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The Short Man’s Complex

Was spending some quarantine time yesterday re-watching Peyton Reed’s wonderful ANT-MAN movie, and it got me in the mood to talk about Ant-Man. Let’s get started!

Here’s a question I get a lot:

“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.


2Having 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.

Come on back next week for the first of Ant-Man’s many identity crises. See you then.

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