing the original concept of the Vision (from the Roy-Steve Englehart days). Byrne has gone on record many times as saying he hated the idea of the cozy little family unit for Vision and Wanda, so his solution was to 1) show the Vision was nothing more than a glorified machine and 2) reveal the kids to be imaginary. I consider anything to be fair game for writers/artists; as creative people working with fictional characters, they are entitled to their interpretations. But it seems to me that Byrne could have made his point about the implausibility of the Vision-Wanda union by just dealing with the children--he didn’t have to also literally and figuratively dismantle the Vision.

Karen: I also agree with you Sharon on the portrayal of Hank Pym here. It’s actually very consistent with the way he was shown in Avengers 57 and 58. He seems to view the Vision as a synthetic man, emphasizing the human qualities of the Vision.

Sharon: Yes, Hank seems to be the only one (besides Wanda) who feels that way. Jan and Simon seem less concerned about the Vision. Also, Hank is consistently shown to be solicitous toward Wanda here –and not because he wants to get into her pants (like Simon does!).

Sharon: Toward the end of this issue, the government sends a “watchdog” of sorts to join the ranks of the West Coast branch of the Avengers. In an amusing panel, the Avengers see a shadowy figure approaching and think it’s Cap…but it turns out to be U.S. Agent. Even in the midst of a dark tale like this, Byrne manages to inject humor here and there.

Doug: Anyone think that USAgent was Marvel’s answer to Guy Gardner’s popularity over at DC back in these days?

Karen: That’s a good point. At the very least, they were the two biggest jerks in their respective universes.

Sharon: Yep, the similarities are striking. And what a way to end this issue!

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