Ants Will Vanquish The Lion

One of the series I most enjoyed this year was Nick Spencer’s Ant-Man, a broadly comic Elmore Leonard take on Marvel’s surprise cinematic star. In the last week, I read the Marvel Masterwork collection of Hank Pym’s original adventures, commencing with 50s-style monster shocker,  The Man in the Ant Hill.

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Ant-man is one of the most venerable heroes of Marvel’s Silver Age but I originally read his exploits quite out of sequence. First in the Avengers, the third Marvel UK b/w weekly. Then from 1976, in the Super-Heroes weekly ( see also https://materioptikon.wordpress.com/2015/02/)  and finally as Ant-Man in the Hulk weekly.

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We can divide the Ant-Man saga into three phases beginning with Return of the Ant-Man and continuing with Challenge of Comrade X/Trapped by the Protector/Betrayed by the Ants/Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle/Day That Ant-Man Failed. These are Lee/Larry Lieber/Kirby adventures introducing the secret lab where Hank is catapulted into action- first against a young woman who masquerades as a Stalin lookalike; then, the traitor Egghead who might have inspired Vincent Price’s memorable Bat-villain; a mutated insect bent on world domination who reminds me of the denizens of Kamandi’s Dominion of the Devils; and the Protector and the Hijacker: racketeers who star in identical plots.

These are all disposable tales but they’re distinguished by Kirby’s invention and dynamism. Even the duplicated villains have a distinctive look.

The next phase is delivered by the Lieber-Don Heck team, beginning with Prisoner of the Slave World, where Hank recruits alien insects to overthrow an extra-dimensional warlord who has kidnapped Earth scientists. This dismal phase continues with The Voice of Doom and Mad Master of Time.  The former is a radio announcer who gains mind control powers akin to the more interesting and longer-lived Purple Man. The latter is a mad scientist with an ageing ray, redeemed by the affection of his nephew.

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The Wasp is introduced in The Creature From Kosmos, where we learn about Hank’s tragic marriage to Maria Trovaya. This retcon introduces a note of obsession and vengeance in Hank’s character and also rings a warning bell for his relationship with Jan, who has also been touched by tragedy. Hank refers to her as a child three times in the one story, which is unsettling. The whole thing smacks of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. However, flighty, silly Jan has another side, as we see later: a storyteller for “shut-ins” ( orphans and war veterans) in what seem to be rejected Tales of the Watcher.

The subsequent Hank & Jan stories are dreary and don’t capitalise on the grim, avenging angle. The  Terrible Traps of Egghead/ When Cyclops Walks The Earth/Music to Scream By/The Porcupine are all by Heck and Ernie Hart. The Cyclops is an alien invasion story which will be revisited in the subsequent Colossus adventure. (Holy Gifted Youngsters!) Trago, the Man with the Magic Trumpet reminds me of Golden Age Flash-foe the Fiddler. Jan, we discover, loves good jazz and digs a cool brass man. The Porcupine will always be a loser and will die in the 80s Cap/Serpent Society storyline.

The final phase sees Kirby return to revitalise Hank with The Birth of Giant-Man.  After only fifteen stories, all very lacklustre, Hank has an adventure with the Living Eraser, in a tale very reminiscent of Kirby’s Xeen Arrow epic.

The book concludes with my favourite villain from my earliest memories of Terrific, the Space Turnip- er, The Human Top. Dave Cannon has quite a developed back story and seems very realised.

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Showdown with the Human Top is a much more lively and vivid story and Kirby makes full use of Hank’s giant stature. Unfortunately, Hank’s self confidence issues are highlighted too, as Jan fakes his tests against a speedy Top robot. Again, we see Jim Shooter’s disintegration of Hank Pym’s sanity has an inevitable historical basis.

The last story is The Black Knight Strikes: I first read this in a b/w Alan Class comic in Lesmahagow in the early 70s. Another traitor scientist, Nathan Garrett, creates a flying horse through genetic engineering but is unnerved by Hank’s changing size?! A visually impressive villain who would go on to challenge Iron Man, his biggest contribution was the inspiration for the heroic Black Knight of Avengers fame ( Marvel’s first “Britisher” hero by proxy).

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It’s worth noting that DC’s Mighty Mite, the Atom, lasted for thirty-eight issues before a merger with Hawkman. Almost ten more than Gi/Ant-Man, despite being pitched into campy corn in the mid-60s. Why was Ray Palmer more successful than Ant-Man? The art by Gil Kane is one factor but I suspect it was the consistency of the gimmick-driven Gardner Fox scripts- the Atom’s competition in the form of the Flash, Green Lantern and even Batman was fairly equal. Compared to Spider-Man and the FF, however, Ant-Man was tame, predictable and sophisticated.

The drama and visual impact of the Kirby Giant-Man was too little, too late. Hank would get a new costume with a helmet resembling his Ant-Man gear in his final exploits, before being replaced by Sub-Mariner in Tales to Astonish and by Cap’s Kooky Quartet in the Avengers. No wonder he felt undermined.  When he returned, it was as the tormented but more dynamic Goliath. If Don Heck designed the costume, it’s one of his best, right up there with Sunfire.

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Hank of course had a further stint as Ant-Man in the early 70s, (pencilled by Herb Trimpe as a pastiche of The Incredible Shrinking Man) but spent the rest of the decade as the infamous Yellowjacket.  The flippant, fallible Scott Lang Ant-Man of the late Seventies was largely a supporting character in Iron Man, Avengers and the FF , even undergoing death and resurrection in the 2000s. Making him a good-hearted schlub and f*ck-up, as in the movie, seems to have made him a success in our cynical, solipsistic era.

Coming soon: Give My Regards to Sgt. Fury

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

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