Monday, October 07, 2013

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #39

"The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!" by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers
(January 1963)

In a recent Nerdist interview, Stan Lee said that one of the big problems with the Ant-Man stories is that the artists didn't play up the scale enough. By always depicting Ant-Man as small against something regular-sized, like a styrofoam cup or a coin, the reader would've been given a constant reminder of just how weird Ant-Man's world could be. Instead, by always presenting the action at Ant-Man's level, the artists de-emphasized that element and made him seem like just another superhero performing mundane crimefighting. Without the science fiction, it just came across as ordinary.

Now, granted, this is still early for the Ant-Man, and there have been stories (like "The Challenge of Comrade X!") where the size scale was played up in a way that made the story seem more ridiculous, but Stan Lee also has a point. Only a five issues in now, and we're already pretty used to Ant-Man's view of the world. When Ant-Man goes into an insect hole, as he does here, and mixes in among the bugs, it already seems like old hat. There's no wonder to it, no weirdness. It's become routine.

More attention to scale would have paid off in this story, I think, in which Ant-Man finds himself facing a radioactive, superintelligent beetle who wants to lead an insect rebellion against humanity. The Scarlet Beetle has gained sentience as a result of exposure to radioactivity, and his first step--after whipping up every nearby insect into a revolutionary frenzy--is to strip Ant-Man of his helmet (so he can't communicate with his ants) and his enlarging gas. He becomes gigantic and leaves Henry Pym to die in a hole underground while he destroys civilization.

The ants, however, remain loyal friends to Ant-Man, and bring him his helmet. They fight wave after wave of insect battalions, but the final showdown is between Pym and the human-sized Scarlet Beetle in a toy store, where Pym hits him with the reducing gas, traps him in a balloon, and then removes the radioactive element in his lab, turning the Scarlet Beetle back into a regular old beetle. This being 1963, there's no ethical question about removing a being's newly-developed sentience. It's not Star Trek.

It's breezy and moves fast, and it's got more action than you usually get from Ant-Man stories, but I wish it had been even weirder. You've got hordes of insects killing each other in a bid to overthrow humankind, but instead it's just treated as a weird aberration. When the attacks stop, people just shrug it off as unusual, but easy to ignore.

Where are the stakes, man?

Next: the Fantastic Four spend some time answering your letters.

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