Monday, October 08, 2007

Storytelling Engines: Ant-Man

(or "The Sacrificial Character")

The somewhat contradictorily-named "Essential Ant-Man", our topic for this week, is almost as interesting for what you won't find as well as what you will find. What you will find is an interesting little early Silver Age collection, with a storytelling engine that's still trying to find its way from the horror anthology it once was--in the initial story, Henry Pym is a typical horror-story scientist, creating his shrinking serum, freaking out at its effects, and destroying it "once and for all". Later, as the series becomes more super-hero oriented, they still include the occasional one-off tale, pitching it as a story the Wasp tells to sick kids at a local hospital.

What you won't find is the element that's come to dominate Henry Pym's character over the last several decades, whether it be in the form of Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, or Yellowjacket; namely, his mental instability which has manifested itself in domestic violence. (In the "classic" Marvel Universe, this has been confined to a single incident, but Ultimate Hank Pym is a more habitual abuser.) There's not a hint of this in the low-key, slightly goofy romance between the bookish Pym and the flirty Janet van Dyne shown in 'Tales to Astonish' (and, via the magic of reprinting, in the Essential Ant-Man.) So where did this element of the character come from, and why wasn't it there from the beginning?

One obvious answer is simply that the "maturation" of comics--the desire to tell stories skewed to an older reader, with more ambiguity in its moral development--produced an atmosphere in which it was possible to talk about spousal abuse. Pym was allowed to become a less sympathetic character, according to this theory, because writers were willing to be more honest about their protagonists.

But this doesn't explain everything. After all, Ant-Man isn't the only character who "grew up", but we don't see an honest exploration of Batman as a child endangerer. When Spider-Man hit Mary Jane (during the "Clone Saga"), it wasn't the taking-off point for decades of discussion of Spider-Man as wife-beater. What separates Hank Pym from other super-heroes is very simple: He didn't have his own series by then.

It genuinely is that simple. The demands for a protagonist in a solo series are very different from those of one of many protagonists in a team series. The dynamics of an ensemble cast makes any given character more...well, more disposable, to put it bluntly, and while the team of Ant-Man and the Wasp requires you to want to keep reading about Ant-Man and caring about him, the Avengers can and did continue without Henry Pym. In fact, Henry Pym as unstable personality becomes a much more important element of the storytelling engine of the Avengers than he ever was as a boringly sane super-hero. The question of "Can he be trusted?" provides a lot of storytelling options, while his previous role (as just another of the many science experts on the team) could be filled by any one of a dozen other super-heroes.

Ultimately, in order to serve the larger interests of Avengers fans, Henry Pym was forced into an antagonistic role. Ant-Man fans might have been upset, but importantly for our purposes, there simply weren't enough of them to count.


Johnny B said...

If memory serves, the original personality hook for Giant Man in the Avengers and in Astonish was that even though he was taller than anybody, he was always getting his ass handed to him by the Hulk and so on, and he had a bit of an inferiority complex.

I believe Hank got the other, more annoying personality quirk was in Avengers #'s 59 & 60, when they introduced Yellowjacket, then explained it as Hank going all schizo due to getting a dose of some gas or another. My memory is a bit fuzzy and I don't have the comics anymore, or the reprints.

Giant-Man in Tales to Astonish was one of my favorite heroes growing up as a kid, and I've been saddened to see this become the shorthand for the character. Before this, they had an endearing kind of Nick-and-Nora Charles as superheroes kinda thing going.

Which is not to say that Hank didn't have a temper; I was amused recently, when reading that Essential collection, to see a story I hadn't read before about him being embrarrassed by getting his ass kicked in a previous adventure, and throwing a big hissy fit on his fan club members. Plus, sometimes he would act kinda boorishly to Jan, but part of that is the mood of the times, I suppose.

I just recently picked up that Essential collection, but I've been taking my time reading through it. I kinda wanted to write something about it when I was done- maybe this will spur me a little...

Anonymous said...

I've always had a certain fondness for the (usually unfulfilled) potential of Hank Pym as a character. In his best appearances, he often seemed to be an ordinary (highly intelligent) man who wanted to study real world science but found himself unable to escape living in a superhero world where his scientific endeavors kept getting hijacked by super-science: he wanted to build a real world scientific automaton and computer, and he ended up with the super-science menace Ultron; he wanted a no-larger-than-life marriage and ended up in love with a larger-than-life socialite; he wanted to be nothing more than a solitary scientific detective with the relatively modest gimmick of shrinking down to ant size (modest for a superhero world and far, far less powerful than DC parallel The Atom), but he ended up joining the most highly scrutinized high pressure superhero group of the Marvel Universe, where he found his engineering talents measured against genius Tony Stark, his intelligence measured against Stark and Banner, his detective talents measured against Captain America and superspies like The Black Widow, and his later giant-sized strength measured against She-Hulk, Wonder Man, and The Hulk.

He was the ordinary human who would have been a Nobel prize winner in the real world he wanted to be a part of but was at best a B-list hero in the world of superheroes and celebrities from which he could never escape.

What annoys me about the writer's choices to impose mental instability on Hank Pym -- then to declare it the result of some chemical -- then to impose it again -- then to declare it the result of minor nemesis Egghead's superscience manipulation of his insanity -- then to impose it but on alternate reality Hank Pyms . . .

What annoys me is that, you may recall, at the time of the writing one of the cliche's in superhero comics was "If the nake character is boring, make him mentally unstable!", and at the time they retconned him as having been mind-controlled by Egghead into hitting his wife, the prevailing cliche' was "some evil made him do it so he is not morally responsible for it but as much a victim as anyone else!"

Now, of course, to "rehabilitate" him, he has gone from a brilliant ordinary man to a superhuman genius on the caliber of Reed Richards, and he regularly plays with reality like any good super-science genius.

But with his "rehabilitation", we lost the understated tragedy of the highly talented everyman lost in a world in which mere brilliance is subpar for a scientist and merely growing several stories tall is subpar for a superhero of strength.