This year’s San Diego Comic-Con brought many surprises. Chief among them was Joss Whedon’s announcement at the official Marvel panel that the upcoming 2015 sequel to The Avengers would be dubbed Avengers: Age of Ultron. From that, one can safely assume that the Avengers’ next foe will most likely be Ultron.
Long-time comic fans can appreciate the enormity of having one of the Avengers’ oldest and deadliest foes prepped to make his big-screen appearance. For those unfamiliar with the malevolent android, however, here’s the basic gist:
An android crated by Hank Pym, aka Ant-Man, Ultron made his first official appearance in Avengers #55 in 1968. Though he has experienced multiple upgrades and armor changes over the past 50 years, Ultron’s motivation has typically remained exactly the same. A mix of Frankenstein’s monster and Oedipus, he’s a power-hungry villain bent on destroying his “father” (Pym) and marrying his “mother” (Pym’s long-time girlfriend Janet van Dyne, aka The Wasp). And while Whedon has said that Ultron’s origin story will be altered for the film, the director did confirm that he will be incorporating a breadth of comic book history into the character’s cinematic version.
Whedon certainly has a lot of good stories to draw upon. While “Age of Ultron,” Brian Michael Bendis’ recent crossover storyline of the same name, dominated this year’s sales, many found the story to be slow to build and ultimately anticlimactic. As such, this list will highlight some of the truly great Ultron stories from throughout the years.
10. “False Man” / “The Hundred Heads of Ultron” (Daredevil #275-276)
Writer: Ann Nocenti
Artist: John Romita, Jr.
At first glance, Ultron has no business being in a Daredevil comic. Whereas the majority of Daredevil’s most well-regarded and popular stories are defined by a gritty, noir feel, Ultron is the type of villain that typically belongs in massive, big-scale crossover events. Certainly, pitting a superpowered, indestructible robot against a blind, street-bound vigilante does not seem like a fair fight. Yet, somehow this two-issue story proves to be quite the fascinating read.
Having been rebuilt by Doctor Doom, Ultron experiences a form of “robot madness” when all of his previous personalities activate at once, turning him into a schizophrenic, crazed monster. It’s not a story for all tastes, but those with an open mind will find an emotionally charged, epic brawl to enjoy.
9. “Family Ties” (Avengers: West Coast Avengers #1-9)
Writer: Steve Englehart
Artist: Al Milgrom & Richard Howell
Steve Englehart’s Family Ties trade is a decidedly mixed bag. Ultimately, the Ultron arc comes across as a tad rushed and some of the angst-ridden, emotional elements steer dangerously close to soap-opera territory. Nevertheless, Englehart certainly deserves kudos for endowing the mostly one-dimensional Ultron with some shades of gray. Having been recently upgraded, the new Ultron experiences a sudden rush of compassion toward both “father” Hank Pym and his robotic “son” Vision. Ultron finds Pym and attempts to establish an amicable relationship with him. Naturally, such a status quo cannot hold for long and a tragic deus ex machina cuts this development short. Still, the story is a nice change of pace and often goes overlooked when recounting some of the best Avengers stories.
8. Annihilation: Conquest
Writer: Dan Abnett
Artist: Andy Lanning
The sequel to the 2006 Marvel crossover event Annihilation finds Ultron seizing control of the Phalanx, a species of cybernetic creatures with a hive mentality. Eschewing the traditional Avengers line-up, Abnett and Lanning bring in several of Marvel’s cosmic heroes to form a new team, including Nova, Star-Lord, Quasar, and a new character called Wraith. This series even features the return of the long-deceased android hero, Adam Warlock. A bit convoluted at times, the story somewhat suffers from an abundance of characters. As a whole, however, this arc serves as an imaginative and beautifully-rendered example of a Marvel cosmic war story at its most extreme. Also, for those looking to bone up on their Guardians of the Galaxy knowledge prior to that film’s 2014 release, this story is an excellent one to pick up as it serves as the prelude to Abnett and Lanning’s subsequent Guardians run.
7. “Origin of Ultron” (The Avengers #54-58)
Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: John Buscema
For those fans used to the crisp, detailed art and sharp writing found in more modern comics, reading older comic books can feel like a bit of a chore at times. Yet, in the case of Ultron, it’s a necessary task since this this arc both introduces the character and firmly establishes his backstory and motivations. Making his first appearance as a hooded figure called the Crimson Cowl, Utron finally unveils himself on the final page of issue #54 and we discover his background in subsequent issues. While the story can be hard to follow without proper context, Thomas’ writing makes for a genuinely fun Silver Age yarn while Buscema’s design for the original Ultron remains an impressive feat.
6. “The Ultron Initiative” (The Mighty Avengers #1-6)
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Frank Cho
One of the biggest issues with Bendis’ “Age of Ultron” crossover event was that, despite the name, Ultron did not make a significant appearance until a good bit into the story. This is not the case with Bendis’ “Ultron Initiative.” Ultron is all over this arc, albeit not quite in the form you’d expect. After taking control of Iron Man’s biological armor, Ultron emerges in a new form: a half-flesh, half-metallic woman whose appearance resembles that of his “mother,” The Wasp. For those looking for a more modern version of the character, nothing screams “modern” quite like Ultron’s new, transsexual model. In all seriousness, it’s an exciting storyline that firmly establishes the history of the character and his/her twisted psychology.
5. Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #1-12
Writer: Jim Shooter
Artist: Mike Zeck & Bob Layton
Unlike other entries on this list, Ultron is more of a side character in this epic, 12-issue crossover. But boy does he make an impact. The story finds the greatest heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe duking it out on a planet created by The Beyonder, a cosmic being fascinated by the various characters and their conflicts. In the course of the battle, Ultron is reprogrammed by evil genius Doctor Doom and turned into his pawn. Needless to say, this does not bode well for the Marvel heroes. If that weren’t enough, in one shocking twist, Ultron becomes to Hulk’s leg what Bane is to Batman’s back.
4. “The Return of Ultimate Ultron” / “The Great Betrayal” (The Avengers #66-68)
Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: John Buscema
While Ultron’s introduction into the Marvel Universe presented him as a dangerous adversary with a major Oedipal complex, his subsequent appearance several issues later is—to paraphrase Bad Boys 2—when shit got real. Having upgraded to a new level since his last encounter with the Avengers, Ultron re-emerges with a new shell made of adamantium, the unbreakable alloy that makes up Wolverine’s bones. While this particular arc consist of only three issues, it was a story that helped Ultron go from merely being a cool villain to one of the Avenger’s most formidable foes.
3. “True Believers” (Runaways Vol. 2 #1-6)
Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Adrian Alphona
A sort of teen version of The Avengers, the Runaways consists of a group of super-powered adolescents who band together after discovering that their parents are supervillains. While many of the Runaways stories would exist in an insular environment, elements of the larger Marvel Universe would occasionally bleed into their world. This was definitely the case with the “True Believers” storyline. In the series’ second volume, the group is visited by a future version of one of their members who warns them that a new villain called “Victorious” will cause havoc in the future. Tasked with finding and stopping Victorious while he is still young, the team locates the future supervillain in the form of outcast Victor Mancha, a Hispanic teen with a shady past. Not soon after, the group finds themselves faced with Ultron, who reveals a shocking truth about Victor. As with the majority of Vaughan’s Runaways run, “True Believers” provides an exhilarating, well-paced story complete with an array of clever twists and turns.
2. “The Bride of Ultron” (The Avengers #157-166)
Writer: Jim Shooter
Artist: George Pérez
Let’s get this out of the way: — Yes, the concept of a villainous android seeking out a bride is silly. It’s very, very silly. As such, it’s a testament to Jim Shooter’s writing and George Pérez’s art that they manage to make this absurd concept work to their advantage. Inspired by the classic horror movie The Bride of Frankenstein, the story finds Ultron brainwashing Hank Pym into creating a robot mate for him; specifically, one whose look would be similar to that of The Wasp’s. And what is the robot bride’s name? Jocasta. No one said comic books were subtle.
1. “Ultron Unlimited” (The Avengers #19-22)
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist: George Pérez
One of the most consistently fantastic writers on the market, Kurt Busiek bears the distinction of having one of greatest Avengers runs in the comic’s history. His crowning achievement during his tenure, however, is the four-issue “Ultron Unlimted” arc. The story starts with a bang. Appearing to the Avengers in his newest incarnation, Ultron instantly highlights his new powers by demolishing an entire country and constructing a robot army from its remains. Forced to face off against Ultron and his army of drones, The Avengers must face one of their most devastating challenges yet.
Boasting pages and pages of fantastic fight sequences, Busiek’s story augments all the punching and blasting with real emotional depth, with Hank Pym coming face-to-face with the horror of what he’s created. Featuring art by the legendary George Pérez, “Ultron Unlimited” not only marks Ultron’s finest hour, but it also stands as one of greatest Avengers stories ever told.