Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]
Here's how mismanaged Marvel was in the 1990s: prior to Avengers: Ultron Unlimited, one of the very few stories featuring him in that era ended with Daredevil decapitating the robotic despot with a stick. Another saw him as the drunken comic relief in a Vision mini-series. It was a far cry from Roy Thomas's arch-villain; someone had to bring Ultron back to his roots. Kurt Busiek and George Perez's reinvention of the character could be compared to what happened to Doctor Light: classic villains who went from joke to lethal in an instant due to an appalling act of violence. While Doctor Light never really made it big after Identity Crisis (even though DC tried), the recent blockbuster sequel to 2012's The Avengers shows how Ultron is one of the Marvel Universe's greatest threats.
I was actually a little surprised by how much Avengers: Age of Ultron differed from its '90s Busiek/Perez roots. The general concept is the same: Ultron wants to destroy and replace humanity and is committing genocide against a fake European country to do so. Where it differs is that Age spends its last major setpiece preventing this genocide; many die, but more are still saved. In Ultron Unlimited, the genocide of Slorenia's population happens in the first part of the story and almost entirely off-panel. We do get glimpses of the damage through a news crew; it's all tinted red primarily to keep the sheer horror from affecting the audience. The movie took the right path: there's a difference between mass killings on the page and on the screen, and genocide in a superhero movie attended by numerous children would never have worked.
Additionally, I misremembered how long the genocide process took. I thought it lasted for an issue or two; instead, the story pushes past it to get to the Pym-Ultron family drama. This isn't the first comic to disregard a genocide in the service of a larger story; remember when the Spectre destroyed Vlatava, or when Cheshire nuked Qurac? Busiek did revisit Slorenia in a later story in his run and it still comes up from time to time in other comics as an example of just how devious villains can be. Luckily the trade uses a few issues to set up the drama to come, first reintroducing Alkhema, Ultron's most recent bride and a replacement for Jocasta. She's a false lead after the kidnapping of Hank Pym, Wonder Man, and the Grim Reaper. Only the Wasp is able to escape Ultron's scheme for his "family," and even then it's only a temporary respite.
Busiek liked to balance numerous subplots in his Avengers run and the very first issue collected here is a zero issue that follows several of them. He checks in on the Triune Understanding, the cult behind former Avenger Triathlon. The audience is then caught up on the triangular relationship of the Vision, Wonder Man, and the Scarlet Witch, a subplot that becomes a key part of the main story. Some character building is done with newbie team members Firestar and Justice, the latter of whom still has his leg broken from a previous issue. There's a bit of action as the team takes on the newest incarnation of the eco-terrorist Firebrand. All of this is linked by news coverage of the team; the longest-running theme of the book concerned the Avengers' slow regaining of the public trust after The Crossing and Onslaught. This later fed into Maximum Security and made the conflict in Civil War a little more sensible (though still not great).
Slorenia was an interesting choice for the sacrifice of its people. It was featured only a few times before in some early War Machine stories . . . and it's ironic that it's used here since Busiek is on the record as hating "War Machine" as both a name and a concept. (That's why a villain took over the name during his Iron Man run.) But it fits into another running theme of Ultron Unlimited: forgetting, repeating, and avoiding the past. This is the arc that forces Hank Pym to confront what he's done, leading him to finally start regaining his sanity. The Scarlet Witch dates Wonder Man even as she's unsure if she wants him for his own sake or because his mind formed the basis for the Vision's personality. The aforementioned news footage is narrated by third-string characters Stuntmaster and Chili Storm, now a pair of newscasters.
Upon this recent re-read, it feels like this Avengers run was the closest mainstream Marvel got to The Authority, complete with a global perspective and villains who constantly up the ante. Where that title had its own great artists, Avengers had George Perez, one of the true masters. Inked by Al Vey (as usual), the colors by Tom Smith seem a little too scratchy at times, although that might be Smith conforming to Perez's detailed work. The zero issue was done by Stuart Immonen and Wade von Grawbadger; they would later work with Busiek on Superman: Secret Identity, one of the best Superman stories of all time. One sign that this was made in the late '90s: the credits page and the final page before the cover are littered with 3-D Avengers logos. Someone was having fun with Photoshop that day.
The issues that make up the out-of-print Avengers: Ultron Unlimited trade can be found in the various collections of Busiek and Perez's Avengers run. The context of the previous and later issues enhances the story, but it can also be read on its own by a newcomer since many of the characters are familiar faces from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Next week, it's time to check back in on Daredevil in the second volume of the current run. Just when you thought the Purple Man couldn't get any creepier . . .