On the Ethics of How and Why Hank Pym Created a Wasp (Part 2)

By design and chance, Tales to Astonish #44 had presented a fledgling romance between Pym and Van Dyne which had the potential to constantly and plausibly generate both conflict and reconciliation over and over again. Convincing and compelling love affairs in the super-hero comic genre have been few and far between over the decades. Lost for how to make a relatively stable relationship interesting, comic book writers have typically followed up any measure of romantic success with affairs, divorces, murders and the hysterical like. The uncertain, hopeful rituals of the chase and the subsequent, despairing collapse of emotional security are the aspects of emotional intimacy that the writers of the super-book have far preferred to concentrate upon. What Lee, as plotter, Kirby, as layout artist, Huntley, as scripter, and Heck, as inker, had all conspired to create in The Creature From Kosmos was a nascent affair between Pym and Van Dyne which by its very nature carried the potential for both binding and separating its participants all at the same time. Regrettably, it would only take a few months for this potential to be fundamentally undermined, with a far less confused and compromised dynamic between Ant-Man and the Wasp being established.

At the conclusion of the Wasp’s origin tale, the reader had been left with two deeply traumatised individuals who, to one degree or another, appear to have fallen in love with each other. As we’ve discussed, both Pym and Van Dyne had lost the most significant individual in their lives, and done so in the most miserable and shocking of circumstances. Worse yet, each seemed to feel not just horror and loss, but guilt too. Pym appear to suspect that he should never have acquiesced in the honeymoon to Hungary which resulted in Maria Pym’s execution, while Van Dyne had lamented the lack of affection she’d shown her father. It’d be hard to conclude which of the two of them was in the worst state. Van Dyne’s tragic discovery of her slain father’s body was a gruesome, heart-rendering business, and her suffering was obviously the more immediately pressing where the two of them were concerned. Yet the kidnapping and murder of Pym’s wife had pushed him not just towards an immediate psychological breakdown, but to what appears to have been months if not years of secondary depression. Put simply, these were two deeply wounded individuals, and yet, within hours of their meeting, each had managed to convince themselves that their lives were well on-track and full of promise. All loss had apparently been entirely forgotten in the exhilaration of their mutual victory and the apparent promise of their already befuddled, ethically dubious relationship.

Yet it’s telling that hours before the slaying of Dr. Van Dyne, Pym had convinced himself that his daughter Janet – who wasn’t very “much more than a child” – “looks somewhat like Maria”. Yet, even the briefest time spent looking at Kirby and Heck’s art suggests that the resemblance was actually limited to the fact that both Maria and Janet were both relatively attractive women and nothing else. Maria, for example, appears to have been of a far more fashionably substantial build, and even down to the details of hair colour and style, the two women appear quite different. Yet Pym seems to be fiercely reminded of his wife by the most basic of similarities, and he’s well aware of the power of the supposed similarity too;

Pym: “She is so like Maria … her beauty … her spirit! I must be careful! Lest I do fall in love with her!”

By the same token, Van Dyne appears to have quite forgotten her father and his murder in the rapture caused by her falling into what she identifies as love with Pym within hours of their second meeting. That there’s a phenomenal degree of transference going on here seems undeniable, and as such, it enticingly sets up the possibility for a relationship which forever oscillates between dependence and dissatisfaction, adoration and alienation, intimacy and miscommunication.

Added to that wonderful confusion of emotions and motives are the ethical issues which, though on occasion briefly touched upon in future issues, were never taken seriously and gradually faded from view. And so, there’s absolutely no doubt that Van Dyne is not only young, but naive and cloistered when she first becomes involved with Pym. A young socialite she might be, but she appears to belong to a remarkably demure and chaperoned apprentice chapter of the demi-monde. But just hours after the killing of what appears to be the only adult with any influence in her life, Pym is biologically experimenting upon her, implanting “synthetic cells” into her which permanently give her the ability to “grow wings and tiny antennae” when “reduced to the size of a wasp”. At her moment of maximum emotional vulnerability, therefore, Pym avoids all legal and ethical responsibilities and biologically experiments upon her while encouraging her to adopt a profoundly dangerous superheroic alter-ego. (He does so without ever having apparently performed the procedure on anyone else either, which raises the spectre that the transformation of Janet Van Dyne is as potentially dangerous as it’s entirely immoral.) Any consent gathered under those conditions wouldn’t stand up for a second in court, or even polite conversation, and that goes for the promise Pym extracts from Van Dyne when he declares that he’s “chosen” her to be his partner too.

It’s hardly surprising that Van Dyne would declare “Yes! I Say Yes!” to the demand that she become the sidekick to this handsome super-hero, who’s offering not just to track down her father’s murderer, but to create a purposeful role for her in the middle of a moment of extreme despair. Yet ,it’s impossible not to regard Pym’s behaviour, if not his intentions, as despicable, and even if standards of professional ethicacy in the early ’60s were hardly what they’re supposed to be today, we would expect a man of his standing and experience to behave in a far more appropriate – a far more decent and fair – fashion. We’d certainly expect that Pym would’ve severed their working relationship once Van Dyne had so quickly declared that she was “falling in love” with him, but nothing of the sort seems to have occurred to him. Put simply, Pym seems to have – albeit unconsciously – manipulated a young and exceptionally vulnerable young woman into a subservient and dependent position where an intimate – as well as highly dangerous crime-fighting – relationship between the two of them was practically inevitable. What’s more, he appears to have done so in a way which allowed him to avoid feeling responsible for the highly charged, unequal and questionable relationship between the two of them. To himself, he can argue that he’s showing restraint under the most tempting of situations, while he’s placed a young woman who adores him in a position which assures that the temptation won’t ever disappear.

To say this isn’t to accuse Pym of purposefully grooming Van Dyne. There’s absolutely no evidence that Pym is aware of what he’s doing on any level. He seems no more conscious of the ethical issues that he’s clearly and perniciously violating than he does the emotional ones. In fact, the evidence is that he’s a deeply damaged individual, clinging to the sense of purpose and worth which his superheroic identity lends him while game-playing himself into an amorous relationship with Van Dyne. The very fact that she reminds him so fiercely of his ex-wife alone ought to have warned this well-meaning man off, and yet he ploughs ahead regardless of all logical concerns.

But then, the impression of calm and competence that this Ant-Man projects is repeatedly punctured by his behaviour. Put simply, Pym simply doesn’t think clearly at all. In truth, he’s a dangerously confused and impulsive individual. He’ll school Van Dyne in the use of her new powers, for example, and yet entirely forget to inform her that she’ll “retain most of the strength of a full-grown human” until they’re involved not in their first, but their second showdown with the alien creature from Kosmos. Similarly, he organises a complex, slow-moving army of ants to carry an alien-slaying rifle across town when he might have just grown to full size and walked it there himself. For all of his reputation and his steely, heroic front, Pym’s obviously struggling to think in the slightest bit clearly.

More worrying yet is the implication that Pym had clearly been looking for a female sidekick long before Van Dyne appeared quite literally at his door. After all, he has a costume ready for Van Dyne that appears obviously tailored for a woman, just as he’s a set of gender-specific super-powers ready to implant into her too. In fact, it appears that Pym has been – whether he knows it or not – looking for a female partner in crime-fighting – if nothing else – for some considerable time. All the complex details of the matter have already been organised down to the slightest detail, and all it needed, it seemed, was the right woman, or girl, to stumble into his life. As such, the challenge which he throws at Janet Van Dyne when she first arrives in shock at his apartment takes on a worrying, if not actually sinister, aspect;

Wasp: “Doctor Pym! My father – - he – “

Ant-Man: “I know! And I know you want to avenge his death! Are you really serious? Would you risk anything for justice? I must know!”

How could Janet Van Dyne say anything other than “yes”? Pym had placed himself at the centre of her life at a moment of extreme desolation and utter confusion, replaced as thoroughly any anyone could her father, showered her with impossible gifts and presented her with the details of a mission which appeared to lend a zealot’s purpose to her suddenly grief-stricken life. By the logic of the superhero sub-genre, of course, this was far more compassionate common sense than twisted thinking. Batman had, after all, delivered the pre-pubescent Dick Grayson not to 1940’s equivalent of social services, but to a trouserless green, red and yellow costume in the Bat-Cave. Yet, Werthamesque delusions aside, the romantic and sexual components of Pym and Van Dyne’s relationship from the beginning threw up questions which the partnership between Wayne and Grayson could easily sidestep. And though no-one could suggest that any of the creators of Tales To Astonish #44 ought to have been thinking in terms of 21st century ethics, Huntley’s scripts at least do show a keen awareness that the age gap combined with the issues of authority and intimacy between Pym and Van Dyne posed a not-inconsiderable problem. If what reads today as serious mental problems on Pym’s part couldn’t ever have been an aspect of the Ant-Man & The Wasp feature back in 1963, then the issues of age, experience and – shall we say – affection most certainly could have featured far more prominently. As we’ll discuss next time, scripter H E Huntley’s approach to the matter of the Wasp’s youth and impressionability during his brief tenure on the strip did lend the feature a hint of depth and pathos which Stan Lee’s solo stories rarely cared to touch upon.

As for Pym himself, those who’ve seen the mental instability which has marked the long decades of the character’s post-Shooter career as an unnecessary and even exploitative imposition– and I’ve been in their ranks before at times – simply haven’t read Tales To Astonish #44 closely enough. The poor man may not be thinking despicable thoughts, for he’s clearly a well-meaning and decent-hearted individual, and yet his behavior is self-deceiving, profoundly disturbing, and fundamentally exploitative.

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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. I really enjoyed this article. Of course, a good deal of these ethical flubs are the conveniences of the creators — why explain, when you can just say Pym has a power-endowing process and costume ready? But your analysis is brilliant, within the text. It really had me wanting to write a deconstructivist Pym story, tying super-heroes to his psychologically broken state. It’s simply fascinating stuff, and I can’t wait for more.

  2. Martin Gray says:

    Another fascinating piece, Colin. That story begs a couple of untold tales – what did early Marvel urbanites think to seeing a gun slowly moving across the sidewalks; didn’t anyone try to pick it up?

    And did Hank go so far as to actually audition potential partners? What if that costume was actually made for an enemy agent attempting to steal his secrets – ‘the beautiful but deadly Madame Natasha’. And did Hank’s poor efforts make Jan think, ‘I can do better than this’ and set her on the route to fashion legend?

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