I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that Al Ewing is one of the best writers active in comics today, and one of Marvel’s most gifted storytellers of all time. His work on Immortal Hulk alone, a deeply personal look at trauma, faith, and identity, through the elevated lens of the superheroic, cements his legacy at Marvel. His creator-owned series, We Only Find Them When They’re Dead tackles similar lofty themes in the search for the ineffable sublime.
Ant-Man #1 is neither of those books…And that’s good.
Because Ewing has also proven he can take all of these grand ideas, the many folds and hiccups of continuity, the nuanced understanding of what makes a superhero tick, and serve up books that are funny and character-driven, delivering set pieces and moments that celebrate the wonder and potential of superhero comics as a storytelling medium. Ant-Man is more in the school of Ewing’s work on Defenders, a rolicking adventure through the cosmic eons, with a tinge of his time on Mighty Avengers, which explored heroism through the lens of primarily street-level heroes while delivering depth of emotion and character.
Celebrating the character’s 60th anniversary, Ant-Man’s pitch is to explore the legacy of this founding member of the Avenger through the lens of the 3 men who have held the name and how that legacy inspires a fourth, new future version of the size-shifting superhero. Joining Ewing is artist Tom Reilly (most recently of the stupendously fun THE THING miniseries with novelist Walter Mosley), colorist extraordinaire Jordie Bellaire (who also colors the sensational THE NICE HOUSE ON THE LAKE), and letterer Cory Petit.
It seems strange to attach the word “legacy” to this character in particular, despite the fact that numerous people have taken the mantle, including thief-turned-hero Scott Lang and the amoral mercenary Eric O’Grady, now a super-villain-for hire named The Black Ant. Ant-Man’s profile has never been large (Giant though he may sometimes be), though it has grown recently thanks to Paul Rudd’s effortless charm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But those movies primarily concern Scott Lang, the every-man and underdog out for redemption. For much of the culture at large, this is Ant-Man’s legacy: a tale of redemption and the potential for selflessness.
But it is not Scott Lang’s legacy explored in this issue, or, really, the series at all. It is about Ant-Man’s legacy.
We are greeted in the first few pages by a robotic narrator welcoming us into a new Marvel Narrative Experience. The disembodied voice immediately invites us to ask a few choice questions:
“Who is the Ant-Man? What is the Ant-Man? Why is the Ant-Man?”
Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, has a complicated legacy. He never recovered from the events of 1981’s Avengers #213, where he slapped his wife Janet Van Dyne, the superhero known as The Wasp, across the face. It was an unforgivable sin, one that came to define the character, rightly, for such violence need be reconciled with.
The issue’s writer, Jim Shooter, has long held that this act of violence was never his intention but a construction by the artist, Bob Hall, who misunderstood Shooter’s direction to have Pym accidentally push Janet. Bob Hall has even expressed regret for how he portrayed the moment. Intentional or not, the damage to Hank Pym’s legacy was cemented.
Pym became synonymous with hubris and violence. It was he, after all, who created the android menace Ultron, one of the Avengers’ most dangerous adversaries.
For decades, then, Hank Pym became a character desperate for the approval of his more successful peers. Tony Stark and Reed Richards outclassed him as scientists. Scott Lang became a new Ant-Man without the baggage. How could Hank Pym redeem himself in the eyes of the other superheroes, who in time passed him by? How could he make right the death and chaos brought by his creation Ultron?
No writer has ever managed to truly rehabilitate Pym, though there has been an effort in recent years to simply sweep the events of Avengers 217 under the rug, as a brief dark moment of comics that has aged poorly. But the shadow of it looms over every story, every panel Pym appears in.
Dan Slott’s brief time on the Mighty Avengers series in 2008, following the events of the alien Skrull’s Secret Invasion and the death of The Wasp, seemed like an attempt to wash Hank of any lingering guilt. Pym, having been absent from Earth and replaced by an alien Skrull imposter, returned to see his planet in shambles, his ex-wife dead, and the Green Goblin in charge of America’s security apparatus. He took on Janet’s superhero name and reconnected with the android Jocasta, who held Janet’s psychic imprint as part of her being.
By having him carry on Wasp’s name and forging a new relationship with Jocasta, Slott attempted to absolve Pym of any lasting harm. Instead it only furthered his descent into a pathetic also-ran. This brief stint as leader of a B-Team of Avengers gave us a Hank Pym preoccupied with the past and his own absolution.
Hank Pym, ultimately, is a man obsessed with his legacy and his public perception. And it has been there since even the earliest days, before all the mistakes and dramatic loss. In Tales to Astonish #44, Hank Pym wonders what would happen if he someday meets defeat and death. He wants someone to carry on his crimefighting campaign if he dies. He empowers The Wasp as an agent of his own legacy.
He is haunted by the death of his first wife. Stan Lee’s narration notes that Pym is feverishly obsessed with forgetting the past, subsuming himself in his work in his lab, forgoing sleep or food. It is vengeance for her death that spurs him to action.
The obsession is baked into Pym’s very DNA from the outset.
Ewing knows that. His mastery of Marvel continuity as illustrated in Immortal Hulk, Defenders, and X-Men Red all make that an unquestionable fact. As does this issue’s use of the “ANT-AGONISTS” , a collection of Ant-Man’s rogues’ gallery from those early issues of Tales to Astonish.
But Ant-Man is not about these dark corners of Pym’s history, or at least not yet. Though there are hints at his obsessive and petty nature in the way he torments a young Eric O’Grady.
Instead, the issue is on its surface a loving send-up of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s early adventures, where Pym is a mostly prototypical everyman Marvel hero and Janet is still his beloved partner in life and superheroics. It is a delightful romp through the Silver Age that simultaneously ties Pym’s early adventures to both Lang and O’Grady as if destiny itself set each of them on a shared path.
In the issue’s main plot, the Ant-Agonists gives Pym a “Sinister Six” of his own. It is simultaneously outlandishly goofy and thematically resonant. These villains are nobodies and goons. As Ewing’s opening splash-page, a perfectly rendered Tom Reilly homage to Kirby’s opening salvos, narrates for us:
It is said that you can judge a man by the enemies he makes! How, then, to judge THE ANT-MAN, whose rogues’ gallery includes Egghead, The Scarlet Beetle and The Cyclops? And even the Miniature Marvel’s LESSER foes could pose a DEADLY THREAT—if the dark day ever came that they united as a single fiendish force!
If you can indeed judge a man by the enemies he makes, what better enemy for a man obsessed with how future generations will judge him than a man who controls time and aging? What better enemy for a petty man who feels that life has passed him by than a nameless thug with a paralyzing spray? What better enemy for a man who lashes out in violence than a villainous head of a protection racket who intimidates others with brute force? What better enemy for a man who unleashed a monster upon the world than a villain who brings nightmares to life?
Not since the 60s has Ant-Man been a solo hero, his adventures subsumed by his role as a supporting character in The Avengers.
In this issue Ewing provides Pym a chance for heroism–a rogues gallery of his own that does not rely on the failures and hubris of Hank Pym, but men obsessed with him. It is a kind of superheroic glory that Ant-Man has long been robbed of.
What good is a superhero without a nemesis, after all?
And in the backdrop of this Silver Age homage (which it must be said channels the bombastic energy of the best of a classic Lee/Kirby joint), the mysterious future Ant-Man looms. He sets Hank on his journey and plucks him out of the past, for what purpose? That’s still to be determined. But it seems unlikely that Pym will get to avoid reckoning with his own shortcomings and the darker remnants of his own legacy.
Ant-Man is a name that has only been given to men of questionable character. Scott Lang represents the best of that story, O’Grady its worst, and Pym sits alone somewhere between them, never fully forgiven nor fully giving into his worst whims.
After the future Ant-Man plucks Pym out of the past, he falls through time and sees visions of the man he will become in all of its ugliness and does not recognize them. “Who are these men?!” he asks as the timestream flashes by him.
Hank Pym, welcome to your life.
Tom Reilly’s graphic sensibility, with its economy of line and expressive characters, is perfectly suited for this issue’s celebration of Silver Age storytelling. Like Darwyn Cooke and Evan Shaner or Elsa Charretier, Reilly marries classic cartooning comics with modern sensibilities. He lovingly invokes Kirby’s tight close ups and dynamism but maintains a more contemporary approach to the characters’ interactions that relies on subtlety of movement and expression. They are not the stiff and stoic heroes of old. Reilly paints Hank Pym as a man of haggard frustration, who smiles only in the presence of Janet, alone and away from villains or movie theater hecklers.
Reilly flexes his range in the story’s framing sequence in the future, trading in the scratchy faint lines of Don Heck inks for a streamlined future of curves and minimal strokes. The empty color backgrounds of the 60s are replaced with floating cities and harsh shadows.
Reilly is an artistic dynamo, and his work crackles with life. The range he shows here, though the differences between eras and even from his work on The Thing are subtle, they make a significant difference in the tone of the story. Compare the scratchier inks of this issue to the bold lines of his work on The Thing. There is a distinctive difference in how even those seemingly minor shift give volume and weight to these characters. Ben Grimm is sturdy as a rock, a trustworthy and straightforward presence. Hank Pym is anything but.
As gifted a visual storyteller as Reilly is, it is the work of colorist Jordie Bellaire that brings the entire issue together. The subtle misaligned colors, the texture of yellowed paper, the use of benday dots and the limited silver age palette all give the issue an authentic feeling of a “lost issue” of Tales to Astonish. It is not a 1-for-1 reproduction, however, relying on a far more painterly sensibility and subtlety of shading not possible in the early years of Marvel. This is good because it keeps the issue from being a too-cute parody. But the muted and textured colors evoke a feeling of a time gone-by.
In that way, the art itself reflects Pym’s perception of his past. These were the glory days.
It is a far cry from the slick, high contrast flat colors and rimlights of the future sequences.
Ant-Man #1 does not revolutionize comics or the character of Hank Pym. It does not even directly intimate toward much of the history discussed here. But it is a superb issue of a superhero comic that plays on knowing who Hank Pym is as a man— failures and all. Because here we get to see Hank as he always wanted to be: the Main Character, the swashbuckling super science adventurer.
But that is not who Hank Pym really is, and it is that aching hunger for an idealized legacy that makes Hank Pym a fascinating character.
As the robotic narrator compels us to wait for the continuation of this Marvel Narrative Experience, we await the future of a 60 year old character, trapped in a purgatory of his own legacy, overshadowed by the better man who came after him, who successfully found the redemption Hank Pym so desperately craved. What is the legacy of the Ant-Man?
I look forward to seeing what Al Ewing and Tom Reilly have in store as an answer to that complicated question.