[covers by George Pérez and Pablo Marcos]
From Englehart to Shooter—All New, All Different?
Last time in our look back at glory days of the Bronze Age Avengers title, we took a deep dive into one of the high watermarks of not just early Avengers stories but of author Steve Englehart’s early career, as well. “The Serpent Crown Saga” distilled all of his distinctive qualities (beautifully realized by the fresh energy of a young George Pérez just starting out): The all-encompassing political paranoia borne of the Nixon era and an intense drive to adapt the Marvel Universe very directly to the tumultuous cultural moment—wherein Englehart was equally interested in psychedelic experimentation and an earnest search for new symbols for making sense of the world and creating or recasting heroic figures to inspire a younger generation skeptical of traditional assumptions. Bear in mind he was 25 years younger than Stan Lee, and even the 7-year gap between Englehart and Roy Thomas, the title’s second writer, is significant considering the seismic shifts shaking up American culture as Englehart entered adulthood.
Of course, Englehart’s plotting skills were, well, a bit messy—but that wasn’t exactly unusual for Marvel during those early years. What stood out at the time was his signature psychedelic and paranoid kookiness, as well as the strength and boldness of his heroines, very unusual at the time, even for American culture more generally back then. In this formative era, what mattered most behind the scenes was keeping pace with deadlines and getting out entertaining stories each month even while narrative coherence was typically of tertiary importance, if at all. The scarcity of logical story structure was a real pet peeve of Jim Shooter when he started his first and most enduring Marvel run with Avengers #158.
[cover by Jack Kirby]
Shooter also firmly believed that somewhat more coherent stories would lead to better sales, and although I’m agnostic on whether that turned out to be true, what Marvel’s soon-to-be editor-in-chief did accomplish was the modern professionalization of Marvel as a brand and as a work environment—meaning he pushed creators to meet deadlines more consistently to make the whole machine a more predictable and profitable corporate animal. And it largely worked, in terms of meeting those commercially critical goals. To be clear, though, this push toward a more successful, competitive publishing company started a little earlier, with previous editor-in-chief Archie Goodwin’s brief reign following a period of inconsistent leadership, and Shooter’s success was in capitalizing on Goodwin had started. But the results really started to come in during the Shooter era. Other tangible results include fewer fill-in issues and reprints and more consistency in all aspects of production; it was becoming a company that could survive and even thrive in the 1980s, consumer capital’s halcyon days. For the Big 2, the future was bright back then, with greater opportunities in television, toys and the not totally unrealistic hope for movie options; with access to the direct market, it was also the advent of the local comic store.
So, when we look at Shooter’s own writing on Avengers, it’s not surprising that we find this ethos in practice: The content of each issue, even when part of a multi-issue narrative arc, fits with greater story coherence into those 17 pages; there’s no transition to a new story line in the middle of an issue; there’s a tighter rein on toggling back and forth between disparate subplots. And sure, these are generally good things.
But this same drive toward a firmer brand identity and market predictability did away with the looseness that had allowed for more experimentation to flourish. This perhaps prevented some muddled mediocrity, but it also shaped the creative process into a more standardized corporate dynamic geared for IP branding with, as mentioned, an eye toward cartoons and toy lines. There would be many great storytellers, just mostly writing in a streamlined commercial mold, not a bad thing of itself; Roger Stern and John Byrne were very good at it. But more consistency also meant less inspired risk-taking. The few exceptions here prove the general trend for the Shooter era. Few and far between, auteurs were exceptional, and looked at historically, this increased corporatization of the comics industry was inevitable; the tension between creative and editorial was certainly nothing new.
In his role as storyteller, Shooter embodied the new commercially minded formula best: Greater coherence and rationalization of the creative process also meant more simplistic stories (there are no symbolic quests for meaning or relevance as in Englehart or Starlin, who yet also managed to be great adventure writers), more simplistic takes on heroes and villains (ideal for toys and cartoons) and more simplistic expectations of readers (they want entertainment, not kooky ideas from a counterculture quickly becoming passé).
And yet Shooter wrote two classics of the age: “The Korvac Saga” and the original Secret Wars event; unsurprisingly, though, the central antagonist in each epic is very similarly motivated and, well, transcendental. Their power fantasies are almost exactly the same. Even so, they are both bold stories, and their epic lengths allowed for some fascinating narrative turns. But still, Shooter’s talent worked best, typically, at short length, where he seemed to easily pack each issue with incident, while never exactly striking any deeper. Essentially, his ambition was for writing baroque fantasias of superpowered grandiosity; within this relatively narrow remit, he excelled.
[cover by Dave Cockrum and Terry Austin]
In fact, his success here is striking in that the most creatively successful comics writers of the ’70s and ’80s tackled much larger themes while Shooter was focused on perfecting the relatively shallow juvenile elements of the medium, setting a rather modest bar for success as the ideal goal for Marvel’s storytellers. Certainly, his stories are chock-full of incident, and especially when rendered by the likes of Pérez or Byrne, they impress with their swift momentum, an almost clockwork propulsion carrying through every page.
We’ll get to “The Korvac Saga” shortly, but this time we’ll look at Shooter’s first two short story arcs, particularly “The Bride of Ultron,” and we’ll continue next time with his subsequent Count Nefaria arc. These modest gems are good showcases for the Shooter style, displaying both his strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. They also marked a notable shift for the title; the book was at last coming out on time, and the stories were straightforward and simplified enough to be easily satisfying to a greater number of readers (of course, without any thought to actually diversifying readership).
[cover by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia]
Avengers #158-159 saw Shooter taking over a title, apparently at a moment’s notice, that had become something of a hot mess both in-universe and behind the scenes. The almost off-the-cuff creation of Graviton, the big bad of his first brief arc, feels out of place, more in the mode of a DC villain—unsurprising considering he had just come from DC. Conceptually, his superpower—an absolute mastery of gravity—is cool. And yet because his characterization here is so dull and uninspiring, shifting from banal ordinariness to superpowered megalomania so abruptly, Dr. Frank Hall was clearly not destined for greatness; indeed, he’s never taken any big swings in Marvel’s vast shared universe. In issue #159, bested only by Thor, barely, he appears to destroy himself, compacted into a tiny particle.
More notably, Shooter begins developing drama between Wonder Man and the Vision. Simon Williams had returned to life in Avengers #151 (after “dying” in issue #9), and not much had been done with him. Unfortunately, it’s all very juvenile. The synthezoid is pouty, melodramatically rejecting human melodrama and being an insufferably moody adolescent boy. He threatens to leave Wanda, but regardless Simon cannot have her, ever—because of course he would covet her, since after all in creating the Vision’s persona from a tabula rasa synthezoid mind Ultron had uploaded a copy of Simon’s “brain patterns,” or some such. Now, the “original” has returned to life, the “imitation” has to establish a separate identity, falling back here on his inhuman aspect, his quasi-AI nature. It’s all rather severe yet over-the-top; perhaps Shooter was aiming for drama steeped in a classical air, mythic and tragic—maybe it’s just Sal Buscema’s figurework, which was indeed classically influenced—but it doesn’t quite land. However, his artwork really doesn’t work with the goofiness of Graviton’s Sunday morning cartoon menace.
Previous writer Gerry Conway did set up the ill-fated triangle, but Shooter kicks the high drama into gear.
As to whether Shooter was indeed inspired by classical antiquity, look no further than the exemplary case of…
Jocasta is her name! This is far from the wildest thing about this notorious little arc.
This story is probably most immediately memorable for its depiction of an amnesiac Hank Pym, reverted to his original Ant-Man identity, savagely ambushing his fellow Avengers at the Mansion. For the first time since his debut 16 years earlier, was suddenly Ant-Man depicted as a potentially nightmarish threat.
While Shooter really hams up Pym’s psychotic break, it’s Pérez who gives us some indelible images of Avengers swarmed by hordes of insects, flying through Iron Man’s eye slits and traumatizing Wanda—which readers these days will no doubt respond to according to the degree of their Scarlet Witch fandom.
[art by Pérez and Marcos]
And yet—woe unto Henry Pym! Marvel’s most willfully buried and forgotten superhero. Ah well. Reading Avengers #161-162, we’re reminded that the increasingly erratic founding Avenger had a friend in Thor, Quicksilver and Hawkeye, but even here, Cap can’t summon these three to come help the current Avengers provide succor to Pym while he struggles to recover from a psychotic episode. Of course, the pitiful thing here is that nowadays, as readers immersed in contemporary Marvel, we never notice anyone missing Pym, except for whenever his daughter Nadia muses on the father who never knew of her existence; even here, his legacy is far overshadowed, understandably, by the Wasp who inspires Nadia’s own costumed identity. So you got a cruddy deal, doc.
Still, for all the ways it’s rather thoughtless, this story is a critical elaboration of classic Avengers lore—albeit with bizarre psychosexual elements that, ultimately, most other creators weren’t interested in, understandably. Most importantly, though, “The Bride of Ultron” does entertain; it’s as entertaining as it is emotionally overwrought and structurally perfect.
First, Avengers #160 provides some crucial setup, and there’s some satisfaction in discovering retroactively that it’s all a preamble for Ultron’s attack (Pérez returns here as well):
Wonder Man’s brother, the Grim Reaper, launches a successful one-man attack on Avengers Mansion, with the goal of determining whether Simon has really returned to life. Surely, there were easier methods, albeit less melodramatic, for determining this. He takes down Earth’s Mightiest with surprising ease—though this is a very motley crew; we’re talking the Vision, Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, Black Panther and the Beast, explicitly the weakest member by far, way out of his depth here. We’ll see in a few issues Shooter’s middling fate for Dr. McCoy; Englehart may have rescued the erstwhile X-Man from obscurity, but without Englehart’s kookiness and other gonzo picks, he ends up as the team clown; unfortunately, Shooter doesn’t excel at humor.
Again, though, the focus here is on Wonder Man and Vision, and by issue’s end, as the heroes fight back against Simon’s crazed brother, their dynamic takes a turn for the better—for the synthezoid has realized that he actually has something in common with Simon that doesn’t involve their identical “brain patterns.” With Wondy’s revelation that he returned to life not as a biological being but as corporealized energy, they share a moment of solidarity, so that following Vision’s bold stand, to sacrifice himself to end the conflict (the Grim Reaper’s sham “trial”), Simon is emboldened, despite his characteristic misgivings, to confront and strike Eric down as the bully he is (he’s also depicted as anti-mutant, his hatred directed toward Wanda).
In “The Bride of Ultron” proper (#161-162), we discover that Ultron supplied Eric with the beam that knocked out the team, effectively making the Grim Reaper his cat’s-paw, softening up his foes. Of course, Pym is both Ultron’s dupe and his tortured plaything: And so before the robot Oedipus crashes the party later in issue #161, it’s ants-in-your-pants time with Pym’s ruthless ambush.
For a short while, it is very effective. This is classic Avengers, though it’s also another early nail in the coffin for Dr. Pym. From the start, we know something happened to turn him amnesiac, resetting his memories to his earliest days with the team (before Cap thawed out). But he’d already had a psychotic episode or two, and that would’ve been sufficient explanation for many readers, without even questioning whether someone else was behind his delirium.
Pym is very efficient in felling his fellow Avengers, though he assumes Iron Man (whose identity was secret) must be an impostor and that the others were strangers who had suddenly shown up at Avengers HQ. Luckily arriving on the verge of the crazed Pym’s triumph, his own wife takes him out with her wasp’s sting. Holding her unconscious husband close, Jan explains to her teammates their recent marriage troubles, ultimately lamenting that her new, sexy disco outfit* proved ineffective in curing Hank of his deepest anxieties and neuroses.
(*Introduced here by peppy hepcat Pérez, the other new look is Wonder Man’s redesigned costume, which might’ve been of more interest to Devo or Kraftwerk).
Believing that showing Pym a few personal items could help cure his amnesia, Jan (driven by the Beast, barely disguised in casual cozy autumn wear) returns their quiet suburban home in New Jersey, where almost immediately she encounters an unwelcome visitor. Pérez is very effective in building suspense:
On the verge of collapse, the Beast makes it back to Avengers Mansion, staggering into the meeting room and issuing his vague but dire warning—right before Ultron blasts his way in. Which begs the question: Who was the driver this time? Either Ultron was so diabolically confident that he had the Beast drive, presumably in a rather inefficient and perilous manner, given his state; or Ultron drove the both of them, bringing along the already very roughed up Beast just to send him in first to make his own violent entrance all the more terrifying. On the page, these story beats are quite suspenseful, but also reveal the limits of Shooter’s ambition for coherent storytelling.
Ulton quickly reveals to his foes that he had taken advantage of Pym’s fragility and wiped his memories, though it’s unclear exactly how he convinced Pym of this impostors’ conspiracy—and thus, to what degree Pym should be responsible here. The question of responsibility is not framed in terms of mental health; it’s entirely down to Ultron’s sinister super-science. Shooter is simply not interested in anything more nuanced than diabolical power plays.
The focus is action: Ultron swiftly knocks out the team (with Thor recently MIA), apparently killing a few (with his “encephalo-beam”). The next issue opens with the Thunder God’s belated arrival at the Mansion, where he’s almost surprisingly cool over the news of Cap’s death (Shooter didn’t want to waste any time, presumably, on emotional reactions when there was still a lot of story to shred through). Even so, Wanda appears to be leveling up, which I attribute to Pérez’s interest in the character.
The best part of Ultron’s early victory is how he kidnaps Ant-Man, at the end of the first issue:
In the next issue (#162), while the remaining Avengers regroup, Ultron has just arrived at his secret lab, released Pym from his finger and unveiled his laboratory’s tableau of horror, a feverish psychodrama, visually striking as a mash-up of Frankenstein and Oedipus—with the unconscious Jan laid out on a slab alongside another bearing an inert feminine robot; a few cables connect their motionless bodies.
Ultron’s goal is to transfer Jan’s “life-force” to the inert robot whose mind-state is presumably a tabula rasa, merely a vessel to “preserve [the Wasp’s] vital essence until we can repair her true body.” Of course, he doesn’t tell the still-deluded Ant-Man that he has no interest in reviving Jan at all. But he clearly assumes that his new robot creation will be more tractable and pliable than his first immediately botched attempt with the Vision. These issues don’t explain how this robotic mating would work, but presumably “reprogramming” would be the hand-wavy label for it.
For some reason, Ultron has this genius ability to build a robot capable of uploading a human mind (or “life-force”), but he does not have the expertise to implement the transference; he needs Pym to do it (maybe part of his “daddy issues”; mostly, it obviously just makes for better drama).
Meanwhile, Thor returns from his solo misadventures to find most of his teammates apparently dead. While their comatose state is soon clarified, the only ones on their feet beside the Odinson are Iron Man, Black Panther and Wonder Man—a mighty enough gathering!
And they’re ready for an SOS—which comes in the form of a bunch of ants flying in to arrange themselves into the letters “STARKLI” on the floor at Thor and Simon’s feet. Iron Man deduces that the message means their captive friends have been abducted to Stark Long Island, one of Stark’s mothballed labs.
Ultron proves capable against these four heavy hitters, but it’s Stark’s smarts that save the day—or maybe instead, it’s his sudden potential for ruthlessness arising from desperation; he believed their ultimate defeat was imminent, and he wasn’t going to think deeply about whether Ultron’s inert robot had achieved personhood.
Unnamed until issue #171, Ultron’s would-be mate will then become known as Jocasta, indeed inspired by Oedipus’ mother and later his wife. Here in “The Bride of Ultron,” she is ultimately left still a blank slate, when the relentless robot is at last forced to retreat, not because Earth’s Mightiest prove mightier—nope! No, instead, Iron Man grabs the bride-to-be and threatens to destroy it/her with a repulsor ray point-blank.
To be clear: Stark does not know if Jan’s mind (or “life-force”) has already been transferred to the robot, meaning her own original body would be–I don’t know–inert, empty but not dead, or something. Luckily for him, Ultron takes the threat seriously, and that’s almost as surprising—the revelation that he cares and that, implicitly, he views his foes as having a callous disregard for non-organic life. He doesn’t appear to care just for the continued existence of his creation—because it may now be something more than what it was.
Indeed, what Ultron called merely “a metalloid body” at the start of the issue has suddenly became for him “my woman!” Granted, this is pretty terrifying, but he believes this new being is exactly that. Rather than risk her/its destruction, he retreats. Before his departure, Ultron’s view of the matter is clear: Iron Man is also threatening Jan’s life.
This may be the most idiosyncratic (and thus human) depiction of Ultron, albeit one that later storytellers understandably had little interest in. Except Dan Slott in his Tony Stark: Iron Man run, where the potential for decoupling Jocasta’s identity from her cringey origins is squandered when she’s caught in a psychodrama between Tony and Janet, and then the Pym-Ultron amalgam returns from outer space with his usual spiel. Busiek in the late ’90s pays homage to some of this early material, but it’s admirably restrained.
Thus, with this story, Shooter injects a little edginess into the typically cut-and-dry Avengers ethos. It’s definitely rather unusual—as is Hank Pym’s continued psychotic break from reality on the final page, where we see him rage viciously not just at the friends he still doesn’t recognize but his wife as well, whom he does. Yet he includes her as well among the “murderous scum” he’s railing against.
Also, we’ll discover that the Vision has been rendered inert here, by Ultron’s encephalo-ray. He’ll wake up at a critical moment in the Avengers’ struggle against a nigh-invulnerable Count Nefaria.
And lastly, we’re left with not knowing who sent the Avengers that insect SOS: Pym is still delusional, Jan was out cold—but then T’Challa looks to the inert robot still on its/her slab, and he wonders. It had to be “someone … sympathetic to Jan’s plight”:
In the forgettable fill-in issue between the Pérez and Byrne arcs, Iron Man mentions that the treatment he had prescribed to restore Pym’s memories, and thus his sanity, is working out, according to Janet. And impressively, his mental health day was no more than that, as the hapless couple reappear perfectly happy (no hint of anything serious) in Marvel Team-Up #59-60 by Claremont and Byrne. Other than acknowledging their recent leave of absence from the Avengers, there’s nothing said about Pym just having recovered from a violent psychotic episode orchestrated by his own homicidal sentient robot.
[cover by Cockrum and Mike Esposito]
Instead, we see him in this classic self-contained tale experimenting with Jan’s DNA, without her awareness, in order to amp up her powers as never before, programmed to activate whenever Jan experiences heightened adrenaline. And yet she’s apparently okay with discovering all this after Hank is seemingly killed in the middle of a drawn-out brawl with an elemental villain, a real bruiser and far more powerful than either insect-themed Avenger.
Claremont’s portrayal of the Wasp here certainly elevated her personality and her powers, but his depiction of her marriage to Hank in what feels more like a honeymoon than a leave of absence is totally the opposite of what readers would expect from their previous appearance in “The Bride of Ultron” (To be fair, though, given the parallel production timeline, Claremont may not have known how Shooter’s story would end).
Astonishingly, the infamous image of a crazed Pym striking down his wife in her negligee, taken by surprise with his vicious backhand, is still a several years in the future. And that was Shooter’s doing too!
Long after, Shooter protested that artist Bob Hall had misinterpreted his script: it was supposed to be a slap that wasn’t quite so emphatic, or something. But Shooter’s dodginess here doesn’t acknowledge that Pym had already been so verbally abusive and emotionally unstable that while the physical assault is shocking, it’s hard to imagine readers of the time coming away too surprised, given how much had been done to degrade both Pym’s character and his and Janet’s marriage.
Not only is it disappointing to see Shooter shifting all the blame onto someone else (the person who was already in a more vulnerable position), it speaks volumes that he appears totally unaware that he had started long ago the project of assassinating Pym’s character. Despite too many later attempts at rehabilitation, Shooter’s version of Pym is what ultimately decided his sorry fate. No wonder, then, that he will never exist in the MCU; Michael Douglas played a character by that name, but it was a character completely different from the comics.