Movies & TV / Columns

411 Comics Showcase: Ant-Man (Hank Pym)

September 2, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Ant-Man was the best comic book of 2015, succeeding more on its deliberately small scale than Avengers: Age of Ultron did on it’s grand scale. Fantastic Four… well, let’s not get into that. I feel like most of us that saw it were genuinely surprised by that, and I’m definitely part of that group, though probably not for the same reasons. I was always sold on the idea of an Ant-Man being in movies, and most of things I was looking forward to were showcased in early trailers. I also didn’t have the massive nerd fixation on Edgar Wright, who is a talented writer and director who deserves a ton of credit for his contributions to the movie, but wasn’t a deal breaker for me. The reason I was surprised that I liked the movie as as I did was because Scott Lang is not my favorite Ant-Man.

I will get into the hows and whys of how Scott Lang and specifically his movie managed to win me over next week, but today, the spotlight is on the original Ant-Man; Dr. Henry “Hank” Pym. One of the original Avengers, a man of several superhero names and no stranger to controversy, Hank Pym is sort of the “Aquaman” of the Avengers: people tend to be dismissive of his powers, even comic book fans, the name is a bit silly, and he never quite feels on the level of Captain America, Thor or Iron Man. Since I have a tendency to gravitate towards underrated characters see what makes them interesting, Hank Pym was always likely to get on my radar.

Henry Pym did not start out as a superhero. Yes, most people aren’t born to be superheroes unless their name is Thor, but the character was never even conceived with “Ant-Man” in mind. Stan Lee and his brother Larry created Hank for a one-shot story called The Man in the Ant Hill, published in the science fiction anthology series Tales to Astonish. The story saw scientist Hank Pym attempted to get funding for his “Pym particles”, which caused matter to shrink, but couldn’t get the funding for the project and tested it on himself. As the title suggested, he ended up trapped in an ant hill in his backyard, with the creative team showcasing just how different our world looked from the perspective. The story proved popular with readers, and once Spider-Man and the Hulk proved that the Fantastic Four’s success was no fluke and superheroes were ready to make a comeback in comics, it was decided to bring Hank Pym back as one of them.

While debuting in January of 1967 in Tales to Astonish #27, Hank first showed up as Ant-Man in issue #35 in September. The concept of a shrinking superhero was not entirely new; Ray Palmer had been fighting crime as The Atom for DC Comics since October of 1961. So extra elements were added to make Hank stand out. Most famously, his helmet allowed him to communicate with ants, using them to help him in some creative ways. When that’s a bit too subtle, Hank is also able to grow in size, becoming “Giant Man”, because puns are fun. But the most important change came in June of 1962, when Hank met socialite Janet Van Dyne in Tales to Astonish #44, where she joined his side as The Wasp.

Hank and Janet were founding members of the Avengers, and would serve as part of the team for most of its existence, and eventually married. Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the greatest thing for Hank, as several incidents led to the team mistrusting him and ultimately causing his personal life to implode. Hank accidentally creating one of the Avengers’ greatest villains, the sentient and destructive android known as Ultron. A failed experiment causes him to develop schizophrenia, and leads to the creation of the alter ego Yellowjacket. Cocky and aggressive to battle Hank’s own inferiority complex, Yellowjacket became synonymous with one of the most infamous incidents in comics, when a storyline in 1981 saw him concoct a plan to prove his worth to the Avengers and led to him striking his wife.

While writer Jim Shooter has gone on record as saying the artist exaggerated the intent of the script, which had this be more of an accident than a deliberate assault, the moment has sadly come to define the comic book version of Hank Pym for a lot of people. Especially writers who seem to be fixated on it as the only interesting aspect of Hank’s character. While I am not in any way advocating abuse, I do believe that Hank shouldn’t be defined by this moment. For one, he’s a fictional character, and his story isn’t in his own hands. But I also think that condemning his character for this one moment is also short-sighted, and doesn’t account for other factors, like Hank’s mental state and the fact that Janet’s divorce was pretty immediate. Sometimes people make stupid mistakes, and while they should always be held accountable for them, I also believe that people deserve a chance to fix things, and Hank should embody that.

Fortunately for Hank’s enduring legacy, the writers of The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes found Hank more interesting than that one moment in time. The show featured Hank and Janet as major characters, with Hank established as a pacifist trying to rehabilitate criminals. The show does a remarkable job of capturing Hank as an awkward, likable scientist, a resourceful, conscionable hero, and as a trouble person whose own personal demons were starting to unravel his personal and professional life. This was where I got my first real introduction to the character, and he and Janet were probably my favorite characters in the show. Fortunately, it seems like other people agree with me; maybe Hank’s legacy will eventually survive.

Special Project Announcement
While I enjoy focusing on one character or storyline at a time, it does mean that I go through characters very slowly. As such, I think it might be helpful to create an easy access reference for who my favorite characters are and where they rank; starting in October, I will be compiling a list of the Top 50 DC Heroes, the first of a series of four lists. However, before I start the project, I want some input from the readers regarding something that DC has a knack for doing. Should the list include anti-heroes like Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, etc., or are these characters better suited to a villains list?

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