While we spend a great deal of time engrossed in the current crop of comic books, let us not forget those fantastic tales from the past that still sit in amongst our collections and are always worth revisiting...
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Art: George Perez, Al Vey & Tom Smith
Matt C: It took me a good few years after discovering the Avengers for me to properly understand the importance of Ultron to their mythos. I first encountered the character via UK reprints of the original Secret Wars back in the mid-'80s and there he was more memorable for being a robot lackey to Doctor Doom rather than as a malevolent force with an unstoppable hatred of mankind. This perception lingered for quite a while until the gradual realisation of Ultron's centrality to the dynamic of Earth's Mightiest Heroes came into focus.
Ultron was/is the errant, petulant child taken to the extreme, a being that submerges his creator/'father' Hank Pym in guilt and provides his 'son', The Vision, with motivation to prove that artificial intelligence's default setting isn’t always to attempt to wipe out its inferior progenitor, humanity. It doesn't end there. Pym's erstwhile wife, Janet Van Dyne, becomes the mother, Simon Williams (Wonder Man) is revealed as the donator of brain patterns for the Vision in his original state, Scarlet Witch becomes involved through romantic entanglements with both the Vision and Wonder Man, which means Quicksliver also gets mixed up in things thanks to his sibling status. You imagine Captain America, Iron Man and Thor standing back and counting their blessings that they only need to enter the fray when Ultron needs to be put down.
All the aforementioned characters (bar Pietro Maximoff) were on the scene when Kurt Busiek and George Perez brought Ultron back in a big way during their celebrated run on Avengers at the end of the '90s. Busiek's knowledge of Marvel history (see Marvels and Avengers Forever for prime examples of this) meant that anyone who wasn't clear on how big a threat Ultron had been to the team across the years gets all the blanks filled in along the way, with plenty of asterisked captions referencing back to pivotal issues from the past.
This was released around what was probably the last gasp of old fashioned superhero storytelling, just before 'decompression' came into vogue and it started taking 10 minutes to read a comic rather than 25. As such, there's an awful lot of dialogue and captioning on display - a picture may paint a thousand words but at this point using a thousand words to accompany those pictures was generally the done thing. The sometimes florid language employed may feel overbaked to modern eyes, but the more romanticised effect it creates can be of benefit as it offsets the melodramatic, soapy scenes between certain characters.
Where the usual suspension of disbelief required for reading superhero comics becomes problematic is when Ultron announces himself to the world by wiping out every living thing in the fictional Eastern European country, Slorenia. Us fanboys are used to seeing a couple of blocks of New York City levelled on a frequent basis, but when you kill several million people in one hit, it kind of stretches the boundaries of what's believable (within the context of course). A death toll that high happening in the real world would bring everything to a complete standstill across the globe, but here, while it's obviously presented as a major tragedy, it’s not something that's going to hang around in the news cycle for too long beyond the norm (oh, and don't get me started on Genosha!).
As long as your prepared to swallow all this (and you kind of have to) then it's a fairly entertaining if formulaic superhero romp, the 'family' element (added to here by the appearance of Ultron's bride, Alkhema, and Wonder Man’s brother, the Grim Reaper) giving it a certain amount of depth in amongst the requisite punch-ups. I've never been a huge fan of Perez - I can appreciate his technical skill but the level of detail he brings sometimes feels overly fussy - and while there's nothing to truly win me over to the cause here, it's a serviceable job that contains a few impressive visual flourishes (Ultron's 'face' formed from the corpses of the Slorenian dead being especially potent).
As a character, Ultron never quite shakes off the one-dimensionality of the murderous robot on the rampage, although brief moments of emotion, particularly with Pym and the Vision, do add a bit of colour to his motivations. As a collected story, it's fairly well revered, but looking back at it now it doesn't quite hold the same amount of weight as some of the undisputed classics in the history of the Avengers. Busiek is a consummate professional who's written some exceptional work in his time; this doesn’t qualify, and in all honesty it doesn't really add too much to the mythos, but as a functional blockbuster that ticks enough of the necessary boxes, it's good enough.