Wednesday, April 29, 2015

1980s: Ulterior Ultron part I: The Decadent Decade

By Jef Willemsen (

With Avengers: Age of Ultron only days away from a US release, interest in the adamantium killing machine is greater than ever. But, there used to be a time Hank Pym's cybernetic lovechild wasn't a household name at all. That time was the 1980s, a decade in which Ultron was anything but Ultimate, Universal, Undeniable or Unavoidable...

... Or Undying...

Truth be told, the late 1970s were a great time to be a fan of Ultron. After the character made a spectacular debut in 1968, he laid low for the first half of the 1970s, only making a bit of a splash when he mounted his head on top of the giant robot Omega to mess up Quicksilver and Crystal's wedding. But, the Hank Pym created automaton finally got some depth and characterization during Jim Shooter's 1977 run on Avengers.

The Avengers ultimately defeated the sentient, adamantium covered robot thanks to the Scarlet Witch who used her hex powers to mess up its seemingly impenetrable hide and innards. But not before Ultron had taken his Oedipal complex toward Hank Pym to the next level by constructing a bride: the robotic Jocasta who rebelled against her creator/husband and joined the Avengers.

As the 1970s drew to a close, Ultron seemed defeated. Unfortunately, even back in the days of transistor circuitry and cupboard sized CPUs, one couldn't get rid of electronic evil all that easily. As November 1980's Avengers I#201 proved, Ultron was about to be reborn. Some outside force had rebuilt the mechanical menace who was now looking forward to enhancing its form with adamantium again. That's why it sent a robot to his dad's house to claim some of the metal stored there.

The Wasp tried to stop the robot, but got swatted aside like the bug she named herself after. That's why, in Avengers I#202, she flew to Avengers Mansion for back up.

"Put her on the couch, Iron Man"

Prophetic words, considering that in less than two years, that's exactly what Tony would be doing to Janet. Still, the Wasp explained the situation to the Avengers who concluded that the robot robbing adamantium could only mean one thing: Ultron was back. Incidentally, when Kurt Busiek and, once again, George Perez crafted their darn near perfect Ultimate Ultron arc in 1999's Avengers 19-22, they paid homage of sorts to this issue by having the Wasp once again burst through the window to warn the team. 

"It's Hank, Iron Man... He's been kidnapped!"

But, back in 1980, with no clue who was responsible for resurrecting the robot, the team decided to prepare for the worst. Given the fact she'd been their ace in the hole the last time around, Scarlet Witch was kept under tight security at the mansion. Her husband Vision stood a close vigil, while the entire team was unaware that the true (re)creator of Ultron was... Iron Man. Tony Stark had been affected by Ultron's hypnotic gaze, which planted a post-hypnotic suggestion in his mind that forced the genius inventor to rebuild him should he ever be destroyed. What's worse, Stark acted like Ultron's servant, even delivering the Scarlet Witch to him even if part of him refused to cooperate.

"Bring her".

Iron Man delivered his teammate to Ultron who had been holed up in a Star Industries plant in New Jersey where he was busy preparing to enhance his form with the stolen, by now molten adamantium. Despite his obvious metal mindset, he wasn't above revenge. He wanted to pay Wanda back for hurting him in the exact same way she'd defeated him: by rendering the witch apart limb from limb. However, before he could get to that, the Avengers traced Iron Man to Ultron's factory thanks to a scanner he'd secretly built and left in his lab at the mansion. And of course, the battle was joined.

"Now feel the naked power of Ultron!"

Well, considering Ultron hasn't been dressed ever since he abandoned that "Crimson Cowl" identity in the late 60s... there's really nothing (new) to feel or behold. The Avengers did their best to combat Ultron, but even without an adamantium hide he gave the team a run for its money. Movie goers will notice that this David Michelinie/George Perez tale bears more than few similarities to the Age Of Ultron movie. Not only did Iron Man (re)create Ultron, the team consists of Avengers seen in both the comic and the movie.

And, not unlike Jeremy Renner in the movie, Hawkeye proved to be the one who saved the day...

"No! I... Must... Sur...Viiiive..."

After Hawkeye tossed him into a vat of rapidly setting impenetrable adamantium, the threat of Ultron seemed permanently dealt with. And it was, for a while at least... Because October 1982 brought Marvel Two-In-One I#92 which matched up Thing with Ultron's former bride, Jocasta. She'd arrived at the Baxter Building looking for help.

"Something was causing my cybernetic senses to malfunction.
I could feel myself slipping away by degrees"

Jocasta was right, something was messing with her senses... And it was Ultron. Getting dipped in adamantium might have trapped him physically, his robotic mind was still able to venture out and contact Jocasta's cybernetic brain. Of course this was still late 1982, usage or knowledge of computers was still extremely limited. This meant Two-In-One writer Tom DeFalco probably knew very little if anything about hacking, back door programming or Trojan Horses other than the ones from Hellenic mythology. That's why Ultron's take-over of Jocasta literally felt like a bad dream.

"... The evil spectre of Ultron may still hang over her..."

Oh my... and ach du lieber... Jocasta. She was staying in one of the FF's guest quarters and decided to take a nap, like humans do, covers and all. During her "sleep" she was influenced by Ultron who forced her to come to him. Yes, for some (convenient) reason, Tony Stark had decided the best place to keep the molten adamantium Ultron statue was his otherwise still abandoned New Jersey factory. Perhaps that decision was an after effect of the post-hypnotic suggestion that forced Stark to rebuild Ultron in the first place. Even so, Jocasta was stimulated to come to him and set up equipment that would melt off the excess adamantium that kept him in place. 

"Ultron lives!"

Helping her biggest nightmare return to life snapped Jocasta right out of her cybernetically induced hypnosis. She attacked her master, but much like his creator Hank Pym, Ultron knew how to deal with unruly females... 1980s style.

"Jocasta, you are a fool to defy me!"

The elongated robotic arm belongs to Aaron Stack, better known as Machine Man. Poor Jocasta, even in a title like Marvel Two-in-One, specifically meant as a vehicle for Thing and another Marvel hero, she gets passed over halfway through the issue for another robotic good guy. Thing had gotten Machine Man to accompany him in his rescue attempt of Jocasta, only to fall prey to Ultron's hypnotic gaze.

"SMASH HIM! Pulverize him into scrap metal!"

That was the cliffhanger to Marvel Two-In-One I#92. Of course, it didn't take long into #93 for Machine Man to escape with Jocasta. Hijacking Ben's air-cycle, they retreated to lick their proverbial wounds. As they planned for a way to defeat Ultron with Machine Man's ally, the mechanic "Gears" Gavin, Ultron went ahead with a plan of his own. In much the same way Avengers: Age of Ultron features a great number of Ultron drones, the original Ultron decided to have the mind controlled Thing rob sufficient raw materials to create duplicates of himself.

"We shall conquer!"

Even though probably nobody was aware of it at the time, this plotline sparked the idea for Ultron to have several incarnations and bodies, all operational at the same time. We'll see how this seemingly throwaway tale would serve as a major plot twist for Ultron in the second half of the 1980s. More on that in the second part of Ulterion Ultron, for now... let's focus on the resolution to this particular two parter. Jocasta, "Gears" and Machine Man eventually attacked, with Jocasta sacrificing herself to oppose the one who created her. And as dramatic as her sacrifice was, this was still the early 80s when one could get away with resolutions like this...

"C-can't control bodily functions!"

Forget the classic Avengers moment when Vision wept when he was allowed to join, here's a robot who wets himself in an entirely different way. Turns out the best way to take out a cutting edge piece of robotics is by reaching down its gullet and pulling out some of the wiring. This appeared to be Ultron's ultimate defeat, and for a good year and half it was... Until Jim Shooter decided to include Pym's enfant terrible in the 1984 smash ht Secret Wars. No one knew just how Ultron had survived, but the same held true for Doctor Doom who appeared alive and well in the limited series even though he'd just perished fighting Galactus' wayward herald Tyros.

Speaking of Galactus, as Secret Wars I#1 proved, Ultron really had to learn to pick his battles.

"Perhaps Ultron... *RAAARRK*"

The devourer of worlds drained the arrogant A.I's thermo-nuclear furnace, which offered less than a canape's worth of energy to Galactus but did show readers the stakes that were involved in the Beyonder's game. Ultron seemed done for, cannon fodder in the opening gambit of the war, but when Doctor Doom returned to the villains' base in issue #2 following a failed attempt to engage the Beyonder, he concocted a way to make the depowered adamantium killer work for him.

"Absolutely indestructible... powerful beyond measure... armed with alien energies even the Absorbing Man cannot absorb... He is mine to command! As are you!"

For most of the 12 part series, Ultron served as Doom's personal guard and enforcer. His true personality completely subverted, he didn't involve himself in any of the many fights and confrontations between Earth's heroes, the villains and Magneto and the X-Men. Only when the heroes attacked Doom's citadel did he decide to engage the enemy. Before he could bring himself to bear, Ultron was deactivated by the Human Torch who tackled the robot and went nova on his shiny metal *ss. Somehow, Johnny Storm produced sufficient heat to penetrate Ultron's exterior, his cybernetics fused together and he dropped. So much for self repair systems.

But, Ultron got yet another chance to prove himself. In #12 he was revived by the Beyonder who had taken refuge inside the form of Klaw in an attempt to reclaim his power that Doctor Doom had robbed from him an issue earlier.  

"There! Ultron is alive again! As alive as robots get anyway!"

Ultron did as Ultrons do... attack do-gooders, and boy... in the final issue of Secret  Wars just about everyone this side of right joined up to take Doom down. Ultron faced a number of heroes until he was smacked around by the Hulk. Even though the robot got in a good shot, crippling the green behemoth, the attack left him vulnerable to yet another defeat...

"I got inside through the space created when the Hulk dented Ultie a little!"

Defeated, the decapitated villain was left to rot... as far as machines can even do that. Ultron was left behind on Battleworld when everyone but the Thing returned home. Over the course of a year's worth of stories, Thing writer John Byrne revealed the curious, wish fulfilling nature of the Beyonder's patchwork planet. Ben Grimm realized his fondest wishes or deepest fears would all be made manifest, but what's worse... so did the desires of others who were forcibly stranded there because they were unlucky enough the Beyonder chose their slice of planet to form Battleworld.

One of them was empress Llrrllllnnllyyrrl (just rolls off the tongue, don't it?) who had come into possession of Ultron's head and had expended the resources of her followers to reconstruct the rest of his body... The empress was convinced that by doing so, she'd get rewarded.

"Ultron is reborn!"

Thanking the tiny ruler for her efforts, a charitable as ever Ultron decided to honor her with "the perfect gift, the final gift...Oblivion." He vaporized Llrrllllnnllyyrrl and then announced that with his rebirth, all life "on this pitiful world was forfeit". Naturally, because this all happened in Thing I#21 and Grimm's adventures on Battleworld would end in two month's time... it goes without too much saying that Ultron faced off against Ben and lost (his head). Tired of a world that would turn even his most casual of thoughts into potential nightmares, Thing decided it was high time he went home.

He arrived back on Earth in Fantastic Four I#277, carrying a very familiar memento.

"I'm back!"

Thing's return coincided with the Dire Wraiths' final attack on humanity. That forced Ben to focus his attention to the crisis at hand (not to mention the shocking realization his erstwhile girlfriend Alicia was now dating his teammate the Human Torch). Ultron's cut off head was pretty much forgotten...  or was it?

More on that in Ulterior Ultron Part II: This Evil Multiplying  

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