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Ant-Man’s Charisma Problem: Why Early Ant-Man Was Unpopular

Gather to me! Hear my words! I, Jason Cragg, speak truth! Truth! – The Voice

Journey Into Marvel – Part 85

Today's issue

Today’s issue

Extremites, Ant-Man stories are haphazard and make little sense.  Hank is unlikable. He’s reclusive. He’s quick to anger and downright abusive. Today’s story pits cold, uncouth Ant-Man against an antagonist who’s power is his radioactive charisma. It shows that Ant-Man is never going to be a darling of the public.  Read the rest of this entry

Ant-Man’s Comrade X: Larry Lieber’s Subversion of the Communist Stereotype

Journey Into Marvel – Part 49

TTA36_MadameXExtremites, 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 in Drag.

Comrade X in Drag.

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)

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Ant-Man’s Ants: Slave or Ally?

Journey Into Marvel – Part 45

Pym debuts as Ant-Man on the cover of Tales To...

Pym debuts as Ant-Man on the cover of Tales To Astonish #35 (Sept. 1962). Art by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Extremites, around Christmas, as part of my Journey Into Marvel series, I discussed Hank Pym’s unassuming debut in Tales to Astonish #27 in which Hank is introduced as a mild mannered doctor who creates a potion that makes him shrink to the size of an ant. The issue follows his adventure as he gets lost in an anthill. At the conclusion, Hank has a pro-environmental epiphany that all animals should be respected no matter the size because some good-hearted insects saved his life.  As we all know from history books, or from casual viewings of AMC’s Mad Men, people had little regard for the environment in 1962. A character discovering that  other animals on the planet are important is a novel idea. Kudos to Marvel for breaking the barriers.

Snap to nine months later. SNAP!

It’s September 1962. You picked up this month’s Tales to Astonish and you find a very different Hank Pym. You find a Hank is no longer a mild mannered scientist but a miniature warrior for justice.

He’s now Ant-Man: the scourge of Red Communists everywhere.

The environmental message has changed as well. The ants are no longer equal. Ant-Man now governs them as his slaves.

Ant-Man’s conception is unique in the early Marvel Silver Age. He’s special because his character was never intended to be a recurring face.

The fan reaction to the story of Hank Pym was enormous. After his simple debut, the readers were desperate to see what happened next. As a result of the positive fan reaction, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created another member of their fledgling superhero gallery. The Pym shrinking potion was made a super ability and Ant-Man was on the scene.

The first official Ant-Man story has all the marks of a Silver Age rush job.  It has a haphazard and cliched villain, a lofty proclamation of justice, and a diagram of Ant-Man’s office with unique travel method. Ant-Man’s catapult is the most absurd method of travel in the Marvel world. He is said to be able to shoot anywhere in New York. I can see about ten problems with this method and don’t want to waste your time going through them. Let’s all just agree that this catapult is nuts.

That’s not the only change that is nuts. Ant-Man’s changing relationship with the ants is just as absurd.The first thing Hank Pym says to the ants, the same ants that saved him last time, is: “all right, slaves, do Ant-Man’s will.” Nature is no longer to be embraced but dominated.

Hank dominates these ants through his helmet which manipulates electric impulses to emit orders to the miniature creatures rendering them automatons under his control. He uses their collective to drive to take down Comrade X’s gang, our hackneyed gang of antagonists.

In comics of this period, the Soviets, and sometimes Chinese, are often faceless zombies. What is marvellous, excuse the pun,  is Ant-Man’s ants act in exactly the same way. Ant-Man’s treatment of the ants as drones is no different then the way Nikita Kruschev, who appears in this issue, is said to treat his comrades.

American historical jingoism, of the period, often reduces Soviet Communism to a mass of drones doing whatever the dear leader dictates. This depiction looks something like a mass of people hurtling themselves into situations like lemmings to the sea. The stereotype results from two places. One, the astounding and frightful ‘Scorched Earth’ policy that was so effective for the Soviets in World War II, and two, a belief in a false sense of U.S. individualism.

It is unclear why there is such a drastic change in the relationship between Ant-Man and the ants. Perhaps, it comes from a need, on Stan Lee’s part, to create a unique power for Hank Pym but feeling dry of inspiration.

As the title progresses, as you know, having read some of my other articles on the Silver Age Ant-Man, Hank Pym’s character changes from issue to issue. The way he treats his ants does as well depending upon their role in the story. In 1963, the ants even start to disappear from the story line all together

I have read that Stan Lee and his creatives found this character hard to write, and Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers both found his stories difficult to draw, often forgetting to scale his size.

The slaves and their honey.

The slaves and their honey.

Something never quite works about Ant-Man’s character because the powers that be at Marvel never had their hearts in the character and were always writing to the demands of the readership.

Having just come off a desperate issue of The Incredible Hulk and seeing what fan demand does to many of these characters in the near future, I am beginning to grasp what it looks like when the writers are not writing for the passion of it, but rather to sell issues.

Writing for the fans does not lend itself to good creation.

Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds

Story I Read:Return of the Ant-Man” (Tales to Astonish #35 Sept. 1962)

Rating: 1 1/2 out of 5

Pros: Neat depictions of Ant-Man running with the Ants. Absurd ideas.

Cons: Hackneyed and desperate ideas like the catapult. Lack of antagonist.

Preceding Review: Captives of the Deadly Duo” (Fantastic Four #6 Sept. 1962)

Upcoming Review: “The Mighty Thor vs. the Executioner” (Journey Into Mystery #84 Sept. 1962)

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