(Rick Remender, Jerome Opena, Pepe Larraz; Dean White; Marvel Comics)
Jamil Scalese: As the days wane in April the movie event of the season steadily approaches. Everyone has been gearing up for Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, and rightfully so, the Marvel Cinematic Universe gets better with every installment and it has no indication of slowing pace. With a certain angry automation in the movie’s title Marvel is doing the expected, though still smart, move of creating synergy between its print and screen realms. Such is the occasion for the release of Rage of Ultron, an in-continuity graphic novel written by Rick Remender and illustrated by Jerome Opeña (who helped usher in Jonathan Hickman’s run on Avengers) and Pepe Larraz (a fairly new talent who has the chops to be a permanent fixture in superhero comics).
Shawn, mi amigo, we’ve tackled plenty of Marvel comics together including Age of Ultron, the crossover book that forgot about its antagonist, and that other comic about Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Remender’s Uncanny Avengers. We were both pretty excited about this crossroads of content and creators we enjoy. In the lead up to Ultron’s big screen debut I was expecting a fairly straightforward action story that would reintroduced the villain and give some more exposure to the print-verse counterparts of the MCU Avengers.
What I read was not that. Yes, there’s action, this comic does not stop punching, however it end up being the emotional and thematic weight of the plot that nearly knocked me on my hinder. There are some dark, heavy ideas in Rage of Ultron and it provided for a reading experience that I was not expecting but thoroughly enjoyed.
Shawn Hill: The action was by far the least interesting part for me, just too over-the-top. The unfortunate Bendis series you reminded me of above had enough killer unstoppable robot drones to last me for far longer than this. You’re referring to the psychological underpinnings of this story, to Remender’s real attempt to see what the twisted family dynamic started so long ago by Roy Thomas means today. The messed-up Oedipal imagery that has Ultron seeing Janet as both a lover and mother figure, because Hank is definitely his dad (his rejecting, judgmental father), and Vision (as rebuilt from the Original robotic Human Torch) is more or less his son.
And don’t even get us started on how mentally unsteady Hank himself has so frequently been, or the Vision’s evolving status as both a legacy hero, a computer overlord, the husband of Scarlet Witch, and somehow or other, Simon/Wonder Man’s brother/doppelganger, too.
It’s great to dig up all that stuff again, referred to knowledgeably by Kurt Busiek in his foreword to the volume, which is really one of my favorite features of the whole package. Busiek sounds downright regretful that guiding the Avengers is no longer his charge, but he modestly refers to his own rock-solid Ultron stories, and fully endorses Remender as the current torch-bearer.
Jamil: I also really liked the introduction by Busiek. He breaks the Ultron concept down to its basic fibers and that serves to help usher in new readers to the layers of continuity and characterization Remender uses to build his story. I got a hoot out of the blurb at bottom of Busiek’s write-up that opened with crediting him in the creation of the Thunderbolts…a franchise Marvel seems to have forgotten about.
I totally agree that Age of Ultron wore the character’s gimmick a bit thin and what I think makes this venture decidedly better is the expanded standalone format, which is almost like the opposite of a crossover. The space and autonomy allows Remender to pull together all types of storylines from his Marvel career. In many ways this is a capper to his Secret Avengers run which concerned itself heavily with AI, seeds that were first planted in the second arc of Uncanny X-Force. Remender chooses to focus the plot on three generations of characters, Hank Pym, Ultron and Vision, a “bloodline” with plenty of emotional issues. I’ve always been a Pym fan, he’s kind of fascinated me in his prestige and ineffectiveness, a classic Silver Age character that struggles to pull C-list. Age of Ultron did some work in proving his value (in showing us a world without him) but in truth Wolverine and Invisible Woman had more of a spotlight than he.
That said, I feel like the creative team crafted the definitive Henry Pym story with Rage of Ultron.
It brings together the best and worst threads of the characters and weaves them into a single fabric. Ultron’s climatic about his true nature as a sinister, though accurate, reflection of Pym fits into the uneven actions of the character. Along with Wasp’s “eulogy” at the end I thought this examination of Giant-Man was executed well and excused some of the work’s other flaws.
Shawn: My definitive take was probably that Annual that Busiek did years ago (and the way he also managed to briefly bring Yellowjacket back, too; you can’t figure out Hank without using Yellowjacket). I do think this added something new to generational saga of Hank/Ultron/Vision, though. Making Ultron’s rage come from Hank’s own self-hate and insecurity makes a lot of sense. And Vision as the grandchild is the healthier balance between the two, the bright new generation that’s more free of the traps and patterns of the past.
I’ve got to re-read to see how I feel about Wasp’s role, I’m feeling bummed that she’s not part of the movie franchise by this point, and may never be. Hank’s spousal abuse is still reverberating down through the years, rendering maybe both characters almost unusable these days, which is just not right. If you want to make the Ant-Man movie about Scott Lang, that’s fine, but I’m actually pretty dubious on doing an Ultron story without his “parents.” It’s one thing I still don’t get about the new film, which at least hasn’t affected having the right players in this story.
Speaking of which, I think this is the best Eros story I’ve read in like, ever. That character has been dragged through the mud for years, mostly for humorous reasons (and of course because of perfectly valid date-rape anxieties) but, c’mon, he’s a god. They have different rules. And here Remender has found a perfectly valid use of his life-affirming energy. Of course the Anti-Thanos would be pretty anti-Ultron, another fratricide king.
Jamil: Eros just might be the hidden gem of the GN. Not only does he of save the day but considering the subject matter and thematic weight he added some needed touches of levity (and, refreshingly, not at his own expense). I would like to see more of Starfox in the future but a lot like Empath from old school New Mutants I feel like there’s a reluctance to use a characters who wield the power of love because of the ominous rape-y vibe they put out.
It does seem like Remender tried to find a place for Wasp but as far as the story’s concentration she really is only marginally involved. I believe we’ve discussed this before but Janet is begging for the spotlight in the current age. With the popularity of female characters and the Avengers at their all-time highs, you’d think the founding female Avenger would have a more prominent role. She’s not even in the solicits of the forthcoming A-Force! OK, so let’s be honest, she’s actually a pretty bland character but this is a medium and genre that prides itself in taking the mundane and making it spectacular.
So we talked story, now let’s talk art. I thought Rage of Ultron looked pretty great throughout. Both Opena and Larraz do what they do best, but aside from a heroic unification job by Dean White I’m a bit bothered at how dispersed the book looks.
Opeña and Remender work very well together. The writer has recently said he keeps a small cache of artists (i.e. Tony Moore, Matteo Scalera) to primarily collaborate with because he enjoys the camaraderie. Jerome is at the top of that list. His style really speaks to a more noir-ish type of superhero comic, and given the shadowy emotion of the script it felt appropriate. There is a certain gravitas to his method that pairs well with Ultron.
Larraz on the other hand? His bouncy, very Immonen-esque approach is unable to mesh very well with the other penciller. What’s weird is I still prefer Larraz. His style does something for me that just screams Marvel. The action seems a lot more on point and powerful in the second half. I think they worked in the correct order, Opeña set the mood and Larraz provided the high-impact climax, but I would have rather seen a singular vision.
Shawn: I agree. But I guess Acuña can’t do everything! I found the anatomy and layouts to be strong, but the inking was very sketchy. Overly detailed without really adding much depth or drama. I think an Ultron story is the perfect time to go kind of retro, and it’s not like other movie-adjacent properties haven’t done so (Ant-Man, for example). These two artists just might not be the right ones for such a tech-heavy story. I like my Ultron to be shiny and reflective, Joe Sinnott-style!
Jamil: That’s probably on Dean White, who works very well with Opena’s aesthetic but clashes with Larraz’s. White’s dull luster worked brilliantly in the clandestine Uncanny X-Force but maybe doesn’t neatly fit the subject material here.
I liked this a little bit more than you did but I think we’re simpatico that Rage of Ultron is a pretty good entry in the Avenger’s lore. I personally enjoyed the extreme focus on Hank Pym and Vision, two undercard Avengers who in the coming months are about to see to see their first ever mainstream exposure. This graphic novel also is a sexy treat for Remender fans, of which I include myself.
The hefty price point aside (I guess for Busiek fee!), I think this comic succeeds in giving new exposure to Ultron while not undermining vetted fans of the Roy Thomas and John Buscema creation.