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.
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.