But what I didn't realise until much later was that Giant-Man had quite the back story. He hadn't just suddenly sprung to 2D life that moment I set eyes on him in early 1964. He'd been around for a couple of years, and had originally been smaller. A lot smaller.
ANTS IN YER PANTSIt’s no secret that small boys like creepy-crawlies. When I was a kid, I was endlessly fascinated by ants. I’d often spend time on sunny summer afternoons watching the little critters marching in straight lines from their nests, stopping to talk to each other, or struggling under the weight of a bit of twig twice their own size. And in the comic books of the period, I’d often see ads for ant-farms, a bargain at $2.98.
|The Ant-Farm was a common mail order item in the American comic books of the 1950s and 1960s. If only I'd been able to lay my hands on $2.98, something that was bit hard to come by in the South-East London of the early 1960s.|
Ant-Man's beginnings were a bit more convoluted. Over the decades a legend has evolved that Marvel editor Stan Lee was casting around for a follow-up super-character to his successful Fantastic Four comic and his slightly less-successful Incredible Hulk book. The official version goes that Stan tried out two insect heroes in his anthology titles Tales to Astonish and Tales of Suspense to see which the readers reacted to better. However, looking at the timings of the issues that "Man in the Anthill" and "Man in the Beehive" were published in, I seriously doubt that story.
Fantastic Four 1 was cover dated November 1961 and was on the newsstands three months earlier in August. The “Man in the Anthill” story in Tales to Astonish appeared in issue 27 (Jan 1962). The vaguely similar “Man in the Beehive” seven-pager was published in Tales of Suspense 32 (Aug 1962, on sale May 1962). And the debut of Ant-Man in costume was in Tales to Astonish 35 (Sep 1962), on sale just a month after the Beehive story. If Stan really was trying out insect heroes, why would he leave publishing the Beehive story until after the decision to go with Ant-Man had already been made?
There has also been speculation that Stan rushed Ant-Man into Astonish to cash in on the success of DC's similar small hero, The Atom, another theory that I don't think holds water. Besides, The Atom wasn't the first height-challenged hero in comics. Will Eisner's creation for Quality Comics, Doll-Man appeared in December 1939 in issue 27 of Feature Comics and enjoyed a long and successful run, eventually getting his own title in the autumn of 1941.
The story in Tales to Astonish 27 that established Dr Henry Pym and his ability to shrink to insect size was similar to the standard O Henry style fantasy tales Stan had been filling out his anthology titles with. Plotted by Stan, pencilled by Jack Kirby and scripted by Stan’s brother Larry Lieber, the story was never intended as anything other than a throwaway filler, despite its cover-feature status. The art by Kirby looks rushed and certainly couldn’t be held up as a stellar example of his work during that period.
In the story, Henry Pym is working on a chemical that can reduce the size of objects. In time-honoured mad-scientist tradition, he tests it on himself. He shrinks to the size of an insect, then manages to fall out a window into the garden, where he’s chased around by a bunch of ants. One ant inexplicably takes a shine to our hero, and helps him get back to his lab, where he’s able to restore himself to normal size. Pym destroys his formula as it’s “far too dangerous to ever be used by any human again.”
And with that, the story was forgotten for the next few months.
But with the strong reader reaction to the Fantastic Four comic, and The Thing being singled out as a fan favourite, Stan and Jack Kirby came up with a story about scientist Bruce Banner being accidentally irradiated by gamma rays and transforming into a massively strong anti-hero, The Hulk, and put the character out in his own comic Incredible Hulk 1 (May 1962), on sale in February. Then, without waiting to see how either FF or The Hulk were faring sales-wise, Stan pressed on with two new heroes, The Mighty Thor and Ant-Man.
THE RETURN OF ANT-MAN
|Stan Lee's brother, Larry Lieber.|
Stan has been quoted many times as saying that he liked to give his characters alliterative names as that made them easier for him to remember. So The Fantastic Four had Reed Richards and Sue Storm and the Hulk’s human identity was Bruce Banner. It wasn’t foolproof, however, as Stan referred to Banner as “Bob” in Avengers 3. Larry Lieber evidently didn’t need that trick. His characters’ civilian names were Don Blake, Tony Stark and Henry Pym.
|In this first adventure, Henry Pym shrank and grew by sloshing his formula all over himself. Over the next few years this would change to gas, then pills and finally he was able to change size just by thinking about it.|
Over and above his shrinking ability, Ant-Man’s Unique Selling Point was that he could communicate and work with the ants as allies in his fight against communism and other forms of injustice. So when a gang of commie agents tries to steal an anti-radiation formula that Henry Pym is working on, he turns into Ant-Man once again and battles to save his colleagues from the dastardly foreign agents.
As with the story in Tales to Astonish 27, “The Return of The Ant-Man” is not one of Jack Kirby’s more inspired art jobs. Kirby has often said on record that he always strived to come up with the best ideas and artwork in order to “make sales” and guarantee his continued employment, yet his work on Ant-Man was decidedly lacklustre compared to what he was doing on The Fantastic Four at the same time … as though he didn’t much care for the character and was just knocking out the pencils for the page rate.
Once the series was off and running, it seemed to lack a clear sense direction that The Fantastic Four had, and that we’d also see in later creations like Spider-Man. The biggest problem that Ant-Man had as a feature was that there wasn’t a single iconic villain. Villains help define the heroes in the minds of the fans. Batman wasn’t a massive success until he battled The Joker. The Fantastic Four already had The Skrulls, Sub-Mariner and Doctor Doom in their first five issues. While, without a defining villain, The Hulk struggled to establish himself.
|These earliest Ant-Man tales lacked a clear sense of direction. And Jack Kirby would often as not, struggle with finding interesting ways to frame a cover to make the most of the tiny hero.|
|The second proper Ant-Man adventure also gave us an insight into how a diminutive character is able to exit and enter his regular-sized laboratory and how he doesn't get smeared on the pavement after being fired out of a catapult.|
|Finding traces of machine oil where The Protector had been standing earlier, Ant-Man is able to deduce that he's using a mechanical exoskeleton to appear larger and stronger than he actually is.|
|One interesting aspect of Kirby's art on Ant-Man is the use of these forced perspective shots to put the reader down at Ant-Man's eye level. Really not sure about the spring-loaded boots, though.|
Although Egghead is the first recurring villain of the Ant-Man series, he’s just not a very good one. There were better villains ahead, unfortunately, the readers had to wait just a little too long for them to show up.
My views on Tales to Astonish 39 (Jan 1963) are documented in one of the first blog entries in this series. It was the first Ant-Man comic I ever saw back in the day, and it is one of the most popular of the early Ant-Man stories. It does use a variation on the old “hero’s doppelganger” plotline so commonly seen in DC comics of the Silver Age (Green Lantern’s Sinestro and Flash’s Professor Zoom), but this one had a twist. Stan pits his insect-sized human against a human-size insect, and I think it’s that aspect that resonated with so many fans. Unfortunately, Stan failed to capitalise on the idea and by the next issue, we were back to run-of-the-mill adversaries.
|Despite some changes in personnel, these early Ant-Man stories still struggled to find a distinctive style. The problem was lack-lustre villains and no clear rhythm to the writing.|
|There's quite a different feel to this Kirby artwork, inked by Sol Brodsky. This would be the last Ant-Man story in Astonish to be pencilled by Kirby.|
|Incoming penciller Don Heck brought a different feel to the Ant-Man strip. Heck's lightness of touch works better for me that Kirby's sometimes bombastic pencil art.|
THE UNDERRATED DON HECKDonald L. Heck began his comics career in 1949, when he joined the staff of Harvey Comics, re-arranging the panels of of Milton Caniff newspaper strips into comic book pages, a process we would call "bodging" in the UK. While there, Heck became friends with Pete Morisi, who would later create Thunderbolt for Charlton Comics. When Morisi left Harvey to join a comics startup, Comic Media, he took Heck with him.
At Comic Media, Heck began drawing early horror comics like Weird Terror as well as romance and war stories. But in 1954, Morisi had been showing art samples to Atlas editor Stan Lee. In Morisi's portfolio were a couple of Heck's pages. Lee pointed to the Heck samples and said, "This is the way you should have drawn it." Morisi testily suggested that if Stan wanted Heck's style he should hire Heck. Lee said that if he saw Heck he might have a story for him. "So I went up there on a Wednesday afternoon" Heck later recalled. "Stan never saw anybody on Wednesdays, and he never saw anybody in the afternoon. But he came out. He looked at the first two pages and said, 'Aw, hell, I know what your stuff looks like. Come on in. I got a story for you'." Heck joined the staff of Atlas and worked on a variety of titles until the Great Atlas Implosion of 1957, when he and just about every other artist was let go.
|Heck drew one of the rare non-Kirby Marvel covers of the late 1950s/early 1960s, Tales of Suspense 1. It must've been an omen, as Heck would later pencil a long run on Suspense's signature superhero, Iron Man.|
As Marvel developed, Heck was one of the mainstay artists, pencilling (and often inking) runs on top Marvel titles: Tales of Suspense 39-72, designing Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts, Black Widow, Hawkeye and The Mandarin, and missing only a couple of issues; The Avengers 9-40, co-creating The Swordsman and Power-Man; and of course, his run on Ant-Man in Tales to Astonish.
Towards the end of the 1960s Heck was getting less work from Marvel as tastes - and editors - changed. But he landed a lucrative gig, ghosting art for Lee Falk's The Phantom from 1966 to 1971, and provided a lot of pencil art for DC strips like Batgirl and Rose and Thorn, probably because he drew especially glamorous girls.
|The great Don Heck at his drawing board, during his 1960s hayday.|
AND BACK TO ANT-MAN ...The same month he drew the Ant-Man story in Tales to Astonish 41, Heck also provided pencils and inks for the “Iron Man is Born” story in Tales of Suspense 39. If I have any criticism of Heck's art on Ant-Man it’s that he didn’t seem as engaged with the character as he did with Iron Man. But it’s still better quality work than Kirby was turning in on the strip.
What is interesting is that Don Heck’s version of the Ant-Man uniform is very similar to the one Kirby drew in Astonish 35. With Astonish 36, Kirby had revised the design slightly (this is also the version that appears on Astonish 35’s cover). And the revised version was the one Kirby drew until his last Ant-Man story in Astonish 40. Heck must have been given Astonish 35 for reference, because that’s the version of the uniform he drew through his entire run, even while Kirby was drawing the revised version on the covers.
“Prisoner of the Slave World” has Henry Pym investigating the disappearances of fellow scientists. He discovers that a small-time crook is working with aliens from another dimension to abduct the technicians. So Pym arranges to have himself kidnapped then changes to Ant-Man to defeat the baddies. And the traitorous human ends up in jail in the alien dimension.
|I really like Heck's page design in Tales to Astonish 42. He really gets across the sense of scale from Ant-Man's perspective and contrary to what some fans think, I rate his action art pretty highly.|
“The Mad Master of Time” in Astonish 43 (May 1963) is unfortunately another fantasy tale masquerading as a superhero story. In this one, elderly scientist Prof Elias Weems is fired from his job for the simple sin of being too old. Seeking revenge, he concocts an aging ray and begins firing it indiscriminately at members of the public. Ant-Man investigates and discovers the cause of the mysterious aging malady afflicting random citizens.
Once the misguided man is captured, Ant-Man pleads on his behalf in court. The one interesting aspect of this story is that Stan and Larry – this would be his last scripting job on Ant-Man – mount an effective case against age discrimination at a time when this sort of thing was the standard way of doing business. These days we have laws against this type of practice, but back in the early 1960s, workers were routinely discriminated against for their age.
Tales to Astonish 44 (Jun 1963) ushers in some more changes – both in the creative team and in the Ant-Man concept. Stan must have felt that there was something lacking in the scripting and replaced his brother Larry with old-time Atlas editor Ernie Hart, who was credited as “H. E. Huntley”. In a 2007 interview, Leiber said that Stan “wasn't always the most patient person and I had problems [writing] the dialogue and he said, 'Why did you say that? You could have said it this way, or this way or that way,' and I’m realizing, yeah, I don't think of it that way or this way. So at any rate finally I think at one point he got a little exasperated and he said, 'I’m going to hire some of the old pros’.”
Hart had been a staff editor at Timely Comics during the 1940s, sharing an office with Al Jaffee. He remained on staff through the Atlas years, and was brought on as a scripter on the Human Torch strip in Strange Tales and the Ant-Man series, presumably to give it a shot in the arm.
That shot in the arm was the introduction of a partner for Ant-Man. “The Creature from Kosmos” opens with Henry Pym musing about his long-dead wife, Maria Trovaya, a Hungarian national. On a trip back to Mrs Pym’s mother country, she’s arrested by communist secret police and is later found murdered. This incident might go some way to explaining why Pym fought so many communists during his formative years as Ant-Man. Back in the present, Pym is visited by fellow scientist Vernon van Dyne who is experimenting with gamma ray beams to detect signals from other planets. Van Dyne has brought his daughter Janet along, though she seems more interested in taking in the city nightlife than listening to scientific theory. Pym is struck by the uncanny resemblance of Janet to his dead wife, but is also aware of how much younger she is. In the flashback, Maria is shown with grey hair and could conceivably be in her mid-to late thirties, so it’s likely that Pym is supposed to be about 40 here. Perhaps Janet van Dyne is supposed to be about 20.
Pym is unable to help, so Van Dyne continues with his work alone, only to unwittingly unleash a criminal alien on Earth, whose first act is to murder Doctor van Dyne. Pym investigates as Ant-Man and learns the truth. Then in his guise as Pym, reveals his secret identity to Janet, offers her super-powers and asks her to join him in the hunt for her father’s killer.
Rather than simply enabling her to shrink and grow, Pym implants – somewhat recklessly – wasp cells in Janet’s back, so that she’ll grow natural wings when she reduces in size. Putting on a uniform of unstable molecules, Janet shrinks to insect size and sets out with Ant-Man to defeat the alien.
As they battle with the creature, Pym is thinking that Janet is so like Maria, but also that he must avoid falling in love with her as she’s too young. The adventure closes with Wasp gazing at Pym and thinking that, “someday I will make you realise that you love me as I love you.” Later in the series, Stan would play down the age difference. Even here, it sounds a little creepy.
Tales to Astonish 45 (Jul 1963) featured the return of Egghead, Ant-Man’s first recurring villain. This time, Egghead plans to use The Wasp as bait to trap Ant-Man. But far from being the helpless victim, it’s The Wasp who saves the day, using a needle to sting Egghead and his henchmen into submission.
|Ant-Man shows up as a guest star in Fantastic Four 16, a quite clever piece of plotting that follows up on Doctor Doom's disappearance into the microworld at the conclusion of Fantastic Four 10.|
Clearly this was an attempt on Stan’s part to boost the visibility of Ant-Man with fans of other, more popular Marvel comics. Yet, when you look at the sales of Tales to Astonish, it wasn’t faring any worse than its companion title Tales of Suspense and was actually doing better than Journey into Mystery and Strange Tales.
The sales figures for 1962 show Suspense at an average monthly sale of 126,000 with Astonish at 140,000. Strange Tales is at 136,000 and Journey into Mystery is selling an average of 132,000.
The following year, Suspense has risen to 188,000 with Astonish at 189,000, with Strange Tales also at 189,000 and Journey into Mystery average at 188,000. Did Stan think that Astonish should be doing better than the rest? He wasn’t guest-starring Iron Man or Thor in FF during 1963, so I can’t see what he was worrying about.
|The last couple of Ant-Man adventures aren't a huge improvement over what had come before. Stan Lee was very obviously dissatisfied with how the character was turning out and planned some really big changes right after this trio of issues.|
|Tales to Astonish 47 had a villain called Trago (Spanish for "drink" by the way), a sort of bargain basement Ringmaster, who hypnotises his audiences and robs them. Ant-Man and The Wasp make short work of him.|
|The Porcupine in Tales to Astonish 48 was probably the most memorable Ant-Man villain to date - though that's not really saying very much.|
|Avengers 1: Scripted by Stan Lee and pencilled by Jack Kirby, Ant-Man and the Wasp's characterisations here foreshadowed the chemistry they would have in the yet-to-debut Giant-Man series over in Tales to Astonish.|
The plot involves Thor's long-time enemy Loki trying to manufacture a battle between The Thunder God and The Incredible Hulk. When Rick Jones tries to contact The Fantastic Four for help with an apparently out-of-control Hulk, Loki diverts the radio message to Dr Don Blake's radio instead. Unknown to Loki, the SOS message is also received by Henry Pym and Tony Stark, and the four heroes converge on the Teen Brigade HQ. One of Ant-Man's ants sights The Hulk, hiding out with a travelling circus and the superheroes set off to track him down. Ant-Man and The Wasp play a decisive role in the battle, first undermining (with the help of ants) the ground on which The Hulk stands then, when the fighting's done, suggesting they team up regularly to battle large-scale menaces ... and it's The Wasp who gives them their name: The Avengers. But this would be Ant-Man's only appearance with the team. By issue 2, he would have a change of name and powers and by issue 16 left The Avengers, both team and comic.
While Ant-Man was never a fan-favourite with hardcore Marvel readers, at least he managed a longer run than The Hulk. The weakest aspect to the character was that the dialogue wasn't written by Stan Lee, and thus lacked the light touch and banter between characters that was very much Lee's trademark. Larry Lieber admitted that this style wasn't for him in that 1999 Alter Ego interview with Roy Thomas: "I didn't do enough of the superheroes to know whether I'd like them. What I didn't prefer was the style that was developing. It didn't appeal to me. ... Maybe there was just too much humor in it, or too much something ... I remember, at the time, I wanted to make everything serious. I didn't want to give a light tone to it."
Still, for whatever reason, Stan was dissatisfied with how the Tales to Astonish stories had been shaping up and began preparing a Really Big change for Ant-Man. He was going to take over scripting and add two letters to Ant-Man's name.
Next: Big things ahead for Ant-Man.