TEN FEET SMART
by John Jones, Manhunter from Marathon, IL
Dr. Henry Pym don't get no respect. Professional writers go on record as finding him boring, storylines are concocted giving him nervous breakdowns, having him beat up his wife, and throw insane rampages, Editors In Chief revise his entire history to transform him into an ineffective buffoon... and these are only a small smattering of the indignities heaped on this complex character over the decades he has been in existence.
He is the only founding member of the Avengers who has not been featured as a title character in even his own mini-series since the early 70s. Most of his historical super-identities have been since spun off into poorly conceived copies that, while commercially unsuccessful, all seem to have at least marginally more fan popularity than Pym himself.
He is generally referred to, when he's noticed at all, with negative descriptives like brooding, clumsy, whining, doltish, cumbersome, useless... all told, the character seems to be generally perceived as more a clown than a hero, more a butt for scornful jokes and cheap physical comedy than an actual protagonist.
That this mistreatment is manifestly unjust should be obvious to anyone with even a vague clue as to Pym's illustrious and distinguished history and careers, both as individual superhero, charter member of the Avengers, and super intelligent scientist in the finest traditions of heroic pulp fiction. The man's accomplishments in all three fields make for a staggeringly long and impressive resume... and yet, the only thing most people can think of when his name is brought up is that Jim Shooter always said he was too wasted on the side effects of growth serum to function effectively in the Silver Age Avengers, and he gave his wife a black eye.
Over the past decade, Pym's fortunes, such as they are, have prospered at least slightly, under the hands of a few writers who seem to have more respect for the character than has seemed normal in prior eras. But a detailed discussion of that would be getting waaaaaaay ahead of our story. First, Pym must suffer, suffer, and suffer some more.
One of the reasons it's just so WRONG that Hank Pym gets no respect is that a very cogent argument can be made that he is actually the first solo lead character to appear at Marvel Comics.
While his first appearance in costume as Ant-Man took place months after the debut of a certain arachnid-powered adventurer, Pym himself first appeared in a Lee-Kirby horror story called "The Man In The Ant Hill" with a cover date of February, 1962 (TALES TO ASTONISH #27, for you completists out there)... a good six months before the web-slinger showed up in August of that same year. (The Hulk showed up in May of '62, making him, arguably, the second solo super... something... the Marvel Universe fielded. Certainly, the second solo lead character with superpowers, and since he also became a charter Avenger, we'll give him the benefit of the doubt.)
Nitpickers, Pym haters, Hulk partisans, and Spider-fans throughout the world and over the decades have argued like well paid defense attorneys on a David Kelley TV program that Pym's first appearance doesn't count because he demonstrably wasn't a superhero in them, but I snort in disdain at all such desperate grasping for pathetic technicalities. Pym showed up before both Web-slinger and Gray-skin; Pym is Marvel's premiere solo hero, and that's the end of it.
The lack of respect for Pym, though, started with the very inception of his own series in TALES TO ASTONISH as Ant-Man. Born from a publisher's directive to Stan Lee to whomp up as many more superheroes as he could as quickly as possible, Pym got very little attention after his initial outing from his harried, stressed out creator. After reviving the character featured in a previous horror short, Lee grafted on a fairly generic revenge-motive (Pym's first wife Maria had been supposedly killed by East German secret police) and had the grief stricken scientist bring his wife's killers to justice of sorts through the use of his new scientific breakthroughs: a chemical that allowed him to shrink down to tiny size, and a cybernetic helmet that allowed him to communicate with and control ants.
As superpowers went, these weren't exactly crafted to impress a potential audience, and, well, they really didn't. Lee pretty quickly chucked the series to his at best modestly talented brother Larry, and even the advent of Don Heck as penciller and, presumably, co-plotter, didn't seem to help much.
The introduction fairly quickly thereafter of a pretty girl sidekick named the Wasp should also be worthy of a footnote in comics history in and of itself, as I'm not at all certain any male superhero had ever had a feminine crimefighting partner previous to this unless they were both members of a larger group.
However, the stories continued to be lackluster - perhaps Heck wasn't co plotting after all, since his creative influence on AVENGERS, somewhat later, was remarkable - and although Pym held onto his own featured series longer than, say, the first run of THE HULK lasted, he racked up another distinction by being the only charter Silver Age character who never eventually graduated into his own self-named title. (That's a distinction that still stands, although in the early 70s, he had another brief solo series as Ant-Man in MARVEL FEATURE.)
Given that every other early Silver Age hero at Marvel went on to runs of their own self-titled comics that lasted through the Silver Age and into the Modern Age (in the case of Spider-Man, many, many more than one such self-titled series) this is a pretty significant negative mark on Pym's resume. And yet, there's absolutely no reason for it. Pym's own feature was clearly a victim from the beginning of self-perpetuating legacy of failure, begun in Stan Lee's apathy and continued through creative mishandling by a bottom of the barrel writer on one hand and an overworked, under-appreciated, and admittedly, inappropriate to superheroics anyway, artist on the other. Mediocre scripts with nothing to recommend them, art that didn't appeal to a comics audience far more attuned to Kirby style visuals, and frankly awful costume designs all combined to doom Pym's feature from the beginning to low sales and faint fan interest.
Yet over on AVENGERS, as co-plotted, pencilled, and scripted by Kirby and Lee, Pym was a wildly impressive character. Once he gained the ability to increase as well as decrease his size, he became one of the most formidable team members and mainstays. The combination of his varied super abilities, his leadership capacity, and his extraordinary intelligence made him the real backbone of the group, no matter what Jim Shooter tried to tell people a couple of decades later in a poorly judged fit of attempted historical rewriting. In the team's debut story it was Ant-Man's forethought, resourcefulness, and ingenuity that brought the group a final victory over Loki, and over the next 15 issues Pym was instrumental in the Avengers' string of victories over early rosters of the Masters of Evil, Kang the Conqueror, and the evil Immortus. If Lee and Kirby had only had the time to handle Giant-Man's own solo title, the character might have never sunk into obscurity and become a laughingstock to so many fans then and now.
As this is an article primarily about the actual personal history of Hank Pym, I'll for the most part eschew all discussion as to the peculiarly weird physics involved in his particular superpowers, especially since I honestly have no coherent explanation, despite my previous four part article on how superpowers actually physically work, for a character who can grow up to 100 feet tall and still not either sink into the earth due to his nearly unimaginable mass, break his own bones, or, most utterly bizarre of all, leap/step across city streets from one rooftop to another without crushing the buildings under those rooftops into so much rubble.
The weird-energy-transformation idea would work well, but since the Vision intangibly entered and explored Pym's comatose body while Pym was 150 feet tall - and still growing - and found quite distinctly normal internal organs, it seems we have to assume that Hank remains quite demonstrably and normally human when he gets huge. Which means none of his organs should work, his bones should shatter under the weight of his vastly increased body, and his torso should most likely implode. However, at this point, we are probably best served simply by observing the words of wisdom of a one time college roommate of mine, who once firmly opined during this very argument "Giants are FUN, they don't have to make sense."
It's interesting to note that Pym's actual inclusion in the original Avengers roster may well have resulted from a decision-making process as apathetic and near-accidental as the character's creation and the handling of his ongoing feature.
Lee, again under an editorial directive to create something similar to National's JLA, but without a long standing stable of commercially successful... or at least, recognizable... characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and the Martian Manhunter to draw on, basically wound up throwing together a team from every character he had at that point that wasn't already in a team and was being featured in an ongoing series, with the exception of Spider-Man.
The inclusion of the Hulk, whose own first series was the most short lived in the early era Marvel Universe, and who obviously didn't fit at all into any kind of superhero team, shows how desperate Lee was to fill out the roster, and I can only hypothesize that Ant-Man was tossed in instead of the more popular webslinger simply because by including him, Lee also managed to put the Wasp on the roster, fulfilling the obscure but apparently inevitable mandate that all superhero teams of this era have no more nor less than one female member. (Perhaps this apparently inescapable feature of super-teams was merely blind aping of a pattern inadvertently set with the Justice Society of America; certainly, given the bloodless asexuality of both the Golden Age JSA and the early Silver Age JLA, it wasn't done with any intention of providing sexual tension in the team, or, given the well known make up of the potential audience, to give young girls a fantasy projection figure.)
How Dr. Strange avoided inclusion is more of a mystery, and may imply that Steve Ditko, who was co-plotting and drawing both Spidey and Doc, may have simply asked Stan not to use either character in another series.
In my opinion, such a comprehensive mishandling of a character like Henry Pym actually takes appreciable talent. Leaving aside all the other myriad factors in the character's favor, the fact remains that size change is one of the primary superhuman fantasy abilities that seems to resonate nearly universally in the human psyche.
There are a small number of character 'types' or icons that always seem to crop up in any particular medium or subgenre of heroic fantasy fiction, often at many different publishers. The fellow who can either become a giant, or shrink down to miniscule size and thus, battle and defeat giants, is one of those constantly recurring archetypes. Just as there are always costumed archers with gimmicky arrows, superspeedsters, acrobats, and strongmen, so too do there always seem to be tiny titans or colossal champions. It's just something people, especially kids, seem to like and respond to. (Again, as my old college buddy once stated with such clarity, "Giants are FUN.")
Taking a character who can both shrink down to miniscule size and thus explore a fascinatingly disproportional realm filled with visually arresting plot devices, as well as grow large enough to pick up cars and trucks in the palm of his hand, and somehow transforming him into a melodramatic and commercial failure in a primarily visual fictional medium aimed for the most part at adolescents seeking power fantasies, is a feat that takes actual skill and considerable effort.
And it's even more interesting to me to note the lack of frequency with which such characters are created and published. Hank Pym, in his role as Giant-Man or Goliath, actually has no real opposite number at Marvel's primary competitor, DC (one of the main reasons why, when fans set up their own rosters for the much bandied JLA vs. Avengers clash, they invariably pit Pym as Ant-Man versus Ray Palmer's Atom). In fact, the only giant character DC has, that I can easily think of, is the Legion's Colossal Boy, and I have no idea if he even survived into their post-Crisis continuity. [Editor's note: He did, but no longer...Shrinking Violet has gained both his powers and his newest name, "Leviathan."]
Marvel is doing a little better in the giant department, with both one time Goliaths Bill Foster and current reformed villain Atlas as well as Pym, but Pym remains not only the first size changing colossus at Marvel, but the actual source of the other two's powers, as well, since both gained their abilities via variations on Pym's size change chemicals. (I suppose, for the sake of completion, I should note that perpetual fan favorite Hawkeye once did a brief stint as Goliath, too, also making use of Pym's growth serum.)
I, personally, would think that a size changing character, even one limited to either end of the spectrum (growth or shrinking) would be nearly a sure thing for popularity among fantasy fans, and that one who can do both would be a guaranteed success... but Hank Pym's relatively dismal commercial career seems to belie that assumption. However, to me that doesn't disprove my theory that size changers have a basic, universal appeal to most heroic fantasy fans, but simply is all the more evidence that Hank Pym never got an even break in his own lead features. Once his original run in TALES TO ASTONISH was ended, Pym dropped out of the spotlight (such as it was) for a while. His return to AVENGERS in issue 26 (although he wasn't actually back in costume until 28) made him the first of the founding members to rejoin the team, and the addition of his size changing abilities and scientific acumen, along with his partner the Wasp's own insectlike powers, should have resulted in one of the most successfully well balanced superhero rosters in the history of the genre.
Unfortunately, either Lee or Heck continued the tradition of bungling Pym's handling (given the history, I'm now starting to wonder if Don Heck wasn't one of the guiding forces behind the character's early and seemingly constant lack of success), removing nearly everything cool about the character in one fell swoop by having him become trapped at ten feet tall. From one of the most versatile possible team members, Pym became little but a hulking muscleman, his leadership abilities lost in self pity, his scientific acumen constantly absorbed in a boring and obviously fruitless attempt to regain his normal stature. (I say 'obviously fruitless' because such a gimmick doesn't get undone until the writer or editor decides to undo it, which on AVENGERS wouldn't be for another couple of years.)
The "pity me, I'm a freak" move had already been done to death by Ben Grimm in the Fantastic Four, and the whole subplot seemed to accomplish nothing except to make Hank Pym into a truly annoying character. When the Sons of the Serpent starting knocking him to his knees with a well placed 'judo chop' (just as a passing note: there are no 'chops' in judo, or, for that matter, punches or kicks, either; it is a martial arts system entirely devoted to holds and throws) even the most avid Pym fan must have been ready to throw in the towel and start reading Detective Comics.
Rather later, Roy Thomas restored Pym's range of growth abilities, anyway, although Hank did little or no shrinking until much later, when a plotline obviously inspired by 60s sci-fi hit FANTASTIC VOYAGE took him inside the comatose form of the Vision to make necessary repairs.
In the absence of default leader Captain America, Pym also became the Avengers' team leader. These issues are mainly a blur to me, and therefore I hope my hypothetical audience will forgive me if I'm wrong, but I can't think of anything much Pym accomplished during this period... well, anything good. He did have two negative additions to his heroic curriculum vitae under Thomas, in his inadvertent creation of Ultron, and his first nervous breakdown that led to his schizoid heroic guise as Yellowjacket.
If we assume that in fact Don Heck was the first plotter/creator who had a hand in Pym's declining fortunes, Roy Thomas certainly had to be the second. Thomas seems to have actually liked the character of Henry Pym, and tried to treat him as the sort of Avengers mainstay he had been in the first fifteen issues of the book. However, with friends like Roy, Hank sure didn't need enemies, as it was really Roy who inadvertently began building the history of mistakes, insecurities, and emotional problems that Jim Shooter would later exaggerate and distort into a false revisionist history in which Pym became Giant-Man out of a sense of inadequacy, rather than as a logical exploration of his size changing powers and to expand his versatility as an Avenger, and in which Pym was always too 'wasted on the side effects of growth serum' to be particularly effective in combat.
That the last, at least, is simply wrong can be easily seen by going back and reading those first 15 issues, or even any of the fairly boring solo tales of Giant-Man and the Wasp in TALES TO ASTONISH; whatever else Hank was, he was never a bungler. Still, Shooter's revisionist history, which he used to turn Pym briefly into an embittered, dangerously out of control renegade who beat his wife and very nearly got the Avengers killed in a transparent ploy to play a hero, came at a time when a majority of comics fans seemed geared to embrace stories which turned Silver Age icons into fools or felons. Prolific comics writer Gerard Jones liked the Shooter version so much that he's since remarked on how boring Pym has become, now that he doesn't try to kill the Avengers or beat his wife anymore.
As I say, the various events and plot points Shooter used as a basis for his character assassination on Hank Pym all began under Roy Thomas. It was Roy who had Hank's attempt to create artificial robotic intelligence (a poorly judged fit with Hank's previous background as a biochemist, but many, many pulp writers over the years have disdained to bother keeping scientific disciplines straight) go awry, resulting in the birth of the Avengers' perhaps most dangerous opponent, Ultron.
During that story, Roy had Hank be hypnotized into amnesia by Ultron's first, crude form in order to cover its escape from Hank's lab (a power Ultron has never, to my immediate memory, manifested since, which seems strange; if you were going to keep any one ability from one upgrade to another, it would seem to me that mind control would be high on the list), an occurrence which was later stoked into laying the foundation for Hank's first nervous breakdown, from which his schizoid identity of Yellowjacket first emerged. (Some experimental chemical fumes supposedly had something to do with it too.)
As Yellowjacket, Hank married his longtime crimefighting partner and girlfriend, the Wasp... and all of this rather disturbing stuff became grist for Shooter's mill, later, which eventually ground the entire concept of Hank Pym's competence and heroism into a very fine powder.
Probably the next major change in Pym's life, after this, came with a short-lived Ant-Man series in MARVEL FEATURE in the early 70s. Written, I'm pretty sure, by Mike Friedrich, this series re-introduced the concept that Pym's metabolism had been strained overmuch by his constant use of his size changing serums, and that the serums themselves had a flaw which only emerged after extensive use. Just as Pym had been stuck at ten feet tall for a time during his first return to the Avengers, so, for this series, did he find himself trapped at six inches tall. It was a tale of survival against all odds, rather than a superhero strip, as Pym was trapped outside the city and had to try to make his way back to safety, while, you know, housecats tried to eat him.
This obvious takeoff on LAND OF THE GIANTS didn't last long, but this new metabolic weakness, combined with the previous incidence of such, was enough to reinforce the image Thomas had already painted with Pym's split personality of a dangerously flawed and unstable individual.
That image was to be exacerbated under Steve Englehart in one of his later, post Celestial Madonna storylines in AVENGERS, when Pym, grief stricken and enraged by the Wasp's nearly fatal wounding in a battle with someone the team thought was the Stranger, alienated his teammates and ran around like a berserker, ignoring his health constraints in all out battles with both the Stranger (who turned out to the Toad, using some stolen advanced technology) and the Whirlwind.
Pym nearly died, himself, due to the stress his still weakened body suffered from the still flawed serums in his bloodstream after he went through an unbridled size changing rampage to defeat the Whirlwind, and certainly, did not present a very heroic, commanding, or likeable figure in this story... and while perhaps Englehart might have had plans to give us a more balanced rendition of Hank Pym further on down the road, Englehart left Marvel shortly afterwards and Gerry Conway took over.
(It's also possible, on the other hand, that Steve E. simply didn't like the character of Hank Pym all that much, and had no plans to do much of anything with him, since it must be admitted that for much of Englehart's run on the series, he had tended to eschew charter Avengers and established team stalwarts to focus on more minor characters, like the Swordsman, the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and especially, Mantis. With Mantis finally married off to a tree and out roaming the spaceways, one has to wonder exactly what Englehart would have done if he'd stayed with the book much longer. However, it's also reasonable to assume that the reason Englehart tended not to focus on the other charter Avengers like Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man was simply that they all had their own titles, which limited how much he could develop them in AVENGERS. That wouldn't have been a problem with the Pyms. Perhaps he would have chosen to focus more on Yellowjacket and the Wasp. We'll never know for sure, although Englehart's much later attempt to restore a disillusioned Pym to some sort of mental equilibrium and heroic status, in WEST COAST AVENGERS, seem to argue that he liked the character fine and probably would have done more with him in a positive light had he stuck around on the original AVENGERS series. Yet another reason for me to regret his departure from Marvel at that point, and wish Gerry Conway in hell.)
Under Conway, Henry Pym didn't seem crazy, just... irritable. But then, under Conway, everyone is nearly constantly irritable. Pym rattled off very strange, brooding dialogue like "If I had your power, Vision, I wouldn't worry about anything at all," to which the Vision would reply, in a seemingly meaningful but actually baffling manner, "Wouldn't you? Then I envy you, Henry Pym. You're a rare man, indeed." I myself thought that exchange was very impressive when I was, I don't know, 14, but these days I have to admit, I have no actual clue what it means. Conway didn't do any further damage to Pym's characterization, nor did he do particularly much to help it; in fact, Conway did very little on AVENGERS of moment at all, other than to return Wonder Man to the living.
Pym had, briefly, for a short period, prior to the Englehart story where he nearly killed himself with uninhibited, dangerous size change, returned to heroic competence under, of all writers, Steve Gerber, in, of all books, THE DEFENDERS. Exactly what a founding member of the Avengers was doing there no one could actually tell you (in point of fact, it has to do with a strange connection between Hank Pym and Trish Starr, who was, at the time, Nighthawk's girlfriend... sort of... and who also happened to be the niece of Egghead, Pym's old arch enemy). But Hank didn't stick around for particularly long in the Team About Nothing, and I'm only noting his presence on their roster at all because it was so refreshing to see him actually behaving in a fairly straightforward and effective manner again.
It's also worth nothing that of all his identities, the one Pym has stayed with the longest is Yellowjacket, the one he currently most despises. (It's also worth noting that arguably, Yellowjacket has the best costume of all of them, a fact which, in the predominantly visual medium of comics, may have played a large part in Pym's sticking to the name and outfit for so long.)
For long periods, Yellowjacket was the least powerful of Pym's identities, as he for quite some time eschewed all size changing, limiting himself entirely to abilities built into his costume... which, at first, were taser-like stings in his gloves, with no capacity for effecting distant targets, and vibrational 'wings' in his shoulder-greaves that allowed him to jump great distances, but not fly. Gradually he added more refinements (for a long time, he carried around a disruptor pistol that looked pretty stupid when George Tuska drew it, but fairly cool as pencilled by Sal or John Buscema), eventually getting to a point where he could fly at full size, shrink, and blast people at a distance with electric stingers built into his gloves. (During the times he could shrink, he most likely could have increased his size as well, but the Yellowjacket costume looked pretty stupid on a giant, and other than during the one story by Englehart where he became a giant for a time to battle Whirlwind, and then later, started growing uncontrollably while comatose, we never saw him do it while in that outfit.)
He also eventually built his cybernetic circuitry for communicating with ants into his YJ hood, although, since it didn't match the persona, he hardly ever used it.
Even with the various mechanical aides Pym gradually built into the costume, it must be admitted that YJ was probably his least powerful and impressive identity other than Ant-Man... and in fact, YJ may be less powerful than Ant-Man, because during another, later schizoid break, Ant-Man himself once overcame a team of very powerful Avengers, something it's very doubtful Yellowjacket could ever have done.
All of which I point out to buttress my own particular theory on Pym's weird psyche, which I first put forth in another article: namely, that since the inception of the character, perhaps, Pym has been acting out a profound death wish. (Hey, look, I'd rather he just be straighforward, cheerful, smart, courageous, and heroic, but unlike Jim Shooter, I don't just ignore past continuity when I set out to write something about a character.)
Pym's death wish may have started as long ago as with his taking vengeance for the death of his wife, and be rooted in a profoundly decent man's guilt at causing the deaths of others, an innate sense of justice, and a concomitant feeling that the scales must be balanced. However, the idea accords well with Pym's various actions over the years... from refusing to marry the Wasp while in his right mind, to repeated attempts at creating his own robotic nemeses, to his one overt suicide attempt and the recent, cathartic act of self-murder he committed when he crushed his robotic surrogate, Ultron, with his bare fists.
Even Pym's schizoid breaks could be seen as a sort of death wish fulfillment, after all, Yellowjacket, when he first showed up, honestly thought that he had killed Pym, and was quite pleased about it, and for Ant-Man to attack the Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, Iron Man, and the Vision... hell, I'd say a death wish was the LEAST of his problems. A subconscious death wish would also explain why Pym broke up his marriage, and why he remained an active superhero for so long in his least effective and powerful guise.
The pivotal point to most of Pym's Modern Era interpretations, right up until the present day, has to have been the story arc I've mentioned in passing several times now: the infamous "Courtmartial of Yellowjacket". This story was written by then Marvel EIC Jim Shooter, as part of about a year long return by him to scripting duties on AVENGERS. Shooter had written Marvel's most powerful team intermittently prior to this, putting together noteworthy stories in which Count Nefaria became overwhelmingly super-powered, and a long, science fiction space-oriented saga featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy and an obscure, throwaway villain named Korvac suddenly and inexplicably given godlike abilities.
Shooter's earlier work on the book had been exciting and fun, if occasionally miscued in terms of some characterizations (Big Jim kept putting dialogue in Cap's mouth like "Mother, God, and Country!" and briefly instigated a feud between Cap and Iron Man for apparently no reason at all other than to generate spurious tension) and had also been mostly blessed by the artwork of George Perez. However, this later run was to be an entirely different kettle of fish.
Shooter started off as many new writers on AVENGERS like to, by shaking up the team roster, getting rid of old members, adding some new ones. In this case, the team wound up consisting of pretty much the charter members -- Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Yellowjacket, and the Wasp -- with one new addition, Tigra. (That just sounds wrong, doesn't it? Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Yellowjacket, the Wasp... and TIGRA? HELLO? TIGRA? Are you sure you didn't mean, like, Wonder Man, or the Vision, or someone... you know... good?)
Once Jim accomplished that, though, he got right into what was apparently his main agenda for his creative stay - a thorough and retroactive trashing of Hank Pym, not just from the point of this story on, but going back to taint all of Pym's heroic history.
It's worth noting that in those long gone times (I believe this story was published in 1981), pretty much before the Internet as such, fans still somehow heard rumors about what might be upcoming storylines. Some of it was from trade publications and interviews with pros, some of it was through inside contacts. Some pros were in Amateur Press Alliances and would spill either definite plans (if it was something on a comic they were working on) or office gossip (if it was something someone they knew was working on) in the APA, after which it would fairly quickly percolate down the grapevine. In 1981, I was in college and a couple of the guys in my college clique had some fairly solid contacts on the fan grapevine, and we heard a lot of rumors... and the big one going around at that time was that Shooter planned to turn Hank Pym into a permanent AVENGERS villain, after breaking up his marriage to the Wasp.
It's no coincidence, of course, that the end of Hank and Jan's marriage came almost immediately after the Comics Code was revised to allow stories to depict divorces. Exactly why those two, whose marriage had always been demonstrated to be reasonably healthy and who had been pretty clearly shown to be good for each other over the years, were picked to get it in the neck I don't know, but somebody was going to do a divorce story, and Shooter decided to do it in AVENGERS.
The details of the story run pretty much like this: in the 'new' Avengers first case, Yellowjacket, through not listening to team leader Captain America and his own angry determination to show everyone he could be a hero, managed to make an error in judgment that nearly had grievous and fatal consequences.
Cap, who under Shooter pretty much always had a big ol' stick up his butt, insisted on convening court martial proceedings (something we hadn't seen, to my knowledge, since AVENGERS #7, when it was called a "special board of inquiry", a term which makes a lot more sense than 'court martial', since the Avengers, y'know, aren't a military organization) to determine what, if any, disciplinary proceedings should be taken against Hank for his mistake. (The last time we saw the Avengers take disciplinary action, again, as far as I recall, was in that same issue 7, when they suspended Iron Man from 'all Avengers activity and duties for a period of one week' a punishment that has never made any sense to me... "Hey, I know, let's punish Iron Man by not letting him help us fight the Masters of Evil! We'll make him stay home and watch TV instead! And that will really increase our chances of winning, too! Yay us!")
Anyway, while getting ready for the court martial, Shooter had one of the Avengers go back through Hank Pym's history with the team, and it was here that the Pravda-esque rewriting of history really started.
Hank, the wide-eyed, waiflike readers were told, after joining the team as Ant-Man, had modified his size change serum to become more powerful as Giant-Man... or at least, Shooter noted through the dialogue, more impressive... it always seemed like Hank was too wasted on the side effects of growth serum to be really effective in combat after that. This was, as I've noted before in this article and others, a flat lie that no one who had actually read any of the first 15 issues of AVENGERS could possibly have believed, but the fans of the time seemed to buy it readily enough.
They also bought into Shooter's dark, embittered, constantly angry, petulantly self-centered revision of Hank Pym, a raging sonofabitch who spent all his time while waiting for the court martial building a killer robot made of adamantium (and a good thing every superhero scientist keeps plenty of that around, right?) and ignoring his loving wife's entreaties that he go to his fellow Avengers for the emotional help he obviously needed.
Hank's cunning plan: He had programmed the robot to attack during his court martial, at which point, he'd destroy it by blasting a special shut down switch only he would know about, thus making himself look like a hero. (Yes, in addition to becoming a thoroughgoing bastard under Shooter, Hank had also apparently regressed to an intellectual and emotional age of around 11... maybe. Either of the title characters of CALVIN & HOBBES could most likely have come up with a more believable and sensible strategem.)
When Jan discovered Hank's truly stupid plans and tried to talk him out of them, he promptly gave her a damned good backhanded smack across the face, giving her a gorgeous shiner, and racking up yet another first: becoming the first spousebeating superhero in the history of comics.
During the court martial, when the attacking robot was quicker than he'd expected and grabbed him in big, badly drawn, adamantium crab-claw, Yellowjacket would have been killed if Jan herself hadn't used her wasp's sting to blast the secret cut off switch. Hank slunk out after that, obviously disgraced... in the eyes of the Avengers, because, well, you know, he'd endangered them all in a truly idiotic attempt to make himself look heroic, and in his own eyes, because he had to be saved by a GURL. Jeepers!
To say that this was a completely new take on Hank Pym would be a drastic understatement. Even the constantly berserk Yellowjacket written by Englehart had been mainly driven off his nut by his concern for the gravely wounded Wasp, and had only ever endangered himself; Shooter's YJ was, out of a clear blue sky, a wifebeating prick who was obsessed with his own image and who unhesitatingly launched a moronic scheme that endangered the lives of everyone on his team simply to make himself look good... and who was then so incompetent he nearly got killed by his own creation. Pym, at his most wildly flailing and extreme had never been remotely like this before.
Shooter had already demonstrated a capacity for revising characterizations to make them fit the stories, or his own predispositions, more closely, as with his portrayal of Captain America as a jingoistic, hyper-anal, truculently confrontational and narrowly judgmental rules freak, and his turning Tigra into an aggressive sexual predator and apparent scatterbrain, but this strange new version of Hank Pym was something from a particularly deranged Dean R. Koontz novel. Too wasted on growth serum to be effective as Giant-Man or Goliath? Bitter and surly? Obsessed with his own image? Physically abusive to anyone, much less his beloved Jan? This was a YJ we didn't even remotely know, and one that apparently was quite credibly being set up to go over permanently to the Dark Side of the Force.
In fact, it's difficult to reconcile this story with anything except a full-blown editorial and creative intention to permanently consign Pym to villainy. Had Shooter simply wanted to enact a modern tale of ruin and redemption, there wouldn't have been any need to so thoroughly blacken Pym's character, not only in the present day, but going back to his earliest appearances in the Avengers, as well. Turning Pym into a wife-beater was also a fairly heinous plot twist, as was having Pym concoct a stupid, insanely dangerous and manipulative scheme to restore his reputation and image in the eyes of his fellow Avengers.
These are the sorts of things that heroes, even momentarily whacked out ones, simply don't do, and which, in the eyes of the audience and Pym's fictional fellow heroic characters, would almost certainly consign him forever to ignominy. The only line Shooter didn't have Pym cross in this particular story was that of deliberate murder, and Shooter may well have planned that to be the next development in Hank's corruption.
It's worth mentioning that although most of Pym's historical emotional problems had been created under Roy Thomas, and then later briefly exacerbated under Englehart, it's pretty clear that neither of those writers intended to do any lasting harm to the character. Thomas was and is very much a student of the early Silver Age school of comics writing and learned nearly all of his style from Stan Lee, with strong streaks of a Gardner Fox/Mort Weisinger influence to be found in his work, as well; to him, goofy plot devices like malevolent robots with hypnotic amnesia beams, chemical-fume induced split personalities, and ditzy super-chicks who were so marriage-crazy they'd take advantage of their lover's psychotic break to trick him into exchanging vows with them like something out of some weird old LOIS LANE story, were simply par for the course.
God alone knows how many bouts of amnesia and split personalities Superman suffered in the Silver Age, for example, not to mention most of the other DC stable at that time. Roy had no ill will for the character, I'm certain; he was just conforming to the cliches of his genre.
Similarly, when Englehart wrote Pym as an out of control near madman, he was careful to make it clear, both implicitly and explicitly, that Hank's maniacal, adrenaline-charged rage was entirely motivated by the Wasp's near-fatal wounding, and his sense of helplessness to do anything for her. Thomas and Englehart had both overtly depicted the Pym/Van Dyne romance as being an essentially happy and healthy one for both of them, with each partner supplying something to the other that the other lacked, and badly needed.
Englehart even underlined this, in a sensitively captioned sequence where a troubled, raging Yellowjacket allowed himself to escape, for a few moments, into sweet memories of past times when the Wasp would tease him out of some somber, scientific introspection and lead him into more pleasurable, active pursuits, most of which presumably ended in the two of them humping like crazed mongeese. (The sequence has to be sensitively captioned, since it is unfortunately drawn by George Tuska with all the gentle nuances of a Howling Commando attack on a Nazi firebase. And, naturally, we don't get to see the crazed mongoose activities, either.)
Shooter was the first writer/editor to look back over Pym's past with the eye of a grim synthesist, to say to himself "You know, if you look at all this stuff from a certain perspective, Hank Pym is a pretty sick puppy. I know... let's make him evil!" Shooter's nearly brilliant fusion of these elements, retouched with a revisionist coat of paint to remove any semblance of real heroism from Pym's past, was creativity of the highest sort... unfortunately in the service of one of the worst aspects of Modern Age comics books, namely, the mean spirited degradation of a Silver Age idol into something much more unsavory and, by the unpleasant standards of that same miserable era, "more interesting".
Shooter was clearly out of place working at Marvel in the early 80s; he should have been over at DC, helping to make all their heroes nastier.
For whatever reason, Shooter came to his senses and did not have Hank Pym become a permanent villain. Instead, he finished the storyline by making it into an actual tale of redemption, in which Yellowjacket, blackmailed by Egghead into helping him in a hijacking, wound up going to jail when the plot resulted in no evidence against anyone but him, and was thought to be guilty, even though we ourselves knew he wasn't. Later on, after defeating the vile Egghead and his Masters of Evil single handedly, Pym returned to custody to stand trial... where he wound up being exonerated when a device Tony Stark had invented to determine if Hank were being mentally controlled actually revealed that witnesses against him were, instead. Still, the damage was done, and for the next decade, apparently irrevocably.
Hank's confidence and self esteem were, according to subsequent writers, shattered by the debacle leading to his divorce, and he spent a long time recovering from it... a recovery period during which Hank's undeserved but apparently eternal status as a second string character was demoted further to that of a third stringer, a guy with a long history who was now no longer a hero, and who, in his infrequent cameos in various ANNUALS and one shot SPECIALS over the next year, vowed vehemently that he would never be a hero again.
This long recovery period was finally ended by Steve Englehart, picking up on the character in the mid 80s series WEST COAST AVENGERS. Hank first joined the team as simply support personnel, supervising the staff of the West Coast Avengers compound. This storyline, livened up by a brief fling with Tigra, finally climaxed with an overt suicide attempt, which only failed due to the intervention of born again Christian character Firebird, in what may be the first positive and continuing rendition of a zealously Christian character in mainstream superhero comics.
After that Hank seemed to recover enough self esteem to give up his rather humiliating job as the Avengers West Coast butler and rejoin the team as Dr. Pym, a charmingly McGyveresque super-adventurer who, while not able to grow and shrink his own body (his metabolism was still dangerously weakened by the stress of all his previous size changing, and he might very well get trapped at an awkward size again), could shrink down useful items of equipment he designed and built himself, carrying them around in a pocketed set of coveralls and growing them back up to useful size as needed.
This interesting turn of Pym's superheroic career lasted through about another year on WEST COAST AVENGERS, and Englehart continued to do work on the character, even revealing, in one particularly ill-conceived storyline, that Pym's first wife, Maria, had never actually been killed by those East German secret policemen, but had, instead, been kidnapped and genetically enhanced into a Soviet supervillainess. Like much of what Englehart did in his mid-80s return to Marvel, the story was mediocre at best, obviously not well thought through, and would have been completely forgettable if not for the fact that it rather troublesomely makes Pym's entire second marriage to the Wasp legally non-existent, and offers a tedious legalistic tangle if Pym ever wants to get married, to Jan or anyone else, again. (Assuming, of course, that Maria didn't die at the end of that story, and assuming, if she did, that she has the good grace to stay dead this time. I honestly can't remember.)
Pym remained in his pocketed red coverall gimmicky adventurer guise through Byrne's godawful run on WCA, but remained blessedly outside the perceptual range of Byrne's destructive tinkering muse, and continued through Roy & Dann Thomas' uninspired and, unfortunately overlong run on the book, which lasted until its termination sometime in the early 90s. About the only further developments in his life were early indications that both Byrne and the Thomases were going to try to rebuild his relationship with the Wasp, something old Silver Age fans had long implored Marvel for.
However, Pym disappeared from the book due to the second development in his life; his discouragement at discovering that his size change serum had mutated into some weird, ionically charged form and was being used for villainy by Goliath (a character with a history almost as complex as Pym's; he had originally appeared as a mercenary turned Power Man, later become the Smuggler, gone back to being Power Man briefly under Count Nefaria, and now, apparently, was an ionically charged size changing giant).
In disappearing from WCA, Pym also pretty much disappeared from all notice in the Marvel Universe for a lengthy period, until much, much later, when he suddenly showed up inexplicably in the always interesting Bob Harras run on AVENGERS that led up to the HEROES REBORN fiasco. Pym's appearance there was, as I mentioned, sudden and virtually unexplained, as was the shocking return of his size changing powers. For literally decades (since the period where he had been trapped at ten feet tall briefly) Pym had been established as being unable to become a giant. Bill Foster had taken over his career as both Black Goliath (a name an acquaintance of mine from college often disparaged as 'sounding like a porn star', and I won't argue with him), and later, as Giant-Man; the annoyingly pop culture conscious Scott Lang had taken over as a rather lame version of Ant-Man; and there was even some new female Yellowjacket running around who, other than consistently showing up in inset headshots on Avengers monitor screens as some sort of one time member, I know nothing about.
So ingrained was it in me, as a more or less constant Marvel reader over the course of my adolescence and adulthood, that Pym couldn't change size any more, that when he showed up in the Harras/Epting run on AVENGERS calling himself Giant-Man and blithely zooming up to thirty foot height without hesitation or apparent ill effect on his health, I was stunned. Harras never bothered to explain this bizarre return of Pym's growth powers; in fact, all explanations had to wait years, until finally Kurt Busiek, in what almost seemed an afterthought, provided a brief historical fill in that told us that during his time out of mainstream view, Pym had worked hard to perfect his size changing serums, so they no longer posed any risk to his health, and in fact, his long exposure to them had basically now given him the natural power to alter his size up or down with a mere mental effort.
Although he'd lost the power he'd displayed as Dr. Pym, to shrink or grow other objects, he could still do this with objects he'd had a chance to treat in his laboratory, giving him a nicely limited capacity to carry a staggering variety of useful equipment into the field with him.... which quite deftly restored him to his role as the Avengers most versatile, competent, and all around useful member, something that had been taken away from him way back in the late 60s.
This restoration of Hank Pym to such effective status on an Avengers roster seems almost to be a climax Busiek has had in mind since his first issue on the post-HEROES REBORN, renumbered AVENGERS series. Busiek's enthusiastic, and much appreciated, efforts to conserve actual Silver Age continuity while restoring much of the Silver Age luster to this series has been the primary reason it's one of a handful of Marvel titles I still buy, and the only superhero comic currently published that I look forward to just as much as anything by Alan Moore.
And nowhere is this Silver Age restoration more intensely displayed than on the character of Hank Pym. Right from the start, in the rebooted AVENGERS first issue, Busiek brought Pym and the Wasp back out of retirement to take their rightful, and pleasantly undisputed, places on the stage as founding members, in front of a gathering of everyone else who had ever been an Avenger.
Pym's brief period of disgrace seems to have been comfortably forgiven, if not forgotten, by everyone but himself, and Busiek has allowed no mention whatsoever of Shooter's poorly judged, historically inaccurate, and to my mind, egregiously offensive attempt to revise Pym's early career with the Avengers into a parade of buffoonery. With nearly the first word balloons out of the Wasp's mouth, Busiek firmly re-established the happy romantic relationship between the two characters, realistically colored by its past, spectacular, failure. George Perez beautifully reinforced this pleasantly nostalgic exercise by dressing Pym in a slightly updated version of his original Ant-Man/Giant-Man costume, with a shining, chrome-looking helmet that resembled a combination of the headgear he had worn in both guises dramatically setting off the red and black uniform.
From that enjoyable Silver Age-esque beginning, Busiek went on to sow the seeds for Hank Pym's pleasant progression back towards respect and mental health with a deftness I only wish he showed on every project he works on, not merely those that build on the foundations of previous creators, such as MARVELS, AVENGERS FOREVER, and this current run of AVENGERS.
In a later issue, during an appearance on a float in an Avengers Day parade, Pym mentioned that he would never revive his Yellowjacket persona, because it was under that guise that he had destroyed his marriage and struck the Wasp. This vaguely unhealthy seeming denial was to play a large role in Pym's ongoing character reconstitution, which Busiek continued to handle quite subtly throughout the related mini-series AVENGERS FOREVER, in which the modern Pym (wearing a slightly modified version of the old blue and gold costume created for him long before by the Scarlet Witch, but still calling himself Giant-Man, rather than using the Goliath sobriquet that costume had first inspired him to take) fought side by side with his previous incarnation Yellowjacket, who had been yanked out of time by Rick Jones' nearly all powerful subconscious, as stimulated by a weirdly revived Libra (weirdly, because we'd seen him die twice before) utilizing his innate 'powers of balance'.
Thus forced to acknowledge and confront Yellowjacket more directly than he ever had been before, Pym began the painful process of accepting that persona, with all its various problems and strengths, as a legitimate part of his identity. There was no clear catharsis, however, in which Pym actually, coherently embraced his former persona as a valid part of his own personality; rather, Busiek used this characterization subtext to set up what has become a driving sub plot in the current AVENGERS series, as apparently, the magics of ancient Claremontian sorceror Kulan Gath have inadvertently split Pym into two discrete bodies and personas... his current Goliath guise, and a separate Yellowjacket guise.
While supplying no such actual explanation, Busiek's clear delineation of the differing personalities of the two Pyms, while establishing that both Pyms are, at least to the Avengers security scanners, equally valid (meaning they have the same fingerprints and retinal capillary patterns, at the very least) leaves little other interpretation that would match all the various indicators he has given us.
He seems to want his audience to leap to the conclusion that the separate Yellowjacket has somehow survived from the end of AVENGERS FOREVER, but in fact, the unfettered obnoxiousness of this separate Yellowjacket, who seems far more uninhibitedly violent, brash, amoral, short tempered, and prone to potentially self destructive carousing, than the actual Yellowjacket ever was, as opposed to the studious, clinical detachment of Giant-Man, who seems to have become almost Vulcanoid in his calculated approach to his relationships and his Avengers duties, having lost apparently all sense of risk-taking and capacity for making intuitive leaps, leaves no other coherent conclusion. (I admit, I also find this explanation compelling because I've noted in the past that Busiek is certainly not above borrowing plots and inspiration from other sources if he feels like it, and this particular plotline is pretty clearly lifted intact from a Classic Star Trek episode in which Captain Kirk gets similarly split into two separate personas by a transporter accident.)
I expect that the denouement of Busiek's plot will be the exact same as the culmination of the Star Trek episode; in the end, Pym/Giant-Man will have to accept that he himself is missing a vital element of his own basic character with the Yellowjacket traits distilled into a separate persona, and will have to find some way of reconstituting the two entities into one, thus accepting all his various guises for the first time, and hopefully, at long last, reaching some sort of inner peace. (Naturally, the separate Yellowjacket guise will resist this reconstitution vehemently and violently.)
I honestly don't mind Busiek swiping the old Trek plot, assuming the explanation for all this is as I hypothesize, and assuming, again, he resolves it all as I've just speculated he will. If the end result is a reasonably untroubled, competent, heroic Hank Pym, I wouldn't object if Busiek worked through the entire compendium of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA plotlines, up to and including BATTLESTAR 1980, to reach that goal. If, indeed, an emotionally whole, mentally healthy, self confident and competent Hank Pym lies at the end of the subplot Busiek currently has him working through, I will happily praise Mr. Busiek as one of the best writers in the long history of AVENGERS as a title.
Busiek's work on the book has been consistently praiseworthy anyway, as I've noted in a past article, although much of that has come from its contrast to the mostly mediocre, if not outright loathsome, work being done by much lesser lights on most of the rest of the Marvel mainstream titles. But with this storyline, Busiek could step away from his status as merely Marvel's finest MODERN writer, as shabby as that might sound, given its intrinsic comparison to such stalwarts as Scott Lobdell and Chris Claremont, and into the ranks of the immortals.
To my mind, if Busiek is looking for one solid addition he can make to Marvel's mainstream continuity, one single legacy he can carve his name indisputably on, he can do no better than what he seems to be doing now: the single handed and monumental restoration of the dignity and proper heroic status of a character who is, arguably, Marvel's premier solo hero, and inarguably, one of their finest, most significant, interesting, admirable, and respect-worthy creations... the inestimable, legendary Hank Pym. Brilliant scientist, devoted husband, altruist, charter Avenger, hero in every sense of the word... no one deserves redemption, respect, or rightful recognition of his true status as one of Marvel's finest than Ant-Man/Giant-Man/Goliath/Yellowjacket/Dr. Pym does.
Who knows? Maybe after Busiek is done putting Hank back together, Joe Quesada will let him revive TALES TO ASTONISH and do a new GIANT-MAN AND THE WASP feature. Well, as long as I'm dreaming, maybe Joe will read this article and, realizing how busy Kurt is, offer ME the series... ::sigh::
* * * * * * *
John Jones, the Manhunter from Marathon, IL, no longer dwells in Marathon, IL. He would, he admits, love to write a new Hank Pym series as much or more than he would love to write ANY established character at Marvel or DC, with the possible exception of a new Hal Jordan, Green Lantern series in which he would be editorially allowed to feed Kyle Rayner through a giant Quardian shredder. Hmmm. That would be a tough choice...