Ant-Man’s Comrade X: Larry Lieber’s Subversion of the Communist Stereotype
Journey Into Marvel – Part 49
Extremites, to be a writer at Marvel in 1962 was to be under the domineering inoffensive pen of Stan Lee. Larry Lieber, Stan Lee’s brother, had the most leeway to break the rules in the early days of the Marvel Superhero Renaissance. His main titles were Thor, Iron Man, and the Rawhide Kid, which is a western that is not considered part of Earth-616.
In 1962, Larry was given editorial rights over a few issues of Tales to Astonish. Stan Lee treated Ant-Man as an afterthought and preferred to focus all his time on the Fantastic Four and Hulk. This inattention meant that Larry could have free rein, for at least one story, to present something new to the Marvel universe. In his own idiosyncratic way, he did.
Comrade X could be called the first major villain in the Ant-Man mythos. In Ant-Man’s debut — not Hank Pym’s debut — Comrade X was behind a gang of toughs that is marauding Manhattan. Behind the criminal onslaught, lies a sinister plan, hinted at in the last few panels, of Communists funding this group to create danger and chaos in America’s favourite city.
Stan Lee did not like stories that were not self contained. He believed that they alienated new readers. Whatever Stan’s beliefs were, he allowed a semi two parter to open Ant-Man’s mythos. Perhaps, he did this because he thought Ant-Man wasn’t going to last.
The story sets off as a normal three act superhero yarn. Ant-Man has just foiled a bank robber by riding in on his ants and tying up the offenders. No time is spent explaining how he did this and its for the best because sometimes Ant-Man just doesn’t make a lick of sense. That’s his charm.
The focus switches to Soviet Russia. A Stalinesque figure in traditional Russian garb receives orders to steel Ant-Man’s shrinking ability. The Soviets believe that this could make their army undetectable for an invasion of the US.
Ant-Man’s shrinking potion has become something of a technological breakthrough for the Marvel world. In this month’s issue of the Fantastic Four, where the Four went up against Kurrgo, Mr. Fantastic used his own version of the potion to shrink an entire race of aliens. Although it is not Hank’s concoction, Reed suggests that a colleague of his did share with him the idea for this chemical. This may be the first hint that Stan Lee was trying to build a shared universe of characters.
As the story progresses Comrade X uses every trick in his arsenal to stop Hank and his army of insects. X uses both an aquarium and bug spray to try to halt the onslaught of Pym’s six legged army. None of this works and Ant-Man gains the upper hand. This is where the story gets super interesting. In Scooby Doo fashion, Ant-Man discovers that Comrade X is a disguise. X turns out to be a woman. The very same woman who warned Ant-Man in the beginning of the Communist plot. She’s not a communist cliche. She’s not a Stalinesque villain of boring proportions. It turns out that she is a gorgeous all American woman.
Larry Lieber has turned the classic propagandist representation of a communist villain on its head. He has shown a woman, and a beautiful woman at that, could be a villain too.
Looking back at this story from a modern viewpoint it is easy to miss the importance of this subversion. We don’t, ideally, look at villains in as being defined by their sex. In 1960s Marvel, however, it was tough for a woman to become a defined character because Stan Lee was so very reductive of them. Many have said that Stan Lee spent his time as editor at Marvel sitting on the fence never trying to offend anyone. This came into major conflict during the early rise of Feminism.
Larry Lieber’s Comrade X is a landmark and it’s amazing that she was featured in an Ant-Man story of all places.
Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds.
Story That I Read: “The Challenge of Comrade X” (Tales of Astonish #36 Oct. 1962)
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Pros: The twists and turns, the final act, Comrade X’s secret.
Cons: Ant-Man has a tendency to be two dimensional. It is not always clear why he does what he does.
Previous Review: “Trapped by Loki, the God of Mischief” (Journey Into Mystery #85, Oct. 1962)
Upcoming Review: “The Human Torch” (Strange Tales #101, Oct. 1962)