Thursday, January 23, 2014

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #44

"The Creature from Kosmos!" by Stan Lee, Ernie Hart, Jack Kirby & Don Heck
(June 1963)

At last, it's the issue that completely re-tools everything that's been so boring and silly about Ant-Man. It takes a double-length story to do it, but in the end it turns out to be worth doing.

The issue begins with Henry Pym, returned from his latest adventure, remembering the wife he used to have. This is the first time we've ever heard of her, of course--this whole thing's a bit of a retcon, which is pretty much what this character needs. In fact, I would argue that the main problem I've had with Pym this whole time is that he's never been a character; like the premise came with a name and the character himself was just never really thought out.

But yes, Hank married a Hungarian woman named Maria Trovaya, the daughter of a former political prisoner who gained asylum in America. Rather unwisely--it is the height of the Cold War--Maria convinced Hank that they could go to Hungary for their honeymoon, so she could show him the places where she grew up, but Maria was taken by Soviet agents and killed as an example to those who would flee. There was nothing at all Hank could do about it, and so, remembering Maria's old saying, "Go to the ants, thou sluggard," he threw himself into his work, specifically to fight injustice in the world. That phrase is what inspires him to become Ant-Man.

So now Ant-Man has a past and a motivation--what drives him to fight for justice is the murder of his wife and how powerless he felt to do anything about it. Congratulations, Dr. Pym: you're finally a character.

After that reflection is over, Hank is visited by another scientist, Dr. Vernor Van Dyne, and his young daughter, Janet. Because this is the Marvel Universe, Janet's first thoughts are about how handsome Hank is; his first thoughts are that she looks like Maria, but then he feels bad because she's so much younger than he is.

Dr. Van Dyne has come asking Hank for help with his special project: a Gamma Ray Beam which he hopes to use to make contact with another galaxy. Hank's not interested, so Dr. Van Dyne continues on his own, where his experiments actually bring a creature from the planet Kosmos to his lab: a creature called Pilai, the greatest criminal Kosmos has ever known!

Pilai uses its powers to kill Dr. Van Dyne before escaping; just looking in the creature's eye is enough to kill the man.

Janet, upon discovering the body, calls Hank for help, but he dismisses her as a "bored society playgirl" wasting his time--until the ants tell him he's wrong, because he's a prince of a guy. Hank, as Ant-Man, discovers that what killed Dr. Van Dyne was pure fear; Janet thinks his experiment killed him somehow, and she vows to discover the truth no matter what.

(The dialogue here is so 1963; Ant-Man is impressed that Janet has cast off her "bored flighty shell" to display "determination, strength of character," and Janet dares Ant-Man to dismiss her conviction as "a woman's intuition.")

With Janet stating her wish to avenge her dead father, Ant-Man tells her to call the FBI and then goes outside to confer with his ants, who have fled in fear. The ants tell him that they're afraid of the creature from outer space, because even though it must be kin to the ants--it secretes formic acid--its alienness is frightening.

Hank decides now is the time to finally take on a partner to share his burden, and invites Jan to his lab, where she agrees to become the Wasp. He implants specialized cells within her that will cause her to grow wings and antennae when she shrinks. Immediately, they go into battle against Pilai, who is now facing the National Guard, who have no idea how to stop this formless terror. Meanwhile, Janet, caught up in the wonder of being the Wasp, admits she's falling in love with Hank, which Hank immediately rejects, saying he doesn't want to be in love ever again, because he couldn't bear losing someone again. Janet doesn't take that well, and resolves to prove herself to him. Clearly, there's a lot riding on this battle.

When the ants again flee before Pilai, Hank gets the idea that formic acid is the key. He loads 12-gauge shotgun shells with an antidote to formic acid, and then has the ants laboriously carry a shotgun and the shells all the way back to the battle scene, so at least we're not retconning away all the really stupid elements of Ant-Man stories. (Seriously, is time not a factor in any of this?) This is really the kind of thing where you wonder what the point of being ant-sized really is, because in order to maintain the illusion of really being an ant-sized human, Hank has to get the shotgun all the way to the top of a building and then fire it while remaining ant-sized. But it happens, so there you go.

In the end, the day is saved and the partnership is confirmed, their feelings clear, even as Hank will try to bury his and Jan will try to bring them out. Dynamic established.

Stray observations:

:: "Go to the ants, thou sluggard," is a slight twist and shortening on Proverbs 6:6; "Go to the ant, thou sluggard, observe her ways and be wise"--an admonition to find the dignity and pride in labor.

:: What is the age difference between Hank and Jan supposed to be? I've never been a hundred percent clear. I know it got retconned later, but here... I figure Hank is supposed to be about the same age as Reed Richards, which Stan Lee previously established as early-to-mid-thirties, so I figure Jan--given her youthful patter and the slang she uses--is probably around 21. Interestingly, that's something like the age difference between Reed and Sue, and Reed doesn't feel guilty at all!

:: This is the first time we've seen the ants directly speak to Ant-Man. It's kind of off-putting. I don't care for this device. It takes the mysteriousness out of it.

:: The art this issue is credited to Jack Kirby, with inking by Don Heck. Although Pilai looks very much like a Kirby Monster, Don Heck's ink overtakes the character art, looking much more like his style than Kirby's. I feel like Kirby's contribution to this retool was pretty minimal; even the layouts look more like Heck than Kirby, with the exception of a few pages. The Wasp's costume seems pretty clearly a Kirby design, though. (The Wasp's costume is wonderful; very much the sci-fi of the time.)

:: This issue was scripted by "HE Huntley," a pseudonym for cartoonist Ernie Hart, who was freelancing at the time but who had been in the Timely bullpen in the forties doing the funny animal comics, most notably creating Super Rabbit in 1943.

He was on the company's Atlas staff in the fifties, too, editing teenage and humor comics. The decision to have him script this issue--a very modern, science fiction adventure--seems like it shouldn't work, but it really does, probably because he already gets the zippy humor and the flirty banter this comic wants to go for. It's not exactly The Thin Man, but Hank and Janet already have a solid chemistry, and that's a credit to Hart's experience in humor and teenager comics. It really works and saves the story from some of its more self-serious leanings.

Thank goodness that earlier Ant-Man era is over and we can start having some fun with this series!

(Even if some of it is going to be the lame sexism of the era, of course. Yeesh.)

Next Marvels: The introduction of Spider-Man's greatest foe!


bliss_infinte said...

This has always been one of my all time favorite early, early Marvel stories. The tone is very serious and adult and more sci-fi than superhero. The slow pace and high word count make this an epic in comic story-telling. Heck (with or without Kirby's help) is at the top of his form in this one. After reading this, I was surprised at how bad and generic the early Ant-man and the later Giant-man stories were. Great cover and splashpage as well. An underrated classic.

SamuraiFrog said...

I always feel like there's a slight spy fiction influence in these Ant-Man and Wasp stories, too; Don Heck's art sometimes reminds me of Robert McGuinness' Bond art without being derivative of it. The upcoming issue where they go to the Mediterranean and fight the Cyclops is another one I like for similar reasons.

Roger Owen Green said...

I started reading my one Marvel Masterworks with Ant Man and never got this far. Guess I'll try some more.

SamuraiFrog said...

That first year of issues is really easy to give up on. And, frankly, this is the high point of Ant-Man. Another few months, he's Giant Man, and things slide back downhill.