I first started blogging about anthropology and comic books back in 2012 in an occasional series titled Illustrated Man. It lasted for about nine posts before petering out as other projects demanded my attention, especially going back to grad school to pick up a Masters after completing my doctorate. While I stopped blogging about them I never stopped reading comics.
Now a professional librarian, my engagement with comics is changing again as I begin serving on a graphic novel book prize committee for my state professional association. It’s time to shake off the rust and get to writing again! So welcome to The Return of Illustrated Man. For our first installment I’ll be taking up a subject neglected in the original run, superheroes, with a review of The Vision: Little Worse than a Man/ Little Better than a Beast (2016).
Marvel fans know Vision as one of the oldest characters of the Avengers, his Silver Age origins dating back to 1968. Despite his longevity Vision is not a heavy hitter among the superstar Marvel heroes and is typically only seen in the context of the Avengers group. I mean, he’s no Wolverine or Spider-Man. Casual fans may recognize him as a supporting character from the recent blockbusters Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). Perhaps because of his status as a relatively minor character in the Marvel canon, Vision was ripe for a reimagining and his latest iteration, a twelve issue run from 2016 now collected in two trade paperbacks, is stellar.
You do not need comprehensive knowledge of his background story to appreciate Little Worse than a Man/ Little Better than a Beast, but I will provide a very brief primer (for a more thorough survey read this). The Vision is an android and so has a curiously alienated relationship with humanity not unlike Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. In fact, according to Wikipedia, at his debut he has was sometimes compared to Spock, a character also introduced in the late 1960s. And like the treacherous android Bishop from the movie Alien, the Vision is also vaguely threatening to his allies. He was, after all, created by the robot villain Ultron, with whom he shares an odd quasi father-son kin relation, to be a weapon to destroy the Avengers. In becoming a hero rather than a villain as he was programmed to do by his father, Vision serves to comment on fate and free will. Finally, in a theme that resonates strongly with multiple science fiction traditions, Vision has a human romantic partner in the Scarlet Witch. Their relationship holds additional meaning for the Vision as his experience of romantic love and later, marriage and parenthood, serves to legitimate his claim to humanity.
Little Worse than a Man/ Little Better than a Beast is, in essence, a family drama. It is a tragedy, albeit one with a faint glimmer of sunlight at the end. Our story begins with the Vision having separated from the Scarlet Witch, his memory of their love erased in true soap opera fashion by a software reinstallation. Scarlet Witch gifts him her own brainwave patterns that Vision uses to create a female version of himself, Virginia, and the two of them create children, twin teenagers, Viv and Vin. Now a family, the Visions move to the suburbs and endeavor to become normal. And then their lives fall apart.
Our story opens on the family of robots experiencing constant low-level conflict with their neighbors who find them both fascinating and terrifying. Vision goes to work and worries about his paycheck, Virginia becomes a homemaker and appears to struggle with depression. The children go to high school and have trouble fitting in. Vin gets into a fight, Viv meets a boy, both teens lock horns with their parents. This kind of typical family drama stuff shows us how the Vision family is at their most human when they fail to be perfect. Seen in this light Little Worse than a Man/ Little Better than a Beast is reminiscent of another landmark deconstruction of the superhero genre, Astro City. Extraordinary people are shown to have ordinary problems.
The strange is made familiar. The familiar is made strange.
But despite the well meaning condescension and outright prejudice of their neighbors the Vision family cannot give up their quest to be human because to reject their humanity, to reject the very humans that shun them, is to leave the door open for Ultron. In the beginning Ultron creates Vision to be an agent of evil and in this series Vision creates his family out of himself. It’s like the New Testament by way of Being John Malkovich. That the Visions are all different versions of the same person serves to more deeply underline the inescapability of their fate. And yet they struggle, these born sinners, to seek out salvation.
In my reading one of the most interesting things about the Vision family is their experience of love, both romantic and domestic. Indeed it is their sympathetic portrayal as emotional beings that makes the tragic ending really stick. Whereas there are a number of science fiction entries that give humans and robots sharing emotions together, what are we to make of robots loving each other? And while we might imagine human on robot sex as promising an array of titillating pleasures, what about robot on robot sex? Robots that have desires? Robots that feel pleasure? Robots that have sex for the same reasons we have sex, to create and express social bonds.
In the domestic sphere science fiction typically presents robots as servants. Whether they are butlers, body guards, or doctors, in the robot’s world humans come first. Again, Little Worse than a Man/ Little Better than a Beast breaks new ground as the family argues at the dinner table, the mother worries about her children’s well being, the father plays with the kids, the brother and sister share a sibling rivalry. The Vision family shows us robots with autonomy, they just want to live their lives. But even this modest goal will lay beyond their grasp. Its heartbreaking.
As volume one closes and the book’s central tragedy is foreshadowed, a high school literature teacher introduces Vin to The Merchant of Venice and he becomes obsessed with Shylock. Fortunately, this rhetorical moves turn out to be more clever than cliche. After all revenge and Avenger do share a root (one the act of a villain, the other a hero’s victory). With melancholy wonder Vin asks if you prick him, does he not bleed? Given the body count at the end of the series Othello might have worked just as well, but in this case I think the literary allusion is welcome.
For anthropologists who are also comic fans The Vision: Little Worse than a Man/ Little Better than a Beast is a must read, this book will redefine how you see a classic character. It invites deep, critical reflection about what is so unique about being a human and the practice of how we might better understand ourselves. The ending just floored me, I nearly cried.
Casual fans and colleagues interested in anthropology and science fiction, especially robots and the cultural imaginary, will find this to be a thoughtful genre piece that invites us to see human beings from an android’s point of view. You do not need deep, nerdy levels of knowledge about Marvel superheroes to enjoy this story and the book itself does a good job of filling the reader in on background elements as the narrative warrants.
While this would make good reading for teens it is not appropriate for children who may find that the grim, mature themes fly over their heads. One of my own teens read it and said it was “good,” which is fairly high praise coming from her. I was able to find volume one in my public library and picked up volume two at an independent bookstore for $13. It definitely stands up to multiple readings.