…the Origin of the Vision, This Time For Sure!

This guest post comes from Richard Bensam, who in addition to writing unpublished comics for at least four different publishers, and published comics for two of them, also writes and edits for Sequart.org and very occasionally blogs at Estoreal. The comics that first triggered this interest was Avengers #55, the story that introduced Ultron. When the Vision arrived two issues later Richard had already become a devoted fan of the series, only missing one issue in the following twelve years, a lapse which haunts him to this day. This should help you understand why he’s decided to take on the subject matter of today’s fix…

Figure 1: The Golden Age Vision, Aarkus, from Marvel Mystery Comics #24, page 1 (and is that Ultron? Oops, it’s Grosso from the “Dimension of War-Dust”).

From the very first appearance of the Vision there have been some vexing questions never properly addressed in all the subsequent revelations and retcons of the character’s origin. Why did Ultron come up with such an overly complex and not entirely logical scheme of sending a menacing android to first threaten then sort of but not quite infiltrate the Avengers in a way that would fall apart and be exposed almost immediately? If the Vision was only intended to lure the Avengers into a trap, why would that require an android with sufficient powers and will to rebel against Ultron and defeat his creator? Why did Ultron just happen to give that android the name and approximate likeness of the original Vision of the 1940s, a being named Aarkus from another dimension who had been absent from Earth for some twenty-five years?

In fact, Ultron was unknowingly influenced to do these things by Aarkus himself. Aarkus wanted the Vision in the Avengers, and used Ultron as the vehicle to make this happen.

Why? Because Aarkus needed to establish a surrogate acting on his behalf within the Avengers, and do so in such a way that this surrogate could never be traced back to him. Despite the name and appearance, the true connection between Aarkus and his surrogate had to be so obscure that it couldn’t be uncovered even by someone with the ability to monitor all time and space, even if that someone was carefully studying the entire history of the Avengers. Even this agent couldn’t know his true nature – because Aarkus is working against an opponent with telepathic spies placed all throughout human history. And if you’re trying to elude telepathic detection, one strategy would be to use artificial intelligences as your agents: beings whose thoughts can’t be intercepted by telepaths capable of reading organic minds. Nor can your instructions be delivered in the form of programming that might be deciphered if the enemy captures one of your operatives and dumps its memory. Scheming against a nearly omniscient foe requires you to be very circumspect.

From his home dimension, Aarkus is able to send a signal to awaken the sentience of a rudimentary machine intelligence constructed by Henry Pym. Ultron itself is primitive and unstable, but can be used as an unwitting go-between to place a more sophisticated humanoid machine intelligence among the World’s Mightiest Heroes. Ultron will never know the name “Aarkus.”

Even after renovating itself several times, Ultron isn’t up to building the android Aarkus requires, but Aarkus quietly makes arrangements for Ultron to acquire one second-hand. Traveling back to 1924 (yes, Aarkus is a time traveler) Aarkus arranges a sequence of events indirectly leading to a copy of the English translation of Karel Čapek’s play “Rossum’s Universal Robots” being delivered to a public library. The book is left out on a table where it catches the eye of one Phineas Horton. Reading the play inspires Horton’s imagination and leads to a new direction for his studies he would not otherwise have chosen. Fifteen years later – following a period spent in the strange town of Timely, Illinois, as a protege of its unusual mayor – Horton develops the world’s first self-sustaining artificial humanoid.

The Horton android is decades ahead of its time, but its wholly self-contained internal power supply is deficient in some crucial ways. A subsystem meant to allow the android to phase in and out of our dimension – a design Aarkus slipped into the computer database used by “Victor Timely” during his tutelage of Horton – is woefully underpowered. Instead of transferring mass across dimensions, it merely superheats the air around the android, causing the air to combust while rendering the android only slightly immaterial. The humanoid learns to control this effect, enabling him to burst into flame at will and then fly with his greatly reduced mass carried aloft by air currents. Thus is born the Human Torch…his entire career and his role in the Second World War merely a side-effect of Aarkus’ long game.

The Human Torch’s synthetic mind is too sophisticated to be directly influenced by Aarkus the way Ultron was, but that’s not what he was made for anyway. Still, that underpowered subsystem needs to be fixed before the humanoid can serve his intended purpose. Aarkus takes a gamble and steps into Earth history personally, assuming the role of a costumed defender called “the Vision” during the early 1940s. Building a reputation as a hero over a span of the next three years, Aarkus is finally able to meet the Human Torch in person without being seen to make any special effort to do so. During their meeting, Aarkus is able to secretly tamper with the Torch’s power supply. The effects don’t show up immediately, but years later the humanoid’s systems fail, ultimately driving him to sacrifice himself in the Mojave Desert rather than endanger others. By that time, Aarkus has long since returned to the safety of his “shadowy realm” to manipulate events more indirectly.

Another pawn of Aarkus would be the tragic Quasimodo. Through manipulation of Quasimodo, Aarkus is able to lead the Mad Thinker to the inactive Human Torch and further advance the sequence of events that ultimately bring that used android to Ultron. Ultron in turn recruits an aged and despondent Phineas Horton to revamp his first humanoid, making alterations Ultron doesn’t realise have been “suggested” by Aarkus. For one thing, the android’s previous memories are mostly erased and he’s given a new pattern for consciousness based on the recorded engrams of the deceased Simon Williams.

Figure 2: Vision probing his memory and remembering waking up for the first time from Avengers #58, page 9.

The most significant alteration made to the former Torch is that too-weak internal power supply being augmented by an external photonic collector on his brow. This added unit supplies the extra energy needed to get the dimensional phasing effect working at last. No more spontaneous combustion! Now the android can phase some of his mass out of our dimension and become intangible, or draw on mass the same way to increase his density. The android doesn’t realise these are baby steps on the way towards learning how to teleport entirely out of our dimension at will. But with his nascent skills, the Vision goes on to join the Avengers and becomes one of their most pivotal members…just as Aarkus needs him to be.

There are various other AIs who encounter the Vision and the Avengers over the years, among them Isaac of Titan, Jocasta, and Aaron Stack. Each of these is more limited and constrained in their potential than the Vision, but each still serves a purpose in Aarkus’ plan through his ability to subtly manipulate their thought processes. Without ever realising it, these characters guide the Vision in certain directions, giving him experiences Aarkus knows he’ll need in order to develop the personality and skill set Aarkus needs him to have. For instance, his experience with Isaac isn’t a happy one, but it leaves the Vision with the ability to contact other AIs via nonlocal communication, able to influence their behaviour totally undetected the same way Aarkus can.

Funny, isn’t it, that Immortus’ synchro-staff never got around to mentioning any of this while taking the android Vision on a tour of his history? There’s a simple explanation for that as well: the information wasn’t available to the staff or its master. Immortus – with access to all space and time – doesn’t know the real secret of the Vision’s origin. That’s because Immortus is the enemy Aarkus is trying to elude. Aarkus needs the Avengers to help him defeat Immortus, and at a critical moment he’ll need the Vision right there at the center of the team as a trusted friend, able to tell them what to do and have those instructions followed.

Figure 3: Vision and Immortus from Giant-Size Avengers #3, page 37 (no ‘arm done Vizh;).

Aarkus has tried to remove himself from the picture as much as possible, staging a puppet show that will be watched by someone with the capacity to observe all space and time in countless parallel universes. The contradictory origin stories Aarkus told during the Golden Age were intended to cloud the issue. In fact, if Aarkus were to ultimately win his gambit against Immortus, it would have to happen in such a way that history never records it on any of the timelines Immortus can survey. Aarkus has to wage war so quietly his enemy never even knows hostilities were/are/will be declared.

So what is Aarkus really after? Where is he that Immortus could be unaware of him? Logically, he has to be in the one place Immortus can’t observe: right under his nose in Limbo itself. He’s within the citadel of Immortus, using Immortus’ own systems to remain undetected. To Aarkus, Immortus is an usurper in a realm where he doesn’t belong, a conqueror who took over Limbo and used it as a stronghold from which to manipulate history for selfish and destructive ends. The ultimate goal of Aarkus isn’t simply to kill or defeat Immortus, but to alter the events which brought him into  existence so Limbo is free of him. Then Aarkus will be able to claim control of Limbo as its guardian, allowing no one to dominate it and keeping it from being used as the staging ground for any other time conquerors. Immortus, Kang, Doom, the Time Keepers, multiple others cannot be allowed to claim Limbo.

To counter Immortus, Aarkus needs the Avengers – the ones who’ve consistently managed to keep the master of time and space at bay across all his incarnations. And when this silent war against Immortus needs a nudge in the right direction, the Vision will find himself drawn into Limbo, meeting Aarkus face to face for the one and only time in Immortus’ citadel. Here the two will have a “Luke, I am your grandfather” encounter in which Aarkus lays out his role in the Vision’s creation and persuades him of the importance of persuading the Avengers to do what Aarkus needs them to do. The Vision has to be persuaded that Aarkus is absolutely on the side of good and not simply looking to take the role of Immortus for himself.

Fortunately for Aarkus, he knows exactly how to convince the Vision. Aarkus knows the Vision better than anyone. Aarkus knows that well into the Vision’s own future – after his appearance and behaviour have altered several more times, decades or centuries after all his fellow Avengers are all long gone – the Vision will return to Limbo hoping to find Aarkus again. Instead the Vision will find Limbo empty and unguarded. Suspecting someone has eliminated Aarkus and seeing the unsecured state of Limbo as a threat, the Vision will set about refortifying Limbo to continue the plan set forth by Aarkus all those years before. From his history as an Avenger, the Vision will figure out how to locate and organise the anonymous shapeshifting beings called Space Phantoms and use them as builders to reconstruct the citadel of Limbo under his guidance. And as anticipated, an outsider will arrive to claim Limbo as a base of operations. The Vision will be shocked to see Immortus, the foe he believed had been eliminated from history.

The Vision will send the Space Phantoms to defend Limbo…but he’s made a terrible mistake. Having freed himself from enslavement and become his own individual, the Vision truly believed he could teach the passive Space Phantoms to do the same. They respond exactly the way he wants them to respond, but he’s underestimated how malleable and tractable they really are. When faced with the domineering will of their foe, the Vision’s forces defect to serving Immortus instead – their loyalties shifting so completely they forget the Vision was ever there. As a result, Immortus never learns of the Vision and never realises he’s being observed. Right under the nose of Immortus, within the citadel Immortus has claimed as his own, using the tools of Immortus to conceal his presence from his foe, the Vision will finally realise…well, you see what’s coming next.

Aarkus and the android Vision were the same being all along. The Vision is his own grandpa. The snake that swallows its own tail, the self-creating scarab of Egyptian myth. The hero of the 1940s was secretly an android, amused to be called “the Vision” in his heroic exploits of that era as a remembrance of his wonderful but bittersweet earlier life decades later, even as he takes the steps to set that future life into motion exactly as he remembered it. And the cycle needs to be completed so that Immortus can be removed from existence and Limbo freed from control. But to do that, he’ll need the help of his long-gone fellow Avengers.

And who knows: perhaps it was some vague memory of a picture or description of Aarkus from the 1940s that inspired Janet Van Dyne to unconsciously recognise him on seeing the android in person for the first time, causing her to exclaim: “No! It’s some sort of unearthly, inhuman Vision –!”

Figure 4: Vision menacing Janet Van Dyne and she delivers the line that names him from Avengers #57, page 3.

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…bad Galactus stories?

Bad Galactus stories

Fantastic Four aficionado, Chris Tolworthy, comes to the rescue with this second guest post in quick succession to his last, here!

This “how would you fix” is about pretty much every Galactus story after the original classic.  Even the good ones raise difficult questions; and the bad ones are awful.  Yet there is a logic to them if we look closely.  A solution is found by comparing Fantastic Four #262, Annual #23 and #604.  Yes, #604.  Normally I run screaming from any Fantastic Four number dated after 1990, but this one deserves attention.

Before continuing, I must stress that I rely heavily on the Fantastic Four as the core text, and mainly issues before #322.  I refer to very few others.  I am an unrepentant Fantastic Four fanboy, and am apt to pick holes in other comics while defending the Fantastic Four as Great Literature, so be warned.  Also, spoilers ahead…

Let’s start with the problem with later Galactus stories.  Fantastic Four #48-50 (the Galactus trilogy, and more) is the gold standard for superhero comics.  Utterly superb.  Yet later appearances (even by Stan Lee… well actually ESPECIALLY by Stan Lee) show a different and inferior Galactus.  Here are some examples:

1. The original Galactus visit was a one off event.  The Watcher said of these forces “you shall never see their like again!”  Yet we allegedly “see their like again” regularly in later years.

2. Galactus seems unaware of where the Skrull throne world should be.  So either he travels so widely that he would not expect to visit the same galaxy twice within a few thousand years, or he travels at random and avoids maps.  Either way, why does he keep coming back to Earth?

3. “Of all who inhabit the known universe, only GALACTUS has powers enough to match my own!” – so said the Watcher.  We can quibble over the exact meaning of this phrase, but at the very least we cannot expect any Earth bound power or collection of powers to defeat him.  Yet in later appearances he is routinely defeated.

4. The Silver Surfer is different.  The original Surfer features in Skrull history books, books that less informed Skrulls have not read, suggesting that he’s been around a long time.  But there is no indication in the origin that the Surfer is any younger than Galactus.  Galactus seems unaware of the Surfer’s full power: “Your power is far greater than I suspected, herald.”  The surfer does not understand beauty or self-sacrifice: “there is a word some races use… a word I have never understood… until now!  At last I know… BEAUTY!” and “I have learned from the HUMANS how glorious it can be to have a cause worth dying for!”  Yet in later appearances we are told that Norrin Rad became the Surfer in order to save his home world, and his beloved Shalla Bal, who can still pass for a young woman (cf. Fantastic Four #153-155).  Granted, perhaps the Surfer’s race lives a long time, but this really sounds like a different person.

5. The original Galactus does not get hungry quickly: “All ETERNITY awaits me! I can afford to be patient!”  Yet the later Galactus is always hungry: “You must be swift! My hunger grows UNENDURABLE!” (FF76)

6. The original Galactus can never lie.  “The promise of GALACTUS is living TRUTH itself! His word can never be questioned!”  Yet when he came back he said he promised never to return, but was considering breaking the promise.  (Actually he never promised not to return, he simply promised not to tarry, so this is another change.)

7. The original Galactus is part of an advanced race.  As the Watcher said, “Did not YOUR race… and MINE… evolve from such humble beginnings?”  Yet the later Galactus was a lone survivor of a world that, while more advanced than ours, was more like “gnats” than “gods.”

8. The original Galactus has a symbol of an eternal arrow on his chest (often mistaken for a letter G).  Later Galactuses do not.  They also alternate with sleeves or not, visible eyes or not, highly muscular arms or not.  The ship changes completely as well: from a sphere to a wing to a cube.

9. I gather that other comics feature problematic origin stories.  I think those problems will resolve themselves once we understand what Galactus is and how he operates.

Now let’s look at a solution to the problems.  Our first exhibit is the backup story in Fantastic Four Annual #23.  It follows from a similar backup story in Annual 22, and both could be considered together.  They give an overview of the highest powers in the universe, and I would like to draw your attention to a comment about the Celestials.  A certain character in another comic was shown defeating Celestials.  But that is just because it suited the Celestials for him to believe that.  The stories also show that scale is largely an illusion, and there is much we do not know (the Beyonders, for example, are barely known at all).  This is as we should expect: advanced beings are not like us.  They do not look or think or act like us.  We can draw some conclusions, but those conclusions may be surprising. Let’s go, shall we?

Advanced beings probably operate on higher dimensions.  This means one being might have multiple appearances in this world.  Imagine your 3D body appearing in a 2D world.  Like putting your hand slowly through the 2D surface of a bath of water.  To that surface, your hand appears as 5 separate shapes, then those shapes join, change shape, get thicker… one being appears as multiple slightly different beings!  We can see this already in the real world: as people we exist online as avatars.  One person can have many avatars at the same time.  As Artificial Intelligence improves, our avatars could even answer questions on our behalf.  We can exist as multiple beings!

Now recall the Watcher’s comment that there are basically just two powerful beings: the Watcher and Galactus.  It seems reasonable to suppose that the Beyonders, Celestials, etc., are merely aspects of Galactus.  Galactus tests planets (eating those that cannot hide), the Celestials test planets (Arishem the judge), the Beyonders test planets (by providing rewards for those who reach a certain level), and so on.  I further submit that each Galactus is a different aspect of the one Galactus, hence the different appearance, history, and behaviour.  The Surfer may also have been raised to a higher dimension to gain his powers, explaining his different versions.

Our next exhibit is Fantastic Four #262, and follows from the previous discussion: we are shown (in the Trial of Reed Richards) that each civilisation sees Galactus in its own image.  We have the Galactus that most suits us at a particular time.  Remember that the highest powers in the universe tend to personify concepts, such as Eternity, or the Living Tribunal.  It seems likely that the Watchers personify knowledge and Galactus personifies testing or truth (the same thing).  It is only natural that these concepts change according to who interacts with them.

The final exhibit is Fantastic Four #604, the climax to Jonathan Hickman’s long arc.  My view is that after issue #321 we see different realities slipping in and out of focus, so I take most later stories with a pinch of salt (with the exception of Claremont’s run: he appears to use the original Fantastic Four).  However, Franklin exists across dimensions, so every Franklin appearance counts as canon.  But this is not an essay about Franklin, so I will cut to the chase.  I did warn you about spoilers, didn’t I?  OK, here is the conclusion to Hickman’s 50 issue arc: Galactus is the herald of Franklin.  Yes, you read that right.  Don’t act horrified.  It makes sense if we step back and look at the nature of Franklin’s power.

Franklin basically connects realities.  I won’t go into details, but he is a doorkeeper.  He lets the entire universe (or a part of it) slip into an alternate universe.  By letting people switch universes he appears to be creating or changing entire universes, but it’s more subtle than that.  It’s more like connecting doorways, except you do not physically walk through any door, the normal passage of time does the walking for you.  It’s all quite simple and subtle really. As Annual #23 said, scale is an illusion.  But this is not an essay about Franklin.

If Franklin’s power is to connect universes, and Galactus personifies testing, it follows naturally that Galactus is the herald of Franklin because every test leads to a new state of the universe (e.g. one where we have defeated Galactus or one where we are destroyed).  All the rest of it, the explosions and battles and Kirby dots and such, is just how we experience this higher dimensional testing and connecting.  Galactus only appears in his big G form when the test is of a particular type.

OK, with that understanding (Galactus adapts to us, and is attracted to Franklin), let us examine the appearances of Galactus in the core Fantastic Four timeline:

Fantastic Four #48-50: this was the great test. Galactus finds the Earth at random, and he represents all the grandeur of the universe, as you would expect.  Notice that the Ultimate Nullifier is basically a crude Franklin tool: it jumps everything to a different reality.

The next appearance of Galactus, Fantastic Four 74: One year later (1967) Sue learns she is pregnant with Franklin.  She learns in Annual #5, a Microverse story.  Soon after, in another Microverse story, Galactus feels drawn back to Earth against his will (“Galactus did VOW to NEVER RETURN– and yet, he is HERE!”) and is inexplicably desperately hungry.  Ironically the boys are rushing around like mad things (seriously this is probably the busiest arc ever) and they think they are letting Sue rest.  But the real story is going on inside Sue’s womb: Franklin’s stress hormones are dragging Galactus to Earth.

The next appearance, Fantastic Four #122: Franklin’s life is relatively uneventful for a few years (except for the birth, but this was probably a Caesarian due to the complications, so Franklin probably didn’t feel too stressed).  But by the age of four Franklin is old enough to realise what is going on, and it coincides with the beginnings of the family problems that I call Act Four.  (Although Franklin is four years old in 1972 he only lets himself appear as two years old.)  Franklin must be worried, as Galactus is drawn back to the Earth, and acts like a four year old: he looks like a toy soldier with bulging muscles, and acts very dumb (tripped over by Ben, and has an easy to access spacecraft with a gigantic self-destruct button).  He even plays with a roller coaster and giant train set.  He is basically molded to Franklin’s four year old brain.  He is announced by Franklin’s nanny, Agatha Harkness, Agatha watches throughout, and he (Galactus) ends up in Franklin’s home turf, the Negative Zone.

The next appearance, Fantastic Four #172: Though Franklin is brain zapped in the #140s he isn’t really aware of this (he is far more concerned with what happens to his family).  Franklin is next aware of major problems when his uncle Ben fights against the family, then loses his powers and is replaced and fights them again.  Franklin’s eight year old brain (appearing as three years old) has a typical eight year old solution: he unconsciously has a new, better Earth built, and summons Galactus there so his family can prove once again that they do the right thing.  And how does his eight year old brain get rid of Galactus this time?  By giving him indigestion!

The next appearance, Fantastic Four #212: Franklin is getting older and better at controlling things: Galactus is becoming more of a friend.  The family experiences a new crisis – Sue and Reed and Ben age and almost die, so Franklin unconsciously summons Galactus to help against the Sphinx.  Obviously he doesn’t just say “come here Galactus” – it is all unconscious through manipulating reality so that others do the job, but the result is the same.  When he finally masters his powers in Fantastic Four #604 then yes, he does say “to me, my Galactus.”  Of course Galactus still asks for his dinner, but that is just how the test always goes, and the family always passes the test.

The next appearance, Fantastic Four #243-44: The most traumatic experience in Franklin’s life (pre-Waid) is when he is hung upside down as fresh meat for Annihilus.  This trauma not only drags his parents back from Reed’s Negative Zone debacle, but also drags Galactus along.  By now Galactus and Franklin are best buds in whatever higher plane they occupy.  It plays out in this reality as Reed saving the big G’s life and becoming BFF.  And that ends the Galactus threat.  At least as far as the original Fantastic Four is concerned (i.e. pre 1989, pre Fantastic Four #322).

As for other appearances, origin stories, etc., what we see is merely our four dimensional glimpse of a five dimensional reality.  We only ever see a partial Galactus, a Galactus-adapted-to-our-needs, or more likely a story made up by the Bullpen.  Only the Fantastic Four report directly to the Bullpen: other comics include wild speculation, especially where secret identities are concerned.  So we should not get too hung up on the details if some other version of Galactus is a bit odd.  Untangling it is half the fun.

Note: Fantastic Four #257 was part of their seventh encounter, when they had become friends.  Note the Biblical significance (6 is struggle, as in 666, 7 represents peace, as in resting on the seventh day, 7 angels, etc.). The Fantastic Four have six battles, leading to the seventh encounter as friends. Hmmm.