ATTACK OF THE ANT-MAN!

He could shrink so small he could actually ride on the back of an ant. I’m not sure the size proportions always penciled out correctly, but sometimes in the world of fantasy you’ve got to give a little to get a lot. You have to bend your reality, or sometimes even get as flexible as Gumby, in order to allow yourself an open door to another world.

Ant-Man was one of those pure fantasy characters dreamed up of the best kind of science fiction, the kind that springs forward directly from the imagination and takes you for a ride. However, Ant-Man, being a character that “gets small” is not entirely unique. He has a basic power that has become a mainstay of the superhero community. Just as Aquaman sprang forth from the waters of the Sub-Mariner—Ant-Man owes his super theme to those who shrank before he.

Like that correct use of grammar in the paragraph above? I learned that from reading Stan Lee. Stan was skilled with the language, more so than many people will ever be willing to admit—given his vocation. Symptomatic in the love of language is the ability to absorb a great deal of written work, filter this information through your own synapses, and hopefully create something new.

Stan Lee, in the comic book grift virtually from the beginning, knew the character archetypes, knew them well, and his skill beyond doubt soared in bringing forth fresh interpretations. Stan was hired by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941 to assist in writing Captain America, so he stood close to the magic from the beginning.

During that time period the “little” hero of the time existed as a fella named: Doll Man. Created by comic pioneer Will Eisner and published by Quality Comics (later to be bought and owned by National Publications/DC Comics), Doll Man first appeared the same year as Batman (1939) in the 27th issue of Feature Comics. Darrell Dane, a research scientist invented a formula that enabled bodily shrinkage down to about six inches. Of course even in Doll Man you had to be willing to rationalize that he didn’t always shrink exactly to that height as he appeared in different perspectives throughout his feature. If you really want to witness continuity flaws in height perspective—check out the Great Grape Ape show from Hanna-Barbera. Even as a kid I kept saying to myself: “Shouldn’t he be a lot larger than that mailbox he’s standing next to? He looks to be about as big as a man …” Then in the next scene he’d be towering over a building.

Most likely a deficit of time and money (and possibly a lazy editor) are to blame for most continuity flaws, but if a character is interesting enough, usually, kids will forgive (to a degree) the discrepancies. Just look at the goofs throughout the various Super Friends shows and you’ll know what I mean.

Anyway, Doll Man held people’s interest for one primary reason. He had a basic, unusual power, the kind of power that would come along whether Eisner got there first or not. Therefore, it’s a classic archetype just waiting to happen.

Doll Man didn’t have a masculine name or a very cool costume, basic blue leotard and a red cape, sort of itty bitty Superman with bare legs, but he had that shrinking thing going on, and as far as I know he held that title for quite some time. We have to keep in mind that the original Atom, Al Pratt, didn’t shrink. He was just a short man with a lot of muscle.

The next major heroic shrinking story I can think of would be the Shrinking Man by the great suspense writer Richard Matheson from 1956. That’s a big jump from 1939. Matheson’s version, however, is so classic that he is the guy we generally think of when we think of a shrinking man. His is one of the best and earliest examples I’ve ever come across using the mutating effects of radiation:

“He remembered the afternoon on the boat, the mist washing over him, the acid sting on his body.
A spray impregnated with radiation.

And that was it; the search was over at last. An insect ray hideously altered by radiation. A one-in-a-million chance. Just that amount of insecticide coupled with just that amount of radiation, received by his system in just that sequence and with just that timing; the radiation dissipating quickly, becoming unnoticeable.

Only the poison left.”

(From the Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson, 1956. Currently in publication by Tor Horror as the Incredible Shrinking Man. Above quote cited from page 113).

Then came the Atom, this time as Ray Palmer (debuting in Showcase No. 34, 1961, pictured above) as a part of Julius Schwartz’s awesome rebirth of superheroes that ushered in the Silver Age of comics with his new versions of already established character types or names from the National Publications catalog. This time the Atom could shrink to just about any size, even down to the molecular level, and Ray has pretty much remained the ultimate shrinking hero to present time. Although, I would argue, like Aquaman the Atom has suffered from much revision back and forth, much disrespect for such a classic archetype and DC wrongly lost many key opportunities along the way. All the Atom needs is a writer who can handle science fiction and fantasy while maintaining Ray Palmer as a sympathetic and believable guy we all want to know and pal around with.

Easy? Well, unfortunately, not really.

Okay, so this brings us just one year after the Silver Age Atom’s first appearance to the creation of Ant-Man by the unbeatable team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Ant-Man appeared quickly after the Atom, within a year, in much the same way Aquaman appeared the year after the Sub-Mariner.

The comic companies, as TV networks are fond of doing, see a good idea and offer their own interpretation. Hell, how many knockoffs on the TV version of the Dead Zone have we seen? How many shows did the X-Flies inspire? Quite a few. A current example would be the TV show Lost—offering its interpretation of Mystery Island’s serialized Monster Zipper novel. The problem is that knock-offs usually don’t aspire to much more than a weak rip-off. They take the premise or a version of the premise and slap the rest together without any of the real magic ingredients that someone else cooked up to make the concept great. Sometimes a show owes more to its actors and writers than the premise itself, and sometimes a comic character owes more to the invention of its writer and artistic team, rather than the actual character concept itself. No matter how good the character is, a boring script will not keep anybody or anything alive for long.

Nevertheless, Ant-Man had Stan and Jack, and you simply can’t have a better team, not then, not now, not ever. Stan and Jack would be the equivalent of having John Lennon and Paul McCartney write a song for your band. They often did write songs for other bands and many of those songs became big hits—even when not sung by the Beatles. Together, they were that good.

So, what happened with Ant-Man? Why isn’t he as well known or as often published as the rest of Marvel’s pantheon: Captain America, the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Mighty Thor, Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron-Man, or the X-Men? They’ve all had many comic book spin-offs and are almost always in an ongoing series of their own.

Ant-Man, on the other side of the Marvel Universe, has never had his own self-titled comic book! Can you believe that? I mean, most comic fans—and a good deal of regular folks—at least know who Ant-Man is, but there has never been an Ant-Man No. 1!

No Ant-Man No. 1.

How can that be?

How can that be when there are so many half-witted comic series that get launched without an ounce of the zest and style of the man with the coolest helmet in all of comic book history?

Ant-Man had a nice run in Tales To Astonish beginning with issue no. 27 in 1962. Stan Lee writer; Jack Kirby artist. But the problems actually began early on. In 1962 Stan and Jack were both already busy writing and drawing their new hit book Fantastic Four, which had just premiered the year before. In addition to that Stan and Jack worked at a mad and inspired pace on a whole legion of other comic projects.

The same year Ant-Man made his first appearance Stan and Jack also debuted the Mighty Thor in an anthology called Journey Into Mystery as well as a big green monster called the Hulk—who lucked out with his own short-lived title for six issues before joining Ant-Man as the second feature in Tales To Astonish. That same year also saw Steve Ditko’s first Spider-Man drawing swing across the cover of Amazing Fantasy No. 15.

Stan, Jack, and Steve would never be the same, and I think we can all agree that Stan made a wise choice in putting his best efforts toward a regular commitment to Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, and Reed Richards. The next year, 1963, the year I was born, would also see the birth of Dr. Strange (Lee & Ditko), Iron Man (Lee & Kirby), the Avengers (Lee & Kirby), and the X-Men (Lee & Kirby). So, obviously, the Marvel Bullpen had their hands full.

Ant-Man, in the midst of such giant heroes leaping up around him, sort of got lost in the shuffle. Although, I believe Ant-Man had a very heroic beginning. Hell, along with his girlfriend the Wasp—he was even a founding member of the Avengers!

The Ant-Man we see in his first adventures has one of the coolest costumes ever to spring forward from Jack Kirby’s mind. The Ant-Man helmet is an A+ creation of 100% aesthetic perfection. The helmet made the rest of the costume, your basic red & blue superhero garb, look like it all belonged together in some special scientific, science-fiction way. He looked great. So great, in fact, that I know my wife would find the helmet not only cool looking, but sexy. Sexy in the same way she finds Jack Kirby’s drawings of Fin Fang Foom sexy. This is the height of what art should do. Great art sends a geometric signal to your subconscious that bounces back up and creates a physical response.

Yet, a great costume and competent scripts weren’t enough. Times were a-changing. Stan Lee and company conjured up what no other comic book company could do (then or now). They actually created a stable of comic book heroes that could stand up and be recognized against the awesome host of classics at National Publications/DC Comics. In juxtaposition to the Mighty Thor, the Incredible Hulk, the Amazing Spider-Man … I guess the Astonishing Ant-Man started to look his size …

So, what did Stan & Jack do?

They tried to make Henry Pym as dynamic as the rest of the “big” heroes.

The first thing to go was the kick-ass Ant-Man helmet.

Jack …
Stan …
What the *&%#! were you thinking?

Well, since they had already decided to make their version of the “shrinking” hero into their version of the “giant” hero—perhaps they thought the helmet was too “ant-like.” In retrospect, I’m sure that’s the answer. Henry Pym now used his science to grow large and started (in a wild ego burst) calling himself:

Giant-Man.

Ant-Man was essentially gone, and after only fifteen issues. But what of Giant-Man?

Giant-Man was actually pretty cool himself, but given that fact, I always wished Henry Pym had made someone else Giant-Man and kept the Ant-Man persona for his own. And eventually a cast of different characters did end up playing the roles of Ant-Man, Giant-Man, and the later version of Giant-Man called Goliath. But they never came together under one roof. They could have had a whole new superhero team with: Ant-Man, Giant-Man, the Wasp, and even Goliath if you’d like two giants for the price of one. Also, by 1968, after coming and going with the Avengers Pym took on yet another personality: Yellow Jacket. He was pretty cool, too! So ample versions of the Henry Pym concept existed to work with, but none of them remained for very long, and Marvel never had the good sense to create a comic that portrayed all the big and small people as a unified team. Yet, which version are most people familiar with—if they’re familiar with the character at all?

Ant-Man.

My first Ant-Man sighting happened in 1973. I was nine, living in Santa Monica at the time, and riding my yellow Huffy mountain bike alone and free. I biked over to one of the local liquor stores to check out their spin-rack of comics and the first issue that caught my eye was Marvel Feature No. 10 with Ant-Man on the cover. Luckily, Henry Pym was back in action, if only for three issues, and wearing the classic cybernetic talking-to-the-ants helmet. His clothes looked a little different, white and red, but that didn’t make any difference. I was hooked right away and backtracked the two issues that made up the story before the one I found.

The high did not last long and once again Henry got kicked out of an anthology, this time to make room for his old back feature buddy: the Incredible Hulk. The Hulk teamed-up with the Thing. Then the Thing teamed with Iron-Man before the comic cancelled-out to make room for the Thing’s new series: Marvel Two-In-One. Marvel Two-In-One was awesome in itself and I’m glad Ant-Man led me there, but once again, old Henry Pym faded out … A case of too little, literally in Ant-Man’s case, and too late.
If Ant-Man had remained Ant-Man in the beginning and had proper time to develop like his contemporaries—he too, could have been one of the big ones we remember with a comic easily as good as Daredevil, Ironman, or Sub-Mariner. There’s really no excuse, because things really went downhill. By the time 80’s idiocy took over all art forms—practically every hero in the Marvel Universe strutted around with exaggerated muscles and an abundance of weaponry. It’s no wonder Wolverine became so popular with his weapons so close at hand.

Ant-Man is different. He’s a thinking man’s hero. He’s scientific, rather than a brute force. Whether you like him or not, Ant-Man, even in name alone invokes a classic science-fiction feel. All the other versions of Henry Pym are editorial nonsense compared to the original concept. Sure, I’ll agree the world needs a “Giant-Man” too, as the name carries its own simplicity and obviousness that actually makes him a necessity, but not nearly as cool and original as an Ant-Man.

Ant-Man even caught the attention of Saturday Night Live. During a 1979 superhero party sketch, featuring the original cast of SNL, Garrett Morris dawned the classic Kirby Ant-Man costume—and it looked awesome!

Of course, Ant-Man took the brunt of the lame superhero jokes as the other heroes pointed out the lameness and relative weakness of shrinking. There’s even a real back-of-the-bus lowbrow gag in the fact that Ant-Man is played by the only black actor on the cast, Garrett Morris. You can hear the crowd laugh as soon as Garrett steps into the scene. It’s almost subliminal. Even the people who don’t know who Ant-Man is think it’s funny to see the black guy in the ant getup.

Ant-Man has come back from time to time but usually with other men under the classic helmet, and I do thank Marvel for the return of that cybernetic gem, but if it’s not Henry Pym—it’s sort of like someone else trying to wear Batman’s cape and cowl. Would anyone really be able to replace Bruce Wayne? Of course not. Yet, Marvel kept bringing back Henry in a variety of shrinkable ways as if someone over there realized the worth of the character but somehow just couldn’t access the common sense to put him back in the original costume. In the 80s, for the West Coast Avengers, Henry Pym was simply called Dr. Henry Pym and could now shrink other objects as well as his own body.

Of course, as I write this, I just heard of a rumored Ant-Man movie with Henry Pym as Ant-Man. It’s always easier to correct things in hindsight if you’re starting from scratch. But will the helmet be there? And would a film like that be any good? Could it stand up to Spider-Man?

Ant-Man, as classic science-fiction/fantasy could work as well as any other heroic film. I would definitely take six months out of my life to write that, and write it well, but only under one strict condition. Ant-Man would wear the Jack Kirby helmet, antennae and all, or there’s no film.

Marvel’s biggest mistake, and really Stan Lee’s biggest mistake, has been the ever-constant devotion to marketing their great characters in new media form and ignoring the core of what made them great in the first place: the comic books. Marvel has stopped, started, revamped, and re-launched its core characters so many times, that I find everything past the original runs irrelevant. They could try it one more time. Wipe the slate clean and reboot just one kick-ass, definitive, version of only the worthiest characters—and all of us older “true believers” would come rushing back salivating, but who would be there to guide the way? Stan’s making movies. Jack’s gone on to live with the New Gods. And I don’t know what the hell Steve Ditko’s up to, but it can’t be any good. He’s been too quiet for too long.

I am aware that Marvel now publishes a series of comics geared once again for the kids. I’ve seen versions of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four available in as unexpected places such as Target and Wal-Mart, but they’re five dollar comics ($5.00) and they aren’t saying, showing, or doing anything better than the originals. I’d rather have my kids read the Marvel Masterworks or the Essential editions where all the good stuff is at least getting reprinted.

You wanna real treat?

Go get yourself Essential Ant-Man Vol. 1. The collection retails for $14.95 and reprints Tales To Astonish Nos. 27 and 35-69. That’s essentially all of Ant-Man/Giant-Man’s original adventures before he got kicked out the book to make room for the Sub-Mariner.

The Essential Ant-Man is black and white, but don’t let that stop you. Black and white, where Kirby is concerned is always a good thing. You’re getting pure Kirby (including great sketches of the interior of Ant-Man/Giant-Man’s building with all sorts of secret entrances and cool gadgets) without the colorist's and inker's flourishes. Standing in sporadically (not taking over) for Lee & Kirby when the Hulk and friends kept them too busy were Stan’s brother, Larry Lieber on script and Don Heck on pencils, both very competent and under Stan’s direction the series kept a solid, high-action, continuity that made for a really outstanding run of Silver Age stories.

I would honestly recommend that collection right up there with any other compilation of that era. Better than Eisner’s Doll Man, better than the Atom (whom I love) was a man named … Pym.

Ant-Man.

Giant-Man.

Goliath.

Yellow Jacket.

Dr. Henry Pym.

And on and on …

Come on, Stan, get back on board! Give us your final magnum opus performances of the characters you created! Think of Johnny Cash albums produced by Rick Rubin. Think of Stephen King overcoming the ego of being the Master of Horror, all those bad films, and getting run over by a truck—only to come back and write his best work. Think of Brian Wilson’s super amazing comeback. You were one-half of the greatest comic team-ups ever. Lee & Kirby. Lee & Ditko. That’s twice the lighting it takes to get King Kong up off his hairy ass. All you need is the right artist.

What’s ol’ Neal Adams doing these days?

Do you still have Ditko’s phone number?

What about John Romita? Hell, his drawings of Mary Jane were responsible for some of my first deep longings for the female form. She’s right up there with Daphne from Scooby-Doo and Lori Partridge.

It’s not too late, Stan.

It’s never too late to give us what we want: Ant-Man No. 1, starring Henry Pym with an astonishing cybernetic helmet. Dude, it’s one thing to talk to the ants, but you’ve also got to listen.

Bradley Mason Hamlin
brad@retrocrush.com

 

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