Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review # 108: "Avengers Assemble by Kurt Busiek Vol. 2"

Is it fair to call a robot crazy?

If it is, then Ultron is bats*** insane.

The twisted creation of Hank Pym is arguably the greatest Avengers villain of all time (if it isn't Kang.) He's violent, he's sadistic, he's calculating and - at times - he's just plain scary. Fans of the film franchise should be thrilled that he's set to be the big bad in the upcoming "Avengers" sequel, despite how some factors in his creation and development may be altered.

"Avengers Assemble Vol. 2" collects the best Ultron story I have ever read, and is the peak of Kurt Busiek and George Perez' run on Marvel's flagship team title (though not necessarily Busiek's.) "Ultron Unlimited" packs an incredible amount of content into four issues, a feat that no one at Marvel seems capable of today. Much like most of Busiek's work, "Ultron Unlimited" is very much a celebration of Ultron's history. It packs in years' worth of stories and rivalries, aided very much by two four-page spreads recapping the villain's most important events.

This trumps them all. It begins with Ultron slaughtering the entire population of the fictional nation Slorenia. For such a beautifully bright-coloured, vibrant title, that is extremely dark. We're talking millions of people killed, then twisted into robotic foot soldiers. As the armies of the world battle Ultron's unwilling drones, the Avengers are called in to take down the big bad himself. Complicating matters is the abduction of Hank Pym, Wasp, Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, Vision and the villainous Grim Reaper. We find out that Ultron plans to populate Earth with robots, using the minds of his captives to create infinite unique consciousnesses.

Each member of the sextet has a well-recapped "family" connection to Ultron, outlined perfectly by Busiek (as I stressed in my review of Volume One, he makes case after case for the importance of continuity and constantly provides templates on how to utilize it.) Hank Pym is Ultron's "father," Wasp his "mother," Vision his "son" (since Ultron built him,) Wanda his daughter-in-law, Wonder Man his nephew (Vision's brain patterns are based off of Simon's, making them like brothers) and Grim Reaper as his other nephew. It's here that we learn for the first time that Ultron's brain patterns are based off of Hank's, adding weight to Pym's guilty conscience. It's actually remarkable that this is the first instance where this is confirmed since it had seemed apparent for decades.

The remaining Avengers' assault on Ultron in Slorenia may be the greatest series of events in the history of the main line. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Firestar and reserve member Black Panther have to give it everything they have to defeat Ultron... then realize that it's not the only Ultron. Hence the title "Unlimited." It's a testament to a medium where deaths are rare when the writer and artist create a cliffhanger that makes you go "Oh f***." Even on a reread I did that.

Of course, they prevail, and they do it in a great way. It's a coming of age moment for both Firestar and Justice, and to an extent Vision as well. However, they are not outdone by the heavyweights. There's an incredible page by Perez where Iron Man wipes out a gaggle of adversaries and Cap's confidence bleeds off the page. However, the greatest moment - and I'm talking maybe EVER in the history of the Avengers - is reserved for Thor. Beaten, battered and scorched, a pissed-off God of Thunder strikes down a wall and says only this: "Ultron, we would have words with thee." I would put that up as the greatest line Kurt Busiek ever wrote AND the greatest thing George Perez ever drew.

Still, the character who gains the most in this story is Pym. Calling back to a lead-in issue collected here, Pym is given the tools to match up with Ultron physically and the result is incredibly satisfying. Hank's personal journey outlined throughout "Ultron Unlimited" is the reason I love the character and I can't see how anyone could finish this without feeling the same way. It's a glorious, heavily-satisfying adventure that makes the rest of the volume look like footnotes.*

Rating: 10/10

*So, here are the footnotes:

1. Busiek's set-up work for later volumes including his ultimate arc continues. There's the introduction of the Triune Understanding and expansion on Triathlon's character. There's also a three-issue break where Busiek and Perez hand the reigns over to Jerry Ordway for a story involving the Wrecking Crew, Arkon, Carol Danvers and Monica Rambeau. Ordway does an admirable fill-in job that helps Warbird on the way back to eventual team status, but outside of what happens to Justice there's a definite dip in overall quality. Can't blame Ordway at all - we're talking about a dynamite creative run that he was thrown into here.

2. The emotional arc involving Scarlet Witch, her ex-husband Vision and Wonder Man heats up. There's an early revelation that Vision was faking that he lost his memories and emotional connection to Wanda during the "Vision Quest" storyline that seems to rewrite history to me on first thought, especially considering his lack of emotion came into play during "Operation: Galactic Storm." However, it occurred to me later that his lack of sympathy for humanity came only when Wonder Man was present, which may actually be a stroke of retconning genius. What's odd is an appearance by Beast, looking like it's the late 70s all over again. Hank acts like a completely different person in the presence of his old Avenger buddies, given the morose state of the X-Men at the time (Beast was trying to find a cure to a virus that was gradually killing his species.) I write off his attitude as insane denial. Good enough of an excuse to let Busiek and Perez have some fun.

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