Monday, July 24, 2006


Exploring What The Hell Is Up With The Android Avenger
By 'John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL'

I have way too many email addresses, but some of them are:
Docnebula(at sign)

My deranged rantings and drawings, as well as other cool stuff by Jeff Webb, Scott McCloud, and Kurt Busiek, can also be seen at:

While the Vision is not the first android comic book hero (that title apparently has to go to the Golden Age Human Torch, since Robot-Man had a human brain) he's without a doubt the most primordially fucked up in terms of having anything remotely like a coherent, linear personal history. I myself have been an ongoing AVENGERS fan for virtually the entirety of the Vision's existence and there are still areas I can't comprehend, nor are they areas that are ever likely to be really cleared up in the comics themselves, as some of the most essential ones touch on the Vision's sexual functioning, an issue that can't be directly addressed in a mainstream superhero mag. An attempt to recap, in a more or less linear fashion, the Vision's history, is extremely confusing, because of the large number of retroactive continuity patches that have been added as flashbacks in various stories over the 36 years or so that the character has been in existence. Still, we'll give it a try:

The Vision originally arrived in some issue of AVENGERS that Steve Tice is welcome to annotate here, but I have no memory for issue numbers, generally. However, he was, at that time, explained to be a 'synthezoid', built and programmed by Ultron to attack and destroy the Avengers. Ultron apparently had high hopes the Vision could do this because of his frankly fargin' weird power to control his density, making himself hard as steel or as insubstantial as mist, at the which point (mist.. stick with me, here, I know it's hard) he could actually pass through walls. He also had the ability to project, like, laser beams or something, from his eyes, which seems to have very little to do with the density powers, but who cares. Anyway, he came zippin' through the wall all spooky as you please, and the Wasp, true to form at this time, gasped and went all girlie and useless... but the Vision was apparently torn by moral conflicts and failed to kill her. After which, he volunteered to lead the Avengers against his evil master, Ultron. The Avengers, who have ever been suckers for tales of redemption (no kidding, the easiest way to join the Avengers, historically, has been to establish yourself as a menace and then go crying to them about how you want to reform, please, please, please, can you join... they eat it up every darned time), went 'yup yup yup, sure thing, Vizh' and off they went. They didn't defeat Ultron in any final fashion (they never do, he's like a big admantium cockroach) but Vizh wound up joining the team.

For many succeeding issues, Roy kind of hinted around that there was some huge incredible secret that had to do with the Vision's background and origin, as comics writers are wont to do with their own favorite original creations that they have jammed into an established, big name, high profile team concept (something else comics writers, especially AVENGERS writers, are wont to do) whether the fans really want those creations or not. (See "Triathlon" in some other article, since this one isn't about him.) At one point, when Hank Pym shrank down to tiny size and entered the Vision in order to rouse him from a strange coma he had sunk into (Hawkeye's technique of kicking him over and over again and shouting 'wakie wakie Vision' just wasn't getting it done), he saw... something... that made him gasp in stunned surprise. At another point, when the Avengers were battling the Sentinels, one of those mutant-baiting robots scanned the Vision and referred to him as 'an android of three decades vintage'... which at the time (maybe 1970?) was clearly wrong, but now, would be just fine.

Roy left the book before he could do more than drop hints, but Steve Englehart later took up the plotline, apparently, as he had previously done with Roy's intended '1950s Captain America' continuity implant in Cap's own mag, basically fully fleshing out Roy's idea for the origin of the Vision... which was, namely, that the Vision had actually been rebuilt from the remains of the Golden Age Human Torch by Ultron. This explained the Sentinels' remark, and was more or less accepted to explain what Hank Pym had seen inside the Vision that stunned him so (although, as far as I know, that sighting has never actually been shown or specifically described, and I myself wonder exactly what it was that could have made Hank's jaw drop so... digitally recorded .jpg files of Spitfire taking a shower?)

After Englehart took over the book, the Vision married the Scarlet Witch (probably not legally, since the wedding took place in a foreign country and was presided over by Immortus, not to mention the fact that Wanda most likely isn't a legal citizen of any country, and the Vision almost certainly has no legal existence at all). Legally married or not, Vizh and Witchie embarked on a honeymoon and apparently rutted like crazed weasels, inasmuch as we could gather from the steamy but ultimately non-explicit George Tuska panels we were presented with at the time. (Vizh looks deeply weird in Speedos.) Much, much later, the couple even managed to have twin sons, through Wanda's weird use of her own innate ability to sort of control chaos magick. (We don't want to go into that here. Trust me.)

Englehart established the 'Secret Origin of the Vision' in what still stands as one of his most beautifully and skillfully written stories, and for more than a decade afterward this stood as canon in the Marvel Universe. However, John Byrne has never seen a story written by a more talented writer than he (nearly all of them) that he didn't hanker to rip to shreds, so once he ascended to pretty much unfettered power at Marvel as a writer/artist who could not be told no, he proceeded to enact a completely idiotic and utterly witless story in WEST COAST AVENGERS in which the Vision was first kidnapped by SHIELD and disassembled, then reassembled by the Avengers after a rescue mission. However, the reassembly was incomplete, for various reasons, and the Vision wound up in a rather altered and lessened form, with no pigmentation, no wing-wang, and no essential humanity remaining.

This is the crux of the problem with the Vision as he exists today, and the point from which nearly all the difficulties began to issue... as Sandy Pearlman might say, 'it's the nexus of the crisis, and the origin of storms'. In this story, Byrne, who for all his egotism and complete lack of talent as a writer or apparent quality as a human being is a remarkably intelligent and calculating man, carefully contrived his 'dehumanization' of the Vision around three crucial plot points:

* that the Vision had been reconstructed without genitalia, and, by inference, had never actually had such (we'll get to that in more detail, below, but this was one of the cruxes of Byrne's argument that the Vision not only was not human any longer, but never really had been)

* that the Vision's 'brain patterns' had not been recovered along with most of his other synthetic body parts, and therefore, while his brain could be reconstructed and set to functioning again, his essential personality was missing, including all his emotional responses... he had his memories, but not his feelings or behaviors. Effectively, Byrne seemed to be saying that the Avengers had recovered and reinstalled the Vision's hard drive, but his essential RAM configuration and operating system were both missing. The end result was that the Vision no longer behaved in a manner that simulated human behavior... and Byrne's strong implication was in point of fact, a simulation of humanity was all the Vision had ever been capable of performing.

* That the Vision's previous personality could not, in fact, be restored, because it has been based on the brain patterns of Simon "Wonder Man" Williams, who had, at that time, been presumed dead. Naturally, the Avengers had asked Wonder Man to allow them to use his brain patterns again to try to 'jump start' the reconfiguration of the Vision's personality software, but as that would not suit Byrne's agenda to make the Vision obviously and irrefutably inhuman from that point onward, he put out of character dialogue in Wonder Man's mouth in which Williams refused to allow the use of his brain patterns to restore the essential humanity of a being he had come to regard as a brother, for reasons he could not even clearly articulate, mostly because he was being written badly.

Again, it can't be reiterated enough that there are few stories in which a particularly egoistic creator's personal outrage and negative agenda can be seen more nakedly. Byrne had apparently, long before, as a comics fan, conceived of an irrational hatred of the very notion of the Vision, an artificial creation, being treated as in any way 'human', and apparently had seethed at the ongoing storylines done around that presumption for decades. He railed about this in interviews and, given the first opportunity to do so (in FANTASTIC FOUR), had tentatively advanced subplots that seemed to point to 'alternative' origins for the Vision that would place more emphasis on his lack of humanity. Once he gained access to WEST COAST AVENGERS, he simply let himself go in a wildly self indulgent orgy of character and continuity destruction, blowing up decades of carefully and often beautifully written back story with deranged glee, and replacing the enormous, sophisticated, and intricately layered canon of work he had ripped apart... with nothing whatsoever.

Byrne also rather calculatedly constructed his story to give the nearly irrefutable imputation (without actually explicitly stating, which a Code comic couldn't) that the Vision not only had no nads now, but he'd never had any. This was, again, in line with Byrne's oft stated personal belief that the Vision, regardless of decades of characterization and continuity written by better writers than he, was no more human than 'a toaster', and was obviously an expression, and gratification, of his outrage that the Scarlet Witch had spent so many years married to what he considered to be little more than an appliance. (That Byrne is arrogant and self-orbital to the point of being very nearly psychotic seems pretty much inarguable, given this.) With one story, apparently written, drawn, and published for no purpose other than to gratify one particular creator's ego, a character of twenty years' vintage was destroyed and made into a mockery of his former self. The Vision not only no longer had any humanity, but we were meant to believe he'd never actually had any.

As an added, even more vicious twist, just to try to ensure that no future writers could emulate his actions and undo his own story, Byrne had contrived to have Professor Horton, the original creator of the Golden Age Human Torch, and an essential figure in Thomas and Englehart's 'Secret Origin of the Vision' (Ultron, baffled by the intricacies of the Torch's dead, synthetic body, had kidnapped Horton and forced him to rebuild the Torch to order), supposedly killed by Ultron at the end of the previous story, actually show up, for a couple of maundering panels, to mumble in a senile fashion about how 'the Vision was not his work'.

It's important to note that Byrne's actions on the Vision, as they generally are whenever he takes it on himself to revise a character's background and give it a 'new direction', were entirely destructive. Byrne tore down what had been skillfully and lovingly put up, but he offered nothing to replace it. He built what he considered to be clever walls and obstacles against any future revisionism, but the most effective inoculation against yet unborn ret-cons... setting up something even better, in place of what he'd destroyed... was entirely beyond his ability. (In my opinion, setting up something better is almost always beyond Byrne's abilities. Byrne could, for example, tear down Siegel & Schuster's origin of Superman, but erecting something better wasn't in his power. He could rip apart the Thing's relationship with Alicia Masters, but doing something more interesting was out of the question for him.) So, after Byrne got done savaging him, the Vision, clearly, was no longer a modified being created from the components of the original Human Torch, with a heroic tradition stretching back through WWII to the late 1930s... but what he was, no one had any idea. What we were left with was a colorless, phantasmal figure wisping around Avengers compound with no emotions or discernible humanity or even clothes, besides his cape... a ridiculous, idiotic, and worse than all these things, boring, recapitulation of the character.

One cannot overstate the effect of Byrne's destructive and, to the extent that the word has any meaning when dealing with imaginary constructs, immoral, storyline has had on the Vision's characterization. Even though much of the surface events have since been undone (as we'll see), Byrne's carefully calculated underlying doctrine... that the Vision is a machine, a sophisticated compilation of hardware and software that was capable of simulating human behavior, but that was never really, and could never really be, human... still remains, almost ineradicably written into Marvel continuity. Thomas and Englehart had established over the course of two decades of careful, painstaking, and obviously affectionate work that the Vision, and prior to him, the Golden Age Human Torch, was as human as anyone regardless of his method of generation... Thomas had done this through carefully contrived circumstances in INVADERS where, for example, he had the Human Torch give an emergency blood transfusion to a young woman who went on to become the British hero Spitfire, something that certainly seemed to establish his humanity in an emotionally convincing and persuasive manner, as did the Torch's obvious (but sadly unrequited) love for Spitfire. Englehart had earlier, when Wanda and the Vision got married, had Wanda declare that love was for souls, indicating strongly that the Vision had one, and of course, had continued to establish the Vision's humanity through his relationship with Wanda, and later, the two of them having twin sons. As the final, closing chapter on the Vision's discovery of his own humanity, Stainless Steve had the Vision joyfully declare that he was like a person with a prosthetic limb... in his case, his whole body was prosthetic, but he himself was essentially a human being. Byrne had not only undone the underlying story that led to this conclusion, but he had carefully established a mechanical subtext that belied the very notion of the Vision's humanity. Future writers might reverse or revise the details of the story itself, but the emotional impact of seeing the Vision disassembled into small circuits, and of seeing that without some essential 'software', he could no longer behave in a human manner... that could simply never be addressed. Byrne had set out to rewrite a fictional history he found personally offensive (perhaps because it was too affirming and empowering, and not mean-spirited enough to appeal to his obviously shriveled, rotten apple of a heart) and done a devastatingly effective job. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to credibly argue that the Vision was a valid human being, albeit one of synthetic origin, from this point onward.

Byrne's spectral, ghost-like, emotionless Vision floated around Marvel continuity for a little while, but apparently Byrne's hatchet job didn't sit well with many professionals. Almost immediately after Byrne left Marvel on one of his many erratic pendulum swings back and forth through the spectrum of comic book publishers, another writer whose name I can't recall right now (Len Kaminski?) initiated a story in which the Vision's humanity was restored, to a certain extent, by having him be programmed with the brain patterns of some dying scientist named Alec Lipton. I only read the story once, didn't like it, and don't recall it well, but the intent behind it seems to have been to give the Vision some sort of human emotions and personality again... certainly a laudable goal, if one gone about in a completely misguided fashion. Still, Byrne had made the Vision 'inhuman' by forcing Wonder Man to behave in a completely out of character fashion by refusing to allow the use of his brain patterns to reintegrate the Vision's previous personality, therefore, Kaminski must have felt that the first step to restoring the Vision's 'humanity' had to be giving him human brain patterns again.

That this validated Byrne's paradigm of the Vision being a mechanical object that only simulated human behavior through sophisticated software is probably something Kaminski did not consider. That it also made the Vision an increasingly different character, more and more divorced from what he had been established to be by Thomas and Englehart, may also be something Kaminski didn't consider... or perhaps, like many writers, he simply had the egotistical need to stamp his own personal imprint on some aspect of the Marvel Universe, or a favorite character. Whatever the case may be, the 'Alec Lipton' brain patterns were programmed into the Vision, and after this, the Vision began behaving in a more 'human' fashion again.

Upon taking over writing AVENGERS in the early 90s, Bob Harras lost little time in launching a convoluted storyline having to do with parallel Earth Avengers, someone called 'Proctor' who seemed to be rather reminiscent of DC's Monitor character from CRISIS, a comatose, alternate universe Watcher, and, honestly, I don't recall what all else at this late remove. I enjoyed the stories as Harras produced them and found some of the continuity implications rather fascinating (Harras seemed to be establishing, as an actual physical fact, something I'd thought was complete and utter nonsense in the first Space Phantom story, namely, that physically identical beings can't co-exist in the same universe at the same time... which I'm sure many past multidimensional storylines have actually disproved, but still, it was interesting, the way Harras went about it), but Harras was never a writer overly consumed with supporting his ongoing work with details. (At one point, he brought back Hank Pym in his Giant-Man guise with no explanation at all, despite the fact that Pym had long been established as being unable to change size for health reasons.) As a side issue, though, Harras contrived to have the Vision's mind transferred into the body of an alternate dimension analogue of himself, which it was made clear through inferential dialogue had fully functional genitalia (the otherdimensional analogue was an 'evil' Vision, and had apparently put his cybernetic willie to great and frequent use, which he rather salaciously referred to after he and our Vision had exchanged bodies). I don't recall how that came out, or specifically what happened to the 'evil' Vision in the reassembled, incomplete body original to 'our' timeline, but apparently, 'our' Vision continues to inhabit the otherdimensional, fully functional body.

* * * MANDATORY DISCLAIMER: We interrupt our regularly scheduled analysis/harangue at this point to bring you the following non-bulletin: I went to college with Kurt Busiek, was once close friends with him, and now, for various reasons you can read about on my website if you care to ( and so won't go into here, the two of us seem to personally detest each other. Anyone who wants to assume that personal background is coloring any of my perceptions of Busiek's work, as detailed from here on, or in any of my other articles, is welcome to. I personally think I've kept my opinions on Kurt's work as a professional (which are largely mixed; sometimes he does stuff I really like, sometimes he's a moral vacuum, occasionally he writes straight out of his ass) admirably separate from my opinions of him as a (failed, miserable, backstabbing, lying, worthless, wretched excuse for a) human being and former friend, but as always, your mileage may vary. As we're now to the part in the Vision's history where I have to discuss Kurt's work, I just wanted to let everyone know what was up.* * *

That was more or less the last 'explicit' physical revision/transformation of the Vision, although the Vision has also gone through a few other extremely weird episodes since (one of which involved him and Jocasta becoming cybernetic P.I.s in a really painful and embarrassing miniseries I'd honestly like to just forget). However, with Kurt Busiek's 'administration', as it were, on AVENGERS after the cessation of the creatively disastrous HEROES REBORN circulation stunt, the Vision has basically undergone a subtle reorientation and, to all intents and purposes, become the 'original' Vision again, as if he had never been disassembled by SHIELD in the idiotic Byrne story, or had Alec Lipton's brain engrams programmed into him in the later, thoughtful but flawed, Kaminski arc. Busiek hasn't done initiated any sort of overt, on panel, creative move to undo any of the previous events, and in fact, has frequently referred to them, establishing that all the history we've seen has actually happened... but clearly, the Vision is now what he used to be, in the Silver Age, as far as his personality and behavior are concerned. Busiek has confirmed, in private email, that apparently, the original Simon Williams brain patterns have somehow 'regenerated', but no explicit statement to that effect has ever been made in the comics or, as far as I know, in any published interview... Busiek is simply writing the Vision as he thinks the Vision should be, and while he is incorporating all published events as part of the Vision's history, and having the Vision refer to these events, and deal with them on an ongoing basis, the personality that is doing so is the personality established primarly by Thomas and Englehart.

Busiek's major personal/professional agenda has seemed to be to restore the Vision to his previous, 'correct' characterization (a decision, and a judgement, I strongly concur with), but to try to do so in a manner that is as uncontroversial, and that will enrage the always volatile Byrne (and his legions of fans) as possible. This is reflected not only in Busiek's ongoing decision to simply write the Vision the way he wants to while never overtly acknowledging that this is, in fact, a major revision, but also in the manner in which Busiek and Roger Stern 'adjusted' the Vision's origin in their AVENGERS FOREVER miniseries, establishing that, in fact, both Byrne's version of events (in which the Vision was declared to have never been the Golden Age Human Torch) and the more classic Englehart-Thomas sequence (that the Vision was) are true. Byrne's version, however, was apparently the work of Space Phantoms, determined to fulfill some obscure (and, as explained in AF, frankly insane) agenda of their own and Immortus', and therefore was not 'true', but merely an elaborate charade. The real truth is Englehart's 'Secret Origin', with the added fillip that in fact, the Golden Age Human Torch also survived into the modern day and was not turned into the Vision, because Immortus, again, for reasons that simply cannot be made to make the slightest sense whatsoever, used his vast powers to effectively merge two timelines into one, creating one 'shared' timeline in which Ultron did obtain the Torch and convert him into the Vision, and also, somehow, did not, leaving the Torch's body to later be used by the Mad Thinker in a ruse to trap an adult Toro.

This leaves us, at this point, with a Vision who, via a convoluted pathway not fully explicable for various reasons, has nonetheless come full circle and been restored, physically and emotionally, to the 'artificial human' standards previously worked towards so hard by Thomas and Englehart. Effectively, Harras' plotline gave the Vision his full physical functioning back again (although there is some potential here for exploring just what functions that alternate dimension Vision might have had that our own Vision didn't), and Busiek, through no real coherent plot mechanism at all, has simply decided to write the Vision as the Thomas-Englehart character, with the Thomas-Englehart origin fully validated once more.

Busiek has also enacted various plot events that could be used, if necessary, in future stories, to justify pretty much every 'change'... really, regression to a more desirable phase in the character's personal evolution... if at some point he needs to. In Busiek's first story on AVENGERS, the Vision was metaphysically transformed in some way into a magical, animated golem form and then, later, the lower half of his body was blown to pieces by Morgana Le Fay. After this, the Vision went through a long, time consuming process of repair and nanotech driven regeneration, and Busiek has had him refer to 'upgrading' himself during this interval, so physically, the Vision could pretty much be capable of anything at this point that Busiek wants to allow him to do. (Apparently, the Vision incorporated 'image inducer' technology into himself during this period, as he can now, at will, project an illusory appearance over himself that he normally uses to assume his 'secret identity' of Victor Shade. Whether he can use this to make himself look like other beings... which would seem logical, if overwhelmingly, plot bendingly effective in its implications... remains to be seen.) There are some logical problems with this... if the Vision can just incorporate new technology into himself, then one wonders why he's not currently more powerful than the entire Asgardian pantheon, given what he must have had available to 'slot in' from the Avengers databanks and armories... but, well, we'll cut Busiek that much slack for his obviously overwhelmingly good intentions for the character, and simply assume that for whatever reasons, the Vision does not, at this moment, have the actual ability to reproduce any mechanical effect ever seen in any issue of AVENGERS or IRON MAN, at the very least.

In the recent AVENGERS ANNUAL (2001), Busiek also gave himself a subtle back door if anyone ever confronts him directly regarding the Vision's personality regression. By establishing that apparently, Franklin Richards had 'restored' several persons to the condition in which he remembered them best upon bringing them back from the Heroes Reborn universe (a vastly powerful regeneration which, among other things, restored Hawkeye's hearing and raised 'our' version of Tony Stark from the dead!), he has set himself up to make a similar argument on the behalf of the Vision, if he ever needs to. Whether Busiek has contrived this deliberately or not most likely can't be known, but he's a clever and calculating person, and whether he put it into place with this in mind or not, he's certainly smart enough to use it later if he has to.

While I would normally, as a card carrying, truly anal continuity obsessive, neither welcome nor support Busiek's 'make it go away' approach to the Vision's characterization, I can, in this instance, both give him credit for good intentions, and understand why he would not want to accept any of the alternatives to his approach: write the Vision out of AVENGERS entirely and let someone else deal with him somewhere else; write the Vision as the convoluted mess handed down to him by Byrne, Kaminski, Harras, and others, without the essential personality that Busiek and other fans of his (and my) generation found so intriguing; or, as many others have done before him with this character and probably thousands more by now, set out to construct yet another elaborate story meant to ret-con the labyrinthine layers of ret-cons already established.

While I myself would always prefer to see a good writer (and Kurt, for all his creative lapses, is a good writer) set out to put a good story in place of a bad one (or several bad ones), I can also see where and why Busiek might be both wary and weary of such endeavors. To someone of his perspective, looking back over the Marvel timeline and the last forty years of often overly convoluted and frequently conflicting continuity, it must much of the time seem like the 'continuity wars' just never end, and no matter what he himself might do as a writer, it will simply be undone a few years later when some other creator takes over AVENGERS and sets out, with his own agenda, to 'restore' what Busiek might have removed, or replace what Busiek put in place with his own particular vision of how AVENGERS history should have been written all along. There comes a time when ret-conning becomes tiresome and tedious, and I myself can honestly start to envy the DC Universe, which at least has the otherwise execrable CRISIS as a final tombstone and cessation point to their Silver Age, behind which all the stories and 'continuity' that so many have treasured lies entirely intact, unable to be changed by the shallow machinations of future writers with no love for those characters or any real emotional concept of the creative context they existed in.

There's also the undeniable fact that the creation of a ret-con that would satisfactorily reconcile all the disparate issues and events that have gone into the Vision over the years would be a profoundly demanding task, and one that Busiek, for all his undeniable talents as a writer, most likely isn't up to. Busiek has made one grand attempt at such a vast, sweeping ret-con - AVENGERS FOREVER -- and, in my opinion, failed miserably to bring it off, even though he was allied in that instance with the man I consider to be Marvel's master of effective retroactive continuity, Roger Stern. In fact, AVENGERS FOREVER may have pretty much made all such future ret-cons redundant and pointless, by establishing as part of Marvel continuity that at any given time, any given character may be a Space Phantom, and not only is there no way anyone else could ever discover it through any means imaginable, but the impostor-character themself might not know it for years.

Given all that, it's probably best to simply be happy with the fact that, through one method and another, the Vision has been restored to pretty much the status he had before Byrne's destructive and dehumanizing 're-vision'. Of course, the damage to the Vision's established continuity... the destruction of his marriage, and his family... can't be so cavalierly undone, but nonetheless, the Vision is now, at least, a fairly interesting and three dimensional character, in the hands of a writer who obviously cares about him, and better, who obviously cares about the character's Silver Age roots. While one can always ask for more, there are times when it's foolish to expect it, and this is one of the times when we should definitely quit while we're ahead and enjoy what we've got.

After all, eventually Busiek will stop writing AVENGERS, and then god only KNOWS what will happen to the Vision.

* * * * *

John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, is too sexy for his shirt. Much too sexy. His email addresses are at the top of this article, so scroll up and send him a note. Or don't. DEADWOOD is on tonight, so he really doesn't care.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're such an obsessive complainer.

You hated what Byrne did to the Vision, and Busiek effectively undid it and provided an Immortus explanation, yet that's STILL not good enough for you.

You are SUCH a frustrated writer.

6:42 PM  

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