Fifty years (and one month) after the fact, I’m honestly not sure whether, upon first seeing the cover for Avengers #67 back in June, 1969, I had any idea that it hadn’t been pencilled by John Buscema, but rather by his younger brother, Sal. The look of the featured characters was so close to what I was accustomed to seeing from the elder Buscema that It probably didn’t occur to me to consider that the piece might have been drawn by someone else — and, after all, I only knew Sal Buscema as an inker at this point (and only of his big brother’s work on Silver Surfer, at that).
But I feel fairly confident that a month later, when I first saw the cover of Avengers #68, I realized that something was different about it, even if I can’t claim to have any distinct memory to that effect. Sure, the Avengers still closely resembled John Buscema’s renditions, but they were “off-model” just enough that I had to know they weren’t quite the same.
And once I’d picked up the book and flipped to the first page, i realized that more than just the cover art had changed…
This was the concluding chapter of a three-part story, the first two installments of which were drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith — an artist whose extremely energetic, occasionally crude, Kirby-and-Steranko-channeling style at that time couldn’t have been more different from Sal Buscema’s. It was quite an adjustment for my twelve-year-old self to make, back in July, 1969. But at this point in his own artistic development (this story was his first published work as an interior penciller), the younger Buscema was himself channeling his elder sibling’s style so thoroughly that said adjustment ultimately felt like a return to familiar ground. Don Heck might have drawn the first issue of Avengers I ever bought, but John Buscema had drawn the lion’s share of those I’d bought since — and the Buscema Avengers was the definitive version, as far as I was concerned.
Scripter Roy Thomas picked up his story right where the last issue left off, with the sinister, seemingly unstoppable Ultron about to wipe New York City off the face of the Earth in a giant nuclear explosion, just as soon as he pulls a lever…
The agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. — whom we saw on the splash page, and whose only purpose in coming to Ultron’s lair was to apprehend the Vision — promptly surrender the unconscious android to the Avengers in a scene that takes place off-panel, leading one to conclude that the agents’ only real purpose in the story was to wear the Vision down in their last-issue “encounter”.
Vizh’s teammates hustle him back to Avengers HQ, and try to revive him by firing concentrated solar energy into the jewel on his noggin — but it’s no dice:
This revelation, referring to a device we haven’t seen since the early pages of issue #66, resolves the last remaining major mystery of our story — how could the supposedly indestructible, non-malleable metal adamantium have been re-shaped to form Ultron-6 in the first place? The Avengers guess that the Vision must have stolen the Molecular Rearranger from the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier at the same time he filched the adamantium — and proceed to confirm this with a quick call to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s number-one scientific genius, Dr. MacClain:
In the first of the two panels shown above, former high school English teacher Thomas drops in a reference to a famous Edgar Allan Poe short story that I’m sure went right over my head in 1969. Unfortunately, back then we didn’t have either Wikipedia summaries or full public-domain texts available online for quick consultation — though, of course, if I’d been really curious, I could have just looked it up at my local public library.
The above page, in addition to providing justification for featuring the Black Panther on this issue’s cover, is notable for featuring the first appearance of Taku. Taku would eventually become one of the more significant figures in T’Challa’s supporting cast (especially during Don McGregor’s and Chrstopher Priest’s runs writing the Panther), usually being presented as a communications expert as well as an especially cool-headed and thoughtful advisor to the throne of Wakanda, frequently serving as a foil for the more emotional and belligerent chief of security, W’Kabi. He’s also generally understood to be gay (at least as written by McGregor). Unlike W’Kabi, Taku didn’t make it into the first Black Panther movie, though perhaps he’ll show up in the sequel.
In respect to my earlier statement regarding Sal Buscema channeling his brother John’s style in his early work: Something that the elder Buscema would become known for over the years was his propensity for drawing characters — usually, but not always, villainous types — slouching or sprawling in chairs. (One of the best-remembered examples is the splash page of Silver Surfer #4, featuring Loki — a piece which, incidentally, happens to be one of Sal Buscema’s first inking jobs at Marvel.) Ultron-6 isn’t exactly slouching in the panel shown above — what his torso is resting upon is part of his own body, after all — but the effect (and, presumably, the intent) is much the same.
Just in case I didn’t quite convince you about Ultron-6’s “slouching” pose — in the scene above, Sal B. gives us Thor actually sitting in an actual chair. (The God of Thunder is no villain, of course, which perhaps accounts for his somewhat better posture.)
Meanwhile, the Wasp’s comment about not having anything to wear to the United Nations is likely to induce copious amounts of eye-rolling in a contemporary audience — and, honestly, it probably garnered at least a few eye-rolls back in ’69. Unfortunately, it’s par for the course for how Marvel superheroines were characterized during that era (though Janet Van Dyne’s personality was generally depicted as even more “flighty” than most of her peers).
Eventually, Jan does find something appropriate for the occasion, and the Avengers quinjet over to the UN Building in time to catch Dr. MacClain’s address to the General Assembly:
Per Roy Thomas’ own account in his introduction to Marvel Masterworks – The Avengers, Vol. 7, the design of the “Ultimate” Ultron was inspired by a robot that he recalled from an issue of The Avenger, a short-lived superhero title of the mid-1950s from Magazine Enterprises. (Ultron’s original design — that of his head, anyway — had been similarly based on a robot featured in an old issue of Captain Video, as explained in our Avengers #58 post from last September.*) Sal Buscema does indeed seem to have followed artist Bob Powell‘s original conception quite closely; unfortunately, this spindly-limbed contraption comes across (to this reader, at least) as considerably less intimidating than Ultron-6, or even the original Ultron-5 model, as designed by John Buscema. It’s a tribute to the younger Buscema’s craftsmanship that this full-page splash still carries a considerable dramatic wallop, in spite of the Ultimate Ultron’s ultimate unimpressiveness.
As the UN delegates scramble for the exits, the building’s security contingent opens fire on Ultron, to no effect. He blasts them out of his way with sneering disdain, then calls for the Avengers, “they who set this well-baited trap”, to come and face him:
Ultron does indeed withstand the power of Thor’s hammer (or “hockey-stick”, as Goliath calls it), and a blow from Goliath’s massive fist has just as little effect. That’s pretty much it for the Avengers’ effort, since Yellowjacket is still off “busy behind the scenes” somewhere. (The Wasp is also on the scene, of course, but if she makes an attempt to slow the robot down with her stingers, we’re not shown it.)
In his same Marvel Masterworks intro that I referred to earlier, Roy Thomas notes that the resolution of his storyline was inspired by the same old Captain Video story from which John Buscema had derived the design of Ultron’s visage. In that story, the hero challenges the evil, super-powerful, would-be world-conquering robot Makimo to “an intellectual duel to the death”. The supremely confident Makimo agrees — but he never expects the first (and only) question the good Captain throws at him (art here and in following panels by George Evans and Martin Thall):
Unable to comprehend human emotion — let alone describe it — due to his artificial nature, Makimo demands that Video withdraw the question. Of course, the hero refuses — and the robot, unwilling to accept defeat, literally tears himself apart:
I appreciate Roy Thomas’s owning up to his influences, but I also feel compelled to give him props for going them one better, at least in this instance. Whereas Makimo simply gets stymied regarding the subject he’s he’s asked about, and subsequently commits suicide in a fit of pique, Ultron is not just confounded, but actually destroyed by the alien concept he’s required to process. That’s a stronger resolution, dramatically speaking — and the fact that the alien concept in question isn’t just a “human emotion”, but one of humankind’s most famous and important ethical precepts, also gives the story some of the moral weight of a fable — not a claim I’d make for Captain Video #3’s “The Indestructible Antagonist”, clever as it is.
This ending also greatly impressed my Southern Baptist, churchgoing, twelve-year-old self in July, 1969 — probably because I felt somehow validated whenever one of my beloved comic books quoted the Bible. Today, as an irreligious (though still ethical, or so I’d like to think, anyway) sixty-two-year old, I have to admit that the ending of Avengers #68 is perhaps a bit too on-the-nose, and maybe even kind of hokey. But I’d also argue that it’s still effective, in its own earnest way.
Whatever one makes of it, however, the finale wraps up the concluding chapter in the second of the three trilogies by Thomas and his various artistic collaborators that dominated the Avengers title in 1969. The first, which I’ve dubbed “The Goliath Trilogy”, ran from issue #63 through #65, followed by our present topic of discussion, which I’m calling — what else? –“The Ultron Trilogy”. Next up will be “The Grandmaster Trilogy” — the first Avengers continued storyline that new artist Sal Buscema could call completely his own. I hope you’ll join me next month as we take a look at that story’s first chapter — “Let the Game Begin”.
*To the best of my knowledge, Thomas has never indicated whether the quasi-vehicular design of Ultron-6 was also inspired by an old Fifties comic book, in the way that Ultron-5’s head and Ultimate Ultron’s body both were. Nevertheless, Black Gate blogger Steve Carper has rounded up a few suspects, which you can check out here.