Friday, May 16, 2014

Marvels: Tales to Astonish #48

"The Porcupine!" by Stan Lee, Ernie Hart & Don Heck
(October 1963)

The Porcupine is Ant-Man's first real nemesis. Up until now, he's fought thieves, hijackers, commie spies, and a mystic trumpeter. He's even fought science fiction villains: interdimensional travelers, interdimensional despotsaliens, a giant bug, that guy with the compelling voice, that guy with the aging ray. And there's Egghead, who... well, he just mainly sucks.

But with the Porcupine, Ant-Man starts moving away from that sort of spy-fi thing Ernie & Don have had going on for the last few issues, and starts heading into superhero territory. Which makes sense, what with Ant-Man and the Wasp now on the Avengers; I guess it's time for them to start facing the same kinds of super-threats that Thor or Iron Man might face.

The Porcupine is a step in that direction; he's got potential, but he's really in the tradition of those low-level science villains Johnny Storm's always facing in Strange Tales. The ones who create something marvelous with seemingly endless practical applications, but then decide to just rob banks with it. But he's also like the Crimson Dynamo--the opposite version of Ant-Man, only replacing altruism with greed. (He's even taken inspiration from an animal.)

Alex Gentry is the scientist who creates the Porcupine, a suit which is designed to carry its own weaponry in quill-like tubes. Gentry's plan is that the Porcupine suit can carry a vast array of weapons and devices, while the soldier inside is protected from outside attack. You know the first thing I thought of? Firefighters. Maybe this would be good for firefighters. The first thing Gentry thinks of? Become a super-criminal.

It's amazing, because the transformation from "wow, look at this neat thing I made!" to "fuck this, I'm becoming a criminal" happens over literally three panels. The Department of Defense doesn't even try to take it away. He just figures they will and he's not going to make any money, so why give it to them in the first place? I wonder what his experiences have been like before this that he jumps right to that. Yes, even a man with that magnificent beard can be deeply embittered and wounded on the inside, no matter how many porcupine quills he's got spring-loaded with stun pellets and tear gas.

When the Porcupine robs a new bank that's supposed to be burglar-proof--and does so quite easily, it must be said--Hank takes it personally. Hank was the one who designed the security devices, so he's pretty pissed off that someone made short work of them.

It doesn't take Hank very long to get captured and put in a death trap, though. And the thing about fighting Ant-Man is that everything can be a death trap, because Hank thinks it's somehow useful to be ant-sized. This is a guy who has been sucked up in vacuum cleaners, chased by anteaters, nearly crushed in car engine turbines, almost got stepped on, was trapped in an upside-down fish tank, and was once even dropped inside of a particularly high-sided plant pot. So... I'm just saying, you could defeat this guy with a Barbie car and an M-80.

The Porcupine's nefarious plan for Ant-Man is to catch him, pick him up, use tweezers to pluck off his helmet and belt, and then drop him in a bathtub. And then we'll just wait and see how long it takes for Hank to get exhausted treading water and drown. The only death more humiliating would be to tie him to some toy train tracks and watch a Lionel engine make paste out of him.

The Wasp saves him, though. Eventually. And then, still tiny, they drag around these canisters of liquid cement--because why change back to human size, even for a minute, when you can make a gigantic, time-consuming operation out of it--and use the cement to jam the Porcupine's quills. And the Porcupine... flies away... like a real porcupine would, obviously. (Boy, Iron Man has really popularized a flying-suit craze.)

So, the Porcupine will be back to menace Ant-Man. Except that, well... starting next issue, he won't be Ant-Man anymore.

Stray observations:

:: I'm irritated by Jan's one-track mind. In the opening panel, Ant-Man and the Wasp fly over an Army ordnance plant, causing Hank to remark on the amazing scientific work taking place inside. Jan's contribution to the discussion? "I'd rather think about all the glamorous, eligible males who must be working there!"

She spends most of the issue sidelined by the flu, but gets in shot after shot on Hank; she's annoyed that he won't spend time fussing over her, bank robber in a super suit on the loose or no. She then chides Hank for not being more grateful to see her while she's saving him from drowning and is angry when he gets her antibiotics instead of furs or jewelry. Sheesh.

(Still no call for Hank's big "You can't please a female" rejoinder, though.)

:: Last issue, we were meant to be saddened by the loss of Korr, Ant-Man's heretofore unnamed and unheralded faithful ant steed. Korr's brother Foss is named as his replacement. This issue identifies the ant Hank is riding as Torne. Is this really meant to be some sort of ant-steed dynasty? Is their relationship like a He-Man/Battle Cat sort of thing? Eh, it all becomes irrelevant next issue, anyway.

As silly as the stories can be, I've been really digging what Ernie Hart and Don Heck have created in the pages of Tales to Astonish. Hell, you know that: I've been saying so every issue. Sadly, this is the last story in their all-too-short run on this title. Next issue, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (with Heck inking) will return to retool the series once more, and Ant-Man will become Giant-Man. The spy-fi flavor will be gone, and we'll be firmly in an age of superheroes for Hank and Jan. I don't know when Ant-Man ends up making his return.

Don Heck will still be on Thor's stories for a bit longer, and then I'm not sure where he'll be. We'll watch and find out. However, except for a 1969 issue of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD, this appears to be Ernie Hart's final story for Marvel. Thanks for the laughs and the excitement, Ernie! These were truly tales to astonish.

Next time: let's jump ahead a little bit and do another Tales to Astonish and introduce Giant-Man to the Marvel Universe.

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