You may have heard there’s a new Marvel movie coming out this week — Ant-Man And The Wasp!
More so than any previous Marvel movie, the first Ant-Man was a tremendous risk. With the startling success of Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel proved they can turn C-Level characters into A-List stars … but Ant-Man seemed a reach even for a studio on such an unprecedented hot streak. Ant-Man had little name recognition; he was lampooned by Saturday Night Live long before superheroes were cool; the movie started as a passion project for a director who later left the picture; and the hero himself had a history so tortured even he can’t be bothered to keep up with it.
Remind me never to doubt Marvel! The first movie was a hit, and the character was a delight (practically stealing the show in Captain America: Civil War). So of course, here comes the sequel!
I will be there, of course!
To prepare myself for the film, I went back to read the original Ant-Man adventures — a task not so easy as it seems. Which Ant-Man was I to read, exactly?
Ant-Man as seen in the early days of the Avengers?
Ant-Man as the stolen identity of Scott Lang, the character at the center of the movie?
Only the original vintage will do for Longbox Graveyard!
I went all the way back to before Ant-Man was Ant-Man … when Hank Pym was the Man in the Ant Hill!
The original Ant-Man — as we would come to know him — debuted in Tales to Astonish #27, cover dated January 1962.
Tales to Astonish was a Marvel science fiction anthology mag, mostly concerned with monster-of-the-month stories staring creatures with names like Rommbu, Gorgilla, and Groot (yes, that Groot).
Those early issues of Tales to Astonish were obsessed with huge creatures running amok. In spinning a story where an ant-sized man was menaced by regular-sized insects, co-creators Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby might have been taking a break from giant-sized monsters … or they may have been co-opting another popular science fiction trope, explored to brilliant effect in the classic 1957 film, The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Or maybe they were sticking with the formula after all, aping Them, from 1954, where giant ants ran wild in Los Angeles.
hmm … that fleeing woman may have given Marvel the idea for Hydra’s catchphrase!
Ant-Man certainly works as a B-picture science fiction idea!
Whatever the origins of the idea, Ant-Man’s comic book debut wasn’t especially auspicious, save in hindsight. Like most issues of Tales to Astonish, this was at best a competently-executed high concept tale.
We began with an ambitious scientist who might have been whistled up out of central casting — a white guy laughed at by the establishment for his mad dream …
… in this case, a serum that could shrink items and then restore them to their original size. It worked on a chair, so of course the next step was for Hank Pym to conduct a human-trial-of-one …
… and given that this was Tales To Astonish, no sooner has Hank shrunk down to ant-size than he was locked out of his lab and menaced by (to him) giant ants!
(Sometimes I just love the Silver Age!)
There followed some B-movie derring-do, including anti-ant judo (!) …
… but then came the magic. Trapped outside his lab, and with no way to scale the wall to get back inside, Pym hitched a ride on the back of an ant that was mysteriously more friendly than the rest.
In short order, Pym was returned to human-size, and vowed never to step on an ant hill again!
That might have been the end for Ant-Man … before he was ever called Ant-Man! … but for two things.
One, that image of Hank riding an ant up the side of a building was very cool. I suspect it stuck in Stan Lee’s head.
Two, there was this thing called The Fantastic Four … which debuted two months before this tale, and proved to Marvel that superheroes — and not goofy monster books — represented the future of the company. Suddenly, creating new superheroes was Job One.
Insects would prove fertile ground for the newborn Marvel age of comics …
… and just a month after Spider-Man debuted, Hank Pym was back, now sporting a costume and called — for the first time — Ant-Man!
Tales To Astonish #35 provided a more full-featured superhero origin story for Ant-Man, recapping Pym’s previous tale, and adding to the character an entirely-reasonable newfound fascination with ants.
Even more interesting was Pym’s impossibly cool Ant-Man helmet, a classic Jack Kirby design that was quickly put to the test, as Communist agents intent on stealing research secrets took Pym and his colleagues hostage, prompting our hero to swing into costumed action.
Hank plunged into the ant hill again, finding that his helmet let him communicate with ants …
… and that he retained his human strength even while ant-sized, in a kind of inversion of Spider-Man’s famous “proportionate strength of a spider.”
And with that, Ant-Man was a superhero, and a part of Marvel’s nascent shared universe (there’s even a reference to “unstable molecules” as an explanation for why Ant-Man’s costume shrank with him, a concept that would be co-opted to account for the miraculous capacities of the Fantastic Four’s costumes).
Now all that remained was for Ant-Man to roll out his own super-heroic schticks, first by leading an army of ants to the rescue …
… then showing how an army of ants could muck up a gun, and swarm over a gunsel.
Add a secret identity and the promise of more adventures to come, and a superhero was born!
Living in the shadow of early Marvel hits like The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, Ant-Man would prove a modest success for Marvel, headlining a respectable thirty-issue run in Tales to Astonish (though he would share top-billing with the Hulk starting with issue #60, by which time Ant-Man had become Giant-Man in the first of many identity transformations for this star-crossed character). So significant a character was Ant-Man that he was made a founding member of the Avengers, along with his partner, the Wasp, and top-tier Marvel characters like Thor, Hulk and Iron Man (and in this case, I know that “top tier” = “anyone Marvel could round up that wasn’t Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four,” but still). In fact, while largely forgotten today, I’d argue that Hank Pym was the most interesting character in the first year or so of the Avengers, and with his many changes of identity, feelings of inadequacy, stormy relationship with the Wasp, and his creation of the mad robot Ultron, Hank Pym might be one of the most interesting characters in the Marvel Universe, full stop.
Marvel has shown they will cherry-pick this history for their films. Hank’s ever-changing, shades-of-grey personality veered into the black with his depiction as a wife-beating asshole in the Ultimates, and then his long-gestating solo movie project cost Ant-Man his charter membership in the Avengers, with Tony Stark ultimately usurping Hank’s semi-mad scientist role and letting loose the Age of Ultron. In every way that counts for modern audiences — that is to say, the people who go to the movies — it will be Scott Lang that is Ant-Man, with poor Hank reduced to a supporting character (however ably played he may be by the great Michael Douglas).
Ah, well, it is a modern miracle that we have an Ant-Man movie at all — it is churlish to complain that we aren’t getting the right guy. And on top of which, we get a sequel? With the Winsome Wasp? Truly, this is the age of Peak Geek!
I hope you like the move! Let me know what you think in the comments section, below. And maybe spare a moment to enjoy Ant-Man’s very first adventures, available in digital form via Marvel Unlimited.
- Title: Ant-Man (Tales To Astonish)
- Published By: Marvel Comics, 1959-1968
- Issues Reviewed: #27 & #35, January/September 1962
- LBG Letter Grade For This Issue: C-plus
NEXT MONTH: #150 The Core of the Four