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.