Friday, April 10, 2009

Superhero Theory: Voted Most Likely to Fail (or: Pym Articles)

Henry Pym as a character has always fascinated me, and it has nothing to do with the spousal abuse aspect.

Let’s look at the cover of Avengers #1. This is Marvel’s answer to DC’s Justice League (okay, okay, historians know that the Fantastic Four was technically the response, but Avengers is the one actually using the JLA’s formula) -- an assemblage of superheroes, and yet, only one of them actually looks like the traditional notion of a superhero. Iron Man looks like some kind of robot, the Hulk is a monster, Thor has the cape and brightly-colored tights but the eye focuses more on his bizarre metal helmet and the fact that he’s a gol-durn longhair. Only Ant-Man, and in the next issue, Giant Man, has the full-body tights and helmet/mask most people associate with superhero.

(Note: I am shortchanging the Wasp here, but then again, so is the cover copy – “THOR! ANT MAN! HULK! IRON MAN!” but no “THE WASP!” And in these early stories, the Wasp acts largely as a companion to Pym and not her own character – it’s “ANT-MAN AND THE WASP!” not “ANT-MAN!” and “THE WASP!”.)

Visually, then, (Gi)Ant-Man is the most “traditional” of the gang, the most obviously superheroic. And yet, Henry Pym was one of the few failures of the early Marvel era; his series in Tales to Astonish was bumped to make way for a Sub-Mariner feature, and he never graduated to his own series (and still technically hasn’t). He becomes an Avengers mainstay, probably because it seems wrong to completely abandon a Lee-Kirby creation, but even there, he’s most famous for becoming schizophrenic (in the comic book sense, not in any true, clinical sense), hitting his wife, and changing costumes and code-names constantly.

A lot of superhero writers, aspiring and otherwise, say they’d like to try and rehabilitate the character (Dan Slott seems to be having a go at it in Mighty Avengers). But lately I’m thinking maybe it can’t be done. At least not without creating, in essence, a totally new character. See, Pym can’t be fixed because he was never broken in the first place. He was a non-starter; there’s no comics with Henry Pym that you can go back to and say “This was the definitive take on the character; let’s analyze what makes these stories work and update them and apply them to modern comics.” Either there is no definitive take on Pym, or his definitive take is the guy with a personality disorder hitting his wife.

So why is this? Allow me to present my thesis:

Henry Pym fails because he is a DC superhero in the Marvel Universe.

I kind of think Stan Lee was hedging his bets with (Gi)Ant-Man. Y’know, just in case that whole “Fantastic Four style” he and Kirby had going was more trouble than it was worth, and kids really did want DC-style stories. (I suspect the same is true of the unambitious Human Torch series in Strange Tales, which, with its suburban setting and odd adherence to secret identity concerns, is rather like a Silver Age DC comic). I’ve never read the old Tales to Astonish stories, but nobody ever talks about them, so I am inclined to believe they were not noteworthy.

But Pym himself lacks the hooks Stan built into his other heroes. He’s a mature, square-jawed scientist who discovers a way to give himself superpowers, and decides to use them responsibly to fight crime, aliens, and spies. He’s not a neurotic kid like Spider-Man or a misunderstood monster like the Hulk, and he doesn't have any of Tony Stark’s frailties or even the man-out-of-time angle Stan Lee used on Captain America to fully “Marvelize” him. Pym is just a straight-up superhero. There’s not much differentiating him from, say, the Flash or the Atom. Heck, he even has a sidekick like a DC hero, in the form of the Wasp (getting to her soon; wait for it!)

The most interesting things about Pym in his early incarnations are:

1.) He started out as a protagonist in what was intended to be a one-off horror story (“The Man In The Ant-Hill!”), but Marvel repurposed him into a superhero. Even as a kid, that idea was fascinating to me, but really, it’s just trivia. At best, it adds a metatextual interest (see: The Thing as a carryover from the Marvel monster era).

2.) His “sidekick” is also his romantic interest. “Partner-in-peril” always had a nice, florid ring to it. Imagine Jim Steranko doing a series about two lovers fighting crime side by side -- Action! Romance! Thrills! But Stan Lee’s stories, for all else they had going for them, were quite condescending toward women (though in a good-natured way, and not unusually for their time, I suppose), and so instead of an electrifying, tension-filled partnership, you get a lot of the Wasp talking about clothes and hunky guys.

3.) He changed his costume and powers and name.

Now here’s some metatextual goodness you can play with. Stan Lee retools Henry Pym’s schtick again and again because he knew he had a flop and tried to fix it. As above, so below: in the story-world, Pym knows he’s unsuccessful and tries to revamp himself.

Lee’s desperateness becomes Pym’s. Every new costume change Lee gives him to try and keep up with Iron Man and the Fantastic Four’s success just chips away at Pym’s self-worth. “I know!” thinks Lee/Pym, “Giant-Man’s a silly name anyway! I’ll change it to Goliath!” And that fails to take off, either.

Because the truth is, Pym just cannot cut it as a superhero. He’s a guy who’s trying way too hard (and how telling that he hits on Yellowjacket, his best outfit/name combo, after a nervous breakdown that leaves him no longer quite himself!), whereas his Marvel compatriots just sort of seem to grow and change organically into something that works (Spider-Man’s evolution from Amazing Fantasy #15 to about Amazing Spider-Man #3 or so is surprisingly fluid and naturalistic if you read it all at once, as opposed to Pym’s abrupt changes).

In the DC Universe, where he arguably belongs, he’d have been okay. Never a big success, but you know, he’d have settled into a nice C-lister status and would have resigned himself happily to showing up for crossovers and maybe as a supporting character in someone else’s series (like Rip Hunter in Booster Gold). But in Stan Lee’s new Marvel Universe (not that he thought of it as such, of course) there was no room for such a traditionalist as Henry Pym.

And yet … that “metatextual goodness” I mentioned isn’t my idea. Pym’s inferiority complex is actually in the comic books. Stan Lee was very self-referential in playing with that sort of thing: Iron Man would redesign his armor because he wanted it to look more “drama,” and Paste-Pot Pete changed his name to The Trapster because the old one “sounded too much like a comic book title!”

Despite himself, Pym is relevant, then, because now he represents something greater than himself, as the best superheroes do. Unfortunately (for him), what he represents is failure. Some musicians never get signed, some writers never get published, some actors never get work.

Some superheroes never catch on.


Anonymous said...

Hey, maybe you're right! I mean, I'm sure you're right...except...

Aren't all Marvel characters just DC characters in the Marvel Universe?

So, okay, I think there's been a definitive Hank Pym: Roy Thomas'. The dude who just keeps getting dragged back into it all! He doesn't even like it much, but the problem is that Jan's his trigger. She's the only thing he really cares about. Most of the time he's just "group scientist", there for exposition...then he gets worried about Jan and he turns into the Hank Pym who yells a lot, Hank Pym the superhero, out comes the crazy temper Stan designed into him, he shoots up to a hundred feet and goes apeshit. There, I finally swore. Anyway...Jan likes him as emotional-guy, that's why she was always flirting with Thor or whatever, to make him jealous -- pure Stan. Roy takes that and does just a couple of things to it: one, makes Hank ultra-competent. Two, makes Jan the cause of every emotional thing he goes through, resurrecting that weird temper thing from the Giant-Man comics (where, yeah, he was obviously playing around with this dork of a character), but spinning it positive, making him a real heroic selfless type. And three, he threw in Ultron.

When Shooter came along, he just flipped the spin on the temper, made him a loser hero, and amped up Ultron's Oedipal complex. And...see, I'm not really sure that "stuck", I just think Hank's like a litmus test for writers: do you like this character better as a total dead-end in every way, or do you want to do something with him? People keep going back to the "failure" thing because they can't be bothered thinking of anything else: easy enough to make Hank a hypercompetent but reluctant superhero who's way past trying to prove himself, as make him a useless feeb who's always trying to prove himself and failing. At a certain point, it's just killing a perfectly good bunch of costume designs for no reason, really...

But he could totally quit, right? I mean why keep him around. Who cares about him anymore. What's the point. If he's to be a failure, then he should be allowed to fail, maybe. Show up occasionally in a lab coat, or not show up at all. It's a valid application of the character, you could show him in his Yellowjacket suit once a year or so if people really wanted to see him...I mean I kind of always liked the character, but design-wise there's no reason he couldn't be a failure...if he only could be.

However, since that isn't what's being done with him...

I mean, I feel what's been done with him over the last few years is just really dumb. He doesn't need "rehabilitating", he just needs somebody to make a final judgement call about him: do something with him, or give him a rest. Instead they give him a dead wife and a new costume and code-name! That's an origin, actually...actually that's Ant-Man's origin, fer Chrissakes, my God what's next, he meets a girl who looks just like Jan did? Makes up a batch of new identities, tries to retire, builds a killer robot, gets stuck at twelve feet tall, goes crazy? Holy cow, how somebody can think Ant-Man needs to go back to basics...yikes. I much prefer him as a garden-variety failure.

plok said...

Whoops, that was me.

Justin said...

Again I will have to profess an ignorance of Roy Thomas, and on much of 70s Marvel in general; I've read *about* it, but not much *of* it, and that again comes from me not having much reprinted material from that era. I think the Essentials are up to Englehart, though; I wonder if my library has them...

But anyway, Thomas' Pym *sounds* at least like a pretty workable approach; how does that get lost? I suppose fans might be more *familiar* with the Shooter approach, might remember it from the first go-round, and like me have never even seen much of Roy the Boy's take.

Still, that fans aren't able to let the whole "schizoid loser" thing go ... is that the fans' problem, or does it speak to some innate lacking in Pym's character as a potential lead? Part of the problem is Pym doesn't seem to be at the top of the field at any one thing. A lot of guys are stronger, a couple guys are smarter, and Janet combines the shrinking thing, but also can fly and has those stingy bio-blasts. Is there anything Pym can do that *nobody else* can do? (If I had to, I'd propose preparedness; there was a miniseries called Beyond! a few years ago where Pym and a bunch of third-tier characters are stranded on an alien world, but it's okay because Hank's got a camp setup and a lab and everything else you need shrunk down and in his pocket.)

Frankly, I think we could solve a lot of this by making him a supporting character, showing up in a lab coat now and again, like you say. There'd be no shame in it, I don't think, and it'd take the pressure off. You could play him as ultra-competent and not have to throw all this other stuff at him to try and prove that, look, this guy can be just as interesting as the Vision or Wonder Man or Iron Man, I swear! Hell, you could even have him show up as Yellowjacket or Giant Man when the situation requires it, and then you'd know, oh man, we must be in a desperate hour if Hank Pym's putting on a costume again.

I suppose my ideal characterization for Hank Pym would have that reluctancy you mention, but he keeps getting pulled back in. I wouldn't take up the "superheroing-as-addiction" angle that Moore does in Watchmen, though; I don't think we need that. I'd think of him more as, like, a guy who plays the bass pretty well and used to front this band (he calls it a "project") that he thought was going to really make it big and change the face of rock 'n' roll forever. But the years pass, the project never makes it, and he gets a little embarrassed about it and quits, because really they were kind of uninspired, mostly just ripping off Rush without the technical proficiency. But once in awhile, his buddy's brother-in-law is going to play at a wedding but doesn't have a bassist, or his co-worker's sister could really use someone to play with on her demo tape, and...

"If you really need me, I'll be there."

(Also: I can't quite get behind "Aren't all Marvel characters just DC characters in the Marvel Universe?" Maybe in the broad sense, but you just don't get Spider-Man and the Hulk and the Thing, and you don't get that weird paranoid/neurotic vibe from the get-go, at least not until DC started picking up and adapting the Marvel formula. I can't get past that Stan Lee took two stabs at the JLA formula, and came out with Fantastic Four the first time, and the second time had the entire cast turn over by the 16th issue.)

(Also also: I also don't know anything about Rush. I'm more of an ELO guy.)

Justin said...

Ooh, that should be "but you just don't get Spider-Man and the Hulk and the Thing IN THE DC UNIVERSE," not like "YOU just don't get it," because I suspect you do.

plok said...

I don't think characters often have "innate problems", if they've been at all decently designed in the beginning...and you really don't start to see superhero characters with really clumsy designs until the late Eighties. It just comes down to writing. The Hank Pym you describe is basically the character as he's been written for most of his existence, as it happens, but Marvel's current braintrust isn't interested in that so much as they're interested in writing a less likable, lee heroic Nite Owl, right? It's the "realism" problem again, and the need to scale every character against every other character. Pym's got a lot of unique bits and pieces to him -- as you noted, he can shrink and grow stuff, because he's the only person who's had so much exposure to his Pym Particles that he basically doesn't need any gear to use them for whatever he wants to use them for -- even Jan can only shrink herself to wasp-size. He can also talk to ants -- which, okay, other Ant-Men can do too, if they've got his gear, but he's the originator of all this gear who doesn't need it for anything anymore, which I could make a story or two about myself ("shit, is that the original Ant-Man? I think we're fucked")...and he's supposed to be the world's preeminent "biophysicist" (which one supposes would make his expertise "the science of superpowers", at least) and cyberneticist too. Also, he's got gizmos: he's got bio-blasts too, they just come out of machinery. Nope, there's nothing wrong with him that writing him well wouldn't solve...but a lot of current writing has a certain flavour of "this character has always been this way" to it, and I think that makes it impossible for younger fans to see possibilities. Reed Richards has "always" been a scary guy because he's basically too smart to be moral -- but this interpretation simply didn't exist until Civil War, in fact it's the opposite of Reed's established character. Hank Pym had his redemption storyline in the Eighties, but then it was so thoroughly forgotten Busiek had to do it again in the 00's...twice!...only to have the character reset by Bendis. But then Hank in Bendis' hands is just so boring, isn't he? So he's got to have something to him, and why shouldn't it be what every other person who couldn't be bothered to write the guy used? Heck, Bendis doesn't even know what Hank Pym's superpowers are...

But, you're still right: he's not catchy enough to support a book for long, and he's a bit of a stiff -- supporting character is as good a role for him as main hero-guy, which is probably why he's been used that way such a lot. Basically, continuing the band metaphor...he doesn't do this superhero stuff for a living. He's got another job. He doesn't need to atone for anything, or live up to anything: nothing's driving him to the superhero lifestyle except his wife likes it, and thinks he looks hot in spandex. And, he's got a certain talent for it, and he's a natural-born do-gooder. But just as you say, there are lots of people who can do pretty much what he does, if not things that are more impressive, so in a way that's his freedom to treat it as a very part-time activity...mostly, they don't need him to handle Kang! It's sort of puzzling, actually, "retired superhero"'s always been a really useful character bit, I don't know why the character most suited to it has to be kept away from it -- hey, maybe that's what Hank Pym's got, that no one else has got! He's the perfect "retired superhero" character. That's his status quo. He's got all this experience and all this competency, but he's not in the game anymore.

Of course, it makes me it maybe that the current head writers and the fans somehow can't tolerate a retired superhero? That they'd rather see him ruined than see him happy doing something else? Just so long as he's in there supporting the ideal of "wish I was one!" Heh, you know what I'd do...I'd make Hank Pym the main viewpoint character for guys like me who've gone off the reservation...the retired superhero fans. Yes, there's a Marvel Universe out here past the crossovers and the editorial dictates and the cool ideas! There's Hank Pym living in Long Island, happily puttering around in his lab.

Well, but it's exactly how he's been since like 1965, basically. The weekend superhero.

You have to wonder what's so hard to grasp about that.

Justin said...

I suppose I have doubts about whether he was decently designed in the first place, though, at least as a lead character. This is admittedly speculation on my part, based on the fact that Pym had his Tales to Astonish series cancelled and never graduated to a book; I mean, that's unusual for a Lee-Kirby series, isn't it? Surely Stan was going for another hit and not the intention that he'd end up a weekend warrior. Still, I suppose it's not the intent, it's how the character eventually functions...

I love your idea, though, that because he *isn't* the top dog, it somewhat relieves him of responsbility. "You need a scientist, I can give you Reed Richards' number, and Scott Lang and Bill Foster are available for any size-changing needs you may have." (Although, hell, Lang and Foster are dead now, aren't they?) Once again, I am indebted for the insight.

And about the "it's *always* been this way" matter ... I'd commented about something similar just recently at the Absorbascon ( It was late, so the comment's unfocused (and reads a little petulant, maybe), but my thought was that the big difference between the so-called post-'85 "Iron Age" and whatever we're in today (and I'm not even convinced we're out of that Iron Age) is a policy of Silver/Bronze Age revisionism through aggressive retconning. Basically, the Iron Age seemed always to be trying to put its roots behind it in a quest for "seriousness" (characters in the 90s were always talking about how much things had changed since "the old days" with a sense of innocence lost), while the Current Age embraces its roots, but suggests that there was SERIOUS STUFF going on *all along* between panels and issues, (the whole Illuminati business, Dr. Light is a rapist and so on).

Y'know, Millar had some bit in Civil War about Reed saying "I cried for exactly 93 minutes" like he's friggin' Data or something, but jeez, you actually *read* a Lee-Kirby Fantastic Four, and he's smiling and playing football with Ben during a return visit to State U. "Show 'em some of that ol' razzamatazz!"

plok said...

Absolutely, absolutely; it's Reed Richards as an emblem of anti-intellectualism. You can't trust that guy! He's barely a human being at all! I'm not saying Millar's anti-intellectual (I'd be surprised if he were), but it's a good example of the idea of "audience" he has in mind, that he's pandering to. People talk all the time (thank God!) about how for all Bendis' considerable gifts, working in the straight superhero genre -- even just to the point of blending other genres into the straight superhero genre -- is something he still sucks at pretty bad...and I have read things in a lot of different genres by Bendis that I thought were shoddy, but I've also read things by him in every one of those genres I thought were absolutely stellar, however overall I heartily agree with that estimation of his shortcomings...

...But no one talks about Millar in that way, and he's just as bad, only the way in which he's as bad is less obvious and less easily-defined. One day I will get all the way to the core of it, I think...

I don't want to make it sound like I don't agree with you, though, about Jack and Stan thinking "hmm...thought turning this "Man In The Ant-Hill" stuff into superheroes was a natural, but actually this guy's a bit lame"...because it's most definitely in there, and all you have to do is look at the most frequently-reprinted Ant-Man story to see's "The Creature From Kronos"(?), the first appearance of Janet Van Dyne. Just about the only Ant-Man story that was reprinted for twenty-odd years, and it was reprinted quite a few the time you get to the Giant-Man parts of TtA, you can't help but think "Christ, this guy's a drip...I actually thought he was more heroic as freakin' Ant-Man...and there's probably something to be said, there, about how Ant-Man made a pretty neat hero for Timely...but not for Marvel, where other characters even sometimes say stuff like "hey, check this guy out, he's got the powers of a human...!" HAW HAW HAW! And that was Stan who put those words in their mouths, Stan who made TtA Giant-Man a peevish, tantrum-prone piece of work. So what others did with him later had to build off of that, which is an interesting thing in itself, particularly since it resulted in a very "Marvel" hero, plastic and inconstant, and very much a "weekend warrior"...strangely enough, since as you say it clearly wasn't what Stan would have wanted! But it did work out, in the sense of "wouldn't that be the natural fate of a DC hero in the Marvel Universe anyway"? And Marvel does love to riff on the original material, your Supermen, your Batmen...only, with the feet of clay added on. Let's call it a felix culpa...but not ignoring the culpa part just because it turned out felix by dint of hard work. It's good though: in a way, by the end of TtA the Pyms resemble nothing so much as a deeply screwed up Elongated Man series...a dysfunctional Nick and Nora, who do their shtick not because they're witty and playful, but because they'd like to be...but they just don't know how not to hurt each other, perhaps because they're not as special as they'd like to be. I proposed a similar thing a couple years ago for the Ben and Johnny dynamic: all that pranking is Johhny trying to show Ben he doesn't care if he's the Thing, but he's always garbling the message, and it always ends in ruin. Because Johnny, at that point, is a teenager -- like the Internet, he's not going to get nuance right, but he's going to make a mess of things instead. Though he's got the best intentions when he starts out.

So...but then eventually, over these "continuated" writings of Hank and Jan...basically Roy, Steve Gerber, and then Steve Englehart...we got a hard-won status quo about ten or fifteen years later...

But then Shooter came along. And, he wasn't wrong to do his stories...just as he wasn't wrong to make Iron Man a bit of a, after all, was he to know that in the 2000's, after both those characters had been laboriously repaired, that people would decide to abandon everything that didn't fit with his "vision"? Oh jeez, and John Byrne and the Vision, don't get me started...

Okay, off to read your Absorbascon comment!

By the way, did you know that these "Superhero Theory" blog-series are very much on the rise, the last two years? And getting smarter and more acute all the time. I've been trying not to miss rough terms, it's what made me want to have a blog in the first place, because it's a kind of criticism I really like, probably enabled by the feeling that various Powers-That-Be don't care enough to generate similarly thoughtful critical analysis in-house. I actually think of it as not too different from "youthful rebellion"...screw you, Dad, my Scarlet Witch is a babe...! Or, my Iron Man's not a fascist. Or, my Thor's gay. Or, my Hulk deserves toleration and forgiveness. Or, my Hank Pym's a grown-up, who's accepted that his marriage might not be perfect, but who loves his wife and knows how to get things done?

And every one of these things chooses different characters to interrogate. I call it smart comics-fan reading, and I'm liking it a lot.

So...where's that new theory?

Sorry if it's incoherent...payday, so I had a couple beers.

plok said...

...But we may be about to enter an era where the fan-fic's better than the regular fic. Is what I'm saying.

Justin said...

Oh yeah, definitely, the superhero analysis blogs are what I really enjoy; I could go the rest of my life without ever being shown any more out-of-context Batman panels or Superdickery stuff.

The reason that I decided to do this series on this blog is a.) so I'd have some regular content showing up on here since updates on the Wyatt comic are necessarily few, and b.) to get out of my own head once and awhile. I mean, I *like* finding out that there's more to Henry Pym than I was aware of, I *like* when Scipio writes something that I utterly disagree with but makes an intelligent case for it. I even like cruising John Byrne's message board now and again for the mixed emotions I get from it; bit of a guilty pleasure.

I suppose there is a rebellious aspect to this sort of thing; there's an outlet for me to say "Look, this *doesn't* work, this *could* work, this *should* work but it doesn't." My personal take on analyzing superheroes, though, is that on some level, I'm analyzing my childhood, and how I interact with it as an adult; why do I still feel strongly about superheroes and read new material, while something like Transformers only registers a mild, ordinary sort of pleasant nostalgia? What is it about me and my experiences that makes me respond to Christopher Reeve addressing the United Nations in Superman IV but not care at all about Thundercats or football or role-playing games?

The new Theory actually starts to touch on that ... and that will be up here Friday. I try to keep a regular schedule of Sideburns on Monday, Superhero Theory on Friday just so that there's some regularity of traffic (but I've only just gotten one of those stat-tracker things, so I'm not quite sure yet if that even works).

plok said...

You should look at my buddy Jim Roeg's old posts...starting with his MTIO piece for my Seven Soldiers of Steve, natch...

Sorry, went Twittermind for a second there. I think that was actually 140 characters, Good God it is TOO EASY...!

More upcoming.

Justin said...

Don't know if you'll read this far back, but I have checked out Double Articulation. Is Jim Roeg still around? I have only begun to scratch the surface (the posts certainly do "punish the lazy reader," so I actually have to sit down with a Diet Coke and work through them instead of skimming them at work), but I particularly loved how he encapsulates the pleasant/nervous feeling of being a child and getting absolutely *lost* in the middle of a comics continuity (On Gender, On Unfinished Stories). I was given a reprint of the Lee-Kirby X-Men #1 and the brand-new Claremont-(Jim) Lee X-Men #1 in the same year, and my eight-year-old mind tried to parse out what exactly *the deal* was. They were *both* X-Men #1, they both opened with a Danger Room sequence, they both had Magneto. Was the new X-Men #1 a remake (I was aware of remakes) with a mixture of old (Cyclops, Jean, Iceman) and new (Wolverine, Gambit) X-Men?

Ahh, fun times. I ended up liking the Lee-Kirby one better because it was a complete story, and the reprint had reproductions of the original 1963 ads (which was apparently something I was into even then).

plok said...

Jim is knee-deep in fatherhood at the moment, I believe.

When I first read DA, I thought "this guy's nuts!" Shortly after, I realized "oh my God, I'm nuts, and this is bloody brilliant!"