The Adventures of Henry Pym (1962 to 1965)

Don’t print the legend. There was no such thing as an archetypal “Marvel superhero” for the first few years following the publication and unexpected success in 1961 of the Fantastic Four. What would in hindsight seem to be the result of a deliberate policy was in fact the consequence of years of often inspired experimentation matched with impressive if deadline-challenged craftsmanship.

Nowhere was this process marked by more uncertainty and short-sightedness than in the Ant-Man feature, which began in the September 1962 edition of Tales to Astonish. Debuting just one month after Lee and Ditko’s radically unconventional Spider-Man feature in the doomed Amazing Fantasy anthology title, the adventures of Henry Pym seem almost to have been designed as the control for the Marvel Revolution. If the adventures of Peter Parker were from the off both innovative and oddly unsettling, then Henry Pym’s were decidedly conservative and staid. In that, Ant-Man — and its successor strip Giant-Man — stands as the strangest early-Sixties Marvel character of them all. Neither daring nor original, moving or insightful, his feature stands as an example of the very type of stiff and uninvolving comic which Marvel would soon begin to displace in the marketplace.

Much of the shock of the new which was then to be found in the early Marvel comics came from the way they often substantially digressed from the meaning of White America’s national myths. And so, Marvel’s superheroes were often subject to the most capricious of fates despite their very best intentions. In that, life was not shown to be favoring the bold and the best, so much as marking them out for cruel and unusual punishments, for severe and impossibly challenging duties. Part of the unique character of the early Marvel books was the fact that their leads’ super-powers arrived by ill-luck and chance, or both. Yet unlike all of the other super-heroes of Marvel’s first wave — which concluded with the publication of Lee’s last substantial solo book Daredevil (in April of 1964) — Henry Pym came to his super-powers in a way that was entirely of his own choosing and control.

Bruce Banner, Tony Stark, Matt Murdock, and the various members of the Fantastic Four (with the exception of the Human Torch) — all had their lives blighted to a greater or lesser degree by the physical consequences of their having attempted to help others. Characters such as Peter Parker and Stephen Strange, by contrast, learned to subject themselves to a life of duty in order to pay off the karmic debt which their own selfishness had incurred, while the X-Men had blamelessly suffered as unborn children the consequences of man’s meddling with atomic power.

But Henry Pym had set out to be a remarkable man, and he’d achieved his ends with extraordinary success. He’d wanted to create the ability to shrink to a tiny size and communicate and control insect life, and within a few panels he’d achieved his goals. In that, Pym stood as an example of the man of an exceptionally kind destiny, who easily overcomes all opposition due to his inherent moral and personal superiority. As a type, Pym belonged to the fiction of previous decades, when it was possible not just to believe in, but unquestioningly embrace, such a hopeful and even arrogant construction of virtue. The early Sixties, however, saw the first swellings in the comics mainstream of a far more contentious sense of what heroism was, and how it ought to be depicted.

Even where those various super-heroic victims of a less than wholeheartedly beneficent destiny could still pass unnoticed in the wider society, they were still marked by an awareness of their difference — and in the case of Reed Richards and Sue Storm, by the social consequences of their being perceived as strange, as unconventional. To be heroic in the Marvel Universe was almost by definition to be denied the capacity to conform, which left the first wave serving as a continual reminder that fitting in and doing as you’re told is not always synonymous with virtue, let alone choice. Even Captain America, that most conspicuous example of civic duty, was shown to have suffered out of all proportion to his deserving as the consequence of his service to the state. Frozen in ice and thereby prevented from returning to the post-war Republic, shattered by the death of his beloved sidekick during wartime, Steve Rogers spent most of the Sixties and much of the Seventies as a clearly time-lost victim of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Similarly, Thor eventually developed an active opposition to his father’s attempts to dominate his life, and even Iron Man slipped from the party-going ranks of the bourgeoisie and became an isolated, alienated loner. At the heart of these character’s appeal was the sense that they showed something of how the possession of great power unavoidably brings with it difficult choices and regrettable consequences.

By contrast, Ant Man was respected by the public, adored by his disturbingly beguiled fan club, and lionized by law enforcement while his alter ego of Henry Pym reaped the status and patriotic regard of his scientific achievements. While Marvel’s Bullpen worked through chance and design to distill versions of their other costumed leads which would represent general and yet enticing challenges to the age’s taboos about power and authority, Henry Pym did nothing but represent the interests of the status quo. He stood with power, he unblinkingly collaborated with it, and he received nothing but reward from its coffers. He was, in essence, the superhero that your parents might find themselves offering up as a role model for young America to follow.

Pym was similarly in no way diminished by his super-powers or their use. He controlled when and where and to what degree his size-changing capacities affected his life. No one else was aware of his secret identity, until the arrival on the scene of the Wasp in 1963. Even then, he had no intimate relationships, beyond his unchallenging romance with her, which might be affected by his costumed responsibilities. Indeed, his super-heroic identity acted as a means to win the heart of Janet Van Dyne, whereas the likes of Daredevil and Spider-Man actually lost their heart’s desires because of their crime-fighting identities and obligations. There was no one with a controlling claim on Pym’s time, and no institution, beyond the loosely-bound Avengers, to which he belonged and owed duty too. In representing nobody, and in being limited by no social responsibilities, Pym ended up standing for the conformist, unquestioning mass and the powers that claimed to represent them. At work, he was entirely autonomous; in his private life he was almost entirely in control; in costume he was a hero of the people.

Pym was, in essence, a Golden Age superhero appearing in a vigorously radical line of Silver Age books. His service to the community was motivated by nothing more fundamental than a traditional sense of decency, while his private life mostly sidestepped the soap opera that afflicted his costumed fellows. The stories of the other first-wave heroes tended to carry the disturbing meaning that adult life brought not unlicensed liberty but a trying brew of choices, opportunities, and responsibilities. Henry Pym’s tales suggested instead an America in which good and evil, liberty and punishment, reward and suffering, were all qualities allocated according to behaving in an entirely unquestioning and conventional manner. There’s no mystery or excitement to Pym, because his own conception of what he should be is identical to that of the least questioning expectations of his own society. Peter Parker was continually caught between the obligations of youth and adulthood, family and work, justice and self-interest. But Pym simply had it all. To an audience of children who were — no matter how dimly — becoming aware of the challenges of adolescence as well as the fault lines in what was supposed to be an eternally Utopian Republic, Pym carried no sense at all of the challenging, let alone the transgressional.

It’s sometimes forgotten that the Fantastic Four, for example, often functioned not as a symbol of the family so much of that as the institution’s decline. Reed was often cast as the absent, disconnected company-man father, Sue Storm the bored, frustrated and romantically tempted housewife. Ben Grimm was the fractious, demanding intruder from the extended family, and Johnny Storm the rebellious, alienated youth who put his own ill-considered desires before the communities’ best interest. In its time, this was a fundamental break with how the family was portrayed in the super-book, although in truth the family had rarely been represented at all in the sub-genre. The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man in particular spoke of tension and dispute, alienation and loss even as they ultimately stressed the virtues of affection and shared interests. Dr Strange’s origin went even further in its radicalism, speaking as it did of how corrupting wealth and privilege could be, and his position as the wise outsider emphasized a suspicion that mainstream America had a particularly limited view of how reality actually worked. In truth, just about all of Marvel’s heroes were to be eventually cast in the role of outsiders. Even when they seemed to inhabit positions of considerable prestige and influence, they struggled with their roles and longed for the freedom to cast off physical disadvantage and unlooked for responsibility.

But not, of course, Pym.

With his professional authority and his affluent existence, Pym was originally far closer in conception to the likes of Thor and Iron Man, who tended at first to be accepted unconditionally by the citizens and officials of the Marvel Universe. Yet Pym was untouched by any suffering comparable to Donald Blake’s lameness, let alone Tony Stark’s barely functioning heart. Neither was he burdened by Blake’s longing for his nurse Jane Foster, or Stark’s long-smoldering, slow-developing adoration for his secretary Pepper Potts. When compared to the fate of the X-Men, who effectively inhabited a state of social Apartheid without even the hope of a quiet marriage and an anonymous life, Pym was self-evidently a representative of Eisenhower’s white-picket-fence America.  Rather than a dimly-perceivable outrider of the social schisms then manifesting themselves on the periphery of American society, Pym stood for a nation which associated itself with a fixed social order and a fundamental sense of God’s grace being granted for its maintenance.

Because of that, Pym’s ability to shrink and control insects often made him seem far more like a secret-policeman than a superhero. Pym’s army of ants was shown to be monitoring every aspect of New York’s public and often private life. They were waiting to overhear threats reported in police stations, and they were even monitoring fellow insects for signs of radioactivity-caused super-intelligence. Pym and his tiny troops were in the lining of walls and waiting underneath floor boards, they were perpetually watching and no one’s privacy was guaranteed. Rather than creating a sense of reader-thrilling power, Ant-Man carried the air of a claustrophically controlling world in which the powers that be were forever watching — and ready, in a variety of unsettling ways, to stamp down on inappropriate behavior. Where most super-heroes were able, to a variety of degrees, to step outside the boundaries of conventional behavior, Ant-Man often seemed to represent the very forces which would inevitably frown upon the very idea.

The idea of a super-hero who chats with ants and relies upon their support to fight crime is hardly the most attractive proposition in the first place. The visual opportunities offered by the sight of typical individuals and objects towering over the tiny superhero soon became over-familiar and then exhausted, and that was especially true when artists less gifted than Jack Kirby were producing the strip. Yet it was the fact that the comic said nothing of the age — in the context of either the form itself or the wider society — which meant that it failed to transmit anything more than most unsatisfying of pleasures.

What seems remarkable about the various attempts during this period to recast Pym as a more compelling figure is how ill-conceived they were. Though the likes of Iron Man and Thor were gradually and persistently tinkered with, until they took on more and more compelling characteristics, Pym’s fresh starts seemed inexplicably poorly designed. In particular, it was as if the lessons being learned about other Marvel strips were regarded as irrelevant to Pym’s. Though the efforts to create a perpetually compelling status quo for Marvel’s characters in these years saw the company’s various features constantly marked by sea-changes, there was a gradual if confused drift towards creating situations in which socially isolated and heart-weary individuals struggled to do their duty at the cost of their immediate self-interest.

The more a strip broke with this as yet uncodified prerequisite, the less well it tended to do. The Hulk, for example, may have always been a deeply alienated figure, but there was no suggestion made that he’d ever be able to inhabit a position in which he struggled to serve the greater good in anything more than an ad-hoc sense. As for the Human Torch and Pym himself, their various romantic problems were unconvincing, while their many advantages meant that they were always winners in life’s lottery.  All three characters struggled to find an audience in the period, and only the Hulk has managed to prosper as a solo star in the long years since.

Even when Marvel decided to ramp up the melodrama of Pym’s feature by suddenly introducing a murdered ex-wife into his back-story, they also simultaneously added an adoring young lookalike to act as Maria Pym’s replacement. The loss of a partner slaughtered by the Reds would be a tough problem to keep at the front of a strip anyway, risking as it did defeating that sense of a constantly-thwarted and yet glacially-improving emotional life which the superhero soap-opera tends to feed off of. Yet Pym was not only immediately handed the beautiful, wealthy, super-heroine-in-waiting Janet Van Dyne to fill the gap made by his suddenly mentioned ex-wife’s absence. Before the reader could even process that he’d been bereaved, he’d been gifted with a made-to-measure and decidedly younger replacement. Worse yet, Lee kept mentioning the age difference between the two. Where Peter Parker’s romantic problems with Betty Brant and Scott Summer’s with Jean Grey represented young men’s inability to express themselves to attractive potential partners, Pym had been granted the role of aged and entirely successful Lothario. He didn’t even have to strive to attract the very type of young women which elsewhere appeared as an unattainable ideals. Once again, and for all Pym’s self-pity, he was quite obviously a remarkably fortunate man.

In fact, Pym’s problem then became not that he had to fight to attract women, or even to talk to those who showed some interest. Rather, he kept having to mournfully fight off Van Dyne’s besotted attention. He loved her, of course, but she was too young, and he had been married, and so on and so on. Pym’s romantic problems became those of a man rejecting the very unquestioning adoration which his readers were most probably just starting to long for.

Other more mature Marvel superheroes had been handed thoroughly compelling romantic crises to keep them interesting. Reed Richards was presented as a man tortured by the suspicion that Sue Storm was actually passionately attracted to the Sub-Mariner, while Thor longed for the simple right to dedicate himself to a mortal women in defiance of Odin’s edicts. (Even Professor Xavier had briefly once mentioned his entirely inappropriate and distasteful longing for the distinctly mid-teen Jean Grey.) Frustration and inarticulacy was what came to mark the Marvel men, young and middle-aged, and yet, by contrast, Pym had everything on a plate, and then seemed to demand of his readers that they feel sorry for his remarkable success. For boys struggling to accept that they might even want a girlfriend, let alone be able to achieve such an end, Pym must have appeared to be an alienatingly successful and self-pitying lover.

The last throw of the dice on Marvel’s part in their attempt to make Pym a comic-carrying lead was his transformation into Giant-Man. Yet it was never Pym’s power-set which had undermined his appeal, and making him as conspicuously large and powerful as he’d once been the opposite still left the fundamental weaknesses of the strip unattended.

While it’s true to point out, as many quite rightly have, that Pym’s strip had been undermined by work undertaken by Marvel’s second rank creators, that in itself needn’t have fatally undermined either Ant-Man or Giant Man’s chances of relative commercial success. For the truth is that even when Stan Lee took on full responsibility for the feature, and even when his efforts were matched with Jack Kirby’s art, the character still failed to spark. In that, it wasn’t the qualities of the strip’s creators which floored the property, but rather the meanings which the story’s sub-text tended to express.

No matter how inventive the scenes of Ant-Man’s tiny secret headquarters, no matter how dynamic the sequences showing him as a skyscraper-leaping giant, the man under the mask was a hollow conceit. In the end, Pym had lost his feature by the July of 1965 because he was never anything more challenging and interesting than a blondly privileged, powerful, and successful man.

The qualities of angst which were pumped into the scripts from late 1963 onwards never seemed convincing or endearing because Pym never seemed to be actually suffering. His unhappiness in itself only made him contemptible, because he already had everything that he seemed to be longing for. The Hulk and The Thing had been terribly mutilated by radiation, while the same force had done for the chances of most of Marvel’s heroes ever being allowed to subsume their identities into the peace and security of America’s silent majority. Iron Man had his shattered health and his ever-growing social isolation to cope with, while Thor belonged in neither of two worlds. Captain America was in irreversible exile from the society he’d fought so long and hard to preserve, while Doctor Strange had rejected American capitalism entirely and sought out a suspiciously radical alternative life-style which would eventually make him so attractive to the counterculture. Those Marvel characters who captured the reader’s affections were the ones who didn’t belong, who couldn’t easily prosper, who struggled with and even rejected the norms of the age.

Of all the solo stars of these first three, chaotically creative years, only the Human Torch, the Wasp, and Henry Pym had acquired super-powers and come out of the deal with very few and slight disadvantages to their name. They were the successes of the super-hero set, although they didn’t often seem to understand quite how lucky they were. Of course, all three of them found themselves without a solo strip as the mid-Sixties arrived. When something of a clearer understanding finally emerged of what the Marvel superhero should be, “privileged,” “unconditionally successful,” and “autonomous” were three particularly unhelpful qualities which didn’t make the grade.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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Also by Colin Smith:

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1 Comment

  1. Dean Hacker says:

    Typically excellent work.

    For me, the Rosetta Stone of the superhero genre is the first appearance of Superman from Richard Donner’s film of the same name. After a great deal of set-up, Clark Kent has arrived at the Daily Planet. He meets Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and (most importantly) Lois Lane. Each, in their turn, treats him as essentially a non-entity. They barely listen to him speak and pay very little heed to his wishes. All of that changes the instant Lois gets into her fateful helicopter accident. The ineffectual Clark Kent rips open his shirt and becomes Superman. In that instant, he transforms into the center of attention for the entire city. Lois Lane, who barely noticed him previously, is now intensely romantically fixated upon him. We have met a man might wish to become important, there is a moment of transformation and suddenly he is.

    Every superhero that has endured has an iconic moment of transformation either in their origin (e.g. – Spider-Man, The Flash), their modus operandi (e.g. – Wonder Woman, Wolverine) or both (e.g. – The Hulk).

    What interests me most about superheroes are the folk tale aspects of those transformations. There are interesting cultural assumptions built into how we answer the question of what kind of person wants to become the center of attention, or the object of fear, or any of these various wish fulfillment scenarios. When the pre-Hulk Bruce Banner evolved from “weak” to “victim of abuse”, it said a lot about how we had changed over those same years.

    What Stan Lee (and I believe it was Lee, in this case) brought to the table was irony. Dr. Bruce Banner wanted the ability to punch Thunderbolt Ross in the jaw and got it. It just came wrapped in an unwelcome package. Most of those earliest Marvels were about wished for gifts wrapped in unwelcome packages. Ben Grimm proved Reed Richards wrong. Peter Parker got free of High School as his defining reality. Tony Stark acquired the ability to get the “Reds”.

    Henry Pym, by contrast, seems perfectly content. The ability to get small and talk to ants does not really give him anything other than an eccentric hobby. Those are some mighty low stakes. As a result, there is nothing upon which for Lee & Kirby to pin one of those Marvel twists.

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