With the launch of the much awaited Age of Ultron series finally here, BuzzFeed chatted by phone with writer Brian Bendis and Marvel Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort to talk about this story that has been two years in the making.
BuzzFeed: Who is Ultron?
Tom Brevoort: He's one of the Avengers big recurring foes over the years. He was an artificial intelligence created by Hank Pym, who has been both Ant Man and Giant Man, one of the Avengers. For years Ultron had an Oedipal complex where he wanted to kill his "father" and marry his "mother," Wasp. He wanted his own family and ended up creating Vision, who then betrayed him and became one of the Avengers. So he's a recurring villain in the pantheon.
Brian Bendis: He is a self-generating AI. Hank Pym accidentally set off a time bomb on the human race. Ultron became self-aware and developed major daddy issues, as all the great Marvel villains have. But the fear with Ultron, who is up there with Magneto and Doctor Doom as a big baddy in the Marvel universe, the fear has always been one day he would evolve to a place where he knows what he needs to do and does it — and what he thinks he needs to do is eliminate the human race from the planet Earth because he is the next step up in evolution. And the Avengers are always able to beat him back or shut him down, but they're never able to kill him. Even Tony Stark and Reed Richards knew one day he would show up and eliminate us, and now it's happening. My pitch was just, "Let's do it. You just wake up one morning and everything is gone."
BF: The opening pages are completely devastating, it's all a visual overload. Why did you choose this point in time as the jumping-off point?
TB: Our intention going in was, in a story like this, typically the villain shows up and the plot is battling the villain, keeping him from doing whatever nefarious things he's planning. That tends to form the arc of most of our stories. And in this case, we took the approach of immediately dropping readers into this thing where Ultron has come down and already leveled the place, effectively winning. It throws you into this immense postapocalyptic situation, but with a ground-level story following Hawkeye on his mission.
TB: The first half or two-thirds of the issue leans on artist Bryan Hitch's strength as a dramatist and a storyteller, allowing Bendis to dial back on terms of dialogue and copy and let Hitch carry the ball in terms of directing the eye with his cinematic storytelling. The advantage we have over the guys in the movie department is an absolutely unlimited budget. Anything we can imagine and draw, we can do as long as the artist can depict it in a realistic and immersive manner. And Hitch excels at that.
BB: Bryan Hitch is the inventor of this "wide screen" comic book cinematic storytelling. It takes him a long time to produce this stuff, and you want to take advantage of everything he can offer. So we let him draw the series over the course of two years so readers get a new issue every week or two instead of every few months. I was thrilled he agreed to do this project, and it was my job as a writer to give him everything that he needs to go nuts and then get the hell out of his way. And I ended up pulling a great deal of dialogue. You'll see in the second or third issue this whole sequence where I just bailed on it, I was not helping, just covering up interesting things. The art could speak for itself. Pulling dialogue off the page is the biggest compliment I can give an artist.
BF: With the art being that intensive, was the writing part of it completed way ahead of time?
BB: No. There are some writers that do that, but I am not that person. I pick at it until the very last bit. I go over it at the lettering stage, the coloring stage, and give notes the whole way to make sure the intent of the story is being told to the best of its ability. Especially in this instance where the artists are not fully aware of the entire picture.
BF: How long after Ultron's invasion of Earth are these first five pages?
BB: Literally just a couple of days have gone by, that's how quickly everything falls apart. As fast as that, half the heroes are dead and the other half are scattered and damaged. And the city itself is already being transformed into a higher life form.
BF: Knowing this makes the despondency of the Avengers even more dramatic since it's not fatigue from an extended battle.
BB: Oh no. An extended battle they can handle. That's what they're used to. This thing? This all or nothing? That's a little different.
BF: Readers follow Hawkeye the whole issue. Is this going to be his story?
BB: The story will be handed off to different characters, from Hawkeye and Spider-Man to Black Widow and Moon Knight and then Red Hulk and Black Panther. It's gonna keep going in interesting directions over four months — in Marvel time, over the course of 10 issues. Halfway through the story something very dramatic happens after a bold decision is made that will forever alter the way we look at the Marvel universe. And with that comes different art from different artists to represent where we are. And the big one is, the ending is so secret and so big that only a few people know about it, even within the confines of Marvel publishing. Joe Quesada is drawing the end of the book; even the regular artists of AoU don't know how it ends. Readers cannot guess, it cannot be guessed.
BF: When Hawkeye attacks the bad guys, they curse in squiggles (**#&$). Is there an industry standard about adult language and situations?
TB: We do comics at all levels. We have a set of ratings for a books just like a film does. So we'll do material that is more adult-oriented or more kid-oriented. On something like AoU, which is our big-budget tentpole, you want it to be something that parents are comfortable enough to give to kids of a certain age without dumbing it down. Much like The Avengers movie.
BF: The heroes are very downtrodden — it was a little scary to see them so defeated all at once. Except for Hawkeye, who seems fed up with their inaction.
TB: It's a couple of things. Part of it is just Hawkeye's personality. But there's also that he is the most human, the most like you and me. He doesn't have any superhuman abilities, he's just really skillful at his weapon because he's worked so hard at it. So [there's] the notion that the human with the bow and arrow is the one who is able to keep it together in a world where technology has turned against man. Plus he tends to be a firebrand character to begin with, and would refuse to buckle or budge.
BB: He's always that guy. This harkens back to the earliest days of the Avengers; any time Captain America says anything, "I want tuna for lunch," Hawkeye says, "Screw you, Cap, I want chicken salad." So this is par for the course. But I did want to show there are heroes that are devastated and can't rebound and others that won't let anything shake them.
BF: You know hell has frozen over when villain Emma Frost was the voice of reason.
BB: Yeah, yeah. That's where we are now. From the very first scenes, this is an arc about hard choices. It goes back to my earliest days as a crime-fiction writer, and one of the rules for that genre is to take a character, grab them by the collar, and throw them up against the wall to see what they do. Do they cower? Do they jump back? Do they try to weasel their way out? Whatever the answer, that's what the character is, and AoU allows us to do that to many, many characters.
BF: When choosing the "damsel in distress," why Spider-Man?
TB: Well, he is sort of the everyman hero, and he's so associated with Manhattan, he sort of represents the city itself and what's been done to it. In essence, there was no other character we could have gone to there. Seeing Spider-Man in that condition bespeaks something to what has happened to NYC and the world at large.
BF: Can casual readers pick up AoU without getting horribly confused?
BB: What's cool about AoU is that if you know your Marvel minutia, you are going to have so much fun, but if you're looking for a story about a robot taking over the world, then you are going to be completely happy with your purchase. It was crafted specifically to be reader-friendly for a wide audience. There's a fine line between Easter eggs and just making things difficult for new readers, and there's no reason to do that whatsoever.
BF: How does AoU fit in with the Marvel NOW creative shake-up?
TB: Even though AoU has been in the works for almost two years, it is happening in the here and now. It does pick up on all the stuff we've built up to in Marvel NOW, and in fact, its coming out now is an outgrowth of the notion that in this new landscape that anything can happen. And the kinds of stories we can bring to what we're doing is as wide open and it's ever been. It's exciting not to be telling the same four stories over and over again. It's not quite so safe, but hopefully that trepidation ultimately means you're on a roller coaster you'll enjoy.