THE SIMPLE PLEASURES OF A MAD ROBOT: ULTRON BEGINS
Brian Michael Bendis has teased Ultron for years.
As much as I'm barely following monthly superhero comics at this point, I am distinctly aware of the "Age of Ultron" that's coming. It's been coming for a while.
Last year brought us the Free Comic Book Day reprint of "Avengers" #12.1, by Bendis and "Age of Ultron" artist Bryan Hitch, a comic that originally appeared all the way back in the spring of 2011, as so reliably reviewed by the now-retired friend-of-When-Words-Collide Chad Nevett. (There was a time when Chad and I vowed to read every Point One comic from Marvel, and there was a time when I lost interest in most Marvel comics -- and those times overlapped. Correlation is not causation, except in cases when it is. But "Avengers" #12.1 was one of the better Point One issues, even if it was the prologue to something that wouldn't appear until two years later. But I digress. And sigh a weary sigh.)
And Ultron's head played the ever-so-important-role of macguffin in Bendis and Alex Maleev's short-lived-but-pretty-okay "Moon Knight" series. And even further back, in 2007, Ultron popped up in nanotech form in the opening arc of Bendis and Frank Cho's notable-for-the-return-of-the-thought-bubble relaunch of "Mighty Avengers."
But those last two stories didn't feel like Ultron stories, really. The head of Ultron didn't do much in and around Moon Knight, though it portended plenty. And nano-Ultron could have been any number of sentient-computer-virus protagonists that have appeared in sci-fi stories and movies and comics and Jamie Lee Curtis and Billy Baldwin movies featuring Donald Sutherland's baffling accent. Nano-Ultron is a computer-zombie virus and it's scary because it takes over and, sure, okay, but it's not the raving Ultron with the fists clenched and head raised to the heavens to curse his sometimes giant-sized maker.
It wasn't the "real" Ultron in the way that some things in comic books are "real" -- like Hal Jordan as Green Lantern -- and some things are just contemporary twists that will feel of-the-moment and painfully dated within months of release -- like Simon Baz as Green Lantern.
What I'm saying is, "Age of Ultron" looks to feature a "real," classic, meat-and-potatoes-and-bloodthirsty-mad Ultron of the sort Bendis mostly shied away from in his ten thousand issue Avengers run. What I'm saying is, Ultron is coming. What I'm saying is, Ultron deserves some respect. What I'm saying is, I read a bunch of old Roy Thomas and John Buscema "Avengers" comics recently and reminded myself how ridiculous and amazing Ultron was when he first showed up in the Marvel Universe.
What I'm saying is that I want to talk about 1968-era Ultron and you're going to have to put up with me talking about it, because I have Ultron in my heart right now and I can't let it wither and die without a moment of appreciation.
ROY THOMAS AND JOHN BUSCEMA CREATED ULTRON AND IT WAS GOOD
I'm sure there are other competing theses out in the world of comic book scholarship on this matter, but I stand with the camp that says Roy Thomas is responsible for creating the idea of comic book continuity as we know it. Before Thomas came to Marvel, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and dozens of others) were throwing new concepts out into the world and maybe referring to them again and maybe having cameo appearances from other characters once in a while, but mostly just forging ahead. Roy Thomas was the one who looked at the Marvel Universe as a place that already existed (as it did, before he joined the company) and wanted to explore the connections that had already been implied. He was the first outsider/critic/fanboy to be in a position with enough power to treat the Marvel Universe as if it were real and followed any kind of internally consistent logic.
(Just to prove how much he cared about continuity, Thomas also later created "All-Star Squadron" at DC, a series that literally took place between the panels of the Golden Age "All-Star Comics" stories and went out of its way not to contradict anything that happened in the originals.)
But Thomas should be remembered for more than just creating the kind of continuity that powers message board battles and creator headaches. He should be remembered first and foremost for creating Ultron.
Sure, it may seem like I'm exaggerating, but Ultron is pretty great and even my hyperbole shouldn't give you the impression that I don't think he's an amazing character. Ultron's debut story is unforgettable.
All drawn by John Buscema, in what, to my eyes, is the Platonic ideal of classic superhero style.
ULTRON KICKS OFF HIS CAREER IN A TRIPLE-REVERSE FAKEOUT
Most top-tier supervillains first appear in memorable fashion. You might not realize they will become as impressive as they actually do on first glance, but something about the manner of their initial appearance makes a mark that can never be forgotten. Galactus may have looked silly in his shorts and G-emblem, but he was a towering threat from the first page of his first appearance. Same thing with Doctor Doom. Or the Joker, with his chilling smile. Or, I don't know, M.O.D.O.K.
But Ultron? He first appears in a scene in which he is revealed to be the equivalent of an expensive mannequin. He's just a frame upon which to hang some magenta robes. The real villain of Roy Thomas and John Buscema's "Avengers" #54 turns out to be Jarvis, the butler! The robot was just a fake-out -- the equivalent of one of those Superman robots who helps Clark Kent lie to Lois for so many torturously hilarious misogynistic years.
Except it turns out to be a double fake-out, because in "Avengers" #55, we learn that the metal-headed robot is actually the mastermind behind the whole operation, and Jarvis was a drugged/hypnotized pawn of Ultron, who finally reveals himself to the victimized Jarvis with the line, "Human, dolt? Did you say human? WHAT MAKES YOU THINK I AM HUMAN??"
Buscema's drawing of Ultron's head in the costume of the faux-villain named Crimson Cowl recalls the image of Ultron from the previous issue, but we didn't know he was the villain in issue #54, even though he was staring us in the face. We ignored him. And we paid the price. Or, the Avengers did. Someone did. Probably Jarvis.
And Jarvis, it turns out, did actually betray the Avengers to Ultron and the newly-reformed Masters of Evil in this storyline from 1968. He gave away the secrets of Avengers mansion for two reasons: (1) he needed money for his sick mom, and (2) he thought it wouldn't much matter because the Avengers would beat these loser villains.
He actually explains all that on panel.
And the Avengers forgive their otherwise-loyal butler for completely betraying their confidences and opening them up to terrorist attacks because, hey, he felt bad about it later and tried to help the Avengers out after he realized what he did was absolutely the worst thing anyone had ever done. He gets a pat on the shoulder from Hank Pym's Goliath and that's that. He's back in their good graces.
I said Roy Thomas invented superhero continuity as we know it. I didn't say his stories followed anything resembling actual logic.
Also appearing in a fake-out of his own: the Black Knight, who had joined the Masters of Evil because they called looking for his uncle and he took the job just so he could infiltrate the gang and turn them in to the Avengers, who he hadn't yet met. But…okay, yeah, that happened.
The lies and duplicity and reveals and reversals in this two-part story are impressive. And Ultron is the centerpiece for all of it.
And I didn't even get into the genius of Thomas identifying him as "Ultron-5" when the villainous robot finally reveals his true nature in "Avengers" #55. Giving Ultron a number implies that there were four previous iterations. It gives the character a history just with single digit at the end of his name. That leads to later revelations that Ultron was actually created by the Avengers own Hank Pym, but all of that happens after the Vision appears in "Avengers" #57, and that green-and-yellow Avenger-to-be was created by none other than Ultron and sent to finish the job of destroying Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
It's a dense and exciting display of comic book twists and turns and hyper-melodrama and it's the kind of stuff that, if Bendis taps into even 20% of, could lead to an "Age of Ultron" to remember. Or, you could just read these comics from 1968, on the spinner rack in those days for a mere 12-cents each.
One last thing: Ultron-5 gets smashed up at the end of "Avengers" #57, though it won't be long before Ultron-6 shows up clad in adamantium. But Ultron-5 is no more. He's left as just a head, kicked around on a pile of broken dreams, picked up by a street kid as a poem echoes through the captions.
Thomas quotes from Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias" on that final page of the three-part introduction to Ultron.
This story isn't just a prelude to 2013's "Age of Ultron." This 1968 Ultron stuff is a precursor to "Watchmen." This is comics. This is Ultron.
In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.