On Stan Lee and H.E. Huntley’s the Wasp and Ant-Man (1963 to 1966)

Suddenly, Ant-Man’s wife was dead. Killed by the Reds some years before, no less, and apparently with at the very least the connivance of the Hungarian branch of that fiendish Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist ungodly, transnational conspiracy. There’d been no mention of the cruelly murdered Maria Trovaya Pym in any of her husband’s ten previous appearances, but in June 1963’s Tales To Astonish #44, the readers were suddenly introduced to the tragedy of her fate which “gnaws like a cancer at the soul” of Ant-Man. Presumably, the whole process had been so utterly traumatic that Pym had repressed the very thought of his beloved wife’s existence and fate.

Guilt may also have played a part in this. After all, Pym had agreed despite his reservations to return to his wife’s homeland for their honeymoon, naively accepting her word that the Communist authorities wouldn’t ever recognise her exiled self now that her passport carried both the American Eagle and Pym’s surname. The result was Maria Pym’s kidnapping and murder, which, matched with the news that Red saboteurs had also slain his father-in-law back in the Republic, ground Pym to “the verge of a mental and physical breakdown!” As far as continuity implants go, this was as melodramatically excessive and hypishly promising as any in the sub-genre’s history. Not only was the previously insouciant, uber-competent Ant-Man revealed to be a perpetually grieving widower with a history of thoroughly understandable psychological problems, but he was re-cast as a passionate and embittered cold warrior too.

Seemingly determined to shake up the Ant-Man strip as explosively as possible, co-plotters Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and scripter H.E. Huntley chose the pages of The Creature From Kosmos to also introduce Janet Van Dyne into Pym’s life. Originally impressing Pym only as a “bored society playgirl” who bore a shocking resemblance to his ex-wife despite her being “not much more than a child”, Van Dyne swiftly underwent a dramatic reversal of her personality in the wake of her father’s murder by an extra-terrestrial criminal. Expressing shame for the way in which her fear of seeming unsophisticated lead to her suppressing her filial affection for Doctor Vernon Van Dyne, she dedicates her life to tracking down his murderer. More dramatic yet, she expresses a desire “to help track down all the criminals, the human wolves who prey on honest people!” As with so many other super-men, Janet Van Dyne responded to her own experience of loss with a desire to protect others from a similar fate.

What’s more, she’s shown expressing that desire while using the language traditionally, if not exclusively, reserved for ultra-masculine would-be crime-stoppers. “There is one thing I can do ..”, Huntley has her announce as she shows Ant-Man her father’s body; “avenge him!” Those who’ve wondered why Van Dyne should have chosen the title of “The Avengers” for the team of super-heroes who first worked together just three months after her first appearance might think again about her behaviour here. The business of vengeance was, it seems, very much at the core of her sense of self in the spring and summer of 1963.

Yet, Janet Van Dyne never mentioned her father and his murder again in any of her adventures of the period. Her fiercely expressed determination to deal with those “human wolves” disappeared as quickly as it sparked into life, to be replaced, it seems, by a far more relaxed, playful and taken-for-granted attitude towards her role as a crime-fighter. (*1) Her mission to avenge and protect swiftly became one that was at the very least equally concerned with the wooing and winning of Hank Pym’s hand in marriage. Though she would never be anything other than utterly committed to the super-heroics at hand, they’d often seem to mean far less to her than a re-reading of her origin might suggest. Yet for that brief moment in her debut tale, Janet Van Dyne was unlike any other super-heroine of Marvel’s first wave of characters. Chance had brought the powers which allowed the Invisible Girl and Marvel Girl to serve the broader community, but the Wasp’s costumed career had been born in tragedy and loneliness. She had to seek out meaning in the face of a shocking loss and adopt a role which no pre-existing friendships or group membership could support her in. Because of this, Janet Van Dyne momentarily occupied a space which had previously been predominantly reserved for male costumed vigilantes such as Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne.

No prospect of domestic bliss, no promise of the end of their parent and foster-parent’s killers, could ever lastingly entice the likes of Spider-Man and Batman away from their attempts to protect others. To such super-men, their lives and their missions were indivisibly one and the same, and that’s just how Janet Van Dyne appeared to view the world on the night of her father’s murder. As such, she briefly threatened to become not just a brave if subordinate protector of order, but a determined and single-minded pursuer of those who’d transgressed it too. That is, of course, the traditionally grim fate of those men in the sub-genre who begin their super-careers after finding their loved one’s gruesomely slaughtered. And so, the young woman whose priority before her father’s death was “music and laughter and gaiety” had apparently been replaced with, as Pym perceived, a figure of “determination, strength of character.” (“The bored flighty shell she wore is gone!”) It was not, however, an impression which was to survive the coming months. The experience of finding her father’s body – “died of fright” – would prove not to be the catalyst to a life of lonely duty, but rather the moment at which the long pursuit of domestic bliss with Dr Henry Pym had begun.

In what looks suspiciously like a case of desperate, grief-repressing transference, The Wasp’s anguish at her father’s murder and her newborn sense of duty appears to have been at the very least comfortingly, purposefully complimented by the determination to loyally stand beside Ant-Man until Dr Henry Pym accepted that he loved her too.

*1:- Pym himself only referred to Maria in one more tale before the characters lost their berth in Tales To Astonish, as we’ll touch on next time, though during this period, crime-fighting would never have been supplanted by matrimony.

To be continued.

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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. Martin Gray says:

    Ah, the Hank/Jan pairing – dead wife substitute and father figure profess to fall in love. Lovely.

    One thing I never got with this is Hank’s assertion that Jan looked like Maria – was he blind as well as as disturbed?

    Can we read anything into the first two big romances at Marvel involving men falling for women half their age? Probably some TV trope of the time …

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