There’s a question I get frequently around these parts:
“Who’s your favorite super-hero?”
It’s a question I usually dread, because it requires a lot of explaining, but here we go. It’s Ant-Man, all right? Ant-Man. Or sometimes it’s Giant-Man. Or Goliath. Or occasionally Yellowjacket. Doesn’t matter, though, because they’re all the same guy: Dr. Henry Pym, the Incredible Shrinking (and Growing) Man of Marvel Comics.
Having gone through a number of super-hero names and more costumes than the touring company of CATS, Hank Pym is nonetheless my favorite superhero character, bar none. Why? He’s just so messed up, but he keeps coming back. He’s got arguably the lamest power in comics, he’s so riddled with insecurity and low self-esteem that he makes huge mistake after huge mistake in order to prove himself, and yet he never gives up. If I were a superhero, as much as I’d want to be cool like Spidey or Iron Man, I’m sure I’d wind up being Hank Pym. So come with me now as we take a look at the long and only moderately successful career of the Marvel Universe’s resident also-ran, Hank Pym.
Hank Pym first appeared in TALES TO ASTONISH #27 (January 1962) in “The Man in the Ant Hill!”, one of the countless sci-fi/horror stories Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were churning out just before the Marvel Universe really got rolling. In the story, readers are introduced to Dr. Henry Pym, a scientist who refuses to devote himself to practical projects, only working on research that appeals to his imagination, such as, for example, potions that can decrease or increase the size of physical objects. Having successfully shrunk and restored a lovely parlor chair, Pym logically decides the next step is animal testing, and rather than going out to the pet shop to buy some nice disposable white mice or guinea pigs, Pym jumps right to human subjects, and swiftly doses himself with the reducing potion.
The scientist is swiftly shrinking uncontrollably, and winds up at the approximate size of an ant, and runs to an anthill for shelter. Inside the anthill, Pym fends off the stampede of ants with a matchstick, a makeshift lasso, and even a little judo.
Thanks to a single friendly ant, Pym makes it back to the safety of his lab, where he dives into the test-tube containing the growth serum, restoring him to his proper size. Pym destroys the serums, and swears off his size-changing research.
However, when the sales numbers came back to Marvel editor Stan Lee, he noted that TALES TO ASTONISH #27 was the best-selling comic for that month. Stan, Jack and scripter Larry Lieber (who had also scripted the first Hank Pym appearance) set to work converting the concept into an ongoing superhero character, and eight months later, TALES TO ASTONISH #35 hit newsstands, featuring “Return of the Ant-Man.”
In his return appearance, it was revealed that Hank Pym had re-created his shrinking and growth serums and locked them away for safekeeping. Also, as a result of his experience in the anthill, Pym had become obsessed with ants, and had soon invented a helmet which would allow him to communicate with them, as well as devising a uniform to protect him from accidental ant bite. Before he could test the equipment, Pym was commissioned by the government to create a gas that could immunize the human body from radioactivity. Naturally, word of this leaks to Those Dirty Commies, who quickly dispatch a quartet of “goonskis” to steal the formula from Pym. Pym, locked away while the Russians ransack his lab and interrogate his assistants, dons his helmet for the first time, shrinks down and heads for the anthill, where he discovers that not only does the helmet work, allowing him to communicate with his new insect allies, but he also retains his full human strength even at ant-size. With the help of his new ant buddies, Ant-Man frees his assistants and captures the Reds, keeping the anti-radiation gas out of Communist hands.
In the following months, Ant-Man faced off against a variety of foes in the pages of TALES TO ASTONISH, from more Commies to extortionists, to, well, giant superintelligent beetles. It was in TALES TO ASTONISH #38, that Ant-Man met the man who would be one of his most tenacious opponents, Egghead. Egghead, an atomic scientist fired by the government under suspicion of treason, is hired by underworld bosses to devise a way to eliminate Ant-Man. Egghead hits the books, and discovers his own way to communicate with Ant-Man’s insect allies, promising to free them from Ant-Man’s domination.
Unfortunately, it turns out that ants are loyal buggers, and they quickly tip off Ant-Man to Egghead’s plot. Defeated, Egghead would return again and again with new schemes to destroy Ant-Man.
The Ant-Man stories in TALES TO ASTONISH got a much-needed shot in the arm with #44, with the introduction of Ant-Man’s new partner, the Wasp. With plot and art by Stan and Jack and script by Ernest Huntley Hart, “The Creature From Kosmos” permanently changed the Ant-Man comics, and much for the better.
In this issue, we get for the first time a look at Henry Pym’s past, with the murder of his first wife Maria by Communist forces while visiting her native Hungary. The loss of his wife, it turns out, has been the motivating force behind his fighting injustice as Ant-Man. (It’s also after his wife’s death, by the way, that Pym has his first nervous breakdown. First, you ask? Keep reading.) When Pym is visited by scientist Vernon Van Dyne, seeking assistance with his own research into contacting alien races, Pym is struck by the resemblance between Van Dyne’s daughter Janet and his own dead wife. Yeah, that’s healthy. Pym would meet Janet Van Dyne again when her father is killed by the aforementioned creature from Kosmos, a member of the alien race he was trying to contact, who just happened to be the most feared criminal on that planet. Talk about your bad luck.
Janet calls on Henry Pym for help, and Pym confides his Ant-Man identity to her, and offers to make her his partner, so that she can help avenge her father’s death. Seems to be moving a little fast to me, but slow, well-reasoned decisions never seem to be Hank Pym’s forte. With his trademark cavalier approach to science, Pym has Janet strapped into one of his machines in no time, implanting specialized cells just beneath her skin tissue, giving her the ability to grow antennae and wasplike wings when she shrinks to insect size.
Along with a uniform to match Ant-Man’s, Janet is given a belt containing the canisters of Pym’s shrinking and growth gases, and with five minutes’ explanation and no training, Pym deems Janet suitable to go into action as – the Wasp! Guess he figured she was a natural.
Thanks to his insect pals, Ant-Man learns that the creature Kosmos is composed primarily of formic acid, and quickly puts together an antidote, which he packs into shotgun shells and loads up into a 12-gauge. Of course, he still makes his ants crawl the shotgun across town instead of just hopping into a cab, but I guess if you’re Ant-Man, you gotta make the whole operation feel important.
Soon enough, KA-BLAM!, and the creature from Kosmos is no more, and for Henry Pym, fighting crime is no longer a one-man outfit. The Wasp was here to stay.
Five months later (during which time Ant-Man and the Wasp had helped found the Avengers, the Marvel Universe’ premier super-hero team, about which you’ll hear more in a future column), Henry Pym underwent the first of his identity changes, utilizing his growth serum to grow beyond normal size as Giant-Man. At first, Pym was limited to a maximum height of 12 feet, but was later able to reach heights of 100 feet, although it proved too debilitating to be of much use.
As Giant-Man (while still retaining the ability to shrink as Ant-Man), he and the Wasp had to contend with such threats as the Porcupine, the Black Knight and the Human Top (who would later return with the considerably less goofy codename of Whirlwind), as well as run-ins with fellow Marvel heroes the Hulk and Spider-Man. Although Giant-Man and the Wasp had a respectable run in TALES TO ASTONISH, it was in the pages of THE AVENGERS where things would really happen for Hank Pym. And not all of it would be good.
Pym served in the Avengers for years as Ant-Man, Giant-Man and under a third identity, Goliath. By this time, both Hank and Janet had been exposed to the shrinking and growth serums so much that the “Pym Particles” had permeated their bodies to such a degree that they could change sizes at will without any new exposure to the formula. Also, Pym’s body began to have an adverse reaction to the extreme heights as Goliath, and he went into semi-retirement, devoting himself to new research in robotics. Pym’s desire to create artificial intelligence proved to be both fruitful and tragic, as his creation, Ultron, achieved sentience and almost immediately developed an irrational hatred of his creator, one that would lead Ultron on a murderous course of self-improvement and attempted conquest that continues to this day.
Ultron, composed of unbreakable adamantium, would recreate himself time after time in new attempts to eradicate all humanity, beginning with his hated “father” and his friends in the Avengers.
On the heels of his creation of Ultron, Pym disappeared, and was replaced by the mysterious Yellowjacket, who claimed to have murdered Pym. The cocky, aggressive Yellowjacket promptly kidnapped Janet Van Dyne and proposed marriage. Janet could see through the ruse and knew it was Hank Pym beneath the cowl, but agreed to marry him anyway, claiming later that she “was afraid rejecting him would make his condition worse.”
You could call the Wasp co-dependent, but I think she knew she’d never get him down the aisle otherwise. When Yellowjacket and the Wasp’s wedding was crashed by the Ringmaster, the sight of Janet in danger snapped Pym back to reality, and his normal personality returned. Pym claimed that exposure to “mysterious gases” in the lab had triggered his psychotic episode and change to Yellowjacket, and it was as Yellowjacket that the repressed Pym could do what he’d always wanted: propose to Janet. Considering that he’d already had one breakdown, the whole “mysterious gases” theory seemed a little shaky (I really don’t think that’s how mental illness works, and considering the number of resident geniuses on the Avengers, you’d think someone would have called him on it), but the marriage was legal, (apparently despite “Yellowjacket” being on the marriage license) and Hank and Janet happily remained wed, with Pym remaining in the Yellowjacket identity when serving with the Avengers.
As much as I like the original Ant-Man uniform, the Yellowjacket identity has always been a favorite. The yellow-and-black color combination isn’t seen much in comics, and the sleek, streamlined design had it all over some of Pym’s other, gaudier costumes. (Of which there were a bunch. Between Giant-Man and Goliath, there was probably 10 or 15 costume variations. No lie.) The Yellowjacket uniform was just plain cool.
As time went on, Pym began to fall into periods of tension and depression, feeling that his scientific research had ground to a halt since his discovery of the Pym Particles, as well as being wracked with guilt over his creation of Ultron, and an increasing sense of inadequacy compared to his wife, who besides being the principal means of support in the marriage due to her inheritance from her dead father, had achieved considerable success in her own career as a fashion designer, as well as eclipsing Pym’s career as a superhero, what with her consistent service in the Avengers while Pym had numerous periods of retirement and inactivity. In the midst of another breakdown, Pym began to be verbally abusive towards the Wasp while attempting to redeem himself through renewed service in the Avengers as Yellowjacket. Things came to a head on an Avengers mission, when Yellowjacket blasted an enemy, whom Captain America was attempting to negotiate with, in the back.
Feeling Pym’s actions endangered the team and the public, Avengers chairman Captain America brought court-martial charges against him. From here, things would only get worse.
Hoping to make himself look good at the court-martial hearing, the increasingly unstable Pym created a giant robot programmed to attack the Avengers, which only he would know how to defeat. When Janet discovered his plan, the now-deranged Pym, at his lowest point, strikes her across the face.
Not only was Yellowjacket’s plan painfully transparent at the court-martial hearing, it also backfires, as his robot is about to kill him before Janet stops it. You’d think Pym would have learned his lesson about robots…
Expelled from the Avengers, divorced from Janet and penniless, Pym is manipulated by his old enemy Egghead into stealing the unbreakable metal adamantium from a government facility. In the course of the robbery, Pym nearly defeats the Avengers (including Thor, Iron Man and Captain America – a formidable team) before a confrontation with his ex-wife proves his undoing.
Pym is unable to prove that Egghead forced him into the robbery, and is sent to prison on charges of treason (at one point seeing his ex-wife in the tabloids being romanced by teammate and ladykiller Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man. Ouch.).
When it comes time for Pym’s trial, he’s kidnapped (although it looks like a prearranged escape) by the Masters of Evil (a gang of Avengers foes) at the behest of Egghead, who wants Pym to create a machine to grant him eternal life. Pym agrees, and soon shows Egghead the finished device, inviting the criminal to try it out. The suspicious Egghead makes Pym use the machine first, just as Pym had anticipated. Pym had loaded the machine with weapons and methods to defeat the Masters of Evil, whom he summarily trounces.
Pym decks Egghead, and turns to leave, to turn himself in to the authorities, when Egghead pulls a gun. The just-arriving Hawkeye the Marksman fires an arrow into the gun, which backfires, saving Pym but killing Egghead.
Henry Pym is cleared of all charges thanks to the evidence in Egghead’s lair, but refuses to return to the Avengers, stating that his superhero career had got him into this mess, and cost him his marriage, and he would never return to it.
Not long after, Pym accepted a post as operations manager for the Avengers’ Los Angeles-based West Coast division, but still refused to return to action. While serving with the West Coast Avengers, Pym sank into another deep depression, spurred by his general feelings of uselessness from his stalled career and failed marriage, and the death of Ultron-12, a version of Ultron who had grown past his hatred of Pym and considered him a loving father. Pym was about to commit suicide, were it not for the intervention of Firebird, a West-Coast-based hero who had been assisting the West Coast Avengers on recent missions.
The spiritually minded Firebird talks Pym down off the ledge, and helps him find a way to combine the successes of his past into a new direction. Accordingly, Pym decides to return to action in the Avengers under his own name (occasionally referred to by verbose writer Steve Englehart as “Doctor Pym, Scientific Adventurer!” Yeesh.), and with a new approach.
Rather than shrinking or growing himself, Pym uses the buildup of Pym Particles in his system to shrink and grow other objects. It’s a pretty interesting reversal, one I always liked. Not only would Pym shrink enemies or weapons used against him, but he would carry a virtual arsenal of weapons and equipment (everything from a blaster rifle to handcuffs to an Avengers Quinjet) around with him, which he would grow to a usable size as needed.
It’s an amusing notion: “What do you need? An operating table? No problem! Prison cells? No problem! A Pontiac Aztek? No problem!” The new Doctor Pym had also sworn off costumes, choosing to go into battle in a less-than-intimidating Doctor Who-like suit-fedora-and-scarf combo, but this was quickly dispensed with in favor of a red jumpsuit covered with pockets, which sure looked like a costume to me.
Pym also proved he still hadn’t learned a thing by creating R.O.V.E.R., his robot sidekick which also doubled as a one-man hovercraft. Pym claimed he had only given R.O.V.E.R. the intelligence level of a faithful dog, so it was completely safe, but anyone with a little knowledge of Pym’s past was surely just waiting for the day that R.O.V.E.R. snapped and started killing Avengers left and right.
The “Doctor Pym” identity remained in use until the early ‘90s, when later writers had Pym regain his ability to increase in size, and he returned to the Giant-Man identity. Since then, the best treatment of Hank Pym has been in Kurt Busiek’s and George Perez’s late-‘90s run on AVENGERS, which correctly characterized Hank Pym (calling himself Goliath again by this time) as a deeply troubled man uncertain about his role as a superhero and the propriety of his recent reconciliation with his ex-wife, and also featured the mysterious return of Yellowjacket.
The Busiek/Perez run also featured the final confrontation between Pym and Ultron in their fantastic “Ultron Unlimited” story arc, and revealed a hidden secret about the creation of Ultron, which helps explain much of Pym’s irrational behavior over the years.
Current issues of AVENGERS have Hank Pym back in the Yellowjacket uniform again, which is certainly fine by me.
Hank Pym has had so many super-hero identities, he’s even loaned them out from time to time. The Ant-Man costume is currently in the hands of Scott Lang, a reformed ex-burglar who originally stole the uniform and equipment in an effort to retrieve his kidnapped daughter. Pym, realizing the circumstances, allowed Lang to keep the equipment, and Lang has operated as Ant-Man sporadically ever since. The second Ant-Man can also currently be seen in AVENGERS.
The Goliath costume and powers were given to the Avenger Hawkeye for a time, when the purely human archer began to feel overshadowed by all the powerhouses in the team, and felt he needed to bring more to the table in order to pull his weight as an Avenger.
Hawkeye soon returned to his own costume, realizing his archery skills served a unique and necessary function. The Goliath identity also briefly saw use by Pym’s lab associate Dr. Bill Foster, who had a fairly short super-hero career as Black Goliath.
The Yellowjacket costume was also stolen, and used by petty criminal Rita DeMarr as a member of a later incarnation of the Masters of Evil.
The new female Yellowjacket later unwillingly served as an Avenger on several missions before she was murdered by the brainwashed Tony Stark in a story so bad I don’t even want to get into it.
Hank Pym hasn’t done as well in the pop-culture department as some of the other Avengers. He appeared as team leader in the short-lived 1999 AVENGERS animated series on FOX, which was hamstrung by poor writing, the absence of Avengers mainstays Captain America, Iron Man and Thor, and a Power Rangers-inspired design scheme that saddled all the Avengers with unnecessary and clunky-looking armored suits. There was an Ant-Man action figure from that TV series’ accompanying toy line, which wasn’t bad, but suffered from the same poor design as the series.
Your best option for Henry Pym action figures is the positively gorgeous Avengers Box set from Toy Biz, produced a few years ago. Not only do you get all five original members of the Avengers as seen in their first appearance, you also get two Henry Pym figures: a small-scale figure of Ant-Man and an oversized figure of Giant-Man. The sculpts from Phil Ramirez are just about perfect. Pick one of these up if you see it.
The Giant –Man figure was recently repainted as Goliath and sold in the current assortment of Marvel Legends action figures, with the Ant-Man and Wasp figures also included, but Toy Biz has designated it as the “chase figure” for this batch, which means it only shows up in one of every 30 cases, so unless you want to pay $60 on eBay, you’re better off just tracking down the original.
There were also three gorgeous minibusts produced by Bowen Designs, one of Ant-Man, one of Giant-Man (with the Wasp perched on his shoulder) and one of Yellowjacket. All three are sold out from the factory; the Ant-Man goes for some serious bucks on the collector’s market, but Giant-Man and Yellowjacket are still fairly affordable.
So there you have it. Henry Pym. He may be second-best (Or third. Or fourth. Hell, maybe even fifth.), but he tries harder.