Monday, May 07, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #127: The Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta (2 vols)

I'm not generally positive about superhero comics here, for the obvious reasons. They're disconnected from reality, providing artificial solutions to artificial problems. They're obsessed with their own continuity and history, and with ringing ever more complicated changes on that history, at the expense of clarity and storytelling. They privilege a dumbed-down moral universe in which punching solves everything and violence can be controlled precisely to keep unwanted damage from occurring. They tell endless and-then [1] saga, divorced from real stories with beginnings and ends. And they're run by and for the benefit of rapacious multinational corporations, which just want more IP to exploit.

The Vision doesn't manage to avoid every single one of those traps. But it's a startlingly good comic in a superhero milieu, one that takes on large moral questions and doesn't try to give them simple answers...or any answers. It's a single story told in twelve issues, with the ending inherent in the beginning, like the best stories. And it uses comics continuity in ways to strengthen itself, to tell this story about these people in this world.

So now I think I need to dig up what else writer Tom King has done.

I read this story in two trade paperbacks -- Little Worse Than a Man and Little Better Than a Beast -- but it was also published, subsequently, as a single hardcover, which may provide a slightly better reading experience. (And the hardcover probably has some extra gewgaws, because that's how the comics market works.)

But it's one story, and my guess is that King wanted it to be about this length when he started. From what little I know about life inside the superhero factory, I doubt he got a contract guaranteeing that length at the beginning, and he might have had pressure towards the end to keep a popular/critically-successful thing going. (I wonder if he originally had an even darker ending in mind: there are hints of that in the early narration. The Vision does have a mild case of the required "putting all of the toys away neatly" superhero miniseries ending.)

Whatever the behind-the-scenes machinations, The Vision does tell one story, and tells it well. That's vanishingly rare in Big Two comics these days: this doesn't cross over with anything, or tie-in to anything. It neither launched out of nor led into an event. It does require a certain level of knowledge of the Marvel Universe -- you have to have some sense who this Vision guy is, who claims to have saved the world thirty-seven times -- but it will tell you most of what you need to know along the way.

The Vision is the story of a robot trying to live in human society -- the many-generations-removed descendant of a thousand Eando Binder and Asimov stories, along with dozens of similar later works. The robot, in a story like this, must be as smart as humans but not think like humans -- he must have a problem with emotion, with metaphor, with uncertainty, with purpose and teleology. He must do things that make total sense to him -- usually for intricate logical reasons -- but which cause problems with the human society around him.

The Vision (the character) is a synthezoid -- another, fancier, word for "robot" that Marvel can own, because one of its sharecroppers made it up many years ago. He was built as part of a cunning destroy-the-world plan by Ultron, a much less conflicted and more obviously emotional robot himself created by one of the early Avengers. (Which Avenger? Well, do you mean comics-Ultron or movie-Ultron? I'm also being vague because I'm not 100% sure the origin of comics-Ultron is still what it was the last time I cared, back in the '80s.) The Vision talks without contractions to show that he's a robot, and is notably more logical and less emotional than a normal person.

He's also bright red with green highlights and glowing yellow eyes, of course. And he has superpowers, because Marvel. (How can you save the world thirty-seven times if you can't lift a bus and shoot power beams from your forehead? Don't you know that no non-superhero has ever saved the world even once?)

The Vision, for reasons that are sufficient but not covered in depth, created a "wife" -- another synthezoid like himself, in female form, using a copy of his ex-wife's brain as her model. (Not to get too deep into the rabbit hole, but his ex-wife is the Scarlet Witch, and they had two children, or maybe they eventually didn't, and then she went crazy and destroyed the world before both she and the world got better.) There doesn't seem to have been any possibility that the creature Vision created to be his wife from the imprint of his former wife could have had any choice in the matter. Well, she's not a superhero -- she's to be part of his normal life, so she can't rebel against her creator like he could.

(Well, the premises of any superhero story get creepy and shaky the more you look at them. Let's move on, shall we?)

The Vision -- the book repeatedly calls him "The Vision of The Avengers," as if that were his Homeric epithet -- and his new wife Virginia want to settle down and be normal. So they combine their minds and built two smaller "teenage" synthezoids, Viv and Vin, who will need to go through something like robot adolescence to integrate into being new and unique people. And all four settled in a leafy Virginia suburb, close enough for Vision to fly to the White House for his unpaid job as Avengers liaison to the President. (The narrative hints that lack of income for the Vision family may eventually become an issue, but it doesn't. It's not that kind of story. In the end, it's a superhero story.)

Can a "family" of superpowered synthezoids live among normal humans? Can they have normal lives? Will they find fulfilling pastimes and contribute to their community in the small ways everyone else in the world does?

What do you think? I said this was a single story. It's set in a superhero universe. I think you can connect the dots from there.

King turns in a strong version of the Tragic Attempt at Normalcy story here, one of the major required events in the Superhero Olympiad. We know it will end badly, as we know Oedipus was in trouble as soon as he married Jocasta, but we watch to see how badly, and in what ways. And to see what the tragic flaws are this time, and who will have them, and who will be broken by them. We are rewarded here by a fall that begins practically on the first page -- very classical, very well done.

King also has suitably ominous narration, which turns out to be not just narration, in a strong twist. And the logical/philosophical issues the Vision and his family grapple with are real and interesting...if slightly diluted by the fact that the MU has at least a dozen other kinds of robots that don't have these problems at all.

The visual storytelling, from Gabriel Hernandez Walta, is equally strong, though my vocabulary is not as good at describing that piece of comics.

This is as good as superhero comics get this decade: that's both a blessing and a curse. It is pretty good. It is worth reading. But the millstone around its neck holds it back in a dozen different ways as well. And The Vision of The Avengers will be back, in some radically different form, in some other comic, as if this story didn't happen. He will be back, every month for as long as he can make some money for Marvel...which is the real point.

[1] "And then Thor was a woman for a while, but she died. And then Superman didn't have underwear on the outside of his costume for a while, and it was a huge controversy until he went back to the red shorts. And then Galactus threatened to eat the Earth again."

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