Welcome to Super Comics, where we take a look at the books that inspired the movies and TV shows. And where better to start than a great Avengers storyline featuring the titular villain of the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron film?
Avengers stories are at their best when the stakes are both huge and personal, and that’s what we get in the “Ultron Unlimited” storyline that ran in The Avengers (vol. 3) #19-22 in 1999, written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by George Perez—two top, veteran talents in the comics industry.
The cast includes a few Avengers moviegoers have already met—Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor—as well as some they’re about to meet—the Scarlet Witch and Vision—and even a couple whom they might meet versions of in the upcoming Ant-Man movie—Hank Pym and the Wasp. The Black Panther, who’s got a film in the works, rejoins the team for this adventure. And then there’s Wonder Man, who filmmakers will probably get around to eventually if the super-hero trend keeps up long enough; Firestar, who ‘80s kids might remember from the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends cartoon; and Justice, who…well, they can’t all be in the pictures, can they?
In this storyline, Ultron is taking another shot at his usual goal of replacing organic life with robotic life. But this time includes some twists. He actually does destroy an entire small country as his opening salvo, which gives tremendous gravity to the proceedings. And he kidnaps his “family” so that he can use their brainwaves to generate unique personalities for the robotic life he wants to take over the world.
This story draws on the 35-plus years of Avengers continuity that comes before it, something the movies simply don’t have time to do. While it enriches the overall experience, it also bogs down some parts with exposition so the newer readers aren’t lost.
In the comics, Ultron was created by Hank Pym, who began his super-heroic career as Ant-Man, is most often identified as Giant-Man, and has even called himself Yellow Jacket at times. It looks like Tony Stark will create Ultron in the movie series, which is a logical revision. Pym’s scientific specialties were always biochemistry, insects, and size-changing. Creating artificial intelligence was a significant deviation.
In fact, in this storyline, Iron Man says, “Ultron always hits close to home for me, Firestar. He represents the dark side of technology, the soulless coldness of it—and even though it was Henry Pym who first built him, he always reminds me of the times my armor’s been used to kill others—and what a danger I can be.”
Then again, Pym has often been portrayed as an insecure, sometimes even unstable character trying to prove himself, so it’s not entirely out of left field in the grand scope of comics continuity. But writer/director Joss Whedon is correct not to be a purist in this instance.
Ultron, as he explicitly points out here, has always been something of a “family man,” and he is connected to an impressive family tree. In “Ultron Unlimited,” he kidnaps his “father,” Pym; his “mother,” the Wasp, who at this point is Pym’s ex-wife; his “son,” the Vision, whom he programmed with the brainwaves of the then-deceased Wonder Man, who’s alive again and also gets kidnapped; his “daughter-in-law,” the Scarlet Witch, who was married to the Vision for a while, though they’re long since divorced here; and the villainous Grim Reaper, the brother of Wonder Man.
That’s a family tree that took many years of comics to build. This story is even missing a couple of notable “relatives,” including Scarlet Witch’s brother Quicksilver, and the robotic Jocasta, whom Ultron created as a wife for himself by programming the Wasp’s brainwaves into her.
This storyline can be read by tracking down the individual issues or the out-of-print trade paperback Ultron Unlimited. Your best bet, however, is probably the Avengers Assemble vol. 2 trade paperback, which includes several other issues that come before (just make sure it’s written by Kurt Busiek. There’s another Avengers Assemble series by another writer, which I haven’t read). You can also subscribe to Marvel Unlimited’s digital library, which has this as well as most, if not all, of the earlier storylines it references.
Busiek’s entire run is full of good, solid super-heroic stories that balance character and action, and Perez’s art in the first couple of years is a treat. These guys are two of the best in the business, and it shows in “Ultron Unlimited.”