Since it’s not that long ago that I wrote two pieces on “The Care and Esteeming of Little Myths,” it’s entirely appropriate that I should focus now upon a literally little myth-figure, that of the Silver Age Ant-Man,. With this character I plan to show a practical application of my demihero-concept—though the actual application will appear in Part 2. This essay I’ll devote only to charting the transformation of Henry Pym from demihero to superhero.
I’ll begin with a quick summation of “The Man in the Ant Hill,” from TALES TO ASTONISH #27 (January 1962).
Henry Pym begins his fictive life as a Frankenstein manqué. When his colleagues criticize him for “ridiculous theories” that “never work,” and tell him to “stick to practical projects,” he boasts that he’ll soon prove himself “a greater scientist than any of you.” This inflated ego leads the scientist to invent two serums: one that can shrink anything to insect-sized proportions, and another that can restore the object to normal. He’s already made it work with a chair, but because one of his hypothetical uses involves shrinking people (as in transporting troops to war), he tests it on himself.
He somehow forgets to put the enlarging serum within reach, runs out of his house in a panic, and falls afoul of a troop of hostile ants. He improbably seeks shelter in the ants’ own hill, and almost drowns in the ants’ supply of honey. One kindly (?) ant saves him, but the other ants attack again. He drives them off with a lighted match and outwrestles one hostile ant with a judo move.
He escapes the anthill and tries to get back to his house. Providentially the one friendly ant helps him again, so that he reaches the enlarging serum. Restored to normalcy, he throws away the serums and tells his colleagues that from now on he will “stick to practical projects.” The story ends on a note of humility, as a caption says that he’ll never “knowingly step upon an ant hill,” because of the “one small ant to whom he owned his very life.”
Eight months later, within a week of Spider-Man’s debut in AMAZING FANTASY #15, “The Return of the Ant Man” appeared in TALES TO ASTONISH #35 (September 1962).
The story recapitulates in a few panels what happened in the earlier story. Then Pym changes his mind: having destroyed the original serums, he decides to concoct them again and then hide them away for safekeeping. His experiences in the ant hill bring about a growing fascination with ants. He devises a cybernetic helmet that will allow him to communicate with them, as well as a “protective costume” to shield him when he shrinks again to meet the creatures on their level. However, the U.S. government comes calling, casually asking this expert in diverse technologies to come up with “a gas to make people immune to radioactivity,” which will supposedly be an immense advantage in a nuclear conflict. The agents of “a nation on the other side of the world” learn of the research and agree that this gas would be a great asset. Though Pym’s laboratory is guarded by FBI agents, the foreign agents overpower them and demand the anti-radiation formula. Pym patriotically refuses to give it up. The spies lock everyone up while they search the lab for Pym’s notes, after which they plan to blow up the lab and everyone in it. Pym luckily is confined to a place where he can get to both his costume and his shrinking serum. Once he “gets small,” he returns to the anthill in his yard. He dominates most of the ants with his helmet because “my wavelength is stronger than theirs,” except one big ant whom he must conquer with his human-sized strength and yet more judo.
He has one more quick conflict with a beetle which is “the size of a dinosaur” at this level. Then Ant-Man leads his troop of obedient ants into the house. With their help he frees the bound FBI agents and inconveniences the spies until the good agents overcome them. He returns to his lab and enlarges, having concealed himself so that neither the spies nor the agents are aware of his role in the dramatic upset. He concludes the adventure by wondering whether he will become Ant-Man again, though an enthusiastic final caption confirms that he will do so by “the next issue of TALES TO ASTONISH.”
On a side note, Ant-Man apparently makes some more public deeds of heroism before the story in TTA #36, for that story begins with the populace celebrating Ant-Man as a “living legend.” It may be of some interest that in this respect the Ant-Man feature followed the same trajectory as the first two issues of the FANTASTIC FOUR series, which also started out with the heroes performing their first deed without officially revealing themselves to humanity at large, while their second adventure began with them already celebrated as great heroes by the entire free world.
It’s interesting that “Man in the Ant Hill” partakes of a pattern well used by the “Atlas” suspense/horror tales of the late 1950s and early 1960s: what might best be called the “hubris avoided” pattern. Pym is not a bad man, but he pursues science in the name of fanciful dreams. When this causes his practical-minded colleagues to sneer at him, he overcompensates by wanting to be considered greater than all of them. Yet perversely, he tests his shrinking serum on himself, which has the effect of “cutting him down to size.” He even conveniently forgets to place the enlarging serum where he can reach it, and makes his situation worse by panicking and running out where the hostile ants pursue him. Only one ant—the equivalent of a “friendly native” in a jungle-story—enables Pym to survive his foolish endeavor, and to put aside his hubristic ways.
In contrast, since “Return of the Ant Man” is meant to launch a continuing superhero, the Pym of this tale is almost without any inappropriate ego: not only does he patriotically agree to help the government on a project he doesn’t even come up with (and which works only in terms of comic-book logic), he doesn’t even announce his presence to the FBI agents. Of course, by the next issue Ant-Man has found that becoming a fulltime superhero has its ego-building perks as well, though in keeping with the superheroes of the period, it’s never asserted that this is his primary motive.
More in Part 2.