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Ant-Man — the star of last week’s opening blockbuster — is probably the only Marvel superhero who wasn’t created to be a superhero.
Back in 1961, when its only superhero comic was that summer’s Fantastic Four #1, Marvel — which wasn’t even called Marvel then — published the story “The Man in the Ant-Hill,” in which a scientist named Henry Pym created a potion that reduced him to the size of an ant. He promptly found himself attacked by hordes of those insects — was unexpectedly befriended by one of them — and survived primarily by using “judo” (!) until he could regain normal size. He never wore a costume or was called anything like “Ant-Man.” This was in a comic titled Tales to Astonish (remember a character uttering that phrase early in the Ant-Man movie?), whose cover stories usually featured men battling Kong-sized monsters. The story was a whole seven pages long.
It had been plotted by editor (and the company’s chief writer) Stan Lee, the final script was written by his younger brother Larry Lieber and the penciled art was by Jack Kirby, who’d recently co-created an Archie Comics super-hero called the Fly — who didn’t shrink.
Soon, with Fantastic Four a hit and The Incredible Hulk launched, Marvel’s publisher wanted more super-heroes, so summer of ’62 saw the debut of two more by the Lee-Lieber-Kirby team: the Mighty Thor — and the Astonishing Ant-Man. Dr. Henry (soon Hank) Pym donned a red and black costume and began battling criminals and Commie spies. This time, he somehow kept his normal-sized strength when he shrank — and his fancy metallic helmet enabled him to telepathically control ants, which turned out to be more help than you’d think.
Ant-Man, though, never really took off like his near-contemporaries Thor, Spider-Man, and Iron Man. His main antagonists were a bald scientist called Egghead and the Scarlet Beetle, an actual man-sized mutated insect. Editor Lee gave Ant-Man a girlfriend called the Wasp (Janet van Dyne), who grew wings when she shrank, but she didn’t help much. After about a year, Pym suddenly invented a growing potion, added two letters to the front of his code name and 15 feet to his stature, and became — Giant-Man!
One probable reason for the change: Ant-Man and Wasp had appeared in 1963’s The Avengers #1, along with Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk — and it was hard to find ways they could contribute to so powerful a grouping. Ergo, by Avengers #2, Ant-Man became Giant-Man … although the Wasp remained insect-sized. Even Giant-Man never became a big hit, however, not even under the later and more dramatic name Goliath. I myself, in 1968, tried to invigorate him in the Avengers comic by having an amnesiac Pym adopt a new secret identity: Yellowjacket, a (temporary) villain who had little in common with the baddie in the Ant-Man movie except the species he’s named after. Eventually, Marvel totally gave up on utilizing Pym as a super-hero and turned him into just a hard-fisted scientist with a jetpack.
Still, all along, Ant-Man’s had his fans … foremost among whom was always Stan Lee. When he was publisher and I was his editor-in-chief in the 1970s, he approved an Ant-Man limited series; and a few years later, he approved when a new team created Scott Lang, a petty criminal, as a new Ant-Man. Reportedly, there’ve been attempts to do an Ant-Man film since the late ’80s — and I know that my first reaction on seeing 1989’s Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was, “Wow! Now they can finally make an Ant-Man movie!”
It still took a while, though. It took until Marvel grabbed its cinematic destiny by the short and curlies and created Marvel Studios in 2008 … and until it had a long-enough string of mega-hits under its belt that it could take a chance by thinking small.
Though I admit up front to being prejudiced, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie —and Jane, the friend I went to see it with, liked it even more than I did! It’s hard to imagine a better blending of old Ant-Man and new, with Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd a perfect dramatic contrast. We even got to see the original Wasp in a brief flashback. I prefer the film’s rendition of Yellowjacket to any that I or others since me have developed. Marvel Studios — with whom, let me make it clear, I’ve no real connection — is, in its own alternate-universe way, re-creating the process by which Stan Lee and various writers and artists created the Marvel Universe between 1961 and last week. Stan and crew (myself included, so I know whereof I speak) were flying by the seat of their/our pants, slowly and instinctively building a continuity and a world whose future direction they never tried to figure out too far in advance. The so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe takes pretty much the opposite route: the general outlines of what is to come are mapped out, at least in a general way — and studio head Kevin Feige and company are picking and choosing among the various ways to get there. If you’re a longtime Marvel fan (or pro), you enjoy the oft-playful foreshadowing. And if you’re not … you just enjoy the wondrous waves as they crash into you.
Meanwhile, I say, forget about integrating Ant-Man into the Avengers! What we really need next is a Giant-Man movie!
(Just kidding, Mr. Feige—honest!)
Roy Thomas is a comic book icon who succeeded Stan Lee as Marvel Editor in Chief (1972-1974) and worked as a writer for Marvel Comics for years, beginning in 1965. His creations include Ultron, The Vision, Iron Fist and Yellowjacket.
Courtesy Roy Thomas
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