In the early years of the 1960s, Marvel Comics seemed as if it could do no wrong. It’s early concepts were very popular and ushered in a new way of doing comics. These characters would go on to become icons and parts of popular culture, the members of a new mythology. These early characters included Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor…..and Ant-Man and the Wasp. Well, not every concept can be a winner. But why didn’t Ant-Man and the Wasp ever become the popular characters that the other early Marvel heroes became? What was it about them that made them perennial second stringers?
Dr. Henry Pym was introduced very early in the history of Marvel Comics, and is one of their earliest heroes. A scientist, he develops a way to shrink to the size of an ant, and after his wife is captured and then killed by Communists (ah, early Marvel, where Communists were the go-to villains) he uses this method to fight crime. He fights crime on his own for some time, using his amazing ability to grow smaller and control ants to thwart the plans of evil doers and was given his own series of stories in Tales to Astonish, where he became the cover featured hero. However, while he may have been featured on the cover, it seems Marvel felt that he was missing something. That something was apparently a partner, and soon Marvel introduced the Wasp to join Ant-Man on his adventures.
Janet Van Dyne was the daughter of a wealthy scientist. Her father had befriended Pym, and when her father was killed by creatures from another dimension, Van Dyne turned to Pym for support. Pym offered to share his powers with her, and she agreed. She gained the ability to shrink to ant-size as well, but unlike Pym, she could fly on her own, and had “wasp’s stings” which she could use to attack her foes. The two became partners, but more, they became romantically involved, although never as romantically involved as the Wasp would have liked. Pym kept her at a certain distance, as he was initially not over the death of his first wife, and then because he was a somewhat introverted, dedicated scientist who had more important things to consider rather than romance. Of course, the real reason he kept her at a distance was because Marvel, in those days, very much enjoyed the storytelling device of having two characters in love with each other, but not able to reveal their feelings (and if you think that this storytelling device would get a little tired when used in ten different comic titles each month, you’d be very correct).
Over the years, these two characters would undergo numerous changes. They would get married, get divorced, and then date on and off over the years. Pym would soon change his super-hero identity from Ant-Man to Giant-Man to Goliath to Yellowjacket to Dr. Pym the Scientific Adventurer and then switch back and forth between them. The Wasp would go from a flighty socialite more interested in men than in catching bad guys to the chairman of the Avengers for years to an oddly mutated wasp creature, and back to human. There would be new people to claim the mantle of the Ant-Man, other heroes who would call themselves Giant-Man and Goliath, and villains who would take the identity of Yellowjacket (surprisingly, no one else would try to call themselves Dr. Pym, the Scientific Adventurer). These characters still exist, 45 years after their creation, but they always seem to be at the periphery of the Marvel Universe; never able to crack into the mainstream media the way so many of their contemporaries have.
Why? All of the ingredients exist within these two that are within the other Marvel heroes that have graduated to the popular consciousness. As mentioned, there was the unrequited love that Marvel enjoyed so much (were there any happy couples at Marvel in the 60s? Even Reed and Susan Richards started out as engaged, and had to contend with Sue’s infatuation with the Sub-Mariner during their early years). There was the tragic origins, with the loss of loved ones, which seem to populate the origins of most Marvel heroes (Spidey lost his uncle, Daredevil lost his father, Captain America lost his partner, the Hulk lost his ability to wear a 32 inch waist). Some would say that they were underpowered and Ant-Man was too weak to make it in the big leagues, but those leagues were a lot smaller than we think. Early Marvel heroes were much weaker than modern heroes. The Human Torch couldn’t flame on for more than a few minutes at a time. The Thing was only half as strong as he is today, and not as invulnerable. The early X-Men were a very weak team…Jean Grey’s telekinesis enabled her to thread needles and move small logs over holes, the Beast was just a little stronger than a normal man, Iceman looked like Frosty the Snowman and the Angel could…well, just fly. That’s it. Besides, even if Ant-Man may have looked a little weak in the Avengers, alongside Thor and Iron Man, over at DC, the Atom was doing just fine in the Justice League and the Atom couldn’t even talk to ants!
So, why do you think these characters haven’t been able to attain a stronger fan base? And do they have potential today?
Wow. That was a very well written introduction. As I was reading it, I kept coming up with arguments in my head but then you would diffuse them in the very next paragraph. First I thought, perhaps their popularity waned because they were older, age-wise, than most Marvel heroes…but then you brought up the Fantastic Four. Then I thought, well maybe their unimpressive power set made them seem (pardon the pun) minuscule…but you answered that with reference to other weakly powered heroes and a mention of the relative success of Pym’s DC counterpart. Now I’m intrigued.
I have to admit that I am, at best, only familiar with these two characters through their interactions with the Avengers. I do own a few of their early Tales to Astonish appearances, as well as the Essential Ant-Man volume (which I really should read someday), but none of their adventures really stick out in my head aside from Hank’s overblown beatdown of Janet in the midst of his nervous breakdown. I never knew that Pym had been married before. I did not know that they met each other through Janet’s father. Ah…communists and inter-dimensional aliens…the backbone of early Marvel villainy.
When you think about it, and consider they were created in the Atomic Age and shared a lot of context with Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, it is rather odd that these two didn’t take off. Perhaps it was the title they were originally launched in. Tales to Astonish began as a science fiction anthology similar to its sister title, Tales of Suspense. They both switched to superhero-based stories in 1962. Ant-Man was featured in TtA while Iron Man became the star of ToS. In 1964, both books went to a split format. In TtA, Ant-Man shared space with Incredible Hulk. ToS saw Iron Man and Captain America splitting time. Without having any sort of sales numbers for reference, I can only infer that Tales of Suspense had the more popular configuration. I can also surmise this based on the fact that Ant-Man’s split adventures were quickly usurped after 10 issues by the Sub-Mariner. Obviously, something was wrong.
Was the tone too romantically inclined for readers? Too much “will they, won’t they” and not enough hard science and fantastical settings? Were the personalities all wrong? Pym, by himself, came across as an accomplished yet troubled professional. He had some tragedy in his past, but was trying to move past it and discover new things while also upholding some sort of honor…much like Spider-Man and Hulk. Wasp, on the other hand, came from privilege and was more concerned with fashion than feelings. There weren’t a lot of strong females at Marvel in those days. Aside from Sue Storm and Jean Grey, you’d be hard-pressed to find a prominent woman with her own strong views or any sort of personality (the turning point of this trend coming, of course, in 1966 with the classic introduction of Mary Jane Watson in Amazing Spider-Man #42). Maybe the characterization of Janet Van Dyne irked the title’s audience.
I can honestly say I’ve never been a fan of the Wasp. She just hasn’t had a consistent representation for me. My earliest memories of the Avengers have her playing dress-up in front of a mirror and shopping at exclusive boutiques. In fact, in those early issues I think she was more known for her costume changes than for her participation. She also looked to make Hank jealous at every turn, constantly talking about how handsome Cap and Thor were. She was kind of a snotty bitch. Then decades later, she suddenly grows a pair and is handed the mantle of Avengers leader completely out of left field (correct me if I’m hazy here). Captain America always talked about how strong-willed and reliable she was, but I just didn’t get it.
I also don’t understand how, if Pym gave her powers to her, she ended up with a different set of abilities from Ant-Man. How was she able to fly, but he wasn’t? Where did the stingers come from? Maybe she’s a mutant (as she’s shown to be in the parallel universe Ultimates…where she still isn’t smack-proof).
Pym never really resonated with me either, until his days in the West Coast Avengers. He always seemed to be used in a utilitarian manner. For example, if something was at risk of falling over, Pym was called upon to get big and hold it up. If a door was jammed, Pym was asked to shrink and climb into the lock mechanism. However, he was never asked to actually fight. What could he do? Call some gnats to pester the Wrecking Crew? Ruin Ultron’s picnic? Take a bath in Red Skull’s coffee mug? It wasn’t until the emphasis was taken off the size thing that Pym was treated as a useful member of the team. By rejiggering his Pym Particles and their purpose, Marvel was able to turn him into some sort of armory master always at the ready with the right device or weapon. Even though his costume would make fashion designers go blind, Hank was kind of cool.
You know I eventually want to turn this conversation towards Stature and the new Ant-Man, but I think we need to talk about Hank and Jan some more first. Can you see any glaring reason as to why these two never hit the big time? Do you agree with anything I’ve thrown out there? And are there any solutions that could bring them around in this new age of comics?
I’m honestly not sure why they weren’t more popular, and it’s often confused me. I believe you hit on part of the problem when you say that you don’t remember any of their early stories. I’ve read quite a few of them, and even I don’t remember them. Part of this may be because Stan Lee didn’t write most of them. After the first few stories, he just plotted them and let his brother, Larry Lieber, do the scripting. Plus, Jack Kirby also jumped ship after only a few issues, and the penciling duties went to Don Heck. Now, I’m not here to knock either Lieber or Heck; both of them did fine work for Marvel throughout the 60s, and Heck is especially known for drawing the Avengers and Iron Man for respectable runs. That being said, they were kind of considered the B team of the Marvel Bullpen. Without their top talent on these stories, did the readers not care? Did they feel they were getting the second string, so these characters must not be very popular?
It’s also often said that a hero’s measure is seen in the quality of their villains. We can name Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus, the Green Goblin, Magneto, Loki, and the Mandarin as some of the Silver Age Marvel villains who helped to catapult their heroes to stardom. Ant-Man and the Wasp had no villains of note. I suppose Pym’s archenemy was Egghead, but even if I tell you nothing else about him, I’m guessing you won’t imagine Egghead as being an incredibly impressive villain (which is kind of a shame, as he was used tremendously effectively by Roger Stern during his run on The Avengers). Many of their other villains are even worse. Their book introduced the Living Eraser, who was just as his name suggested, and for years was considered a punchline by most people, when discussing lame villains. Many of their other villains were assorted monsters and communists, which worked occasionally in other strips, but certainly couldn’t have been the basis for success for those characters that did become popular.
I also think part of the problem is that they kept changing Pym’s identity. Sure, he wasn’t working out as well as they had hoped, and they were trying to find something to make him tick. However, he changed identities four times in six years, which is practically unheard of in the annals of comics (I can’t think of another time it happened). It made the characters seem somewhat schizophrenic, and would become another punchline centering on this character. I think that perhaps, if Ant-Man wasn’t as successful as they had hoped, they might have considered giving him new and different powers, but keeping the identity the same. One change, that to Giant-Man may not have been a bad idea, if nothing else worked, but the two changes beyond that were just overkill.
I’d also point out that not every concept that came out of the Marvel Bullpen in the 60s was a success. The X-Men did horribly for the first fifteen years of their existence, almost being cancelled, and going to bi-monthly reprints for over a year. The Hulk saw his book cancelled after only six issues, and almost disappeared before he got stuck in Tales to Astonish after floating in limbo for a year. Daredevil, while considered popular now, was quickly knocked back to a bi-monthly schedule after being introduced, and stayed that way for over a decade. Perhaps the difference between all of these eventual success stories and Ant-Man and the Wasp is that these other characters managed to maintain their own titles. Even the X-Men, while in reprints for a year, were at least in the public eye. They were also portrayed consistently, unlike Pym, who never met a new identity he didn’t like. And we might want to throw in the Wasp’s costume changes you mentioned. While I think it was a neat addition to her character (hey, we don’t wear the same clothes every day. Why should super-heroes?), her constant costume changes meant she looked different every time a casual reader saw her. It’s hard to become iconic when you have a different appearance every month.
I will also agree that personalities were all over the place. Pym started with a consistent personality, but his buttoned down persona had already caused him to act slightly irrationally within his first year as an Avenger, when the Wasp was shot, and Pym practically had a breakdown trying to save her life. Sure, every Marvel hero in those days was overdramatic (they never met a piece of furniture that they didn’t feel couldn’t be improved with a little chewing), but he was really losing it. This theme was repeated over and over during his tenure with the Avengers, until he had his first actual mental breakdown in 1968. Sadly, this seemed to set the stage for future writers to simply allow Pym to act however they wanted. During the infamous storyline where Pym hit Van Dyne, and then attacked the Avengers, many fans were upset. I myself was also upset, not because it was a horrible storyline, but because it came out of nowhere! Jim Shooter had just started writing the book, and before he came onboard, Pym was fine and stable. The first issue Shooter wrote, it was like someone else inhabited Pym’s body, as Pym suddenly was an emotional wreck. Many other writers would do the same thing, twisting Pym’s personality to fit whatever storyline they wanted to tell.
Janet Van Dyne didn’t make out much better. A flighty female of the worst variety, this is a woman who married her husband after he had suffered a mental breakdown and thought he was another person. Yes, Pym was convinced that he had actually killed Pym and that he was a completely different person. Van Dyne knew this. And she married him anyway. There’s something wrong there. She retained her role as the “flighty socialite” until she was smacked by her husband, when her entire personality changed, as she became more businesslike. I certainly believe that an incident like that would change someone, but her change seemed a little sudden. Through it all, though, I do believe she has a well written personality, and her changes have made sense. Still, it must have been confusing for the casual reader to pick up a book and wonder what happened to the Wasp he had read about before, as she switched back and forth from being a competent and hardnosed leader to being a silly flirt.
Whew! More than I intended to write and more than anyone cared to read, but there it is. Do I think that there’s hope to make these two work in today’s marketplace? Well, I love both Pym and the Wasp. I think both characters should be used more often than they are, and should have a lot more respect, considering they are founding members of the Avengers. However, there’s so much history and water under the bridge with these two. I think it might be best to continue to use them as they are, working independently in the Marvel Universe. After all, there’s a new Ant-Man, and I think there’s a partner out there that could be teamed up with him to make a new team that could be much more popular than the old one.
Again with the excellent assessment! We make a good pair, you and I. You’re able to find the truth behind a character or situation and I’m able to take that truth and re-purpose it to improve the storytelling aspects. You set ’em up and I knock ’em down. We’re like a Fastball Special…y’know, if you were a big metal Russian and I fancied cigars.
You’ve hit the nail on the head on so many points. I had forgotten how many of the second-tier Marvel characters were kept on life support. Makes me wonder if the same would’ve happened to Hank and Janet had they been in their own self-contained series. The villain situation really was dire for the duo. Without at least one credible archenemy to fall back on, their adventures seemed aimless and disposable. And you probably wouldn’t notice it as much these days, but the costume thing is really a big deal when a character is first introduced. You need that frequency and repetition to reinforce the image.
However, after reading your thoughts on Pym’s various identities, I can’t help but think that this may have been the initial poisoning of the characters, the fatal flaw that they were born with. See, Ant-Man was pretty cool by himself. Ooooh! He can shrink down and show us the wonderful world of the near-microscopic. Then they added a female love interest. On face value there’s nothing wrong with that, but then it turns out that her powers nearly mimic those of Ant-Man to the letter. What was the point of having two characters in the same book with the same powers? That would’ve been like pairing up Hulk and Thing and expecting greatness. Sure, they’re good for a misunderstood fracas every now and then, but how boring would it be to have the two of them pounding on inanimate objects page after page after page?
I can only think that if there had been a greater dichotomy between the two of them, it would have made the stories more interesting, the situations more complicated. That’s why I believe that our crusading couple hit their collective stride when Pym became Giant-Man. Now we’ve got a huge dude with his little partner. And, just so it doesn’t look like I’m being sexist, the situation may have been even more interesting if he had stayed Ant-Man and she had become Giant-ette (or something).
Which brings me to the simply inspired pairing of Eric O’Grady and Cassie Lang.
Let’s be realistic. Hank and Jan are a bit too old and historic to be revamped at this stage. In the “Meanwhile…Comics” universe, Hank Pym has already been reassigned to Hawkeye’s west-side support team. And we may as well just let Wasp do whatever she deems appropriate. She’s been portrayed as a fashion designer and a talk show host already. Why not have her pursue life as a psuedo-celeb or government official (really the same thing anyway, right?).
Eric and Cassie are the future of size-based adventures. She’s the previously sheltered daughter of Pym’s successor as Ant-Man. After her father’s unfortunate passing, she rebelled against her family to pursue a path of heroic duty. He’s a former SHIELD operative with less than adequate respect for women (or anything else) who stole an experimental update of Dr. Pym’s Ant-Man costume right from under his nose. He’s been shown as a cocksure, sarcastic and selfish “hero” who is trying to work the system for his own benefit.
I’d like to explore a Wasp/Ant-Man cooperative sort of storyline with these two as the stars. And Janet could play a role as a MILF type character! Kidding…or not. I can see Eric and Cassie bickering constantly, with Eric sticking his foot in his mouth at every turn. There’s also a big difference between the morals and goals of these two that allows them to play off each other. Potential abounds. What say you?
I think these two are exactly what you called them: a perfect match.
These two are your stereotypical odd couple. One of them is part of a heroic legacy, values heroism and believes that being a hero is a higher calling. One of them is a snotty punk who managed to luck into some superhero gear, and has been trying to figure out how to make it work for him. What’s great here is that these two characters would never work together. Luckily for us, we have the Initiative (and isn’t this the mark of any successful writer in a shared universe? The ones I like the most are the ones that can take a company mandated direction, like the 50 state initiative, and make it work for them, rather than fighting it.) and both of these people are signed on with it. So, we simply have the Initiative pair these two. Now they have no choice but to work together.
We’ve already discussed how not every state has a superteam assigned to it, and how it seems like Marvel is scraping the bottom of their super-barrel to find heroes for every state. It seems likely to me that these two could be the only members assigned to one of the more out of the way states. Perhaps they could be sent somewhere like Nevada (does that state have a team yet? Whoops, looks like they do). Ok, scratch that. Let’s try Virginia. Considering that it’s very close to Washington DC and does contain at least one large city, I’m surprised that it doesn’t have a team yet, but it seems up for grabs. So, we send our duo somewhere like that. Then we watch them try to learn to live together.
Eric is a man who’s probably about 5-10 years old than Cassie. He’s got few redeeming qualities, and is more concerned with getting laid and getting rich than he is with helping people. Cassie is trying to live up to the legacy of her father, and seeing this man in her father’s old costume would certainly begin to bother her. Eric, for his part, probably cares not a whit for the previous holder of his super-human moniker, and I can’t imagine he’d have much time for someone he would likely view as a young girl (unless he thought he could get her into bed). I think watching these two trying to learn how to work together, without killing each other, would be a lot of fun.
There’s an interesting aspect to Cassie’s powers which I think Eric could exploit. It seems that her growth powers are affected by her emotions…growing when she’s angry and shrinking when she’s shy. Even though both of them can increase and decrease their sizes, I find it most interesting to have Cassie as the bigger of the two of them. It plays to their personalities. Cassie has big ideals. Eric is really a small and petty person.
Look at me doing all the philosophicalizationating!
I could eventually see Cassie growing (heh, get it?) to like having Eric around, maybe building a crush on him in spite of herself. I also think Eric would be oblivious to the whole situation, more concerned with where he’s going to get his next piece of tail or score his next paycheck and completely missing the fact that Cassie is right there ripe for the picking. There’d be a lot of that “he said, she said” stuff mixed with missed opportunities and tied up nicely with a bunch of crossed wires. It’s the feel good comic of the year! A genuine rom-com romp through superhero trials and tribulations!
I give it five stars.