Sympathy for the devil: the inessential ant-man

Murder. Lying. Sexual assault. Liking the art of Alex Ross.

One of these things is not like the other. And no, it’s not liking Alex Ross.

The Catholic church used to distinguish between venial and mortal sins.* Venial sins were moral misdemeanours, their punishment a stretch in purgatory. Sure, you might be stuck in that spiritual juvie for a couple of millennia, but eventually you’d get out. By contrast, mortal sins were felonies, and they sent you straight to hell, with no parole. The only way to appeal the sentence was through ritual confession and absolution.

The contrast between minor and major misdeeds has proved lasting in Western fiction. But fiction is much more liberal than the church in what it counts as a minor misdeed. There are plenty of sympathetic fictional murderers: Raskolnikov, Meursault, Hannibal Lecter. Even Superman himself, the supposed acme of comicbook morality, whacked a couple of guys back in the 80s, at the tail-end of John Byrne’s tenure on the character. The world loves a fictional rogue, too, stretching back through medieval anti-hero, Reynard the fox, to the original con-man, Odysseus “of many wiles”. As for liking Alex Ross, well, I’ve never seen a sympathetic portrayal in fiction, but it’s not out of the question.

I guess.

Now think of all the sympathetic rapists, wife-beaters and pederasts in fiction.

Take your time. I’ll be here when you’re done.

If you’re like me, you can probably think of a handful, at most. Obvious among these is Lolita, but that’s the exception that proves the rule. Nabokov’s extraordinary accomplishment in that book is precisely in seducing the reader to feel for Humbert Humbert. It’s a hard ask, much, much harder than if Humbert had merely murdered one or two people. Or two hundred, for that matter.

Even that arch-sympathizer of the comics page, Alan Moore, baulks at forgiving sexual assault. Moore’s quasi-universalism comes out clearly in the conclusions to Promethea and Tom Strong, where all sinners are ultimately saved at Judgement Day. From Hell manages to humanize Jack the Ripper, in a peculiar sort of way.** Moore is clearly a forgiving chap. So what does he do in Top Ten when he wants to write an irredeemable villain? What heinous crime does he attribute to them? Why, sexual assault, of course. Similarly, in Lost Girls, the only act that Moore will not tolerate is non-consensual sex.

Western fiction, then, has retained the distinction between acts forgivable and unforgivable. Some crimes are beyond the pale; the stain they leave on the sinner’s soul cannot be washed away. And, with few exceptions (notable for their very rarity), the modern ne plus ultra of unforgivable sins is sexual assault.

Now, super-hero comics love a redemption story. Marvel comics especially; it seems like half the heroes in series like The Avengers and X-Men are reformed super-villains. This is not surprising; with all the tricks of the super-hero genre, writers can easily explain away past crimes. I was mind-controlled; it was a clone; I was suffering from a metabolic imbalance unique to my hybrid status; it was an alien impostor; it was the real Xorn; etc etc. etc. In short: I didn’t do it.

But in all these cases, the crimes are forgivable ones. You extinguished dozens of civilisations when you destroyed their planets? No problem. You went to war on human beings every other week? It’s already forgotten.

Sexual assault? I don’t think so.

Trust me, we’re not seeing Dr Light reimagined as a loveable rogue any time soon.

And so, in a roundabout way, to The Essential Ant-Man. This volume reprints the earliest adventures of super-hero Hank Pym, aka Ant-Man, aka Giant-Man, aka Goliath, aka Yellowjacket. Some fun facts about Hank Pym:

(1) He has two superpowers at this point in his career: he can shrink to the size of an ant (and later he can grow to a giant, as well). He can also control ants through his “cybernetic helmet”.

(2) He has a long career in Marvel comics. First appearing in 1962, he was a founding member of the Avengers. His solo adventures ran in Tales to Astonish for three years, after which he was an on-again, off-again member of the Avengers for four decades.

(3) His adventures in Tales to Astonish soon introduced a female sidekick, the Wasp who, like Pym in his Ant-Man guise, could shrink. They later married, in the pages of The Avengers.

(4) He beat his wife.

Yeah, let’s repeat that last fun fact. Dude beat his wife. That shit, as the kids say, is uncool.

Marvel recently started publishing a series called The Irredeemable Ant-Man, featuring a new character in the Ant-Man role. The title is a fake-out; if they’d really wanted someone irredeemable, they would have used the original, Hank Pym. Domestic abuse is too much like sexual assault to be forgiven in fiction. It would require some extraordinary absolution, by a writer of Nabokov’s caliber. The folk who’ve written Hank Pym over the years? Not exactly Nabokovs. Pym was partly rehabilitated after the Wasp divorced him, and later contemplated suicide over his regret. But the rehabilitation never really stuck. He’s always had an unsavoury air about him ever since.

The stories in The Essential Ant-Man appeared well before their hero’s little domestic abuse incident. But, in light of what was to happen later, it is hard to read these stories–in particular, as they show Pym’s relationship with the Wasp.

Throughout the Marvel line in the 60s, Stan Lee and his fellow scripters followed one simple rule in writing women characters: pretend we’ve never actually met one in the flesh. 60s Marvel women were, one and all, frail and trivial creatures, with no agency and nothing on their pretty little minds beyond shopping, clothes and romance. The Wasp is no exception, and so her interaction with Pym echoes that between Sue Storm and Reed Richards over in Fantastic Four. That is to say, she’s a flighty nuisance who’s always distracting him from some crucial scientific work. You know, man stuff.

Bitch was asking for a smack-down.

So The Essential Ant-Man is a hard book to enjoy. But let’s suppose we can look past its objectionable qualities–the ones objectionable in themselves, like the depiction of the Wasp, and the ones objectionable by association, like Ant-Man’s future misdeeds. Is there anything left to recommend it?

Sadly, not really. The book starts out promisingly with art by Jack Kirby. This is around 1962-1963, so the art is similar to his other early Marvel efforts on Thor and the Fantastic Four. That means no cosmic crackle, not as much future-tech, and fewer dynamic character poses. On the other hand, his characters are more rounded than his earlier work with Joe Simon and at DC in the 50s, or the spazzed-out baroque expressionism he developed in the later 60s and 70s. Personally, I have a soft spot for his art of this period, but I’ll admit it’s not Kirby at his Kirby-est.

Unfortunately, Kirby doesn’t stick around for long–eleven stories, in all. It’s a shame that he left (except on covers), since the character was a natural for him. Shrinking powers are a perfect excuse for distorted perspectives and extreme close-ups on the eyes, both of which Kirby uses to full effect in his issues here. Aside from one story by Steve Ditko, Kirby’s replacements are a who’s-who of bullpen also-rans: Don Heck, Larry Lieber, Dick Ayers, Carlos Burgos and Bob Powell. Odds are, you haven’t seen so much yeoman work since the Renaissance Fair.

As for the writing, it’s not exactly what you expect from 60s Marvel. Pym isn’t a tortured hero. He doesn’t have a handicap. He’s successful and well-liked by the public. On the other hand, there are enough of the usual tropes: the female characterization already noted, the requisite fight/team-up with other super-heroes, the Communist-baiting, and a gallery of colourful villains. Or the attempts at such a gallery, anyway–the Porcupine and Top are no Doctor Doom. Hell, they’re no Batroc zee Leepair.

Stan Lee scripts a lot of the stories here. But, as with the art, there was evidently a revolving door in front of the typewriter, and so we get scripts from folks like Larry Lieber and H. E. Huntley as well. The stories themselves are pedestrian, their mediocrity all the more apparent without strong art from the likes of Kirby or Ditko to dress them up. Even Lee’s own scripts lack the pseudo-hip fun of his other work at the time. He does lay on the hucksterish true-believer stuff later in the series. But, without a strong cast to pin it on (Pym and the Wasp are the only recurring characters), it’s just word balloons tied to thin air.

Considered by itself, the Essential Ant-Man is one of the least essential entries in Marvel’s cheap reprint series. Considered in the context of the character’s history, it must overcome a large obstacle, in getting us to sympathise with the hero. It doesn’t overcome it.

But at least Ant-Man doesn’t like Alex Ross.

* For all I know, they still do. But, to put it mildly, I’m not up on my catechism.

** Moore succeeds only because he desexualises the crimes, transforming the Ripper into a mad surgical prophet. The book would have had a very different tone had the crimes been more overtly sexually motivated.

Recommended: Kirby fans will enjoy the Kirby art, what there is of it. Hard-core Ditko fans might want it for the one Ditko story, plus a rare occasion of Ditko inking Kirby. Others, stay away.

IYL: Essential Fantastic Four Vol. 1, Essential Thor Vol. 1

The skinny: The Essential Ant-Man, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck “& Friends”. Marvel 2002. $14.95, 576 pages.

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12 Responses to “Sympathy for the devil: the inessential ant-man”

  1. Dick Hyacinth Says:

    Nice work–I get a clear idea of what you mean when you describe Kirby’s work. I didn’t really associate closeups of eyes with Kirby until I read (or looked at) the Silver Age of Comic Book Art by Arlen Schumer, but it’s clearly a motif he uses over and over (more devoted Kirby-philes might be rolling their eyes by now…”Of course he shows closeups of eyes! Where have you been, man?”).

    I always thought of Ant-Man as the weakest of all the early Marvel strips, so it’s good to know I haven’t been missing a hidden classic. I do know people who are big Ant-Man fans, but I think that’s just a function of the internet–there are big fans of every superhero, no matter how boring, silly, or obscure. It’s funny how many of these titles seem to have bored Kirby and Lee as well. I’ve never really given it much thought, but I guess Ant-Man might have been more revered if some young creator–like Thomas, Colan, or Neal–had adopted him. I would suspect that the character actually suffered quite a bit by having his powers changed in the pages of Avengers, because this immediately marked him as an Avengers character rather than a character who could carry his own book. These seem to be the characters who get “abused” the most–besides Pym, you have the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and Hawkeye, three characters whose treatment has led to much hand-wringing lately. I think there are still fanboys with psychic scar tissue from Pym’s actions.

    The funny thing is, I still read people who think Pym should be considered redeemed, and rail against any new comics which suggest otherwise. So clearly there’s a desire among a certain class of readers to accept Pym as a reformed man. This brings me to my main complaint of your review: I would like you to have focused more on that preamble, integrated it more into the review. Both sections of the review are interesting, but they seem disconnected. I would like to have read more about how you think the blandness of the Ant-Man comic might be related to his “irredeemable” actions.

    Also, a Google search suggests that HE Huntley was a math professor. Did Brian Cronin ever cover this?

  2. kalinara Says:

    It’s really a bit much to call 616 Ant-Man a wife-beater. He hit his wife once, while under the influence of a supervillain. That’s it. And she left him.

    The idea that he’s actually a wife-beater is a very recent one and is not actually supported by what actually happened. As I recall, Spider-Man ended up hurting Mary Jane under the control/influence of a villain as well, no one calls HIM a wife-beater. 🙂

    I actually really enjoyed the Essential Ant-Man though. It’s silly and crazy and full of communists doing strange things while fighting a man riding an ant. 🙂 For some reason that really appeals to me.

  3. elad Says:

    I disagree with your assumption that the reason that Hank Pym is unredeemed beacuse of the gravity of his actions, I believe that Hank Pym is unredeemed because his writers don’t want him to be redeemed.

    in fact the actual redeeming of charcters in marvel comics from sexual abuse crimes is just as easily done as the redemption from other immoral acts.
    as can be seen in the more wife-beaters in the marvel universe,
    like Reed Richards/mr fantastic (hit his wife when she a had a nervous breakdown),
    Peter Parker/spider-man (hit his wife while under ifluence of a villian as kalinara mentioned),
    and Wade Wilson/deadpool (hit his girlfriends, tortured blind al).
    none of those three that I mentioned have actively recieved a redeeming story as far as I am aware of. the writers just ignored those acts and they went away.

    the same can be done with Hank Pym, just tell stories where the wife beating isn’t mentioned, maybe have a story where he beats Kang for making him hit his wife and the wife-beater aspect will disapper, hell just don’t mention him at all in comics for a few years and that hit will be forgotten.

    however that won’t be done with the current writers since they don’t know what to do with him except reusing him as a wife-beater.

  4. Jones, one of the Jones boys Says:

    Thanks for the comments, all. Dick, your feedback is helpful. As you can see, I’m a noob to reviewing comics, so there’s still some irons to kink out.

    Kalinara and elad, you may both be right that I overplay the wife-beating angle. I didn’t know that about the other characters. Elad might be right that the way to redeem Hank Pym is just by not mentioning the incident. Eventually it probably would fall down the memory hole, just like Superman’s gang-style executions in the 80s.

    As for Spider-Man, well, it’ll take a while for him to overcome the radioactive junk thing. Maybe this is what Quesada meant by “putting the genie back in the bottle”?

  5. Marc Says:

    I think you overstate the unforgivability of sexual assault in our culture (sadly). Just think of all those romance novels that feature heroes who court/liberate heroines by raping them. We’re only about a generation removed from movies that thought a little wife-beating or bitch-slapping enhanced the hero’s image rather than destroying it (I’m looking at you, Steve McQueen). To move a little closer to my home turf, consider the last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its unconvincing attempts to rehabilitate Spike after he assaulted Buffy. Hell, even Alan Moore managed to humanize Eddie Blake–and if Moore doesn’t exactly forgive him, Sally and Laurie Juspeczyk appear to.

  6. Jones, one of the Jones boys Says:

    Marc, you’re right. I’m working on a long post now about sexual morality (in the funnybooks and elsewhere) which addresses some of these concerns.

    Oh, and thanks for stopping by. You should update your blog more often! Tenure, schmenure, I say.

  7. Sexual assault, incest and chicken-f**kers « Let’s you and him fight Says:

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  8. Matt Brady Says:

    I’m not exactly a Hank Pym scholar, but didn’t the wife-hitting incident happen at least 20 years ago? I suppose I could look it up, but from the limited information that I recall reading about, it was sometime in the 80’s. In the years since then, it’s somehow become ingrained in the consciousness of comics fans and creators that he is a wife-beater. I don’t know if doing a “redemption” story at this late date would reverse that perception. And I doubt ignoring it would work either, but it doesn’t seem writers are willing to go that route anyway (there have been recent offhand comments about his poor reputation in She-Hulk and Civil War, to name two instances that I can think of). Plus, in addition to the abuse, he seems to be thought of as mentally unstable anyway; didn’t he create Ultron and base its programming on himself? As mentioned, he has his fans, but it almost seems the character is broken. Perhaps killing him off in a heroic death (maybe in the act of saving Jan) and bringing him back years later would do the trick, but unless that happens he’ll probably stick around and keep his bad reputation.

  9. Fred Says:

    I read the “wifebeater” story-line when it was first published but I never took the view that it established Hank Pym as a wife-beater. My view, rather, was that it portrayed Pym as having a nervous breakdown and behaving reprehensibly towards all his teammates. It was very much out of character for his usual personality, though it could easily be argued that Pym’s emotional problems date at least back to the very storyline written by Roy thomas from 1968 in which he first adopted the Yellowjacket persona which boasted of having murdered Pym, aka Goliath at that time. Maybe all those size-changing chemicals he took warped his mind. Until Jim Shooter’s “wifebeater” story, Pym was an essentially likeable if rather bland character.
    The Lee magic failed with (Gi)Ant-Man because even with Kirby’s art he never found a way to make his stories really compelling. Lee’s most successful works were those with several characters with strong personalities clashing against one another, whether as teammates, as in the FF, or a title character and his supporting cast, as in Spider-Man, which allowed both for some soap-operatic elements both also to show character development which help to maintain reader interest in a character. Ant-Man had no supporting characters until the Wasp was introduced and to my knowledge no others were ever introduced during the run. They did much better in the context of a teambook, but even in the Avengers it seems the writers could only generate much interest in Pym by making him schizoid or wallowing in self-pity.
    To be honest, I haven’t read any Avengers stories since about the mid-80s, and that was Englehart’s West Coast tales where I last saw Pym overcoming his desire to kill himself and seemed to be redeeming himself as a hero. Of course, particularly in the last couple of decades few things remain static in comics and for all I know some future writer will make Pym out to be a pedophyliac cannibal just for the thrill of thoroughly tarnishing his character for all time. (Oh, geez, I hope I didn’t give anyone any ideas …).
    I’m still enough of a ridiculous Marvel fanboy to be curious to see what’s been going on with the various characters I used to so voraciously read about, from time to time. As far as I’m concerned, based on the last regular storylines I actually read, Bucky Barnes is still dead, Gwen Stacy never had sex with Norman Osborn and Henry Pym had a very bad year and did some very lousy things but nevertheless overcame his psychological breakdown to return to his basic decency.

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