WC: TALES TO ASTONISH #38

It’s been said over the years that Marvel’s publisher Martin Goodman had an unwavering faith in the sales appeal of Ant-Man. How much of that was due to him hearing about the sell-through numbers on the earliest appearances of the Atom over at rival DC I do not know–but it does account for the reason why, as Ant-Man failed to catch on in a big way, editor Stan Lee and his cohorts continually attempted to retool the strip rather than simply retiring it. But ant-Man struggled on for several years, changing costumes, gaining partners and additional size-changing powers until eventually calling it quits and relinquishing his position to the clearly more popular Namor, the Sub-Mariner. The earliest Marvel super hero books are a mixed bag to begin with, but consistently Ant-Man was the weakest of the lot.

Even Jack Kirby couldn’t seem to get squeeze a ton of drama and interest out of a tiny protagonist–though instances where he’d use forced perspective to give a sense of scale to the people and items around the diminutive hero were memorable. Ant-Man was also one of those strips that quickly became a place to test out new talent, especially new writing talent, to see if anybody could be found who could adequately mimic the voice Stan Lee was establishing in the better-selling books. Eventually, Lee gave up on this search for a time and simply started dialoging everything, but that workload was unsustainable over the long haul, especially as more titles were added. But here, in 1962, nobody yet realized that these characters were going to have any longevity in them, so it wasn’t all that important.

The Ant-Man story that leads off this issue of TALES TO ASTONISH is among the shortest the character starred in, clocking in at only ten pages. It was written by Larry Lieber (though editor Lee takes a credit for the plot) and illustrated by Jack Kirby and Dick Ayers. In it, the underworld, having been stymied by the Ant-Man’s crime-busting activities, turns to a disgraced government scientist only known as “The Egghead” to come up with a way to defeat their nemesis. Egghead sets out to learn as much as he can about the ants–in his way, paralleling Hank Pym’s own voyage of discovery about his tiny helpers.

So Egghead sets a trap for Ant-Man, and he intends to use the ants as his accomplices. Contacting them by way of the same electronic impulses that Hank Pym uses, he appeals to the ants to aid him in his overthrow of Ant-Man, figuring that the ants are virtual slaves. but this turns out to be his undoing, as in reality, Hank Pym hasn’t enslaved his ant friends at all, and the ants don’t really possess such emotions as greed or vanity. So his entreaties fell on deaf ears, and Ant-Man is aware of the plot even before it all goes down. Kirby does give Ant-Man a few cool gimmicks in this story, such as these spring-loaded boots that allow him to leap for great distances.

With his plan in shambles, Egghead does manage to flee and escape capture, while his mobster allies are all arrested by the cops. But in the finale, he is a broken man, having been outsmarted by insects. He won’t stay that way, though–Egghead will return to plague Hank Pym regularly, becoming pretty much his mainstay antagonist. And that’s maybe part of the problem with Ant-Man as a series–even his opponents were third-raters. It’s really difficult to imagine Spider-Man or Iron Man or Daredevil having a tough time dealing with Egghead, after all.

Because of the Ant-Man story’s short length–or possibly the reason it was so short–the first of the two filler fantasy stories in this issue ran for 8 pages rather than the typical 5. This one was illustrated by Don Heck, with Larry Lieber again scripting and Stan Lee taking credit for the basic plot. It’s all about a guy testing an experimental time machine who shows up a moment later, having aged ten years. Bt what really happened is that he journeyed to a far-off future time, when the world was a paradise. But his own greed caused him to attempt to sow discord, and he was caught and imprisoned for a decade. At the end of his sentence, he was sent back to his proper time with no memory of the events he experienced in the future. This was a theme that we’d seen played out in different Marvel fantasy stories on a regular basis.

And as usual, Stan Lee joined forces with Steve Ditko to close out the issue with one of their quirky little Twilight Zone-esque fantasy pieces. From a craft point of view, it is easily the best thing in the issue. It’s about an art critic who heads off to visit a sculptor working in a remote farmhouse, the critic tells the sculptor that his work is lifeless–and, of course, the statues are actually aliens who have come to Earth to infiltrate and overthrow our planet. But having been ferreted out, they leave to return to outer space–the farmhouse, of course, is their disguised spaceship. This, too, was a formulaic piece even in 1962. But as usual, Ditko’s expressive cartooning and lee’s stipped down and fun script sell it.

6 thoughts on “WC: TALES TO ASTONISH #38

  1. The Human Torch stories (with or without the Thing) over in Strange Tales struggled mightily against Hank Pym, ant or giant-sized, with or without the winsome Wasp for the title of Marvel’s Weakest Superhero series, and they both cashed in their chips at about the same time. At least Ben & Johnny still had a secure home in the Fantastic Four while Hank & Jan had to spend a little time in Limbo before being restored to the Avengers, but even there their lodgings weren’t guaranteed, and periodically they’d wind up back in Limbo for months or even years at a time.

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  2. Marvel is using this cover in a lot of merchandising, but with the ToA masthead replaced by “Ant-man”. It looks very odd, like an issue from an alternate universe

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  3. I can understand that Goodman might think that a shrinking superhero had potential to be a hit. Doll Man was popular in the Golden Age, and as you note, DC currently had the Atom. But, let’s say, execution of the concept matters. This line in the story says it all to me:

    “… and when he enters the museum, I’ll be waiting with FLY-PAPER!”

    Umm, Eggy, you know, Ant-Man is “hero who can change to the size of an ant” not “hero with the proportional intelligence of an ant”.

    Yes, it’s a tradition to menace the hero with death-traps. But they’re usually a little more exciting and nominally hard to escape (though, come to think of it, Paste-Pot-Pete/Trapster really should be a serious foe, as plenty of low-level heroes would have trouble if a villain just dumped some strong glue on them – e.g. Wolverine).

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  4. Near the end of (Gi)Ant-Man’s run they rebooted him yet again, giving him the power to make other living creaures change size. And never used the power again after that issue.

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  5. Guess I’m still in the minority, as I loved Astonish 35 (Henry Gets a Helmet!), this story (Ants Are Our Friends), the 1st Wasp story (The Stinky Cloud That Ants Filled With Buckshot), and “Oh Wasp, Where is Thy Sting?” (aka Neither Hank Nor Jan Will Ever Recognize the Top Again, But Will Hire Him) – Heck, I even liked the Scarlet Beetle!

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