One of the things that I tell people when we’re talking about the history of Marvel Comics is that one of the amazing things about what those earlier pioneers created is the fact that, if you wait long enough, even the failures become successes. It was true of the Hulk, it was true of the X-Men, and it’s certainly true about the headliner we’ll be speaking about today: Ant-Man. Use whatever metric you like, Ant-Man was a failure in his first go around, his series constantly being retooled in an attempt to give it wider appeal, his powers and costumed identity overhauled until finally the strip was retired to make way for the Sub-Mariner. Ah, but today, Ant-Man is the star of a series of big budget movies, with another one on the way–and while he isn’t quite the same Ant-Man, you wouldn’t have the latter without the former. Certainly nobody in 1988 when I made my Windfall Comics purchase would have believed that there’d be Ant-Man movies in the future–but here we are.
Ant-Man was apparently a favorite of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, who believed in the character–possibly this is why the series was given so many chances, so many overhauls, before it was put out to pasture. In part, that came from Martin having heard about good sales for rival DC’s character the Atom, but beyond the launch (which say editor Stan Lee and artist/plotter Jack Kirby picking up a one-off scientist and recasting him in super hero attire) that wouldn’t have been enough. No, there was something about the idea of Ant-Man that appealed to Goodman. Lee, on the other hand, wasn’t all that invested in the strip, and used it as a place to try out new talent. This particular story was scripted by Larry Lieber, Stan’s brother, and it’s a good example of just how low-stakes many of the early Ant-Man adventures really were. Even the power of Jack Kirby’s pencils, ably inked by Dick Ayers, were enough to cut through the tedium. One gets the sense that pretty much everybody working on the character was bored.
This was only the fourth Ant-Man story created (assuming you count Hank Pym’s initial one-off appearance as the first) and most of the hallmarks that would come to define the Marvel Age aren’t yet present. There’s really no strong characterization to speak of, the conflicts are pedestrian, and the Ant-Man himself is quite generic when it comes to his personality. About all the strip has going for it is the visual appeal of contrasting a tiny hero against enormous surroundings–and even Kirby could only come up with so many variations on that idea in a given tale. As this particular adventure opens, Ant-Man receives a tip-off from his ants that a robbery has taken place at a jewelers in town. Making his way to the scene, he learns that all of the jewelers in the area are being shaken down by a mysterious figure calling himself the Protector. Which makes sense, it’s a protection racket that he’s running (and the Comics Code prevents him from doing anything more severe than destroying those merchants’ wares and roughing them up a little bit.) Ant-Man determines to get involved.
Hank Pym returns to his lab and puts his ants on the case. Three days later, they report back to him that they’ve located the Protector in the midst of one of his shakedowns. The Ant-Man races to the scene–a tremendous portion of this short 13-page story is taken up by sequences of Ant-Man getting from one place to another. I’d imagine that’s because a typical fight sequence was virtually impossible. But the Protector proves to be too slippery for Ant-Man, and almost consigns him to a watery grave–a nearby popsicle stick is his salvation from falling into a sewer grating. Undaunted, Hank decides to bait a trap for the Protector by renting a jewelry store himself and going into business. No effort is too great in the pursuit of justice for the tiny warrior, it seems. The Protector does show up to shake Pym down, destroying his jewels and threatening him unless he pays protection money as well. But Hank was able to signal his ants when the Protector entered the store, and they’ve been monitoring his movements since he left.
And so, Ant-Man is able to track him back to his tenement hideout and confront him. The Protector sucks the minute hero into a vacuum cleaner, but still possessing his regular human strength (of which Garrett Morris was so proud) he’s able to punch his way out of the bag and blow the contents into his opponent’s face/ As the cops show up, Ant-Man unmasks the Protector as Marsh, the jeweler who first brought him into the case. He targeted his own firm, of course, to divert suspicion from himself, and like Comrade X in the issue before this one, he used a mechanical exo-skeleton to make himself appear bigger and more formidable. He also wasn’t disintegrating the jewels at the stores he hit, but rather stealing them and replacing them with dust from his supposed disintegrator gun. It’s a bloodless win for the Ant-Man, not that it matters all that much. Possibly the most interesting thing in the entire story is the last panel plug for the other Marvel super hero series of the time: Thor, the Human Torch, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk. (Spider-Man wasn’t a going concern yet, as only his first story had appeared so far.)
Ant-Man had been given the lead story position in TALES TO ASTONISH, displacing the monster stories that used to occupy that position. But the back of the comic was still the same, and followed the identical format. It contained a pair of short 5-page one-off suspense stories. These were boiler plate affairs, but the artwork occasionally made them memorable. In this particular issue, Don Heck illustrates a story about a man exposed to radiation who discovers that anything he dreams comes to pass. He decides to use his gift for personal gain, but then dreams his own death. He hides out in the remote mountains in order to avoid any terrible demise which might come to pass–and is, of course, crushed to death in an unexpected avalanche. It’s all told well, but has the hint of the familiar about it–the Atlas books played out variations of this same idea almost every month.
As was often the case, the back story was the highlight of the issue, drawn by Steve Ditko, whose atmospheric and quirky work really suited these short one-offs. If not for his later super hero work, he’d no doubt still be hailed for them even today. This particular story details the escapades of a group of space inmates who break free from prison and set themselves up as space pirates. After some success, they are contacted by an alien race which fears that its neighbor planet is developing space travel and may prove to be a threat, even though they are midgets. They want the star raiders to plunder this rival planet, which they attempt to do. Unfortunately for the criminals, once they land, they are startled to find that the inhabitants are giants, and only the leader of the pirates gets away. Furious, he contacts the original aliens to confront them about their deception of the size of the planet’s inhabitants–only to learn that the people of that other planet are larger still. A note at the end indicates that the first STRANGE TALES ANNUAL is now on sale. This 25 cent book reprinted a number of the pre-hero monster and fantasy stories, and was a pretty cool edition.