Repetition and Replicants: The Use of Sampling in King and Walta’s ‘Vision’
Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta’s The Vision has one of the most memorable opening scenes in recent comics. It presents the reader with a scenario --- a married couple going to meet the new neighbours --- that is, in a superhero universe, extraordinary simply because of its ordinariness. Uncomfortably so, thanks to the creepy narration.
It’s so memorable that, when a very similar sequence of images opens issue #7, you can’t help but recognise it. It sticks in your head over the twelve months between first and last issue, so that when the exact same narration comes back right at the end of the series, in a completely different context, you’re mentally transported right back to the opening.
As a series, The Vision features a lot of quotation and repetition. Dialogue and scenes are reprised a few pages or issues later; objects that make a quick appearance in issue #1 play a vital role in the climax; dialogue is lifted directly from comics published nearly 50 years ago, and from plays published more than four centuries ago.
These aren’t unusual techniques. They’re just examples of structurally sound storytelling, of how to make a book feel like an extension of the histories, real and fictional, of the world that it exists within.
Plus, repetition is a literary technique that is, I guess, kind of endemic to comics. It’s easier to perfectly replicate a moment in pencil and ink than celluloid, after all, and readers have the benefit of being able to flick back a few pages --- or even dig out a previous issue --- to compare. And that's without mentioning panel layout and page structure, which provide a whole other way for comics to include repetition. A well deployed nine panel grid can immediately call back to another page with, at surface level, entirely unrelated contents.
So, yeah, this is hardly unusual, especially in a comic as obviously, pointedly smart as The Vision. What is unusual, though, is the sheer amount of repetition in the book --- and, more importantly, the way it feels as you read.
Repeated dialogue or narration in The Vision often reads like it’s layered under or over the scene. You’re being asked to simultaneously follow three channels of information --- the visuals, the dialogue, and the narration --- which might all be coming from different sources. Take this example, from the virtuoso "thirty-seven times" sequence in issue #5.
This scene presents a police interrogation, building to Vision telling the lie that brings the rest of the story crashing down on his salmon-pink metallic dome. But there’s a second narrative running through it --- the story of the thirty-seven times Vision has saved the world.
If you attempt to read the two parts in tandem, as you might normally expect, they push against one another. When a dialogue caption asks “Who?”, and a narration caption within the same panel says “Loki”, you as reader have to separate the two, understand that they’re not in direct conversation with one another.
It’s too much to follow at once, so one channel becomes background noise. The best word I can think of to describe this effect, and the way it feels in my head, doesn’t come from comics but music: sampling.
It reads like a Kanye West track sounds. The way Kanye’s samples play with history, taking classic records and treating them with modern production, often deployed so they butt up against his own voice --- that’s how this scene feels to me. The snatches of superhero stories are sampled from old Avengers comics, then remixed by Jordie Bellaire, who applies a color scheme of lurid, unnatural yellow to each flashback panel.
This kind of sampling pops up throughout. And, like any good DJ, King and Walta borrow from all kinds of sources, new and old alike.
They borrow from the complex continuity of the Marvel Universe. Behold issue #7, which weaves the story of Vision and the Scarlet Witch’s relationship through decades of other stories. You can imagine King hunting through a longbox of yellowing comics, grabbing just the moments he needs --- a battle from Avengers #166, an argument from West Coast Avengers #46 --- like a producer rummaging through a crate of records for chunks of bridge and chorus.
They borrow from other corners of culture. Behold The Merchant of Venice, the Shakespeare play that the Vision’s son Vin studies in class and quotes from constantly --- because, in the time-honoured tradition of high-school drama, the passage we see the teacher reading happens to perfectly parallel Vin’s own story.
And, increasingly as the series goes on, they borrow from their own story. Behold Viv, the Vision’s daughter, replaying a conversation with her crush over and over. Behold Virginia, the Vision’s wife, twice retelling an altered version of issue #1’s lethal encounter with the Grim Reaper (the supervillain one, not the metaphysical one). Behold the first and last pages of issue #7, a perfect mirror of each other, the change in color tones, and the state of the clothes at the foot of the bed, immediately communicating the difference between the two relationships.
Once you start to notice the technique, it's everywhere you look in this comic. But why?
Well, first of all, speaking as someone who grew up in the age of Daft Punk, sampling is just what robots do. That’s demonstrated in the comic itself --- we see that the Visions have perfect recall, and can summon a hologram of a memory or share the exact sequence of events with another member of the family. When they malfunction, from physical or emotional damage, their dialogue skips like a scratched CD, sticking on single words or phrases.
As well as being a story about robots, though, The Vision is a story about a family. The sampling reflects the way traits get passed down from generation to generation, but it is much more precise than that messy organic process --- which makes sense, given the characters’ origins.
The Vision himself is a replica, built by Ultron using the brainwaves of Simon Williams, aka Wonder Man. Virginia’s personality is copied from Scarlet Witch, his previous love. The children have been built by their father, literally combining his traits and their mother’s. Copies of copies of copies.
As the story continually points out, the Visions aren’t a normal human family --- they are, as the Grim Reaper oh-so-sensitively puts it, “Imposters! Frauds! Artificial jokes!” --- but they’re trying hard to look like one.
The Vision is preoccupied with the uneasy relationship between appearance and reality, and whether you can pretend to be something so hard that you actually become that thing. This starts from the very beginning of the book --- it's the dissonance that makes the opening scene so memorably creepy, the Visions settling down in a Virginian suburb that is also located firmly in the uncanny valley.
A few pages later, the book makes it explicit, as Vin asks his sister if he is normal.
The Vision asks whether an identical copy of something is the same as the original, or whether it will always just be a cover version.
It asks that question, you won't be surprised to hear, repeatedly. Can acting like you're in a happy loving marriage actually create one? Can you lie about an unfortunate event so much that it becomes essentially the truth? Can you build your own children, by magic or by science, and just insist that they are real until the world is forced to accept it?
The series wraps up with a potential answer, as Virginia rejects the notion of trying to be normal. After the flames and deceit and death, it is a quiet scene, a father seeing his daughter off to school. Vitally, it is without any quotations or callbacks to earlier scenes.
Coming at the end of an issue that trades even more heavily in repetition than usual --- samples stacked on top of one another to form a deafening wall of sound --- it's a moment of release. The quiet fade out at the end of a particularly heavy track.