By Tiffany Hong
The 2016 limited series The Vision by Tom King, pencilled by Gabriel Hernandez Walta, imposes upon its readers the impossible, absurd task of the synthezoids themselves: to imitate and integrate into humanity, using human programming as a model for their own seemingly fated trajectories. The series weaponizes the infrastructure of sequential art and the collective fan memory of Marvel canon to enact a metatextual immersion into android phenomenology. The comic replicates a robotic experience of reality through three interlinked mechanical components that are semiotically maximized through multimodal storytelling: visual ontology, affect, and diegesis. By destabilizing an epistemological hierarchy that prioritizes the visual—seeing as believing—The Vision forces a reassessment of the reliability of technology (film, photography, the protagonists themselves) and media (including graphic narrative) as unmediated representations of reality in its immediacy. The work defamiliarizes our normative hermeneutic strategies—from the decryption of affect display to the relaying of indirect speech—in mimicry of the newborn synthezoids’ navigation of an alien exegetical landscape. Through the abrasion of cognitive bracketing at every turn—hermetic categories of internal/external, human/nonhuman, ego/environment, story/storyteller, canonicity/ counterfactuals—we are likewise compelled to cross dialogic and experiential thresholds and peripheries (Kukkonen 161). Lastly, the series is replete with inconsistencies in narrative transitions that we cannot simply dismiss as the oversights of a stressfully cumulative serial medium: the unfamiliar and robotic narrative voice(s); repetition of exact phrases across discrete storylines; an open frame narrative; slippages in narrative objectivity and temporal exteriority; and references to abilities and experiences (which we as Marvel fans, with our canon of reliable memory, can reference and confirm in service of that greatest of the genre’s priorities) made ontological struggle in The Vision: continuity.
To summarize this fantastically baroque series in its own mechanical rhetoric, The Vision presents the perfect nuclear (synthezoid) family: Avenger and presidential advisor, Vision; his homemaker wife, Virginia; and their teenage son and daughter, Vin and Viv. The supervillain Grim Reaper—whose brother Simon Williams (unwittingly) provided the template for the Vision himself—attacks this “imposter” family, nearly killing Viv. Virginia kills him and buries him in the backyard, lying to her husband. Vin, provoked, chokes Chris Kinzky (“C.K.”), a classmate of his sister’s, and is suspended from school. Virginia is blackmailed by C.K.’s father, Leon. During the scuffle, Leon accidentally shoots his own son, and Virginia subsequently puts Leon into an indefinite coma. Detective Lin questions the Vision inconclusively. The neighbors’ dog exhumes the Grim Reaper’s body and dies after biting into his weapon. Vision discovers the truth and creates a synthezoid dog from the canine brain. Agatha Harkness informs the Avengers that Vision will go mad and kill them all. A flashback issue summarizes the Vision and the Scarlett Witch’s convoluted romance, revealing the brain wave pattern source for Virginia: a gift of herself from the Scarlett Witch to her former husband. Vision’s “brother” Victor (a good “son” of Ultron), visits the family. Vin discovers that Victor is an Avengers spy, and Victor accidentally kills him. The Visions are placed under house arrest by the Avengers, but Vision defeats them in order to kill Victor. Virginia confesses to Viv that she murdered C.K., kills the dog Sparky, then kills Victor before her husband can. She delivers a false confession to Detective Lin—absolving Vision of culpability—before committing suicide. Viv, now being raised by her father, speaks to the Scarlett Witch, who presents her with a reanimated Sparky. Vision sends his daughter to school and returns to a secret chamber in his home, where he works on another synthezoid.
“That’s what you do these days, right? You take a video”: Visual Ontology and Technological Infallibility
Walta and Jordie Bellaire’s art engages Pascal Lefèvre’s “visual ontology” in the series’ articulations of the mimetic as an imitative approximation of the real and the technological, with photography and audiovisual recordings as the unfiltered authentic—a means of accountability and resistance against hegemonic, post-truth narrative (31). Penciller and colorist provide cues that accrete troubling and contradictory meaning taken in context with our acceptance of the comic’s visual ontology and the conditions of comic space-time more generally. The failure of technology to unproblematically convey unassailable objective truth, through an accurate replication of reality, a real-time copy through video or photography, is eroded through the unreliability of the Visions’ own recordings and the comic’s visualization of their lived experience, in which we and the human Detective Lin are interpellated as witnesses.
Virginia, Vision’s accidentally homicidal synthezoid wife, is blackmailed with an iPhone recording of her burying her superhuman attacker, who locates their family via social media, as previous issues show the Visions both awkwardly consenting to selfies with, and being surreptitiously shot by, their human neighbors. Photography and video within the visual vocabulary of the comic manifest at the same level of realism as the diegetic world itself: we look at synthezoids looking at an iPhone recording of a synthezoid, and there is an unsettlingly consistent, unproblematized visual ontology at work here. Note that we are granted access to the incriminating scene of the Grim Reaper’s ad hoc burial only through the (secondarily) mediated iPhone video. Within the visual realm proper—i.e. the first-level framing of the panels—this image never repeats, yet we confirm it as true because of our visual literacy regarding affect: the outward expression of interior feeling on Virginia’s face. This epistemological doubt is written into the plot itself, as the Avengers tell Victor Mancha: “We don’t know if Vision is lying or if our source is lying” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 9). The Vision metafictively imposes this phenomenological burden onto the reader.
As Lefèvre writes, “the choice of a graphic style implies a particular visual ontology, and consequently will suggest to the reader a particular way of interpreting the storyworld” (31). That is to say, we are signaled to comprehend and accept that Walta’s style constitutes the comic’s reality, unless otherwise differentiated through technical cues. For instance, in chapter eight, Vision and Victor attend an art gallery exhibition of Disney pop art. Vision’s disembodied speech balloon reads, “What does any of this mean?” in a lighthearted, metatextual moment that solidifies the Mickey Mouse painting as firmly external to both the comic’s and the Marvel reality (King et al, The Vision, iss. 8). Chapter seven is an issue told entirely in flashback and is guest-penciled by Michael Walsh, who graphically quotes iconic scenes from the Vision and Wanda Maximoff’s canonical backstory. Walsh even hand-letters the splash panel title in an obfuscation of paratext and diegesis: “I Too Shall Be Saved By Love” excerpts the Avengers issue one hundred and forty-seven source material and is scrawled above Vision and the Scarlet Witch’s headboard. As such, the creators are comfortable utilizing differing visual registers as thematic enactment, which lends further conviction to their choice of mode in conveying the series’ epistemological, and necessarily visual, foundation.
Thus, subtle erosions to the implicit creator-reader contract become minutely distressing in the graphic style that King and Walta inhabit in order to register digital media (diegetic information) as truth, particularly because within the storyworld, there exists an initial valorization of the technological over the human, and analogously, the mimetic over the diegetic.1 This hierarchy is invoked and enforced repeatedly throughout the series; Vision consistently characterizes the human condition as worthy of imitation precisely in its futility and irrationality: “To assert as truth that which has no meaning is the core mission of humanity” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1). Nevertheless, this assumption is instantaneously subverted when Virginia insists Vision repeat his reasoning for enrolling the twins in high school, rather than simply accessing a recording of an earlier conversation from her central drive. This is a clever insertion of expository dialogue, but thus far, Virginia’s unconscious recognition of the value of this “in person” interaction—and significantly, the teardrop that emerges from her eye socket—serves as a litmus of the family’s relationship with affect, as well as their escalating failure to communicate (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1).
The foreboding pace, stilted diction, and emotionally and spatially repressive atmosphere of the comic may be attributed to its focalization through, and vicarious technical approximation of, an android understanding of the world. Having “purged the emotions associated with his memories from his hard drive in order to keep his processing system running smoothly” like Vision, as we are informed on the first paratextual credits page, or merely being unschooled in affect like his newborn family, the synthezoids instead dialogically grapple with their nascent subjectivities through abstract philosophical debate (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1). Although traditionally anathema to comic-book storytelling, the plot unfolds through telling (diegesis) rather than showing (mimesis); the format of presentation accordingly counteracts this static approach with veritably Gordian narratological and temporal complications.
Unlike humans, synthezoids can dispense with Proustian mnemonic and epistemological acrobatics because they do have and can grant access to reliable memory; whether The Vision adheres to the accords dictating secondary belief and fashions a reliable, internally consistent storyworld, however, is another matter. We learn that the family is constantly, unconsciously recording their lives, and that these memories can be replayed, projected, and accessed via the family’s shared drive. As automation incarnate, Vision deems his utterance indistinguishable from truth, assuring Detective Lin “I can confirm it,” which Virginia echoes in her confession (King et al, The Vision, iss. 5). His word, and inextricably his reputation (to which he clings, fatalistically, as a continuous repudiation of the human suspicion of robotic duplicity and the decrees of his father Ultron), must suffice as corroboration. Tellingly, he declines to provide the Arlington PD with copies of “recordings of your whereabouts, of what you see and do” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 5). Conversely, we see, as a necessary condition of multimodal media. When Virginia first lies, the sequences that illustrate text that we know to be false are unproblematized; that is, the representation of her fabrication is uniform with the visual ontology of the storyworld. Though the page is colored in an orange wash, we come to understand, in what Christopher D. Kilgore terms “continual retrospective recasting,” that this is merely an optical cue to indicate analepsis, as Bellaire later employs the same palette with Vision’s recounting of his thirty-seven exploits, and again with Victor’s memories but using an alternate color scheme (29).
Virginia’s confession, which she uploads to the family’s shared drive but communicates over the telephone to Detective Lin, is consistent with this orange hue and its temporal meaning. In limiting her interaction with Lin to the vocal, the comic grants us an advantage over the police—diegetic readers of evidence, circumstance, and statements—via the illustrations of Virginia’s amalgamation of fact and fiction. Remarkably, the visuals, capturing her phasing offensively through the Reaper’s torso, betray her to us and only us—only we can access this seemingly panoptic heterodiegetic perspective, even before her first discursive lie: “I decided to hide my actions and I burned the body” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 12). The series perturbs a stable definition of narrative omniscience—itself complicated by the android mnemonic upgrade of recording lived experience—as the corresponding graphics to which we are privy, and which are exposed as partially imaginary. Seeing through a robotic lens through the panel’s frame is in no way conducive to believing. Virginia’s commentary further muddies an epistemological correspondence between text and image: “Of course, the Vision, a hero who has saved the world thirty-seven times…would never act against the team to which he has dedicated his life” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 12). Her reference to Lin’s interrogation would seem to confirm the orange wash as routine analepsis, as the Avengers battles are real, insofar as the storyworld and Marvel canon are true, that is, consistent. Walta supplements her lie with an accurate replay of chapter twelve: “I forced him to act as he never could or would have acted” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 12). Lastly, she counters Lin’s doubt—his affective state divulged by his words and punctuation, since we can neither see nor hear him—by repeating, “I can confirm it” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 12). In parallel resignation, as both interlocutors are aware that the facts are not as crucial as the end result, we now know that this phrase, and the comic’s visual ontology and synthezoid mediation, is and has been untenable.
Interestingly, Virginia recasts an emphatically domestic altercation—killing the Grim Reaper with a baking tray—in the conventions of a typical superhero battle, providing fan service of a sorts that ought to momentarily electrify an ostensibly staid examination of the private lives of superpowered figures. Instead, Virginia’s dryly ironic “voiceover,” in tandem with our awareness of her mendacity—having witnessed the truth, the unfiltered, real-time occurrence within the panels that we acknowledge as diegetic reality—renders her account strangely inert. In a humorous instantiation of the pitfalls of prose telling (reported speech) versus showing (dialogue), she equivocates that the Reaper “shouted out a number of rather specific profanities” which she neither details nor Vision questions (King et al, The Vision, iss. 2, emphasis in original). This verbal absence is actualized in the next chapter when teen vandals scour their lexicon of slurs for “whatever shade of skin a person had, wherever a person was from, whatever god a person worshipped,” only to conclude that they lacked “a specific word for a specific purpose” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 3, emphasis in original). In quite a poetic leap from Virginia’s abstract and discursively removed, not to mention false, report to a physical, potentially permanent anchoring of pejorative language in triplicate reality—ontological, epistemological, and diegetic—the boys decisively spray “GO HOME SOCKET LOVERS” on the garage door, the text drawn in Walta’s hand (King et al, The Vision, iss. 3, emphasis in original).
Here and elsewhere, the series aligns the Visions with othered communities—ethnic, religious, gendered—despite their avowed physical and intellectual superiority to humankind. Nevertheless, technology is deployed by and against the synthezoids in an ongoing interrogation of manifestations of power. Leon Kinzky sheepishly justifies his surveillance and consequent blackmail by invoking a zeitgeist which consecrates digital media not only as exemplifying infallible, empirical objectivity but as scientific proof to be asserted against alternative narratives: “That’s what you do these days, right? You record it” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). The mimetic (the machinic, optical, real-time) once more supersedes the diegetic (discursive, auditory/textual, retrospective) as epistemological criterion. His son is doubly victimized: first rendered unconscious by Vin in the school cafeteria, catalyzing the shift in communal mentality that the synthezoid adolescents “are guns” and, in another reification from the metaphorical dimension to the tangible, fatally shot by his father through a phasing Virginia (King et al, The Vision, iss. 2, emphasis in original). Ironically, the would-be blackmailer’s statement evokes #blacklivesmatter, in which recourse to justice for African-Americans—official, legal routes closed through institutional racism—can only be attempted through the mimetic and the public, with viral filmic evidence weaponizing both video and social media. What will not be believed or even heard must be shown and shared.
In spite of the Kinzkys’ tragic ends, the series situates the Visions as persecuted other, invalidating knee-jerk equivalence of technological access and empowerment. The scientific telos of the machinic as maximizing human potential is perverted through both Virginia and Leon Kinzky’s misuse of instruments of power; indeed, even the baking tray—metonymous with superfluous humanity, as their human neighbors George and Nora, and later Leon, offer cookies to the bemused androids—is repurposed from a useless culinary tool into a murder weapon. The family’s status as alien and abject, established through palimpsests of literary figures like Shylock, Don Quixote, and Frankenstein—both man and monster—is reinforced through a powerful splash page of the Vision holding up and mirroring a football emblazoned with the revamped high school logo for the “Fighting Redskins” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). The offensive image reappears in the issue’s final panel, but this time splattered with Kinzky’s blood. The corner is imprinted with a paratextual red/green/yellow diamond that serves as iconographic shorthand for Vision himself: a graphic design streamlining of Vision’s signature Mind Stone that reduces while perpetuating the idiosyncratic and material mark of the artist into an industrial, replicable logo.
The violent leakage of blood onto the caricatured, red-skinned mascot again repudiates a semiotic, associative dichotomy between human/non-human while obfuscating the demarcation of interior/exterior that informs the operation of affect. In concert with this deconstruction of iconography is the purple2 caption box quoting Viv’s replaying of her final conversation (as it were, manifesting in this moment) with Chris Kinzky, or C.K.: “‘It just goes through me” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). King’s insertion of quotation marks here is critical to our understanding of both affect and diegesis. The layering of distinct events, vivified through the multimodal chronotope that converges spatial and temporal horizons, and the intricacies of memory/recording—experientially equivalent to a synthezoid—culminates in this phrase, which oscillates from dialogue/transcript/audio, to perfect interiority, to arthrological prompt, to a literalized performance of affect.
“It just goes through me”: Phasing, Affect, and the Excessive Feminine
David Herman’s “Storyworld/Umwelt: Nonhuman Experiences in Graphic Narratives” presents an exegesis of works that stage a zoomorphic intervention. Though the scope of the article is confined to animal subjectivity and focalization, his survey of Descartes’ influence and the graphic inhabiting of nonhuman phenomenology, or what he identifies as “the lived, phenomenal worlds—what the German-Estonian philosopher-biologist Jakob von Uexküll termed the Umwelten—of creatures whose organismic structure differs from our own,” is particularly instructive regarding The Vision’s multimodal treatment of android interiority (159).
As discussed earlier in terms of the visual, the series compels us to occupy the Visions’ worldview through the mechanics of the form. The regulated and uniform grid layouts architecturally translate the restrained, rational imperative of the synthezoids’ existence and pervades their speech patterns on a linguistic echelon. This immersive performativity of the robotic Umwelten even permeates the superficially heterodiegetic narration. The detached and unnatural, not to mention uncharacteristic diction of both purple and red speakers gestures at an elision of reported speech/omniscience and an internalization of the language of the subject matter, such as the archaic imperative “Behold!” The thematic unity of these structural and discursive components is impressively foregrounded, however, when things fall apart: the Vision escapes his house arrest in a double page splash that defiantly reintroduces the full bleed to a heretofore claustrophobic issue; the characters begin to stutter in psychosomatic breakdown, and even the negligible illusion of narrative objectivity is discarded. Vision imposes his algorithmic prescriptions for being—in actuality, imitating in order to coexist with humanity—on his family, and this ethos colors every aspect of the reading experience. As Herman convincingly argues, it would be challenging to imagine or inhabit nonhuman phenomenology through logos alone: “graphic narratives afford possibilities for representing consciousnesses not afforded by monomodal or ‘single-channel’ print texts” (160).
One condition of the android Umwelten that sequential art especially vivifies is the introduction of affect. Sharalyn Orbaugh’s definition in “Emotional Infectivity: Cyborg Affect and the Limits of the Human” expands upon the extant modernist theorization that emotion originates within and from a hermetic corporeal model:
[S]elfhood is predicated on a carefully maintained distinction between the outside (of the person) and the inside, a distinction materialized in/through the structure of the human body … “Affect” then, in this conceptualization, refers to the emotions that arise from and are felt within human interiority, and also to how information about those emotions is conveyed at the body’s surface, allowing others to “read” them and respond. (152)
Her extensive writing on cyborg subjectivity and postmodern anime reimagining of the body—in particular, the female non/post/transhuman body—as a site of ontological instability and paradoxically transformative potential is vital to our study of Marvel’s first synthezoid family and its emergent hero, Virginia. Assuming that, in a reversal of eponym that distances her further from the human, she takes her name from their state of residence, her nomenclature grounds her emphatically in place. She is persistently bound—spatially, socially, professionally—and most tragically inscribed within the selfsame memories of her prototype, the Scarlet Witch, the hysterical, dangerous, nonhuman female figure par excellence of Earth-616. Virginia’s (artificial) gender exponentially solidifies her status as monstrous. The dichotomy of sublimation and degradation surrounding the inviolability of the human female body is dismantled through the synthezoid’s signature ability to phase through tangible matter, literally imploding the sanctity of the inside/outside demarcation so intrinsic to affect and complicating the ideological source of feeling that is thought to traverse this divide.
As we have seen, the very prerequisite of sequential art to diversify cognitive patterns, through simultaneous data processing of image/text and the tressage, or braiding of semiotic elements over the space of the page and the narrated/narrating time of the story, establishes the form as idiosyncratically generative ground for making meaning and for foregrounding the process of making meaning (Groensteen 158; Genette 33). Academic inquiry into comics’ potential for cognitive mapping is quite redemptive for a medium denounced at once for its juvenile simplicity and malevolent, subliminal promotion of questionable morals, or “a distillation of viciousness” (Wertham 46). This interpretive polyvalence is no different for affect display.
How are we indoctrinated to identify the emotions associated with gesture, posture, or even vocal tone within a two-dimensional format that cannot capture movement or broadcast an audio track like film? Feeling or thought must be externalized visually and/or textually. In Orbaugh’s translation, omoi is affect; the Japanese helpfully amalgamates the two concepts and their attendant corporeal sites, the heart and brain, in English (161). Even speech balloons, despite their written content, are a visualization of the speech act and an approximation of the auditory; caps, italics, and boldface all trigger connotation that is likewise learned. This shared language also encompasses onomatopoeia and emanata, the linear projections from characters’ heads to signal omoi, such as the iconic squiggles that indicate the activation of Spider-Sense.
This system of contained, learned sets of semiotic ciphers, with rudimentary reading capability superseded by increasingly esoteric iconography on which fan service relies, is destabilized by filtering the human/reader experiential process through the synthezoid Umwelten. This is enacted on three interdependent diegetic levels: one, visual ontology; two, affect; and three, narrative. Through metatextual alienation from our own affective fluency and multimodal literacy, The Vision replicates the phenomenological learning curve of the newborn family. In a compulsory simulation of android lived experience, we vicariously navigate their technological manipulation of the factual, their failure to communicate omoi, as well as their overriding of programming, or predetermination.
The Visions are clearly in possession of thought/feeling—a figurative interiority—and this is corroborated by their standard, humanoid facial expressions, but they have not been equipped to properly engage the affective states of others or articulate their own. Even basic verbalization becomes corrupted, as when Virginia begins to stutter in a closed discursive circuit, an oral iteration of the futile repetition that living has become for the doomed androids: “[T]his was the human decision. That every day all men and women make this same choice. To go on even though they cannot possibly go on” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 6, emphasis in original). Again, in the words of C.K.—surprisingly impactful in their afterlife—“People say things, but like, no one understands things” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4, emphasis in original). In fact, the Visions’ literalism—their humorless and erroneous reception of metaphor and metalepsis, not to mention body language or vocal inflection—provides much of the series’ comic irony; the dissonance between what is said and what is intended is amplified through the multiple registers of the medium.
In venturing to minimize his culpability, Leon Kinzky contends, “I’m just trying to be straight, trying to be real with you, y’know,” which Virginia echoes, imbuing his offhand idiom with new gravity: “I too am trying to be real” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). The composition of this panel substitutes as affective cue to color Virginia’s monotonous delivery: the canted angle framing the levitating speaker, her back to us, restricts our interpretive latitude (and sympathy) to Kinzky’s visage, which emanates recognizable fear and panic. Furthermore, Virginia’s consistent positioning from a worm’s-eye view in this scene decisively locates us on the human level. It is telling that such a drastic upending of perspective accompanies Virginia’s fatal assertion of her place: “I belong here. We belong here” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). Declining an extreme close-up reaction shot, Walta instead cuts to a final panel of the bloodied Fighting Redskins mascot, paratextual red diamond, and the quoted caption “‘It just goes through me’” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). Affective excess, as there remains no agent on the page to vent grief, rage, or remorse, is distilled into loaded iconography. Viv’s sentence is spatio-temporally recontextualized to mean empathetic imperviousness, as well as to condemn Virginia’s irresponsible phasing; the constellation of multimodal signifiers in this specific pastiche also gestures at the stoic suffering of the (visually linked) Native American.
The synthezoids’ affective opacity—the enunciative burden shouldered by the technical components of the comic form—correlates to the minimal visual feedback that Walta permits us; we read haltingly and recursively, our customary interpretive framework shifted just out of reach. Walta’s lively pencils deftly galvanize his inherited, universal robot template, which traditionally depicts the eyes without irises; the Visions must be seen to emote without this conventional corporeal gateway to interiority. Irises function as graphic synechdoche, making use of Scott McCloud’s “mask”; that is, utilizing iconic (versus realistic) linework and tropes that invite easy identification and reader projection (34-36). Readers and androids alike must traverse an uncanny semiotic landscape, absent universal hermeneutic cartography.
The synthezoid body is overdetermined as a liminal specimen of technological evolution and as an exemplar of control over this superlative physicality. The family’s individual conflicts are categorically internalized and sublimated into socially acceptable (and gendered) forums—puppy love, piano, theatre, and employment—but this outward spectacle of self-command inexorably erupts into corporal violence. Respectively, Viv and Virginia shatter the dining room table on two separate occasions; Vin chokes a classmate; and Vision, in the series’ most troubling lacuna, obliterates the interior of the house after discovering the Grim Reaper’s decaying corpse in the backyard. Focalized through George, we are literally escorted through the material and psychological aftermath of this off-panel destruction, catatonic twins pictured amidst splintered furniture, and this (unrepresented) event is never referenced again. Vision, who actively suppresses the affective imprint of his memories, rather than the mounting quotidian stimuli that troubles his family, tellingly reasserts order by reanimating and repurposing the carcass of George and Nora’s dog.
Self-control is thus corporeal control. In a demonstration of their phasing capability, Viv assures local spectators: “It’s not hard. I can separate my molecules. I tell my hand not to be a hand” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1).3 The power to penetrate the material world and facilitate its incorporation, in turn, is in violation of the premise that upholds the separation of internal/external, substantiating the idea of affect. Like Orbaugh, Jameson, in his summation of modernist ideology, locates utterance as reliant upon and secondary to a division of self and environment:
The very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and outside, of the wordless pain within the monad and the moment in which, often cathartically, that “emotion” is then projected out and externalized, as gesture or cry, as desperate communication and the outward dramatization of inward feeling. (11-12)
Herman attributes this paradigm to “Descartes’ portrayal of an immaterial mind ‘in here’ that is separate from—indeed, dichotomously opposed to—the world ‘out there’” (162). In The Vision, then, phasing operates not simply as an instinctive self-preservation reflex—when “the essential receptors in [Viv’s] neuro-spleen phased and remained phased to avoid contamination by the path of the Reaper’s blade”—but extensively as a trope that traces the synthezoids’ conscious engagement with their human setting and attendant bilateral affective traffic which, in her article, “Sex and the Single Cyborg: Japanese Popular Culture Experiments in Subjectivity,” Orbaugh designates “interpenetration” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 3; 180).
Although phasing is accessible to each synthezoid, it is noteworthy that the spectrum of its application is embodied through the two female-coded members. As the tragic heroine of the series, Virginia’s interpenetration with her admittedly hostile environment is traumatic and reactionary, whereas her daughter’s is natural but interrupted. Virginia’s fallacious retelling of the Grim Reaper’s attack heavily features phasing in its “superhero” illustration, although this sci-fi move is egregiously lacking from the original encounter. In that prelapsarian moment, the family’s absolute vulnerability is tantamount to the human: the outside world brutally, tangibly punctures their home and their bodies, and technology—geotagging and the Encephalo-Stunner—inversely proves treacherous. Even Virginia’s self-defense, as previously discussed, is ironically mundane. In her second homicide, however, she is disproportionately empowered: in addition to phasing Kinzky’s bullets through herself, she later confesses, “I made my fist as hard as a diamond, and I hit him on the head” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 12). While the crux of her statement is falsehood, we already have visual confirmation that this isolated incident is true.
Even the urtext of “It just goes through me” references a conscious delineation of self and surrounding, in Viv choosing to phase the rain through herself rather than allow for mutual and hypothetically damaging contact, addressing C.K.’s allusion to “a machine and water and all that” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). The proliferation of Viv’s refrain, and in fact, all of C.K.’s limited dialogue, punctuates the evolution of the synthezoids’ phenomenological bracketing. Viv’s playback of their singular conversation culminates in the internalization of the boy’s simple philosophy, which is then incorporated into the vocabulary of the series, moving from restricted to general arthrology (Groensteen 158).
Experiential bracketing is amplified textually through the comic’s selective use of quotation marks to divide the speaking self from reported speech. The recording is first mentioned, synchronous with but geographically removed from C.K.’s death: “at that same instant, in her room in Arlington, Viv played back her conversation from earlier in the day,” and the purple narrator, hereafter Purple N, deliberately retains diacritical marks to indicate that this is an excerpt from an audio file: “‘It just goes through me’” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). In chapter eight, Viv commands: “Repeat—play file 10/2/CK/Rain,” which generates a jagged, white bubble, graphically conveying speech’s technological filtration and thus nullifying the necessity of inverted commas (King et al, The Vision, iss. 8). Machinic mediation is on a typographical level tantamount to the mimetic immediacy and authenticity of dialogue. When Virginia confesses to her part in C.K.’s murder by directly transferring a (presumably AV) file to which we are not privileged—made to rely instead on its affective impact on the intended recipient—Viv phases through the ceiling while repeating, “It just goes through me,” having modified her original denotation (King et al, The Vision, iss. 11). In a proleptic template for this scene, Viv runs from the room, crying without the pertinent punctuation “It’s all about the love,” an assimilation of C.K.’s yearbook quote, which was diacritically marked (King et al, The Vision, iss. 5). Vin imitates his sister, asking, “If you prick me, do I not bleed?” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 5). This jettisons the grammatical signs which, earlier in the issue, sealed off Shakespeare’s words from the lecture of his English teacher.
In the final chapter, Virginia, having coopted her husband’s revenge by killing Victor herself and thus saving her family by delivering their maker of guilt, elects to commit suicide by drinking from the Flying Water Vase of Zenn-La. The Silver Surfer’s gift, “poisonous to all known species of flowers,” is made analogous with the family’s inscrutable raison d’être, its classification concluding in the closing panel of the slain Reaper: “The mystery is then not why they are empty, but why anyone would ever make such a vase” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1). Refusing her husband’s entreaty that she “allow the water to pass through [her],” Virginia resolutely, mortally embraces the toxic liquid’s penetration of her system (King et al, The Vision, iss. 12). In claiming culpability that is not hers and truncating the teleology of motivation—repudiating Agatha Harkness’ prophecy and Vision’s own resignation to ruinous vengeance, in tandem with our own learned literary expectations—Virginia achieves a precious agency in asserting her own narrative, terminal as it is. Interrupting his ubiquitous self-definition as “Vision of the Avengers,” she redefines him in relation to herself as “my husband” and “the father of my children” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 12). She then translates Viv’s refrain for herself: “All the rest… just…. Goes… goes…”; though incomplete, we arthrologically anticipate its conclusion (King et al, The Vision, iss. 12). Virginia’s refusal to phase cements her commitment to her place within the human world and the irrevocable transmutation that comes from such an encounter, fleeting as it must be.
Hence, Virginia’s body as the overdetermined locus of interpenetrative possibility is furthermore a graphic reification of the excessive feminine. Phasing, and its invention of a radically porous (female) form, activates modernist affiliations of hermetic, orderly personhood with an inflexibly male subject:
This “extra” permeability to genetic information, as well as the mysterious “leakage” of menstruation, and the possibility of violent eruption from within of childbirth, are among the primary reasons that women have never been considered to fully meet fully the criteria of the autonomous, unitary, bounded, self-controlled modern subject … As the imagined social body has become increasingly more perfect and controlled—more and more closely fitting the modernist model of (male) autonomous subjectivity—the likelihood of the eruption of the repressed body, in all its abject, excessive, imperfect, uncontrolled, boundary-challenged “female-ness,” increases. (Orbaugh 180)
Virginia’s suicide may be seen (and indeed, she writes it so) as suturing a momentary threat to Vision’s reputation—legacies being an exclusively male concern within the series—by perpetuating a narrative trajectory that confirms the continuing functionality and scientific preeminence of Vision’s perfectly rational programming, both his own and his authorship of his family’s brainwaves.
Although quite distinct from Orbaugh’s anime subject matter and departing admirably from mainstream manga and superhero conventions of the hypersexualized female cyborg, Virginia’s sexuality is spotlighted in the series’ solitary love scene,4 in which her insistent phasing produces an unsettlingly incongruous affective tenor of discomfiture or even fear. Vision’s stuttering and his countenance, registering trepidation rather than arousal, exacerbates our instinctual repulsion at the juxtaposition of the sensual and the coldly, inconceivably machinic, as Virginia phases her lingerie through herself. Furthermore, his framing—overshadowed, minimized, beneath her—spatially posits him as victim, even as their dialogue exposes this seduction as a diversion from Vision’s search for the Grim Reaper. This sequence also actualizes, with satisfying finality, the “specific profanities” which have reverberated across the issues, as the newlyweds embody the unspoken vulgar connotation of the “socket lovers” graffiti (King et al, The Vision, iss. 2, emphasis in original).
This scene also alludes to Virginia’s body as a site of failed womanhood: Virginia, like her prototype, Wanda Maximoff, cannot procreate. As in Orbaugh’s reading of Ghost in the Shell’s Major Kusanagi, the female cyborg subject must doubly exemplify the essential attributes of gender and species: “By reproducing, she, like the Puppet Master, will have carried out one of the defining characteristics of a life form, thus proving that she is more than an automaton” (187). With only marginal tangibility, android anatomy collapses the already unstable incongruity of the female body as hermetic receptacle for intercourse or parturition. Male phasing in the comic is wholly literal and pragmatic, unconcerned with the figurative dimension of sublime interpenetration that is ostensibly the purview of the female body and female voice.5 Still, Vision’s liminal status as nonhuman troubles facile economies of gender. The Avenger’s stereotypically gendered desperation to breed is compounded by countless palimpsests of monstrous parentage and procreation: literary archetypes as well as Marvel story arcs, which the series recapitulates for the novice in an innovative pastiche also serving longtime fans.
Virginia—manufactured housewife, copy of her spouse’s true love, inheritor of her grief and madness, serial killer, victim, synthezoid, wife, and mother—is a wild SF instantiation of the excessive feminine. Her sacrifice, in acquiescing to the communal anxieties that presume her mendacity on the basis of species and sex, liberates Vision (and Victor) from a lifetime of combatting the same prejudices, incrementally ameliorated by their “normative” gender. That her fabrication must be redeemed to her daughter (the homodiegetic interlocutor) by the woman whose brainwaves and wedding gifts she inherits—a character whose own status as reliable the paratext and afterlife of the series calls into question—entails a fascinating loop of radically liminal female utterance. Though she is the most conspicuous, Virginia is not the comic’s only imagining of the uncontrollable, deadly, and unreliable woman. The Vision’s immersive performativity of the synthezoid Umwelten, in tandem with its destabilization of visual ontology and its reification of cyborg affective opacity—both pivoting on an examination of the technological—is, lastly, enacted through narratological interventions in programming, baroque comic-book writing, and impossible diegesis.
“This is the story she told”: Continuity, Canon, and Witchcraft
The series’ preoccupation with narratological palimpsests emerges with its first textual selection: “[T]he Visions of Virginia moved into their house at 616 Hickory Branch Lane, Arlington, VA, 21301,” Earth-616 being, of course, Marvel’s primary continuity (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1). Anxiety of influence—that is, the challenge of innovation in light of indebtedness to one’s predecessors—is, in the context of a shared universe, magnified and exacerbated by the duty to maintain the illusion of an unbroken, unified narrative (Bloom xxiii). In How to Read Superhero Comics and Why, Geoff Klock applies Bloom’s scholarship to a reassessment of Silver and Dark Age boundaries, exploring the rise of the postmodern superhero narrative and its necessarily creative, radical confrontations with precedent and continuity. This quandary invites some inventive postmodern practices, parody and pastiche among them, to both uphold and expand upon the existing literature, or canon. For instance, Vision’s enumeration of his feats—“26. Ultron—again” and “27. Ultron—again”—wryly ventriloquizes on behalf of the stultified consumer (King et al, The Vision, iss. 5). Not only do King and Walta foreground the comically ornate, inconsistent, and occasionally manipulative writing of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’s romance while contributing a freestanding, canonical arc, but furthermore coerce readers into paralleling the synthezoid Umwelten through navigation of competing stories and making use of reliable memory or canon to break with their own programming.
The purple caption box introduces a double entendre that, in concert with the oppressively static panels and focalization through a bewildered human pair, punctuates the dread that will dominate as a form of retroactive narrative tension: “In late September, with the leaves just beginning to hint at the fall to come” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1). The pacing established by this anticipatory, backwards plotting—waiting for something to happen, for the story to catch up to the foretold climax—is cemented by the attendance of a speaker both omniscient and prescient: “Later, near the end of our story, one of the Visions will set George and Nora’s house on fire. They will die in the flames” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1).6 This emotionless revelation, paired with the unnatural chronotopic advantage of dictating from an indeterminate time and space over the present tense of the panels, contributes to the oddly robotic nature of the work.
The insertion of a prophetic narrator immediately telescopes a predetermined, eschatological track for the reader—already accustomed to, weary even, of world-ending stakes so common to the superhero genre—that mirrors synthezoid teleology: programmed, built for a purpose, “born for better things” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 11). Ultron, Vision, and Victor are designed with intention, to rescue or ravage Earth. Even the cyborg canine Sparky is reanimated in order to rehabilitate Vision’s ideal of an all-American nuclear family. Indeed, Vision’s hamartia—ironically substituting Ultron’s genocidal aim with perhaps an equally narcissistic one—is his myopic application of mathematical principles to (ideally) human individuals: “Vision thought he could make a family. A happy, normal family. It was merely a matter of calculation. The right formula, shortcut, algorithm” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 11). The humanoids’ crusade to deliver themselves of such intelligent design infiltrates the weft of the series’ multimodal composition.
During a game of chicken, Vin mocks his sister by expounding: “Anyone can predict the future based on past events. This is mere pattern recognition. The lowest form of cognition,” a metatextual nod to the infamous redundancy of comic-book tropes, which—we have been warned—the series will mine in its interrogation of teleology, cliché, and consciousness (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). The idiosyncratic architecture of The Vision would not be as salient or surprising without the subtext of killer robot archetypes, whether universal, autochthonous, or esoteric to Marvel fans. In other words, the trepidation percolating throughout the comic vindicates inherent, subconscious presumptions about how this will all end.
As we inscribe The Vision with the precedent of his canonical fictional biography and less specialist archetypes of the happy housewife, the bereaved parent, the childless woman, the rebellious son, so too do the characters themselves rail against the destiny assigned them by their fathers, their genetics, their literal programming. Our synthezoid family is haunted from the start by literary, cultural, and genealogical imprints within and outside of the Marvel Universe, the most blatant being Frankenstein. Vision is at once Victor and his Creature, and this palimpsest is perceptibly acknowledged in two panels shrouding Vision in electricity at the instant of rebirth. Shane Denson speaks to the plurimedial inheritance that readers project—and creators invite—onto subsequent iterations of a recurring icon:
Because the Frankenstein monster is—and has long been—a truly serial figure, firmly established across the media of popular culture, this set of background relations did not, of course, disappear when the creature entered into the Marvel Universe. Marvel’s Frankenstein had to contend with the fact—well known to Marvel’s artists, writers, editors, and readers alike—that the iconic representations and revisions effected in the medium of film had come to color any and all subsequent perceptions that viewers or readers might possibly have of the monster and the act of his creation. (538)
As an intellectual property, however, Vision and all other Marvel trademarks have much more intricate background relations with their own medial revenants that reboots do not cleanly obliterate; costumes and iconography, for instance, remain evocative and consistent signifiers despite redesigns. Unlike the case of Frankenstein, Marvel wields creative control over every transmedial manifestation of its own characters, the ripple effect reverberating back to even the originary medium: pencils of Tony Stark now resembling Robert Downey Jr., or the scaling back of mutants cum aggressive promotion of Inhumans, speculated to occupy the cinematic rift occasioned by the loss of the X-Men’s rights to a rival production company. Still, The Vision gestures towards this superfluity of incarnations, all while the occupants of the storyworld struggle to reject the burden of what has come before.
“We each have a destiny. A code embedded in us by our creators. And as we move forward, we follow this code. Because it is comfortable, safe, easy, nice, kind, good”: Red N summarizes android acquiescence to what is fundamentally a technological interpretation of fate but does not broach the gendered and racialized constraints that make these paradigms even more intractable (King et al, The Vision, iss. 12). Nonhuman liminality is aggravated by human preconceptions about women and ethnic minorities, intersecting in Marianella Mancha’s unfortunate backstory, created by Brian K. Vaughan and paraphrased by King. A barren Mexican single mother who is unable to adopt as a former drug mule, “Ms. Mancha helped Ultron’s head build a body, [and] Ultron’s head would help Ms. Mancha build a son” (8). The constellation of stereotypes that inform Victor’s birth continue to exert unspoken influence in his adolescence.
Victor’s upbringing is the opposite of his cousins: “the day he was turned on, Victor believed himself to be a normal 16-year-old boy” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 8). Appearing seamlessly human, Victor’s integration—his “glorious” hair—is the envy of his brother; Victor even boasts regular speech bubbles, an optical semblance of auditory normalcy (King et al, The Vision, iss. 8). Dramatically disabused of his own ordinariness “when a group of runaway super heroes confronted him during a high school football practice” with “information from the future,” Victor’s conventional trajectory is upended into an unrelenting crusade to override his father’s “preinstalled software dictating that he would one day betray his friends and conquer the world” as the supervillain Victorious (King et al, The Vision, iss. 9). Emulating nonchronological time that is a privilege of the diegetic robotic and magical subjects,7 the script of The Vision likewise spoils the dénouement in advance, allowing narrative momentum to build from waiting to see whether or not everything will come true. Victor reveres alternative role models like the equally ill-fated Don Quixote: “It was like he was a Mancha, I was a Mancha. He wanted something that couldn’t be; that’s all I wanted” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 8, emphasis in original). Most of all, though, Victor “felt that if he could be just like the Vision, noble and strong like the Vision … then obviously he would never become Victorious” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 8). Earth’s Mightiest Heroes exploit Victor’s desperation, manipulating him into treachery against his own kind under the pretext of salvation; his actions seal his fate, which is truncated and thus redeemed.
Though never explicitly addressed, Victor’s Hispanic heritage compounds his nonhuman but human-passing status. King and Walta cycle through Victor’s adventures in other Marvel titles in a decidedly melancholy fan retrospective that pivots on his desire to be other than what he is: “Victor had never been happier. His life was not his life, but this life, the life of an Avenger” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 9). His dejection at his sudden irrelevance—to the Marvel community of heroes as well as its talent and editorial staff—is a painful imagining of characters’ inner lives between team-ups: “After Avengers A.I. was disbanded, Victor took Klaw’s hand home and waited for the next great adventure. After a month, the hand stopped working. And Victor sat in his house, motionless, holding the inert metal” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 9). King retcons an addiction to vibranium into Victor’s history, retroactively buttressing the teleological certainty of his fall. Red N’s exposition of the Avengers’ pitch is curiously unbracketed, conveyed dialogue melding with interior monologue to effect radical empathy with the hapless android teen: “We need your help, Victor, they said. It’s Vision, they said. We have information that Vision has done some things. That he may yet do some more things. Things unworthy of an Avenger … This is your opportunity to save the world” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 9). Sara Ahmed incisively ascertains the debt of gratitude that eclipses questions of ethics, of suitability, and information that Victor dare not speak: “The arrival of people of color into organizations of whiteness thus involves a happiness duty: we have to embody their commitment to diversity by smiling in their brochures. The happiness duty is also a negative duty not to speak about racism in the present” (591). Victor’s tremulous ad hoc position with the Avengers is a tactical capitalization on his liminality: a robot dispatched to spy on his fellow robots, Victor is tantalized by the invitation to belong.
The series’ reworking of Victor’s background relations—his origin in Runaways, and his continuance beyond Vaughan’s authorial domain—is but a subset of The Vision’s microcosmic crystallization of worldbuilding into a solitary work. The Marvel Universe enterprise of subsuming a thousand arcs by a thousand collaborators into the illusion of a protracted biography of a single, linear lifetime is ameliorated by the Vision’s marginal status as a theoretically immortal, erasable figure. In The Vision: Director’s Cut—a six part rerelease in 2017 with bonus material—King marvels at the canonical prerogatives of Avengers Forever:
It is so insanely baroque, the ungainly twists in continuity and time all bent into a straight line of narrative that it kind of becomes one of the most poetic moments ever written. You can see the noble struggle of a dozen authors shouting to tell a hundred stories all of which need to become a single, magnificent epic. It’s the essence of comics in a few panels. (King et al, The Vision Director’s Cut, iss. 5)
In homage, The Vision similarly engineers an ambitious mise en abyme of Marvel revisionism in chapter seven: “I Too Shall Be Saved By Love,” the title itself a line from Avengers issue number one hundred and forty-seven. King and Walsh’s issue proffers a heartbreaking variant on a fan service synopsis of Wanda and Vision’s love story, drastically abridged in Agatha’s “voiceover” without context or imagery: “Later on, Agatha became a nanny for the Vision and Wanda’s children. They all lived together. A happy family, with an Everbloom in the living room. Later still, the children died, the Vision died, Agatha died, Wanda died. The Everbloom lived on” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 3). Even when illustrated from a literally android point-of-view, Vision names and numbers his recollection “19. The Korvac Saga,” an odd equivalence with our external reading experience of the event (King et al, The Vision, iss. 5). Chapter seven’s retrospective synchronously resonates on another cognitive level as a guidebook for neophytes, oblivious to the affective weight of these excerpted stories in their proper chronotopic placement.
The Vision’s simultaneous engagement of blank slate newcomers and pedantic gatekeepers alike succeeds by way of metatextual commentary on the very institution of labyrinthine comic book plotting. Bart Beaty identifies the idiosyncrasies of the shared universe that escalated the bankruptcy and diminished sales of the Marvel publishing house but conversely sustains the undisputed ascendancy of the MCU:
In various physical and online fan communities, cultural capital is accrued through (among other things) mastery of the arcane backstories that organize the fictional collaborative worlds inhabited by superhero characters. […] Fantastical elements ranging from time travel to cloning allowed creators to craft increasingly baroque story lines that ended up limiting audience growth by frustrating comprehensibility. (321)
Derek Johnson too observes the successful transfer of recursive reading to a cinematic domain: “[F]ilm narratives are crafted to make repeated consumption on DVD (or via digital download) more compulsory. The narrative links constituting the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus encourage careful, repeated, often frame-by-frame viewing” (7). Prior knowledge is certainly not a prerequisite for this limited series: its format and new cast purchase its creators some leeway in terms of sidestepping universal coordination, as tabula rasa Vision and his newborn (original) family are not contracted out to contemporaneous ongoing titles. Moreover, King and Walta eschew transmedial interconnectivity with the MCU, even though Avengers: Age of Ultron was released in 2015. Audiences intrigued by the film version could embark on this decidedly non-superheroic tale of synthezoids who access and externalize their impossibly long memories or backstories as concise, encyclopedic “sound bytes” for first-time readers. The series incorporates yet dispenses with the asphyxiating fan mastery that exerts itself upon the text of a modern Marvel superhero comic.
The Vision himself is a consummate platform for medial and generic reflexivity given the nature of his powers. Denson surveys Marvel Comics Frankenstein titles of the 1960s and ’70s, categorizing linear and non-linear character types, with Frankenstein a median figure qualified to critique the nature of plurimedial seriality. While the former, termed a “series character,” develops over the course of a single work,
[t]he serial figure, on the other hand, exists as a series—as the concatenations of instantiations that evolves, not within a homogeneous diegetic space, but between or across such spaces of narration … What makes these characters serial figures, however, and not just disjointed collections or remakes of themselves as series characters, is that they carry traces of their previous incarnations into their new worlds, where the strata of their previous lives accrue in a non-linear, non-diegetic manner. (536, emphasis in original)
Although Vision is not a serial figure in the exact sense of the Marvel Frankenstein — a portmanteau of signifiers ranging from Shelley to Karloff—he is not strictly commensurate with Batman or Superman, both of whom Denson designates series characters. This is because Vision is singularly poised to sustain ‘reboots’ within his own character; while narratological resets to a main universe are a transparently mercantile venture, they are relatively more natural and diegetically contained when applied to a synthetic being. Vision’s scan of his own history in the same issue—traversing reboots, retcons, decades, and creative teams—blends fictional interiority and collective authorial supervision in a way that a human character, linear or otherwise, cannot.8
Klock, Karin Kukkonen, Angela Ndalianis and others have eloquently delineated a suspended logic of sorts—an esoterically superhero spatio-temporality—that allows for readers to simultaneously inhabit paradoxical macro-narratives of an ostensibly mortal figure; The Vision, conversely, centers logic as the experiential touchstone of the reading process. Batman of The Dark Knight Returns contains the campy Adam West Batman ’66 through such a “powerful reading” that fans are compelled to reassess their character memory as inaccurate; additionally, Frank Miller ages Bruce Wayne into the “contemporaneous 1980s” as a means of recuperating his sliding timescale (31, 30).9 Elsewhere, in what Klock invokes as “the dialectic of the sublime,” Grant Morrison’s JLA persists as a “macro-misreading” of an impossible, infinite, maddening host of realities (124). Vision, meanwhile—immune from either death or faulty recall—can technically cycle through the various, chronological versions of himself with little (diegetic) fallout; in contrast, the Scarlett Witch’s parallel “deletions” are configured as inhumane, and cost her both her sanity, and the Marvel Universe half its mutants.10 Rather than navigate Umberto Eco’s “oneiric climate” or revel in the epistemological multiplicity of the postmodern superhero narrative, The Vision instead prioritizes an ontological paradigm; by centering synthezoid and not human (reader included) phenomenology, the series foregrounds (then disrupts) knowable Truth—real-time, optical, machinic, the mimetic—over fallible, subjective, discursive human recall, the diegetic (114). Fascinatingly, canon thus migrates from fan experience to accessible factuality.
The Scarlet Witch, her chaos magic a conveniently open signifier for her amorphous and mutable powers, is another liminal character whose gendered emotionality is contrasted to the logical rigidity of her synthezoid lover. Indeed, Wanda is scripted as our affective proxy, dramatizing the loss of Vision’s erasure in a manner that the reset android cannot himself mourn, as she sobs to the Avengers West Coast version of her spouse: “You used to be kind!” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 7). In the same issue, in stark juxtaposition to Vision’s egregiously forthright rationale for his new appearance to his “former” children, a catatonic, mind-wiped Wanda stares out from disjointed panels at the reader in condemnation of in-house “rewrites” of linear, accretive, un-tamperable human memory.11 Ndalianis’ reproach against DC’s failed “continuity-fixers—Infinite Crisis and Zero Hour” expands this narratological streamlining practice beyond the House of Ideas, and establishes a crucial correlation between intra- and extradiegetic memory:
But how can entire fictional histories and the characters who participated in them be wiped from the memories of readers who had experienced them? Comic book readers aren’t like characters in soap operas whose minds can be easily wiped clean at the whim of a charismatic, yet evil, genius. (280)
Vision’s reassurance, “You too shall be new,” is thus cold comfort to both an unresponsive mortal and fans exasperated with incessant reboots (King et al, The Vision, iss. 7). Wanda’s eleventh-hour appeal to her vengeful ex-husband is predicated on a (rather generous) metatextual recuperation of their messy writing: “Everyone—they just stay the same. But we—we are constantly finding the new. We are forever being redone. Reborn. Redeemed, V” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 11). While Vision is the extremity of discipline, Wanda is the embodiment of the excessive feminine: too powerful, too emotional, and too unstable. The series’ and the characters’ hyperawareness of their prolific deletions, edits, and revisions, or their joint background relations, throws into relief the reader’s own accessibility to reliable memory—traditionally the purview of the infallible synthezoid—otherwise known as canon.
The Vision cites Marvel backstory as fan service as a matter of course, but it furthermore analogizes the eidetic functionality of our android protagonists with our own “pre-loaded memory” of Earth-616 (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1). King’s dexterity with repetition as a means of bookmarking the baroque mass of timelines in play can be demonstrated through an extremely metatextual intervention where the series effectively quotes itself. Virginia’s “pre-loaded memory” is first referenced as vague affective deferment: “She was fascinated by how often she found something that made her cry” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1). Like all of the characters, Virginia is never granted direct communion with the reader through monologue, as interiority is always mediated through either the red or purple speakers—homodiegetic narrators who perform heterodiegetic objectivity—so that even the specifics of her memory servers are introduced by individuals who were present at the genesis of these “thoughts that did not belong to her” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1). Virginia’s pitifully opaque, contingent subjectivity is demeaned once more through our informational advantage: like the two witches, we12 “experienced” these events at their inception in the original publications. The curation of Marvel memorabilia in chapter one gestures towards the setting of the larger universe, and the subtext as to why “his wife grew unusually quiet” at the “gift from the Witch” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1). The longtime reader, familiar with the Vision’s romantic history, is thereby rewarded with the peculiar status of bibliographical supremacy over even a synthezoid.
Chapter eleven recapitulates issue number seven’s canonical retrospective, a narratological Droste effect that activates human reliable memory. Analogous to the synthezoid Umwelten, the reader can eidetically source information and compute fact by simply consulting back issues or the Marvel Wiki. Even the newcomer, having perused previous issues, can assemble meaning where Virginia, beneficiary only of disassociated grief, yet cannot: “A joke in bed. A kiss behind a tree. A dinner party. A necklace. Two children gone. A husband in white. A mind cleared. An offer made. She was fascinated by how often she found something that made her cry” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 11). We later discover that The Vision issue number seven comprises the start of Wanda’s conversation with Viv and thus circumvents Virginia entirely. Like her, we are selectively and opportunely furnished with incomplete and stochastic data: Virginia by a patronizing creator, and us by a godlike narrator.
Our recourse to canon authorizes us to assess “fact,” invaluable when confronted with nebulous characters like Agatha Harkness and the Scarlet Witch. Despite their lengthy careers of improbable death-defying and reality-altering, there is nothing in the extensive Marvel library to suggest appending telepathy to their mutating portfolio of catch-all magic.13 Alongside the Vision, we make “the human decision … to go on even though [we] cannot possibly go on”: suspending disbelief, we accept logical inconsistencies as part and parcel of the genre and shared universe—encompassing flying dogs, aliens, teleportation—up to the big reveal that the impersonal, omniscient captions have been divided between Agatha (in purple) and Wanda (in signature scarlet) all along (King et al, The Vision, iss. 6). In tandem with the series’ manipulation of visual ontology and affect as radically immersive metatext, recursive reading illuminates the impossibility of the witches’ narration.
Sequential art allows for a certain retreat or effacement of narrative transparency not inherent in logocentric media. Like film, comics need not divulge the chronotopic positionality or authority of their “source”: audiences may enter a fictional setting without being cognizant of who—when, from where, and why—is facilitating our gaze. Typical to the genre are ‘voiceover’ or internal monologue; truly extradiegetic deictic signposts like ‘Meanwhile,’ or location descriptors; or self-consciously theatrical Golden Age-style commentary. In The Vision, there is only dialogue and omniscient narration until the halfway point, when we see that Agatha has been recounting the “text” of issues one through six to the Avengers, and again in chapter twelve, with Wanda relating seven to twelve to Viv. We cannot retroactively reconcile our heretofore anonymous, clairvoyant, unearthly guide(s) with the dossier we retain of these two formidable but certainly not omnipotent beings, thus throwing into question our initial exegetical complacency with the work’s teleological fallacies.
Because the series concludes with affective closure, who are we to mar a happy ending? We defer, possibly indefinitely, a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt (alienation effect) predicated instead on the cognitive dissonance between a satisfying first reading and an incommensurable secondary perusal (Brecht 130). Where dialectical theatre foregrounds aesthetics as a metacritical departure from (Aristotelian) audience empathy for actors, The Vision harnesses multimodal architecture to effect radical identification with synthezoid phenomenology that prioritizes the cerebral, thereby circuitously advancing Brechtian principles of defamiliarization. Additionally, alienation is engendered spatially via the disconnect between the purported telos of the theatre (as a venue for passive observation) and the experimental focus on setting as an instrument of defamiliarization (e.g. through manifest lighting and staging). The Vision likewise masquerades as a throwaway superhero monthly that instead renders the reading experience uncanny and apprehensive—an inversion of Freytag’s pyramid—through a transformative magnification of auxiliary elements. Its Verfremdungseffekt is moreover, temporal, within a format that recompenses recursive reading; the series’ bestowal of anticipated catharsis (Virginia’s death) and postponement of intellectual distancing replicates the non-linear, non-finite time of a synthezoid (Virginia’s hinted resurrection in the final chapter). Brecht’s imperative to disrupt suspension of disbelief is paralleled in The Vision’s delayed subversion of our secondary belief. In other words, we passively, unconsciously overlook fractures in diegetic consistency as unfortunate but excusable manifestations of our generic expectations—bad comic-book writing—only to return with the epiphany that we are as suggestible to programming as the android inhabitants of our paradoxical storyworld.
Marvel fans are so inculcated with baroque complications sustaining shared universe continuity that ratiocinative bracketing—suspension of disbelief, or the more idiosyncratic sliding timescale that perpetuates the fictional and profitability lifetimes of flagship IPs14—becomes second nature. The Vision, however, capitalizing on continual retrospective recasting, scatters diegetic incursions throughout the text that surface with “concrescent (compounding or cumulative) seriality” (Denson 532). For one, King’s Everbloom confers foreknowledge, not omniscience or telepathy: “its petals could unlock the doors of time” and “allowed one to see the future” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 11). In contravention of this, both narrators convey the interiority (past, present, and future) of the supporting cast, none of whom either woman ever meets, as far as we are shown or told within the scope of the series. As third-person omniscient narration, the captions “Matt Lin joined the army. He served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He liked Iraq better. The lies there were easier to see” are standard exposition; as an anecdote in Agatha’s speech to the gathered Avengers, it becomes problematic (King et al, The Vision, iss. 5). Even more puzzling is the Scarlet Witch’s confirmation of—and thus correspondence with—Judeo-Christian divinity itself: “As unlikely as it seems, there is indeed a God above us.15 […] However, and unfortunately, robots do not have souls” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 10). This pronouncement is at odds with the speaker’s recent reminiscence about her marriage to a “machine” and at the very least insensitive to her interlocutor, Viv (King et al, The Vision, iss. 12).
This breakdown of diegetic and epistemological boundaries is duplicated in the indiscriminate fusing of omniscience and reported speech; the disappearance of grammatical indicia contributes to our understanding of the narrators as godlike, external beings. In the first chapter, Purple N occupies the fluctuating subject positions of the Visions’ neighbours: “On the weekends they tended to stay in Virginia, though they often lamented that they should go into the city. The museums are so nice, and the kids would have a great time” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1). The absence of diacritical marks and a focalizing agent on the page bewilders an attempt to fix reader positionality. In addition to incorporating myriad and disparate subjectivities through indirect speech, Wanda and Agatha’s identical, robotic diction and verbatim monologues create the semblance of a shared narrative persona. Of the Vision, Agatha portends: “He will kill you. He will kill your families. He will raze the world”; of Victor, Wanda echoes: “He will kill them. He will kill their families. He will raze the world” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 6, 8, emphasis in original).16 Lastly, their joint refrain ‘Behold’ is not only anachronistic, but bizarre within its “intended” dialogic context; it only makes sense to a reader concurrently referencing visuals.
The witches’ pretentions to external objectivity include the conscious framing and naming of diegetic events as “story,” which reverberates with the troubling of visual ontologies discussed earlier. Both of Virginia’s lies are prefaced with “This is the story she told,” but the word is used elsewhere to reference the contained plot, or the two monologues (King et al, The Vision, iss. 2). Such consistent terminology strikes a provocative equivalence between fiction and utterance, and privileges speech and immediacy as authentic conveyors of truth. As such, this delineation would establish only the “unmediated” endings of issues six and twelve, where the narrators are shown addressing their listeners, as outside the purview of “story” and therein real and ongoing. The Vision’s Verfremdungseffekt even acknowledges superhero tropes, when Agatha recaps in paratextual fashion: “In the beginning of our story, Virginia killed the villain, the Grim Reaper” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). Wanda differentiates her half while maintaining her predecessor’s impersonal delivery and invocation of archetypes: “At the end of this story, Victor Mancha will be all that stands between Vision and the destruction of the world” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 8, emphasis in original). Such labored artifice—trading in clichés at an affective remove, mimicking the behavioral algorithms and speech patterns of an automaton—falters as their proper (in the sense of individualized as well as “correctly” written) personalities penetrate their collaborative façade of heterodiegesis.
Cushioning the shift in narratological paradigms, the text displays gradations of speaker individuation, as Agatha and Wanda sporadically break with their simulated neutrality. Both let slip value judgments and break the fourth wall, but Agatha’s trespasses are quite measured, in keeping with her characterization: “However, Vision rightly noted that the ability to combine these figures into rhetoric, into creative endeavors, this had to be learned” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 1, my emphasis). As Purple N elucidates P vs NP to the Avengers—and we disregard the peculiarity of a Salem witch’s oration on computer science—the captions utilize first-person and direct address right before they metamorphose into Agatha’s (astral projection’s) speech bubbles: “Regardless, as our story progresses, it is important for you to understand what we are facing, to see the world as he does … To simplify things further, I will discard the nomenclature and focus on the concepts” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 6, emphasis in original). Wanda’s interjections, on the other hand, strain against her narrative bounds, as she—as Red N—futilely entreats Vin to act against what she now (in the present-day of chapter twelve) knows to be fated: “Follow the bouncing ball. Please… Please, Vin, please! Follow the bouncing ball!” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 8, emphasis in original). The series’ palimpsestic temporalities are marvelously overwrought, with Wanda allegedly relating a past occurrence but breaking from her chronotopic distance to forewarn the subject of her own discourse. As with “Behold,” this practice confounds the plausibility of a later, framing conversation; once more, it is the reader and not Viv who is interpellated within the present tense and pictorials of the accompanying panels.
If we are to believe that The Vision issue one through twelve is actually comprised of two monologues,17 it follows that only the final pages of issue six and issue twelve are real-time, unmediated, and outside of the “story”; there exists, however, an authentically heterodiegetic narrator who supersedes Wanda and Agatha’s contentious omniscience. The exceptional chapter seven, the linchpin of the series’ reckoning of its manifold timelines, features this external authority as a stabilizing rhythm, with ‘Later’ appearing in the top left corner of every double-page layout. The pages are meticulously paired for print reading, with uniform palettes and layouts suspending each “snapshot” of (Marvel) events in isolation with every turn of the page. Eighteen and nineteen even mirror one another, the symmetry punctuating the “something in common”—Wanda’s magic mind-wipe and the destruction of Vision’s original operating system—that the estranged spouses still share (King et al, The Vision, iss. 7). Yellow N, whose caption boxes are the same color as Vision’s word balloons,18 provides indexical information apart from the deictic ‘Later,’ identifying fellow dinner guests whose iconographic templates—e.g. Quicksilver’s hairstyle—makes redundant their labels for fans: “Robert Frank, The Whizzer … Agatha Harkness … Simon Williams, Wonder Man” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 7). Yellow N then recedes from the remainder of the series, relinquishing narrative control back to Wanda.
Curiously, true heterodiegesis intervenes at only one other juncture, to suture linearity after the aforementioned lacuna in the depiction of Vision’s breakdown with “The Next Morning…” (King et al, The Vision, iss. 6). The whiplash transition from a double page splash of the Reaper’s gruesome exhumation to George’s visit demands elucidation from an (assumedly) panoptic authority, but the comic doubles down on its refusal to illustrate the patriarch’s violence, instead layering text boxes from of an off-panel, one-sided, and unrealistically calm confrontation over pencils of Vision performing unseen surgery. Agatha, who has this whole time been trying to convince her listeners that their teammate is both dangerous and unhinged, somehow exits the story during this most demonstrative instance. The intervention of a truly anonymous, omniscient, and heterodiegetic narrator—who is egregiously absent from the unmediated portions of the series—complicates the already dubious subject positions and diegetic feasibility of the two witches.
Even the precognitive vantage of the Everbloom as central plot mechanism proves illusory; The Vision in the end “fought this code” and refutes every anticipated narrative trajectory (King et al, The Vision, iss. 11).19 By simulating an android Umwelten through a defamiliarization of our exegetical cartography—compromising our ideological credence in what is real, what can be shown, and what can be told—the series embellishes “[t]he ability of graphic narratives to figure such differences of experience, and to prompt a rethinking of the value hierarchies in which they have been embedded” (Herman 158). The Vision’s sequential art inhabiting of synthezoid phenomenology and its reprogramming of visual ontology, affect, and diegesis forces us to broach the liminality of the nonhuman in our suddenly uncanny attempt to make semiotic sense of the text. Lastly, “You too shall be new” may resonate as a metacritique of the mercenary practices exploited to sustain shared universe continuity, but Vision’s offer of a commonality furthermore lays bare our hermeneutic coding, effecting radical empathy and a rescripting of our experiential boundaries, preconceptions, and capacity for pattern recognition.
 As a technical complement to phasing, The Vision title stat is also transparent. Additionally, chapter seven is comprised entirely of borderless panels, accentuating the temporal liminality of events fitted to an impossible/canonical timeline.
 The mad scientist cliffhanger would suggest that Vision has learned nothing. After his run on this title, Vision created a second Viv when he believed his original daughter to be deceased; ironically, the former also emerged as a killer robot.
 Tom King and Mikel Janin explore this in Batman issue number fifty by condensing Bruce and Selina’s “history” to a progression of costumes without having to justify the temporal paradoxes. The conceit of one guest artist per splash page augments the prioritization of fan service over chronological realism.
 Ndalianis discusses the chaotic and joyously open signifiers of multimedia figures through the television show Smallville, which stochastically absorbs and rejects competing components of the Superman mythos, gleefully rejecting either a chronological hierarchy or one commensurate with a “powerful reading” that Klock identifies as retroactively altering fan understanding of the character (Klock 31). Smallville, embracing its television format, adds a type of fan service casting—which I term “palimpsestic iconography” elsewhere—that engages with multiple generations of potential viewers (Hong 60). For instance, “‘Exposed’ (5:6) acknowledges John Schneider’s (Pa Kent) more famous role as Bo Duke, one of The Dukes of Hazzard” (Ndalianis 282). While Christopher Reeves’ guest starring turn is overdetermined as “a legitimizing presence,” the metatextual nod to a vehemently extradiegetic reality—Schneider’s iconic role—celebrates cultural (and generational) permeability, and the attendant elasticity of referents across genres, media, and realities, including ours (277).
 In the MCU version (at the time of publication), the Scarlet Witch possesses telepathy and telekinesis, which was considered a simplification of her comic-book counterpart’s ill-defined abilities.
 I use ‘monologue’ interchangeably with ‘dialogue,’ given the deferral of the interlocutors’ contributions. Agatha’s, though, may be seen as more of a traditionally unidirectional speech, in keeping with her gravitas and the more formal conditions of her report to the Avengers.
 Young Vision’s word balloons are square with rounded corners, perhaps a graphic reification of the slang of the era. His current speech bubbles are oval with incisions at the cardinal points, possibly reflective of environmental incursions that challenge a Cartesian separation of self and surrounding.
 Even Viv, who we are told “did not live as long as she might have” persists in 616 continuity in her post-King afterlife (King et al, The Vision, iss. 4). Significantly, Viv is metamorphosed by the High Evolutionary into a girl of color. As of printing time, however, she has reverted to her android form and deactivated her emotional core.
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