My Misspent Youth — West Coast Avengers by John Byrne

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

In the late nineteen-eighties, John Byrne came back to Marvel. A few years earlier, the fan favorite comic creator left the publisher where he forged his fame as the artist on a seminal run of X-Men and then as the writer-artist for Fantastic Four, among others, to take a splashy gig revamping Superman for the distinguished competition. Upon his return, Byrne presumably could have his pick of titles, but rather than one of the major heroes, he found his way to West Coast Avengers, at the time a decidedly second-string performer. As Byrne later recounted, the assignment appealed to him because the affirmative answer he received upon asking, “Can I do my Vision story?”

Vision has been introduced about two decades earlier, in the pages of The Avengers. An android with working tear ducts, Vision was a stalwart member of the super-team known as the Earth’s mightiest heroes, accumulate a complicated history along the way. His physical form was a refurbished version of nineteen-forties android hero the Human Torch (hammered into shape by Ultron, the Avengers’ robotic arch foe) and his psyche was formed by copying the brainwaves of Wonder Man, another Avengers-affiliated do-gooder. By the time Vision has relocated to the West Coast branch of his crimefighting collective, he had long been married to the mutant spell-caster Scarlet Witch, and she had used her powers to conjure up a pair of offspring to complete their nuclear family. Even for comics, it’s a lot. As he was wont to do, Byrne intended to tear that all down. To do so, he started his story with Vision going missing.

When one of their own vanishes, the Avengers have the skill set to do some problem solving. In short order, they crack the case. Or rather the case is cracked when Mockingbird, the estranged wife of team leader Hawkeye, shows up with some valuable intel.

The momentary roar issuing from Tigra, the feline female on the roster, is a sign that her feral side is starting to take over a story Byrne also started seeding in from the jump. More than most of his peers at the time, Byrne inherently understood the soap-opera inner working of superhero comic books. Alongside the swing fists and power beams, it was melodrama that kept pages turning, and Byrne’s job as a creator was to cook up character dismay that built gradually.

And then sometimes the dismay came in a sudden issue-ending, two-page spread.

See? Tear it all down.

Of course, the whole robot thing means getting disassembled is a solvable problem. When the reconstruction takes place, Vision is given a different look and his personality is wiped away, in part because Wonder Man refuses to sign on for loaning a copy of his mind again. (Because, again, Byrne knows it needs to be a soap opera.) After years of Vision evolving away from his origins to comes across as more and more human, Byrne brought his back to his robotic beginnings.

The story was representational of what made Marvel Comics distinctive and great through the nineteen-seventies and -eighties as creators were giving it their level best to emulate forefathers Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and their cohorts. The story drew on the history of the characters while building to revelations that felt cataclysmic even though they were really small, easily undone shifts. Only the beginning of Byrne’s run on the title, it signaled how he planned to play with these well-established and not-yet-overused characters. And it was clear his chief affection was for Vision and Scarlet Witch. They were the figures who held the greatest possibilities for wild-ride storytelling. And wild rides are what he aimed to deliver.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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