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
Editor’s Note: With Iron Man 3 in theaters this week I could think of no better time for a guest blog from my old pal Chris Ulm, who is a fine writer, a giant nerd, and the biggest Iron Man geek I know. Take it away, Ulm!
Iron Fan: A Think Piece About Brotherly Warfare, Armored Noses and Atomic Roller Skates
As I write this, we are exactly seven days away from Iron Man 3 hitting the big screen. Despite my inappropriate level of disappointment with the various trailers that have been released so far, I will be first in line. Why?
Because I really have no choice. See, the …
… has haunted me since the fateful day that I saw issue #47 on the racks at the slightly disreputable Sweet Liquor store in Culver City, CA:
My father reluctantly bought the tattered and beat up issue (in those pre-comic book store days, all of the comics I bought were characterized by embedded dents and folds from being pressed into wire racks and fondled by filthy urchins such as yours truly). I was instantly enthralled.
Entitled “Why Must There Be An Iron Man,” this re-telling of Iron Man’s origin was written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Windsor Smith. The story absolutely captivated me and turned me into a comic book nut. Thomas did a masterful job of recapping Tony Stark’s ill-fated journey into Vietnam, his subsequent ambush and race against the clock to build a weapon of vengeance with the help of kindly Dr. Yinsen. As I breathlessly read the issue, the first nine years of continuity exploded into my brain. I learned about Iron Man’s friends, lovers and enemies. About the Avengers, S.H.I.E.L.D., the rogues gallery — all the sturm und drang typical of Silver age Marvel under Stan Lee and Roy Thomas.
The story was told with economy typical of Thomas’ work. It probably helped immensely that In 1972, Iron Man has only been around for nine years and the Marvel Universe was only a tad older. To put it in perspective, Hollywood brought Marvel’s Spider-Man to the screen ten years ago, and the comic book Marvel Universe is now over 50 years old. Back then, ol Shellhead’s back story felt both infinite and containable to my young mind.
Set as a series of flashbacks at a funeral, Barry’s art knocked me out. I loved the different incarnations of Iron Man and the sense of progress that was held within the strip. Much later, I would have the privilege of co-creating Rune with Barry during my long tenure as Malibu Comics Editor-In-Chief.
After consuming this issue, Iron Man instantly became my favorite character of all time. I knew it in my guts — but I couldn’t have told you why — at least not then.
Iron Man was born the same year I was — 1963. He debuted in Tales of Suspense #39 and was created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby.
Stan is reported to have wanted to create a businessman hero patterned after Howard Hughes (in Hughes’ glory days). Lee wanted to create a rich industrialist, a munitions maker, that would be exactly the kind of character that the readers would reject.
“… I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of our readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him,” Lee explained.
Which was actually very true. Tony Stark was pretty damn unlikeable but his creation was awesome. Iron Man was instantly more captivating to me than any of the other Marvel pantheon.
I admired Captain America. A lot. As a young pre-teen, I found that green trash can lids made excellent Adamantium shields and my brother Eric made an equally excellent Red Skull — it was actually amazing how far trash can lids can be flung with enough determination. So Cap was great. And he was right in Tales Of Suspense next to Iron Man.
And Spider-Man was likeable and funny. Couldn’t get enough of Spidey.
But I didn’t want to BE Cap or Spidey. I liked to read about them. When I read Iron Man, I imagined myself in the role of Tony Stark. It actually helped that Tony was a cipher. Really, Tony was either Reed Richards with a welding helmet, Don Draper with a pimpy mustache or a whiny drunk in need of therapy. Sometimes he was all three in the same issue.
(In fact, my secret shame is that I didn’t like Tony Stark at all until Robert Downey Jr. so brilliantly gave him a personality injection in the first Iron Man movie.)
But I didn’t need to.
In the Silver Age, Cap was a Goody Good, Spidey was a Loser, Thor was a Shakespearean Stiff and Ant Man was … well … ANT MAN.
Tony Stark may have been a giant douche but Iron Man was AWESOME.
Unlike the vast majority of the Marvel Universe, Iron Man was not a radioactive accident or a product of faulty cosmic ray shielding. Nor was he created by the activation of a happenstance X-gene or being born to the right All Father. No, what I loved about Iron Man is that he is the only Silver Age Marvel character that created himself.
(I refuse to count Ant Man).
Iron Man changed all the time. Iron Man had the same advantage over the other heroes that Homo Sapiens had over the rest of the hominids. Now there were some misfires, most notably the nose:
But by a large, Iron Man bootstrapped his abilities by using his brain to build better tools. Repulser Rays? Check! Uni Beams? Check! Jet powered roller skates? Check and check again!
See, if you want to be Batman, you have to take on a lot of emotional baggage. There is no Batman without the death of Bruce’s parents. There is no Batman without the ongoing evil of Gotham City to motivate him. Not true for Iron Man. Stark can be tinkering in the sunlight of Malibu in between assignations with strippers. Even Stark’s problems are all self-created. He’s a drunk. He treats women like dirt and can’t commit. He throws away his money and lets evil corporations buy him out. All his own fault.
I just knew I could have done so much better, given a big slice of genius and inexhaustible resources.
And in a sense, I have, with my very own Iron Man suit. My good friend, a gifted artist and partner in Appy Entertainment— Farzad Varahramyan — was all too aware of my Iron Man fetish and, after my twin daughters were born gifted me with his own interpretation of the Golden Avenger:
Iron Man 3 opens on my birthday. I’ll be there.
Thanks to Chris Ulm for this week’s blog!
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #99 A Secret Wars Apologist
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- ‘Iron Man 3′ Displays Tough Tactics From Tony Stark? [VIDEO] (hothits957.cbslocal.com)
- Audi R8 Stars in Iron Man 3 London Screening, Online Comic Contest (wot.motortrend.com)
- Iron Man 3 (2013) Review (hmzfilm.wordpress.com)
- Where Do I Start With Iron Man? (comicbooked.com)
- Iron Man 3 Is A Disappointing Mess (goodmoviesbadmovies.com)
- Iron Man 3 Contest (cosmiccomicslv.com)
- Don Cheadle Talks Possible ‘War Machine’ Movie Plot (screenrant.com)