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Ultron Arrives Misanthropically in ‘Avengers’ #55

Ultron Arrives Misanthropically in ‘Avengers’ #55

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Avengers #55 (1968)
Written by Roy Thomas
Pencilled by John Buscema
Inked by George Klein
Published by Marvel Comics

Avengers #55 marks the first real appearance of Avengers arch-villain, but the Avengers lineup he faces is quite odd. It’s a truly kooky quartet of the recently introduced Black Panther, Hawkeye, Wasp, and Goliath, which is one of Hank Pym’s dozen or so codenames. They open the issue as prisoners of a new, mostly filled with second stringers Masters of Evil, including “sultan of sound” Klaw, Radioactive Man, Whirlwind, and the “mysterious” Melter. Their strings are being pulled by the Crimson Cowl, a truly mysterious figure, who was revealed to be the Avengers’ butler Edwin Jarvis. However, writer Roy Thomas subverts the overused “the butler did it” cliche and throws in an even crazier plot twist that the robot Ultron-5 is behind the Avengers’ capture and infiltration of their HQ.

Roy Thomas is truly a clever writer with a knack for continuity, love for obscure characters, and occasionally writes a pun or pop culture joke that elicits a smile over four decades later. He combines all three of these in his writing of the Black Knight, who is combination of all three of these traits. Black Knight ends up singlehandedly saving the Avengers from Ultron and the Masters of Evil even though the Avengers mistake him for his evil uncle Black Knight, a one-off villain in Lee and Kirby’s Avengers run.

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Thomas indulges his love for pop culture by having the Melter scornfully call him “Prince Valiant” after the do-gooder from the classic Hal Foster comic strip and having Black Knight name his horse Aragorn and pull a “Lone Ranger” on the Avengers at the end. These are throwaway gags, but show that Thomas saw superhero comics in a larger context of genre pop culture, including fantasy fiction and Westerns.

But how does Ultron come off in his first appearance? Readers don’t learn he was built by Hank Pym until later so for now, he is a mysterious, cloaked figure that both heroes and villains fear. He is incredibly arrogant and condescending calling Klaw “his jungle-bred friend” and continuing to berate his henchmen as they do the heavy-lifting of capturing and transporting the Avengers.

His evil plan is yet another predictable, Cold War-era drop an H-Bomb on New York plot, but Thomas and Buscema plant seeds for the villain feared by film and comics audiences with his terrifying design and misanthropy. His hatred for humans is on full display when Jarvis appeals to Crimson Cowl’s humanity to spare the Avengers from being senseless collateral in his attack on the Empire State Building. Buscemaavengers-55-ultron-unmasks shows Jarvis’ progression from a hypnotized state to confusion then anger and fear when Ultron reveals his face of pure, impassive evil yelling, “What makes you think I am human?” This revelation shows why Ultron treated the Masters of Evil so badly because he thinks he is superior to mere human beings.

As a product of its time, there are unfortunately quite a few cracks at Black Panther’s “jungle heritage” even though he acquits himself nicely in the battle taking out the Master Evils with some acrobatic flips and kicks courtesy of Buscema. Wasp also doesn’t get much to do in this issue except get trapped in a transparent jar by the incredibly creepy acting Klaw and Radioactive Man. Her fellow Avengers are prisoners too, but she doesn’t get to make her own arrows like Hawkeye or stomp out bad guys like Goliath.

Even though it has Ultron’s first appearance, Avengers #55 isn’t an all-time classic, but it is a fun example of Roy Thomas’ clever, bombastic writing and John Buscema’s action-packed panels with looser inking from George Klein for more meditative scenes, like Jarvis realizing he betrayed the Avengers. It is a window into a time when the Avengers weren’t a bunch of A-Listers, but a scrappy bunch that sometimes needed help from a medieval cosplayer with a flying horse named after a Lord of the Rings character to defeat their enemies.

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