Monday, January 3, 2011

Making Marvel Mine: Essential Ant-Man (Tales to Astonish #27, 35-69)

Hank Pym is a dick.

There, I said it. With apologies to Scott Tipton over at Comics 101 (who really is pretty great, by the way), I can totally see why Ant-Man would eventually become known as “the superhero who beat his wife”. Hank Pym may be a genius scientist who not only developed technology to change the size of matter but also the ability to communicate with insects, but man… what a douche bag.

But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself. Hank Pym’s first adventure is in ToA #27, “The Man in the Ant Hill”, and it wasn’t a superhero story at all. This was right around the time the Fantastic Four were making it big, and all of Marvel’s other books were still mostly sci-fi and monster books. Hank Pym was a scientist scorned by his peers, mostly due to his (admittingly) crazy theories about changing the size of objects with a chemical process. None of it made any sense, but hey, it’s comics. Anyway, Pym’s formula’s worked (of course), but due to an accident Pym himself was shrunk (of course) and got stuck in an ant hill (hence the title). Hijinks ensued. A few months later, as Marvel was realizing it had struck upon a superhero goldmine, they decided to incorporate Dr. Pym as Ant-Man, the pint-sized hero who can talk to ants!

Now, none of this is all that crazy by 1962 Marvel standards, but I think that quickly became the issue. Ant-Man is a book that, in my opinion, never really quite got completely off the ground. I think it’s telling that of all the Marvel superhero launches between 1961 and 1963, only Ant-Man and Dr. Strange don’t currently regularly star in books today, and Dr. Strange lasted a heck of a lot longer than Ant-Man. You can see it even in the book itself- Pym’s costume changes from panel to panel in some occasions, mostly due to artistic and editorial neglect. Even by Silver Age standards of internal consistency, things… just kind of seem to happen.

By ToA #44, Marvel tried to spice up the book, by introducing socialite Janet Van Dyne as Pym’s assistant and sidekick, the Wasp. But in true Ant-Man fashion, this is done in the most convoluted way possible: We start with Pym flashing back to his never before mentioned wife, Maria. Maria and her father had been political dissidents in Hungary before defecting to America (the USSR occupied Hungary from 1945 to 1991, just so you know). However, upon marrying Dr. Pym, she convinces him that their honeymoon should be in her native land, because surely no one will remember her there. This level of obvious stupidity is pretty par for the course in Ant-Man, I should mention.

Pretty much upon arrival, those dirty commies capture and kill Maria, and Pym is forever emotionally scarred. Years later, Pym- now Ant-Man- meets Dr. Vernon Van Dyne, who wants to talk to him about communicating with aliens. Pym’s all set to brush off the old coot, until he meets Van Dyne’s daughter Janet, who NATURALLY looks EXACTLY like Maria. Then aliens kill Janet’s father (yes, really), and Pym decides that given her emotionally troubled state, this is the perfect time to graft wings onto the poor girl, shrink her down to an inch height, and make her his assistant. Remarkably, she seems pretty okay about all this.

Now, I know what you’re thinking- “This book sounds completely insane!” The kind of glorious, Silver Age insanity that I, the Amazing Justin Palm!, love. The kind where absolutely anything could happen because why the hell wouldn’t it happen like that? 60’s comics at their best!

But it’s not. I can’t really explain what it is about this book, but it’s just… tedious. Maybe Ant-Man really is just the red haired step-child of Marvel superheroes. I mean, they try so hard to keep it interesting, it just always falls flat. Either Pym or Wasp’s costume changes nearly every three issues. Pym goes from Ant-Man to Giant Man, then gets even taller as Goliath. (And that’s not even beginning to get into the gender issues of having a female character who can only get small, but a male character who gets bigger and bigger. The Shrinking Violet syndrome was alive and well in comics during the 60’s.) Maybe it’s for that very reason Pym’s popularity never rose to that of any other Marvel character. Iron Man may have changed his armor all the time, but he was always Iron Man. Pym on the other hand… his identity was just too fluid.

I could get into a whole thing about how later comics would use all this to suggest mental illness, that Pym’s own subconscious was splitting. And hey, to be honest, while reading this book, that angle totally works for me. But what I found much more… well, interesting isn’t the right word, but much more in the forefront is that Ant-Man and the Wasp generally seem to hate each other. They both talk about loving one another in theory and stuff, but in actual practice, they bicker and argue constantly about each other, and I really have no idea why they’re supposed to be attracted to each other. It’s like they’re just staying together because they both are deeply troubled, which is probably accurate. She’s sticking it out because he’s a substitute father figure who was there for her when she was weakest, at the death of her father. That being said, she knows nothing of science, and hero business is more of a hobby than anything else. Meanwhile, he’s an emotionally stunted (if understandably so) old stiff who fell in love with a girl for all the wrong reasons, and now he just wishes she’d stop talking because he has MAN WORK to do.

And maybe there’s a formula for drama in that, I don’t know. But reading it cover to cover, it just comes off as obvious and tedious. And the villains don’t help. Oh god, the villains…. Lets just say when your arch-fiends consist of Egghead (a fat, bald scientist with severe Luthor envy), the Human Top (later known as Whirlwind, he, uh, spins around real fast), and the Porcupine (seriously, whatever you’re picturing, its way worse, don’t even ask.), you’re flat out scrapping the bottom of the barrel. The villains are just plain boring, and when villains are boring, comics are boring, no matter how much “drama” you can draw out of the relationship bickering.

Honestly, I was originally going to add a description of a particular issue here- ToA #58, “The Coming of Colossus”- because it pretty much personally illustrates all of the problems with the series, but honestly, what’s the point? The central problem with Ant-Man was and is that he lacks a narrative focus. Spider-Man is about responsibility, Hulk is about rage and control, the Fantastic Four are all about wonder and possibility; what the hell is Ant-Man about? He’s just yet another scientist turned superhero, and those are a dime a dozen. And in trying to make the character more interesting then he actually was, the seeds of his eventual downfall 15 or 20 years later really are sewn here.

So, if you really like Hank Pym, or you really want to understand why he’d end up he jerk he became, read this I guess. But anyone else? Honestly, it’s not really worth your effort.

Sorry, Comics 101.

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