Decoding AGE OF ULTRON with Tom Brevoort
CREDIT: Marvel Comics
***This article contains spoilers for Age of Ultron through issue #9, on sale now.***
As of this week, 9 out of the 10 issues of the main Age of Ultron story have been released, featuring a twisty tale told by Brian Michael Bendis starting with the already-ruined Marvel Universe of the present, and moving to an altered reality headed for a similar fate following some misguided time-traveling.
It's a series that's deliberately been constructed differently than past events, shifting plot and setting dramatically midstream, and dropping the reader right in the midst of the action rather than taking more time to set things up. The nature of Age of Ultron has caused some observers to wonder how things fit in with the rest of the Marvel Universe, and just how much the cataclysmic events will ultimately "matter" to the rest of the company's publishing line.
With one issue left to go, we talked in-depth about the story with Tom Brevoort, discussing fan reactions, narrative choices, the work of second-half artists Brandon Peterson and Carlos Pacheco, and the relative oddity of a story titled Age of Ultron featuring, thus far, very little Ultron on-panel.
Newsarama: Tom, as of this week, Age of Ultron is now 90 percent out there in the world, and from your perspective as someone who has been closely involved with so many of these big Marvel stories, when you look at this one, what do you see that, in your opinion, are the unique strengths of the story?
Tom Brevoort: This is sort of an odd thing to say, but one of the things that I liked the most about it is the fact that it seemed to so baffle so many readers. Just in terms of the way the story unfolded, and the bounces that it took. Issue after issue, I heard from readers used to a certain type of storytelling. They're used to a very A goes to B goes to C sort of thing, and the fact that Age of Ultron started at C really threw them off of their pins, and they kept waiting for B. That I found interesting, just in terms of how people related to the story that was being told — and that's for people who liked it, people who hated it, people who were indifferent to it, people who went out and bought every tie-in that we did.
Certainly it was probably more challenging to our more dyed-in-the-wool, long-term readers than slightly more casual readers. Our core constituency tended to spend a lot of effort and energy and brainpower on either, "How does this fit in with all the other things that you're publishing? You keep saying that it's happening now, but what about this, what about that?" Or on the other side going, "Oh, this isn't going to matter at all. This can't matter at all, because it's all going to be wiped away." And yet, everybody that was saying that — or a lot of them at least — seemed to be saying it after they read every single issue. [Laughs.] So they were involved enough in what was going on, and intrigued enough — or shocked and horrified enough — to want to follow the story and see exactly what the heck we were going to do next.
I think the thing that I take away from it more than anything else is the fact that we were pretty successful of being able to keep people off-balance and guessing as to what was going to happen. Whether it's good or whether it's bad by an individual reader standpoint, it was certainly unexpected all the way through.
Nrama: And from talking with Brian, it definitely seemed like a very deliberate goal to do something different structurally with the story.
Brevoort: Oh, for sure. From the very first conversation that we had about it, Brian had a very clear vision for the sort of picture he wanted to paint, particularly in the first act, and that's, "We're going to go right to Act Three." Because you can pretty much explain everything else in about two sentences: "Ultron came back. He won." It's not like there's not a story you couldn't tell in "Ultron came back and he won," but if we say, "Ultron came back and he won," everybody can kind of fill those blanks in. What he was interested in seeing is, in this sort of post-humanity, post-apocalyptic, burnt-down world, what characters survive, and what characters are able to thrive in these conditions, and what happens when you push these characters all the way to, and past, the breaking point? That's something that's interesting that we don't ordinarily do. It's the combination of those things that I think threw readers for a loop a little bit, in, I hope, a good way — a way that still has them coming back issue after issue. And maybe that was simply because we had excellent art all the way through. [Laughs.] But I tend to think that there was something going on there that they were still intrigued by; that they found moments within the story in which the actions of one character or another character either really resonated with them, or really surprised and stunned and shocked them, and reconciling that was difficult, so they had to read more to try and figure out how this would all fit together.
Nrama: One thing a lot of people are saying about the new season of Arrested Development is that it's something that rewards patience, and that you really have to stick with it. And Age of Ultron seems to be a similar case — you'd get a completely different picture if you had only read the first few issues.
Brevoort: For sure. Yeah. But I feel like, and people are perfectly free to feel differently, but I think the opening issues of Age of Ultron were pretty nice. I think it was a pretty good synthesis of what Brian [Bendis] does and what Bryan Hitch does. I think it does a great job of painting the world, and giving you a sense of feeling of what these characters have been through, even if you haven't seen it all, in a way that we're just not used to seeing a lot of. I like those early issues just fine.
But yeah, if you took issue #2 and said, "What's going to happen?" you never would have ended up where we ended up. It definitely got a story structure that's completely different from anything else that we've done.
Nrama: Certainly a unique aspect of the story, and it seems to be changing in a major way in issue #10 based on the teasers and the ending of #9, is that Ultron in the conventional sense actually hasn't been in it very much at all.
Brevoort: Yes. [Laughs.] He has in that we've seen what amount to Ultron drones — little bits of Ultron. The trick with Ultron, too, is realizing that he really isn't the robot. Ultron is the code that runs the robot. Once you reconcile that, all the various individual flying drones that we see in the first five or six issues, all the little float-y head things that we see in #6, all of these things, in a sense, are extensions of Ultron in the same sort of way that the Internet goes infinitely in every direction, and it's on 10 million computers at the same time, all doing something slightly different.
Nrama: It seems that the classic robot Ultron may not be necessary way to present the character anymore, then.
Brevoort: Right. But for those that were worried, you will get Ultron the robot guy in Age of Ultron #10, so he does finally make an appearance — although once people started to point it out I was sort of regretful that we put him into #10. [Laughs..] If we left it out, we could have done the whole thing, an entire event about this character that he wasn't physically present for. And that would have been something. But we got most of the way there!
Nrama: That would have been an even more daring narrative structure. Wanted to talk about the second-half artists, Brandon Peterson and Carlos Pacheco. They're both veterans who have worked on acclaimed, high-profile stuff, but a story like Age of Ultron still feels like a step up for both of them at Marvel, a vote of confidence. What led to choosing both of them, both for the series and for the individual sections they illustrated?
Brevoort: What I'm going to say is all apart from the fact that Brian and I bounced things around, and we settled on it fairly early, because both of them had recently worked with Brian on Avengers and New Avengers, so there was already the beginnings of a relationship. Brian had run into Carlos at a convention overseas a year, year-and-a-half ago, and they talked about doing something, so that led to the Avengers issues, and led to this.
Brandon, same kind of thing. Brandon's been around for many years, and through whatever fluke there was, hadn't really worked with Brian until we did the Point One issue with The Vision. Brian just loved the way that turned out, and so he became easily somebody that you wanted to do more stuff with.
In terms of specific casting, I know from working with Carlos what a fan he is of the classic Marvel period — which he ended up reading in the '70s, because that's when the reprint publishers in Spain got around to printing all of that material that's really from the '60s. Knowing that the story was going to go back into that timeframe, casting him on those sequences set in that past made a lot of sense. There's a shorthand that I can use in talking to him, just saying, "Like that John Buscema issue where this happened!" and he'll know exactly what I'm talking about in a way that another artist wouldn't. I think he also just gets more enjoyment out of it, because here's all these characters and these situations in the formative Marvel Universe that he loves so much that he gets to walk around in.
In a different way, I think Brandon was good for both eras that he ended up drawing. First, the teched-out future, because his stuff — particularly over the last couple of years — has got sort of an electronic sheen to it. It's got a surface quality that really lends itself to a world that is entirely mechanized and devoid of human life. But where he really got to excel, I think, was in the altered, Back to the Future II present — where he basically got to create or recreate versions of a bunch of familiar characters, and show us the world we know, but sort of turned on its head and skewed a different way. It's the sort of challenge he's clearly always had the chops to do, but was maybe not always given the opportunity to, just by virtue of what assignment he happened to be on, or what stories he happened to be doing. I think that's a place where Brandon got to have a lot of fun, to kind of play around and bring some of himself to what was on the page.