Friday, March 27, 2009

A Whiter Shade Of Pale/West Coast Avengers #45

West Coast Avengers # 45 (June 1989)

“New Faces”

Avengers West Coast #47 (August 1989)

“With Friends Like These!”

Writer/Penciler: John Byrne

Doug: If I could interject, before we get started – I just took these two books out of their bags. I keep my funny books in the basement (yes, I do have a dehumidifier nearby, Mom) and I must say that you can’t beat that slightly musty smell of 20-year old newsprint. Sorry…

Sharon: Let us continue our exploration of John Byrne’s Vision Quest and his utter dismantling of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’s lives, which spanned several issues of the West Coast Avengers in 1989. A lot happens in this issue: there’s the dramatic appearance of the newest Avenger (U.S. Agent); Tigra is starring in her own version of the Curse of the Cat People,--

Doug: Good Lord! Doesn’t Tigra resemble the Cat-Beast of today’s X-books?

Sharon: - -Wanda interviews a new nanny for her kids; said kids vanish again; and Hawkeye quits the team, which prompts Mockingbird to go after him (yes, she’s still around. Now I ask you given her role in the events in the last few issues, would you keep her on the team?). Aww, who am I kidding? This issue is about one thing and one thing only: the return of the Vision.

Doug: Before we go and get all up in Byrne’s grill (which I fully intend to do, alongside my comrades), I would like to compliment the man on being 5 for 5 on awesome splash pages. The guy gets emotion and mood. The two splashes of Wanda are particularly appealing (#42 and #47).

Sharon: Yes, I agree. I’ve never particularly liked Byrne’s rendering of women, but he does a great Scarlet Witch (and I liked his Frankie Raye too). But other Byrne women like Sue Richards and Jan always seemed facially generic to me.

Doug: Anyone else catch Simon’s question to Hank as they arrived in the lab and surveyed the prone form of the Vision? “Can he really be fixed, Hank? I mean, if you turn him back on, what’s to stop him from attacking us again, like he did this morning?” Again, further evidence of Byrne’s denigration of the Vision’s humanity…

Sharon: You’d think Simon, of all people- -the one who had spent a lot of time with Vision over the years (and Simon’s mother even welcomed Vision into her family!)- - would show compassion for the Vision. Instead Simon acts like Vision’s not only inhuman but an enemy to boot!

Karen: Well, given what happens later, I doubt Simon wanted him turned back on.

Doug: Let me get something straight, too, as I may have my timeline out of order: this is a few years after the Vision had plucked that doo-hickey out of his brain that dampened his emotions and made him talk in the hollow voice, correct? So in effect, his personality was somewhat along the lines of his former self (or so we thought…), Jim Hammond?

Sharon: I don’t know about the Jim Hammond personality bit, but from what I’ve pieced together (since I didn’t read these books at the time), the chronology went something like this: in 1985, in a storyline spanning several issues of Avengers, the Vision interfaced with ISAAC and the world’s computers. This caused him to become increasingly unstable and more like a robot, because according to the knowledgeable folks over at the invaluable site, “interfacing with ISAAC corrupted the emotion-regulating chip” that Ultron had installed in him when creating him. This went on for many issues until finally, in Avengers #255, Vision plucked that thing out of his head (as you said, Doug) and his emotions returned…in fact, they seemed intensified.

Karen: Our X-Men friends are a little off. It was issue 254 where Vision pulled the control crystal out of his head. It had been put there by Ultron in order to allow him easier control of the Vision, and it also allowed Vizh to be taken over a few times. The crystal repressed his emotional growth, and when he was linked to ISAAC, the combination caused his reasoning to become distorted. This is why he tried to take over the world. He was not more robot-like at this stage; if anything, he was more emotional, but in an unbalanced way.

Sharon: Got it…thanks for clarifying the chronology, Karen! So Avengers #254 contained the infamous scene with the Vision plucking that crystal doohickey out of his head (ugh!) and the denouement was in #255 (at which time Wanda and Vizh left active Avengers duty for a while). And I do recall seeing excerpts here and there of a malevolently smiling Vision keeping secrets from Wanda so the notion that he was more robotic (in the issues preceding #254) is inaccurate, as you said.
Karen: When he was disconnected from ISAAC and removed the crystal, he removed the limitations on his emotional growth. Immediately his word balloons went from his old square, yellow ones to the normal balloons everyone else had – I suppose this was to show that he had become even more ‘human’.

Doug: How did you two feel about this change? Personally, I didn’t care for it. I had grown to adulthood with the yellow balloons, the so-called hollow voice, etc. This was quite a departure from that comfort zone – I could never “hear” Vision speaking in a normal voice.

Sharon: Since I read these issues years after they originally appeared and out of chronological order, it didn’t really make an impact on me. I did think he sounded awfully “human” in the VSW limited series but just thought that was Englehart’s preferred way of writing him.
Sharon: Then in late 1985-1986, he and Wanda left the Avengers and she became pregnant (this was the 12-issue Vision and Scarlet Witch limited series). Throughout this series the Vision was utterly human, there was not a trace of android coldness in him. This series ended in September 1986 (cover date) and I believe the couple wasn’t seen until West Coast Avengers #33, in 1988. So, Wanda and Vizh had been absent from action for a while.

Sharon: Also, Steve Englehart scripted the V&SW limited series and the West Coast Avengers during this time—as well as the origin of the Vision many years earlier in the Avengers (which tied the Vision to the original Torch). When Byrne took over WCA with #42 in 1989, the first thing he did was decisively demolish the notion of the Vision as Mike Brady. It’s almost like what Englehart hath brought together, let no man but Byrne tear asunder. So while Englehart wrote what could be read as a fairy tale, Byrne resolutely went in the opposite direction and painted an ultra-realistic picture.

Karen: I felt Englehart’s Vizh was way too emotional.

Sharon: Anyway, back to WCA—I mean AWC #47: Hank tells Wanda he has successfully reprogrammed the Vision’s memory banks. But there is one small problem…

Sharon: Wanda is then confronted by a tall, ghostly pale, seemingly nude figure—no, it’s not Dr. Manhattan, it’s the reassembled, reprogrammed Vision (his bio-synthetic skin was irreparably damaged so now it’s ivory-colored instead of red). The full page shot of the “new” Vision is shocking, to say the least, for evidently he’s naked, and his pelvic region looks as smooth as a Ken doll’s…so it’s apparent writer-artist John Byrne views the Vision as lacking genitals. Neither Wanda nor Hank seem to be surprised by this, so Byrne seems to be implying that the Vision was never well equipped in that area. You could have fooled me; I mean, the way that master of anatomy/musculature/body contour John Buscema drew the (clothed) Vision, it sure looked like he (Vizh) had a nice package down there. Well, as much as the Comics Code would allow for any costumed hero back then!

Karen: Again, this is Byrne’s way of making Vision less of a person. It’s all right to marginalize him, to destroy his relationship with Wanda, if he can make the readers view him as nothing more than a very sophisticated machine. The thing is, it flies in the face of what’s gone before. Sure, I don’t think anyone seriously thought the Vision capable of reproducing, but since he was “human in every way, only made of synthetic materials” as we’ve been told before, why this exclusion? There’s an interview with Roy Thomas from the Marvel magazine FOOM (issue 12, December 1975) where Thomas states “…as far as conception, I’m not quite sure what I had in mind when he was first created. I always assumed that he was complete, but as far as having a child, I don’t know.”

Sharon: Right! And I think Roy made his intent clear even earlier than that; take a look at Avengers #99 (1972), which predated that FOOM article by 3 years. In#99, a clearly anguished Vision confides to Jarvis “There are things I could never give her (Wanda)…a normal home…a family…” What a poignant scene and it establishes early on that he can’t father kids.

Karen: Yup, a great scene, which was included in one of the earlier posts.

Sharon: And in the letter column for Avengers #143, Marvel editorial acknowledges that it’s hardly likely that a “synthetic gland” could produce “human offspring.” So while it’s assumed Vision has organs and glands comparable to a human male’s, the tragedy is that he and Wanda can’t produce kids like a “normal” male-female couple (I guess adoption would have out of the question too, back in those days).

Doug: Filed under “Didn’t really notice it at the time (20 years ago)” – if you go back to the scene where the Vision’s flayed skin in on the lab table, it’s obvious that there is no genitalia present.

Karen: Speaking of the way Buscema drew the Vision, another notable difference with Byrne’s version is the lack of sensuality in his features. Sharon, I know you’ve mentioned this before, but Buscema always gave us a Vision with rather full lips and a sort of smoldering look. By contrast, Byrne’s Vision has such thin lips that his mouth looks more like a cut in his face. He also has no ears! He reminds me more of those descriptions people have given of the little grey aliens they say abducted them! Again, quite inhuman.

Doug: If the colorist had removed a bit of the yellow hue, this Vision could have been the twin brother to the Silver Surfer.
Sharon: Yes, the albino Vision always reminded me of the Surfer (visually), as I mentioned a while back on the AA boards. Buscema in particular drew a sensual (face and body) Surfer and Vision back in the day.
Sharon: Back to the action: Wanda kisses the Vision and I guess he’s just not that into her because his only response is “Is there some significance to this action?” Hank delivers the bad news: while the Vision’s memory has been restored (by Hank), the Vision no longer has the ability to feel emotion, so he cannot invoke feelings around his memories or actions. The key to allowing the Vision to feel emotions are Simon Williams’ brain patterns, and Simon has refused to allow his brain patterns to be used as the matrix for the Vision’s mind.

Doug: Again, what the heck’s a brain pattern? If he has memories and can catalog them in sequential order, seeing the cause/effect of these events, then what is lacking? Is a brain pattern simply emotions? I would not see it that way – if that were the case, then although Simon Williams “died” a hero in Avengers #9 wouldn’t some of his orneriness/nastiness have grafted onto the Vision’s mind?

Karen: Maybe it’s like engrams…OK, I won’t go there.

Sharon: Well, this struck me as very selfish of Simon. His explanation to a distraught Wanda is that he had “no choice” in the matter the “first time” and that it’s always been “hard” for him to accept that “another man” has a piece of his brain and soul. Except for a few issues just after Avengers #152 (about a dozen years earlier than WCA #45), I don’t recall this ever being an issue for Simon. He had been shown to be a close friend to both the Vision and Wanda for many years.

Sharon: As in the previous WCA issues we’ve discussed, Byrne utilizes flashbacks effectively; he recounts events from Avengers #9, Wonder Man’s debut and death.
Doug: Hey, and I liked (in the flashback scene) seeing Wondy in his original togs! What a gaudy Kirby-suit that was!!)

Sharon: I guess it was most likely a Kirby design, since he routinely designed many of the costumes back in the early days of the Marvel Age. And since he did the cover of Avengers #9, it may have served as a kind of blueprint for Don Heck (who penciled the story). But to me, the costume lacks that Kirby techno-galactic panache and seems almost--Heck-ish (Don had designed a few costumes himself, such as Hawkeye’s original and some Iron Man villains’). At any rate, Byrne’s Wonder Man flashbacks are very much in the style of Kirby, what with the full physique and balloon-like muscles Simon sports!

Doug: When I think of a Heck-designed costume, I think of the original Living Laser outfit. Don probably shouldn’t have designed costumes…


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 ├╝ber-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!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Byrne Baby Byrne! West Coast Avengers #43

West Coast Avengers #43 (April 1989)

“Vision Quest!”

Writer/Penciler: John Byrne
Inker: Mike Machlan

Sharon: We’re continuing with our look John Byrne’s first arc for the West Coast Avengers. At the end of WCA #42, erstwhile member Mockingbird shows up and announces she can answer the team’s questions about the missing Vision.

Sharon: So, in #43, Mockingbird explains that she was duped into helping a group of people (they told Bobbi they were from SHIELD) with their top secret “contingency plan” that would ensure that the Vision would never again be in a position to take over the world’s computers (as he had done in Avengers #251-254 a few years earlier). So Bobbi joined this initiative and divulged Avengers secret security codes and the like, until she eventually wised up and found out the group wasn’t part of SHIELD. In fact, the group comprises people from several different countries and they’re all worried that the Vision has retained classified information from when he took control of the computers. So their goal was to totally erase the Vision’s memory.

Sharon: But by the time Bobbi discovered the truth and escaped her “hosts”, it’s a case of too little, too late: the plan was already put into action: the Vision was kidnapped (off-panel), the faux Ultron was sent as a distraction (as we saw in #42), the virus was introduced into the Avengers’ computer systems, etc. Bobbi is not exactly Ms. Popular as she relates her part in this mess; for one thing, she and Clint are estranged, so there’s no love lost there; not to mention poor Wanda, who cannot believe what she is hearing.
Sharon: That Bobbi could be duped in such a manner is hard to believe, but Byrne has her explain that she was distracted since she’d left the team and Hawkeye.

Karen: I agree, Mockingbird looks like a grade –A nitwit here. And to be honest, I’m not too fond of Hawkeye’s portrayal either – a little too simple-minded, I think, at this point in his career.

Doug: Motion carried! The story behind Bobbi’s explanation is well-crafted, and as you said dumbed-down enough that we could figure it out – surely a trained super-agent should have “gotten it”!
Sharon: The Avengers go off to find the Vision. As if Hawkeye doesn’t have enough to worry about with Bobbi, he grumbles that he’s the official leader of the WCA but others—Jan, Hank—are the ones barking out the orders. Good characterizations throughout by Byrne, with the exception of Bobbi, who—as we all agree--seems awfully dense.

Doug: Wanda’s coldness toward Bobbi is genuine and in-character – a nice bit of tension. Simon’s descent out of the quinjet is reminiscent of one of Colossus’ exits from the Blackbird!

Sharon: Again, I think Byrne draws a great Wanda and Hank. You can really see Wanda’s distress and anger; her expressions seem so varied and real. I also like how he handles Simon, in all his muscle-bound glory. Machlan’s the inker here again and, as Karen noted in our last entry, he doesn’t do much in the way of enhancing the pencils. But I think Byrne’s work is strong enough so it’s not damaged by the so-so embellishment.

Doug: Nowadays I think of George Perez as the leader in drawing facial expressions, and of giving each character a distinctive look. But Byrne’s splash page of Hawkeye is a real grabber. As we may have commented before (I’m sure we have somewhere), Byrne really used the mouth to give characterization as well as panel-to-panel emotion – that is so evident in this one panel. And the large panel on pages 2-3 is a great lesson in scale among the characters – almost as worthy a reference as some of the model sheets we’ve seen through the years.

Sharon: Wanda thinks of her history with her husband: her first words to the Vision (“Flee, whoever you are!”-- Avengers #76), the Celestial Madonna saga, Quicksilver’s censure of her marriage to a “machine”, and the birth of Vision’s and Wanda’s sons, Thomas and William. Byrne handles the flashbacks well and faithfully—as strange as this may sound, he does a great Don Heck in some of those panels!

Karen: I noticed that too! Particularly the one from GS Avengers 4, where Vision asks Wanda to marry him. It had that same sketchy look that Heck’s later art had.

Doug: You guys are good! I, too, noticed the Heck-ish artwork, but to be honest wrote it off to sub par Byrne pencils – we’ve discussed how he can be rushed and sketchy. Duh – it didn’t even occur to me that this was homage to Heck’s work. Seeing this now through your eyes, it carries a little more weight!

Karen: It’s actually kind of painful to see all those scenes of Vizh and Wanda together, knowing what is coming for both of them. At least Wanda is still around, even if she has gone nuts. Vizh has been replaced and everyone just treats the new “Vision” as if he were the old one. That frustrates the heck out of me.

Doug: I am not at all up on the current state of the Vision, other than what you two have told me. And knowing your feelings and how it’s being handled, I’m glad I haven’t spent any money toward the current situation.

Sharon: Byrne loves those cliffhangers: we get a glimpse of Wanda and Vizh’s kids, who are being cared for by their nanny, Miss Bach. Then the nanny gasps as she sees--what? We won’t find out until next issue. Similarly, the Wasp gasps when she comes across someone who’s imprisoned—who is it? Next issue.

Sharon: And finally, Mockingbird learns that the plan is “far ahead of schedule.” She knows where the Vision is and she leads Wanda to the ominous “Section 31.” There are scientists and other personnel there, and there’s a table on which circuitry is laid out. There are vats and tubes and tanks containing what looks like lungs, tendons, etc.--can you say gross? Then there’s –ugh--something that looks like red skin splayed out atop a counter. It’s a gruesome scene. In our last entry Doug mentioned the Tigra turning feral subplot in #42, and I found that hard to take; but this scene is far more stomach turning. Bobbi tells Wanda that this is what’s left of her husband, the Vision.

Karen: It’s hideous, to say the least. The tanks full of organs, the metallic skeleton – these are bad enough, but the skin is the kicker, just lying on a table, almost as if it were casually tossed aside. Of course, this is the effect Byrne is going for, and he achieves it. But then – and now – I find it highly disturbing, and don’t like seeing it.

Doug: Agreed. The flayed skin was a bit much. To be honest, I’m not sure I noticed it when I first read this 20 years ago. But it did jump up at me when I re-read it for this review. Highly disturbing, indeed…
Sharon: I don’t recall Byrne ever being this graphic in his FF work. I wonder how a reader in 1989 seeing this for the first time would have reacted back then —would one have just chalked this scene up to sensationalism? I can’t imagine anyone would accept Bobbi’s words that this—wreckage--was “…your husband, Wanda…” at face value.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

Byrne Notice! West Coast Avengers #42

West Coast Avengers # 42 (March 1989)

“One of Our Androids is Missing!”

Writer/Penciler: John Byrne

Sharon: Confession time: I was a huge comic book fan as a kid but inexplicably, I stopped reading comics in 1972. My last comic back then was Avengers #105, in which a rather large obstacle to the Scarlet Witch and the Vision’s incipient romance was introduced—in this particular issue, he discovered that unlike humans, he was unaffected by love.

Sharon: Flash-forward 30-plus years later, when --just as inexplicably—I got back into comics. I had a lot of catching up to do and sought out back issues with a vengeance (helped immeasurably by online comics vendors such as Mile High Comics, New Kadia and Metropolis Comics). I was surprised to find that during my hiatus, Wanda and Vizh had overcome the odds and had gotten married at some point, but they were also the proud parents of two young boys! Ah, I guess the Vision had been capable of love, after all…

Doug: While I was away from comics during my high school years Marvel started doing mini-series. A nice thing after all – a great way to tell self-contained stories of characters who might otherwise only see the light of day in team or team-up books. So from 1980-85, apparently Wanda and Vizh found a way, so to speak. And I must say that whatever reasons were given then must be infinitely better than what Bendis cooked up a few years ago. Ugh… Incidentally, Wanda will give a recap of those circumstances in our next issue – WCA #43.

Sharon: So after I’d returned to comics I picked up West Coast Avengers #42, originally published in 1989. WCA #42 was John Byrne’s first issue on this particular title. I’d previously read—and enjoyed--many of his Fantastic Four issues, which collectively read like a sprawling novel…very rich and dense. So I was very eager to read his version of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, or at least the west coast branch of such.
Doug: I had been a Byrne junkie from his X-Men days. Byrne has a very distinct style, whether inked by himself as here, or by his frequent collaborator, Terry Austin. I’ll say this about him doing his own work – this is much more polished than what he would turn out later for Dark Horse with his creator-owned “John Byrne’s Next Men”. That work was very scratchy – it appeared to me to have been rushed. This work was nice, clean… Of course, his best work (arguably) would come shortly after this run when he moved to DC to revamp Superman in the Man of Steel limited series and the renumbered Superman magazine.

Karen: Well you guys have heard me say this before, but I don’t think anyone complemented Byrne’s pencils as well as Terry Austin. I really don’t care for Mike Machlan’s inks here – the line work just seems thin and without weight.

Sharon: Yes, I agree the inking didn’t really enhance the pencils. The result was rather delicate. When I opened WCA #42, I was greeted by a splash page featuring the Scarlet Witch’s face, beneath an ominous title—“One of Our Androids is Missing!” Uh oh, that did not augur well. I must say that Byrne drew an absolutely beautiful Wanda.

Sharon: Turn the page and immediately we’re plunged into a mystery: Wanda does not know where the Vision is. Apparently over the past years, the married couple has always slept in the same bed even though the Vision has no need of sleep. This fine morning, without warning, Wanda wakes up and –the Vision is gone! Byrne then adds the rest of the cast—Hawkeye, Hank Pym (this is during his non-costumed “Dr. Pym” phase), Tigra, Wonder Man (sporting his infamous mullet), the Wasp, and a seemingly traitorous Mockingbird. Archenemy Ultron also makes an appearance, and a battle rages. The heroes manage to beat Ultron but it turns out to be false Ultron—a diversion. Hank promises to get to the bottom of it (and facetiously utters the command “Avengers Disassemble!”) Wanda thinks of the missing Vision and his creation, his legacy as the original Human Torch; how the Torch “died” and was resurrected by Ultron as the Vision; Vizh’s first encounter with the Avengers and his subsequent membership (in Avengers #57-58, which was recently chronicled here!) Though these events are presented as the reverie of the understandably worried Wanda, the sequence really underscores the man-made aspect of the Vision.

Doug: Just a quick comment on Simon’s haircut – at about the same time Johnny Storm was sporting a very contemporary ‘do. Not attractive, then or now!

Doug: Although I am not a fan of Tigra, I smiled at the little subplot Byrne planted with her. He has always been a master of weaving several threads through a story. The concept of this particular thread seems somewhat tired however – an animal-based character losing control to a feral side. Wolverine had struggled with this for years in X-Men, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Byrne would bring said concept to WCA and Tigra.

Doug: Can I say that I just love the classic look of Ultron?? He was especially well-drawn by George Perez during the “Bride of Ultron” arc in Avengers #’s 161-162 and 170-171. Byrne gives a capable version here. And although the battle turned out to be for naught, what with “Ultron” revealed as a phony, there were still some great, typically-hopeless moments.

Karen: I thought Byrne handled the characters well enough, although I could do without Hawkeye referring to Wanda as “Wanj” – where the heck did that come from?

Sharon: I know! Maybe Hawk had “Wandjina” (from the Champions of Angor/the Assemblers) on his mind…

Sharon: Well, it turns out that while the Avengers were busy battling the faux Ultron, a computer virus was infecting the Avengers’ systems (Hank had earlier noticed a glitch, prior to the Ultron appearance). Hank delivers the unthinkable news: according to Hank, the “virus has erased all trace of the Vision from our files… the virus has been transmitted to every computer we link with…and in all those systems all trace of the Vision has been obliterated!”

Doug: Hank Pym was portrayed as the leader here that he should always be portrayed as.

Sharon: Yes, I agree, I like how Byrne depicted Hank during the WCA era: a born leader, capable and resourceful. Byrne also drew him in an attractive manner.

Doug: Question: Don’t you think, given the three hour time difference between California and New York that the East Coasters might have alerted the West Coasters first concerning the computer glitch?

Sharon: Wouldn’t it have happened at the same time, but given the time zones it would have been 8am on the West Coast, 11am in the East?

Doug: Ah, excellent point! What I was thinking centered on Byrne’s telling us multiple times how early in the day it was – that most of the crew were still sleeping. I was thinking that if it was, say 6:00 am in California, then it would have been almost mid-morning in the East and more likely that the East Coasters would have caught the virus’ dirty deeds before the West Coasters knew what was going on.

Sharon: Yes, you’re right. Good point. Okay, so Hank’s using words like “erased” and “files” and “links” and “computers” when talking about the missing Avenger. Suddenly, the Vision sounds less like a husband and father and teammate than — well, a system – a bunch of files. In the space of one issue, Byrne established his concept of the Vision.

Doug: One could argue that the very title of this tome established Byrne’s opinion – the Vision is not even a synthozoid as we’ve known him in the past – he has been reduced to an “android”. To me, the term “synthozoid” means synthesis – a bringing together in this case of life and unlife. That being said, however, I would argue that in many ways the Human Torch was much more a “man” than the Vision ever was. The Torch never spoke in cold tones, found human relationships to be more natural, and had empathy without explanation. But in the end, either was still composed of plastic, electrical wires, and motors.
Karen: I would strongly disagree with that last sentence, but I’ll save that for later in our discussion – once Byrne has gutted our hero.

Sharon: Glad you brought up the original Human Torch, Doug. According to Roy Thomas in TwoMorrow’s Justice League Companion (an excellent resource), the fact that the Torch was an android was rarely referred to and “forgotten” within a few issues of the Torch’s debut. Thomas has mentioned in various interviews that he didn’t even know the Torch was an android until the final issue of Marvel Mystery Comics (circa 1949), which contained a story retelling the Torch’s creation. I haven’t read many of the Torch’s Golden Age stories, and none of his 1950s stories, so I don’t know if Roy’s assessment is entirely accurate; but the Torch was usually shown to have functioned like a human being: he would eat, sleep and drink. I even think he had a girlfriend back then!
Sharon: Okay, so the Vision is missing and Hank deduces only an insider could have facilitated the infiltration of the Avengers’ network. As if on cue, Mockingbird (who’s estranged from Hawkeye) shows up.

To be continued…

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