Welcome back to The Dollar Box, where I look at single issues and short runs of comics with a cover price of a dollar or less. This month, with Ultron making his presence felt in Marvel’s current books, I thought it a good time to look at a classic Ultron story from the pages of Avengers #161-162.
The 1970s were a golden age for the Avengers. The brand had not yet been diluted by West Coast Avengers or today’s endless spin-off books, and with only one place to go for Avengers action, Marvel lavished the title with their top talent. The decade began with Roy Thomas’ Kree-Skrull War, and continued under Steve Englehart in a series of stories that would test the Avengers both without and within. The era would conclude with a Roger Stern/John Byrne run where the Scarlet Witch would start to show some of the awesome power (and instability) that would later haunt her in Marvel events like The House of M.
But in between was a two-year run helmed by Jim Shooter, where he brought his finely-honed Silver Age sensibilities to Marvel’s premiere superhero team. Shooter’s Avengers are best remembered for the Korvac Saga, but my personal favorite portion of Shooter’s run is this two-part story from Avengers #161-162. Featuring rich characterization, explosive action, and extraordinarily tight pencils and powerful visual storytelling from artist George Perez, these issues represent the soul of late-1970s Avengers (and I’ll bet you a dollar that Marvel Studios will come around to mining these tales for film material, after they’ve finished their business with Thanos in 2015’s Avengers 2).
Jim Shooter’s editorial reign at Marvel remains a controversial period, but there’s no disputing that Shooter was a superior comic book writer. A genuine savant, Shooter began his career at the tender age of thirteen, writing and drawing for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes, which he would write through that book’s mid-1970s signature run. With Legion, Shooter demonstrated that he could handle ensemble stories that were rich in complicated backstory — skills that would serve him well in this tale of fathers, sons, and Oedipal yearnings.
The action kicks off in issue #161’s “Attacked By The Ant Man!” where Hank Pym has evidently suffered some kind of mental breakdown, accusing the present-day Avengers of being imposters attempting to replace the original vintage versions of those characters, who had first come together with Ant Man to form the team in the pages of Avengers #1.
This being a Silver Age-style Marvel comic, our heroes solve their differences by beating the tar out of each other, showcasing Shooter and Perez at the top of their game. Perez orchestrates the visually-complicated team fight with relish, while Shooter demonstrates his deft touch with expository dialogue — making sure that readers know who each character is, and making clear why a seemingly-insignificant character like Ant Man poses a threat to earth’s mightiest heroes. In the span of four perfect panels, we see how Ant Man can summon a swarm of ants to do his bidding; how those ants exploit Iron Man’s weakness by flooding through the eye-slits of his mask; and how Ant Man retains enough of his full-sized strength to clout Captain America on the jaw.
The fight is on!
Part of Shooter’s ethos was to make sure that any readers picking up a comic for the first time would not be completely lost, and this awkward speaking of characters’ names and out-loud restating of action and results is part of that agenda. But it also serves to provide a verbal, character-driven rhythm for these stories, where even veteran readers had something to see, nodding along as familiar characters behaved in believable ways. It’s the kind of storytelling that comics can do especially well, and a strength of the form that is rarely used by current creators. Having film characters speak aloud their internal monologues and footnote the uses and limitations of their powers would never wash on film, but when well-executed in a superhero comic, it is pure four-color fun.
Shooter isn’t content just to recycle old tropes. After making clear that the Vision’s powers are based on making himself insubstantial, he follows up with a power trick (never used before or since?) where the Vision defeats a swarm of ants with an electrified shock. But that does nothing to stop Ant Man from taking out a pair of Avengers with his patented, grow-suddenly-to-full size sneak attack, expertly set in motion by Perez’s pencils.
The timely arrive of Hank’s wife — Janet Pym, the Wasp — allows the Avengers to get the upper hand, and take stock of what drove Hank off his nut.
Here Shooter employs his mastery of backstory, rooting Hank’s breakdown in the character’s checkered history. Madness isn’t too much to expect of a character who’s brain has been stressed by a career filled with growing and shrinking powers, and poor Hank has had breakdowns and multiple personalities in his past.
The Avengers, of course, take all of this in stride, and quickly act to help their fallen friend.
Even a transitional scene affords room for Shooter to provide characterization. Here we see the Beast — having only recently joined the team — struggling to fit in with the rest of the Avengers.
Looking back on these tales, of course, we know that they are Ultron stories, but at the time, his reintroduction was a bit of a shock. His appearance was hinted-at in the preceding issue #160, but Ultron had been out of action since taking a powder in Fantastic Four #150, three years before. That’s a long time for a Marvel super-villian to stay on the bench. While making an indelible mark in his introduction arc circa Avengers #55, I’d argue that it is in these Shooter/Perez stories (which would continue in Avengers #170-171) where Ultron became an A-list Marvel bad guy.
It’s perfectly appropriate for a megalomaniacal rage case like Ultron to state his name during his dramatic entrance (which again helps new readers), and in the fight that follows demonstrates through action the villain’s extraordinary strength and the invulnerability granted by his adamantium body. Iron Man gets humiliated a second time, having cleared those ants out of his helmet only to have his transistors drained by the bad guy. Again we see Shooter’s touch with exposition, leaving no doubt about how Ultron has felled Iron Man.
Round One to Ultron!
It is in issue #161 that the emotional undercurrents of this story are fully realized, as we learn of Ultron’s scheme. Ultron’s plan is deeply disturbed, and revolves around deceiving his creator/father, Hank Pym, into working his will …
Hank’s brains are still too scrambled to see what is coming, but certain of the Avengers begin to entertain dark concerns.
(And as an aside, I think Perez proves himself an especially great Iron Man artist in this issue — I feel like I can see my own reflection in Iron Man’s face plate thanks to the way Perez draws the character).
Meanwhile, back at Ultron’s secret lab, Hank abets his monstrous creation in draining the life force from his own wife, Janet (who by extension is Ultron’s mother!) into the unnamed shell of Ultron’s intended bride. This is the first appearance of Jocasta, a largely-forgotten part-time Avenger who would go on to feature in some pretty decent comics in this era.
But by investing his affections in this mechanical obsession, the previously-impervious Ultron also inherits a liability. His love of his bride makes Ultron vulnerable in new and disturbingly-human ways — a weakness Iron Man is quick to exploit.
It is a mean-spirited way to defeat a villain — a point Shooter skillfully drives home when Black Panther later admonishes Iron Man for attaining victory in such dishonorable fashion — and the Avengers don’t seem to win this battle so much as they attain a temporary reprieve. Ultron quits the field but this conflict is far from resolved.
Unlike most of the stories I review at The Dollar Box, this two-issue tale has plenty of loose ends … but they’re the right kinds of loose ends, deliberately-unresolved plot threads designed to bring you back the following issue. Hank Pym is still insane, and no one is sure what to make of Jocasta, who the final panel of this issue indicates played a pivotal-but-secret role in defeating Ultron. How will Janet Pym react to having part of her life force drained into a mechanical being? As far as our heroes are concerned, Captain America, the Beast, and the Scarlet Witch are all dead. Ultron is still on the loose. There’s even a subplot featuring Hawkeye and the Two-Gun Kid (!) that is ready to boil over!
A great Avengers run lays just over the horizon, and these issues are a great place to jump on board. You can get each of them in decent condition for just a little bit more than a contemporary comic book, which is a bargain for a pair of the most iconic Avengers stories ever published. These issues are also a part of Marvel’s growing digital library.
Thanks for reading The Dollar Box! I’ll be back next month with another treasure from the past. In the meantime, please join me at my home blog, Longbox Graveyard, where every day is golden (or at least Silver, and sometimes Bronze … as in the great ages of comics!)