By September, 1968, when the subject of today’s post came out, I was buying The Avengers semi-regularly. Of course, “semi” literally means “half” (at least in the original Latin) — which is my way of saying that though I’d bought issues #53, #56, and the 1968 Annual, I’d skipped, or at least missed, issues #54, #55, and #57. So, not only did my eleven-year-old self miss out on the debut of the Vision (in #57), but I was also completely in the dark about the malevolent robot who’d allegedly created him, Ultron-5, introduced in issues #54 and #55 as the mysterious leader of the “new” Masters of Evil.
Thus, when I came across Avengers #58 in the spinner rack, I may have been momentarily daunted. Even if I had no obvious way of knowing that this issue tied into the Masters of Evil storyline from several months back, it was clear from the cover that the story was a direct follow-up to the previous issue’s Vision tale.
But the cover also made it crystal clear that the book featured appearances by Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor — the Avengers’ “Big Three”, whom series writer Roy Thomas wasn’t allowed to use as regular team members by the fiat of editor Stan Lee, but whom he nevertheless shoehorned into the book every chance he got — and I had been conditioned by now to recognize this as being something of a special event (if not necessarily a rare one). And, in the end, that must have sold me. I’d buy the book, and trust that the creative team — which included penciler John Buscema and inker George Klein, in addition to Thomas — would catch me up.
Opening the comic to its splash page, I wasn’t any more enlightened than I had been by the cover — but I wasn’t about to complain.
It’s another killer splash by the Buscema-Klein team, both of whom were at the top of their game in the latter half of 1968. Like their equally terrific effort in issue #56, it incorporates the story’s title into the illustration in Eisneresque fashion — though, unlike that one, it doesn’t really do anything to introduce the story that follows. But who cares? It’s still a great pin-up-style rendering of the Black Panther — a character whom, I regret to say, I was still rather underwhelmed by at this particular juncture. (In my defense, I’d so far only seen T’challa in a handful of Avengers stories, in which he’d mostly come across — to me, anyway — as a black, better-spoken version of DC Comics’ Wildcat.) I’m reasonably certain that simply seeing this page caused the Panther’s coolness factor to increase several dozen percentage points in my eleven-year-old mind…
… and he may well have seemed even cooler by the time I finished reading page 2, since Thomas’ highlighting of T’Challa’s status as “the new guy on the block” made him an easy point of identification for my younger self, still a relative Avengers (and Marvel) newbie in the fall of ’68.
Of course, T’Challa did have one big advantage over me — he’d at least met the Vision, when the mysterious android had attacked the team in their HQ in the previous issue, prior to turning on his ostensible master, Ultron-5, and helping to save the day:
Of course, Cap’s uncharacteristic bellicosity is all an obvious ruse, intended to allow him, Goldilocks, and Shellhead to all see the Vision’s powers in action, in a presumably “natural” fashion — though, for any reader who might have doubts about what’s actually going on, Hawkeye’s priceless smirk in the first panel of page 4 should set him straight.
Following Cap’s “failure”, Iron Man takes a shot at subduing the Vision, only to find that neither his repulse rays nor his armored strength are any more effective than his compatriot’s, um, leaping:
Now, it’s the mighty Thor’s turn — but before we check that out, let’s pause and briefly consider Buscema’s delineation of the Thunder God, here — which, though unquestionably “on model” for the character as originally designed by Jack Kirby, is nevertheless distinctive and individualized in a way that significantly contrasts with the way he’d draw the character just a few short years later; when, after succeeding Kirby as Thor‘s regular artist, he’d hew rather more closely to the “look” of that artist’s version.
Presumably, Buscema made the adjustment for the sake of maintaining visual continuity in Thor’s regular series; but, while there’s nothing wrong with the artist’s later Thor work, i still miss the original take on display in this Avengers appearance (and, even more memorably, in Silver Surfer #4, released just a couple of months later).
Thor’s right — now that we’ve had our obligatory action-in-the-first-five-pages sequence (obligatory for 1960s Marvel comics, at any rate), “there be no further need for battle!” Well, not for another five pages or so, at least.
But even though the old-guard Avengers are now convinced of the Vision’s mettle, there’s still the vexing question of his origins. Before they get down to that business, however, there’s some stirring historical reminiscing to be indulged in first:
This page 8 splash — even more pin-up ready that the first page’s Panther illo — fascinated me as an eleven-year-old, especially in comparison with the double-page splash (also by Buscema) of “every single superhero who has ever been a full fledged Avenger!“ that had appeared in Avengers Annual #2 just a couple of months earlier. That pin-up, unlike this one, hadn’t included either the Black Widow or Spider-Man — the distinction apparently being that those two characters might have been “called”, but were never actually “chosen” — i.e., hadn’t (yet) officially joined the team — to become “full-fledged” Avengers. I can remember being extremely curious at the time about Spider-Man’s presence, especially, and frustrated that there was no easy way then to find out more about his Avengers experience(s) — we didn’t have reprint collections available back in those days, kids, and hardly any comics history reference publications to speak of, let alone the Internet. Heck, in 1968, I didn’t even have a good way to find out what back issue(s) I needed to track down, had I been so inclined. All of which goes to explain why it would be years before I’d have a chance to read reprints of either Avengers #11 or Amazing Spider-Man Annual #3 to learn more about the web-slinger’s earliest encounters with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.
Getting back to that Avengers meeting, however — once the God of Thunder rolls back up his Scroll of Honor (or whatever), it’s on to the matter of who the Vision is, and how he came to be. But before we join the Avengers in looking on while the enigmatic android plumbs the deepest recesses of his synthetic memory for the “in-universe” answer to those all-important questions, let’s step back and review how the Vision came to be in our “real”world.
According to the tale oft-told by Roy Thomas*, editor Stan Lee — while adamant that the three veteran Avengers then headlining their own titles couldn’t be full-time Avengers — nevertheless wanted a new member added to the team. And as should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Thomas’ long history as a comics fan as well as a pro, the young writer responded with the notion of filling the slot with an obscure Golden Age hero from Marvel’s days as Timely Comics — in this instance, the Vision.
The Vision, a creation of Jack Kirby with his early partner Joe Simon, was a green-skinned alien policeman from the extradimensional planet “Smokeworld” (or maybe an immortal High Lama of Shangri-La, depending on which version of his origin one consults). His powers were somewhat vague, but generally included flight and the ability to teleport through the medium of smoke. Making his debut in Marvel Mystery Comics #13 (Nov., 1940), the original Vision had a three-year run as a secondary feature in that title, before taking what one might reasonably have assumed would be his final bow in a different book altogether, Kid Komics #3. Falling then into the limbo where all minor cancelled comic book characters must go, the original Vision seemed destined to be forgotten forever by all save a few diehard Golden Age fans.
[Cue entrance music for Roy Thomas.]
Unfortunately for Thomas, however, as well as the half-dozen** other fans who would have been keen to see Simon & Kirby’s Vision return, Lee nixed that idea, saying he wanted a new character — and besides that, he wanted them to be an android. (Why an android? Thomas swears that he had no idea at the time, and to this day still doesn’t know for sure what Lee was thinking. Of course, one of Marvel’s best known characters from the Timely days — the original Human Torch — had been an android, although that aspect of his nature had been pretty much ignored following his origin story. But since Lee, with Jack Kirby, had brought the Torch back, if only briefly, two years previously in Fantastic Four Annual #4, and Marvel had since been reprinting his early adventures in Marvel Super-Heroes for a couple of years now, maybe the editor did have android heroes on the brain.) But hey, no problem. Thomas decided that the brand-new android Avenger demanded by his boss could, and would, be an updated version of none other than… the Vision! He provided John Buscema with a pic of the original character, and with some design modifications — including a diamond insignia, a forehead gem, and a red face (the last of which Lee apparently didn’t like; although, as Thomas says, Marvel already had a green-skinned Hulk and blue-skinned Atlanteans appearing every month, so what was left?) — the “new” Vision was ready for his debut in Avengers #57.
Of course, in issue #58, when “Vizh” takes his deep dive into his suppressed memories to learn the secrets of his creation, and then recalls the first time he saw “the loathsome, leering face” of his maker, it’s not Roy Thomas’ visage he sees (or John Buscema’s, or Jack Kirby’s, or…) — but, rather…
The Vision goes on to relate how Ultron-5 told him it was time for him to fulfill the purpose for which he’d been created — i.e., killing the Avengers. Vizh briefly tried to resist; but, in the end, he acquiesced to the will of his creator, and set forth to complete his grim mission.
And since that brings the story right up to where Avengers #57 began, the android’s tale ends there — which may have been a disappointment to my eleven-year-old self in 1968, but probably not a surprise.
Wow — Thor whirls his hammer around, and all the Avengers can fly! This was probably the earliest indication I had as a new Thor reader that the description of how the Thunder God’s powers worked in his origin story — which I’d just read, via its being reprinted in Thor #158 — probably wasn’t strict canon anymore. After all, in that story, Thor had to grab the strap of his hammer’s handle to propel himself through the air. None of this “vortex’ business mentioned in the first panel of the next page:
(“It’s like a living, mechanized Oedipus complex!” Well, yeah, Hank, pretty much, except I think there’s a bit in Freud about the child’s sexual desire for the opposite-sex parent that’s not evident in the current scenario. But don’t worry, Junior will get there eventually!)
This is probably as good a place as any to pause and explore the origin of Ultron in the real world, just as we did earlier with the Vision. Evil robots were (and are) a pretty fundamental science-fictional concept, of course, but the beginnings of this particular iteration of the idea appear to lie in the pages of a 1951 comic book story Roy Thomas had read some time back, namely “The Indestructible Antagonist!” in Captain Video #3. That tale, penciled by the great George Evans, featured the first (and only) appearance of Makino — a robot created by a scientist, Dr. Seminik, who turned on his creator, killing him — and then, claiming to “have all the strength of Man and none of his weaknesses”, went on a crusade against all the other leading scientists on Earth, before being defeated by the comic’s titular star. (Recalling the circumstances of Ultron’s creation for Back Issue magazine in 2010, Thomas noted that he probably sent John Buscema a copy of the story for reference; and judging by the similarity in appearance between the two characters, that seems a safe bet.) Obviously, Thomas took the basic idea of a malevolent mechanical mastermind that betrays its maker from this story — but then he added the new, vital element of having that maker be one of the heroes of the tale. That innovation — and its Oedipal implications — would go on to serve as the springboard for many, many stories in the years and decades to come — something that Thomas was almost certainly already thinking about, considering that Ultron would return as early as Avengers #66 (despite having been memorably [and seemingly irrevocably] dispensed with [to the accompaniment of Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s “Ozymandias”, no less] at the conclusion of issue #57. As comics readers would soon discover (and moviegoers eventually would as well, a few decades further down the road), it’s hard to keep a bad robot down — or, to put it more explicitly, it’s hard to destroy an artificial intelligence simply by demolishing its current physical housing.
But now, let’s check back in to see how the newly-“born” Ultron and his “daddy” are getting on…
Having already reached back into 1940s and 1950s comics for key elements of his tale, Thomas now dips into comic book lore that’s a bit closer to home, both time-wise and title-wise — namely, the pages of Avengers #9, featuring “The Coming of the…Wonder Man!” by Stan Lee, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.
The synopsis of that story that Iron Man provides for the Vision is a pretty complete one — at least, as complete as it can be, given the gaps in the Avengers’ knowledge. As ol’ Shellhead indicates in the next-to-last panel above, our heroes never did learn where Simon Williams got his super-strength from — therefore, Iron Man can’t tell Vizh (or any readers who’ve arrived late to the party, e.g. my eleven-year-old self in 1968) that the evil Baron Zemo did the deed, powering Williams up with his “ionic rays” — though at the price of the latter’s very life, if an antidote to said rays wasn’t administered within a week. Having thus ensured the loyalty of the newly-christened “Wonder Man”, Zemo and the “old” (i.e., original) Masters of Evil put their plan to betray, trap, and destroy the Avengers into action. They lured the Avengers to Zemo’s South American base under a false pretext; once there, even the team’s most powerful members quickly fell victim to Wonder Man’s surprise attack:
Despite his not knowing all the details of the original 1964 story, Iron Man’s wrap-up on page 18 does includes one very important fact that even readers of Avengers #9 weren’t privy to until now — namely, that despite all indications in the final two panels (as seen at left), Wonder Man wasn’t quite 100% dead at the tale’s end. Hank and Tony managed to save his brain! (Well, his “brain patterns”, anyway.)
And with that third and final full-page splash — destined to become one of the most iconic images in the Avengers’ history — our story comes to a close. The long saga of the Vision — an artificial being, forever questioning whether he is, or can become, fully human — may just be beginning ; but all of the questions regarding his origins have been fully answered, now and for all time.
Nah, I’m just kidding about that last part. But if you’d like to learn more from me about the wrinkle that artist Neal Adams would come up with a few years later, and that writer Steve Englehart (with Roy Thomas’ blessing) would run with a few more years after that, you’ll have to check back in 2025 — at which time, assuming this blog and I are both still around, I’ll be posting about Avengers #134 and #135.
Back in July, when I posted about Justice League of America #65, I promised that, when the time came, I’d discuss the remarkable coincidence of the modern versions of the Red Tornado and the Vision debuting within a couple of months of each other. Well, that time has come.
The coincidence in question is generally ranked as one of the three*** major examples of DC and Marvel coming out with remarkably similar character concepts at close to the same time — character concepts so similar, in fact, that it’s hard (at least for some people) to believe that neither company knew what the other was doing. Generations of fans have thus speculated over whether the creative personnel working for one publisher might have cribbed from their counterparts at the other — or even somehow colluded, to create a sort of “stealth” inter-company crossover.
I suspect that the majority of this blog’s readers are probably already aware of the parallels between the Red Tornado and the Vision, but for the sake of clarity, let’s run through them here:
- Both characters are androids.
- Both characters are updated versions of characters that originally appeared in the 1940s.
- Both characters are created by villains for the purpose of killing a team of superheroes; but then, after turning against their creators, are invited to join those respective super-teams.
- Both characters have red faces and wear high-collared capes.
Those are some pretty striking parallels. Are they too striking, and/or are there too many, to be purely coincidental? My short answer — no. Coincidences happen — statistically, they have to, regardless of how “wrong” they may seem to us intuitively. That said, we’ll now take a look at each of the parallels, and consider how the creators behind both Reddy and Vizh could have (and almost certainly did) come up with the ideas on their own.
First, to get the most obvious question out of the way — namely, whether the creators of the comics that came out second could have literally copied their ideas from the comics that came out first, after reading the published books — the answer, again, is no. According to the Library of Congress (via Mike’s Amazing World), Justice League of America #64, featuring Reddy’s debut, came out on June 13, 1968, while #65, revealing his origin and true nature, was released on July 25. Avengers #57, on the other hand, was published August 8, 1968., and #58 followed on September 10. Given the lead time involved in producing comics, there’s no way that Roy Thomas (or Stan Lee, or anyone else at Marvel) could have picked up the latest issue(s) of JLA and thought, “Gee, DC just brought back an obscure Golden Age hero as an android. Let’s do the same thing!”
OK, so what about the possibility of information being leaked, or shared, prior to publication? It’s true that the world of comic book publishing was a relatively small one in 1968, centered on New York City and its environs, and that a lot of the writers, editors, and artists knew each other. More specifically, Roy Thomas was a longtime correspondent with then-JLA writer Gardner Fox, dating back to the former’s days as a comics fan. But there’s little evidence that any of the creative principals involved with JLA and Avengers were socializing even semi-regularly around this time; and anyway, Thomas (who is, to the best of my knowledge, the only principal who’s ever gone on the record concerning the topic) says it didn’t happen.
So why might both Avengers editor Stan Lee (who, you’ll remember, is actually the person who decided that the new member of the Avengers had to be an android, according to Thomas) and the JLA story-plotting team of writer Fox and editor Julius Schwartz have the hankering, in the spring of 1968, to introduce an android superhero? We’ve already mentioned the fact that one of Marvel’s earliest super-heroes, the Human Torch, was technically an android, and that character had been kicking around in reprints for awhile. But since the original Torch appeared and behaved 100% like a human being (except for the bursting into flame and flying parts), it’s doubtful that either Schwartz or Fox were inspired by his example, though it certainly could have figured into Lee’s thinking.
But to frame the question in broader terms — the figure of the android, like the evil robot, had been a mainstay of science fiction in all media since the early 20th century. A quick scan of Wikipedia’s list of fictional robots and androids will yield a number of examples that would have had pop culture currency around 1968. For now, however, I’d like to focus on just one– one whose characterization as a mechanical creation who simply wants to live as, and be treated like, an ordinary human being makes him an obvious prototype for both the Red Tornado and the Vision — namely, Adam Link.
Adam Link had originally been created by the longtime comics as well as prose fiction writer, Otto Binder (using the “Eando Binder” pen-name he shared with his brother Earl) for the short story “I, Robot”. That story (which was followed by a number of sequels) first appeared in the January, 1939 issue of the SF pulp magazine Amazing Stories — so it wasn’t exactly new in 1968. Yet, it can still easily be considered to have been “in the air” at that time, as both it and the other Adam Link stories had been reprinted in paperback in 1965; and, just a year before that, two of the stories had been adapted for an episode of the anthology television series, The Outer Limits. Even more relevant to our current discussion, several of the stories had been adapted for comic books, not once, but twice — the first time for EC Comics’ Weird Science-Fantasy in 1955, and the second time for Warren Publishing’s Creepy, in issues published from January, 1965 to March, 1967.****
It’s not at all difficult, therefore, for us to imagine that the various writers and editors involved with the production of Avengers and Justice League of America in mid-1968 were familiar with Adam Link, along with any number of other fictional androids. Indeed, we don’t even have to imagine that Roy Thomas was familiar with Otto Binder’s creation — he’s actually cited the Adam Link stories as having been an influence on his writing of the Vision, on more than one occasion. And it seems to me that Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox, both just as steeped in pulp science fiction as they were in comics, are more likely to have read “I, Robot” than not to have read it — though, obviously, that doesn’t necessarily meant that they, like Thomas, were consciously influenced by it while developing their new version of the Red Tornado. In any event, there’s no reason to suspect that they needed any help from either Stan Lee or Roy Thomas in conceiving the idea for a new android superhero, whose intelligence, emotions, and aspirations could provide fertile ground for speculative exploration of what it means to be a human being.
So much for the “sympathetic android” parallel. What about the Golden Age connection?
We’ve already discussed Thomas’ passion for old comic book characters, of course, but another motivation for his wanting to refurbish an old hero to fulfill Lee’s “new Avenger” directive, rather than create a new one out of whole cloth, should also be mentioned. The writer has owned up several times in recent years to his reluctance to imagine brand new characters for Marvel in the ’60s and ’70s, knowing that he’d have no rights to the characters and wouldn’t necessarily share in the financial benefits should they become wildly popular. The reworking of existing properties was thus something he did fairly routinely around this time, with the then-new version of the Black Knight, introduced in 1967’s Avengers #47, being another prominent example — though, in that particular case, the original character of that name had debuted in 1955, rather than in the Golden Age heyday of the Forties.
As for DC — well, the refurbishing of moribund Golden Age superheroes is how Julius Schwartz kick-started the Silver Age of Comics in the first place, right? But to narrow things down just a bit, we’ll limit our discussion to the Justice League – Justice Society team-ups that used to run in JLA every summer, the sixth of which featured the android Red Tornado’s debut. Besides the obvious fact that these stories were, by definition, a showcase for Golden Age heroes, one often overlooked element of the annual tradition (at least in its early years) was the re-introduction of at least one JSA member who hadn’t been seen since the Golden Age. In the first such team-up, published in 1963, Doctor Fate and Hourman were returned to active service.; then, in 1964, DC brought back Starman, followed by Mr. Terrific in 1965; and Sandman in 1966. By 1967, however, just about every hero who’d ever shown up in All-Star Comics had been resurrected, leading Schwartz and Fox to bring back the Golden Age version of Robin, now an adult. Finally, in 1968, they were driven to the exigency of “reviving” the original Red Tornado — a parody character who’d shown up for a few panels in the JSA’s inaugural adventure, but had never been an actual member of the team. After that, of course, Fox was gone, and Schwartz gave up on the idea, presumably because he had little choice — but in 1968, it was entirely reasonable, and virtually inevitable, that DC would “revive” the Red Tornado.
Alright, that covers the “android” and “Golden Age” bullet points. What about the parallel plot element of the android’s villainous creator sending him to kill a super-team he later joins? Err… well… the JLA iteration is essentially a version of the familiar “Trojan Horse” trope, so not at all uncommon… of course, the Avengers take doesn’t really line up with that, so, um… The red face? Uh, Red Tornado, hello? As for the Vision… well, blue and green were already taken, like Roy Thomas said. Right? The cape, with its high collar? C’mon, capes are a dime-a-dozen for superheroes — at least they were in 1968 — and there’s a 50/50 chance of any given cape having a collar or not, so…
OK, I’ll admit it. I don’t actually have good explanations for the parallels represented by those last two bullet points. But, as we’ve already noted, coincidences do happen. That’s just how the laws of probability work. Still, if a few similarities of plot and character design are enough for you to hang a conspiracy theory on, then go for it, pilgrim.
For my part, I’ll just continue to be happy that we have both characters, the Red Tornado and the Vision, however they came to be created. And I’ll also wish that we all lived in a better world, where Super-Team Family #44 had actually been published:
*Including in his introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Avengers, Vol. 6 .
**I kid. I’m sure there were at least twice that many. (In any case, they eventually got their wish.)
***The others, of course, being the introductions of the Doom Patrol and the X-Men (two teams of outcast heroes headed up by a professorial gent in a wheelchair) in 1963, and of Swamp Thing and Man-Thing (two scientists violently transformed into vegetative swamp creatures) in 1971.
****Remarkably, all installments of both comics adaptations of the Adam Link stories were drawn by the same artist, Joe Orlando.