Saturday, June 18, 2011

Among Us Walks…a Goliath! (Or, How I Came to Know Dr. Henry Pym), Part Five

Doug: As we continue our look at the Hank Pym essay I wrote for the yet-to-be-published Assembled! Volume 3, Jim Shooter becomes the writer of Earth's Mightiest Heroes...

Jim Shooter took the reins from Gerry Conway with Avengers #158 and got started with a BANG! The battle between Wonder Man and the Vision in those pages remains one of my favorite halves of any Avengers comic – I say “halves” because the second part of the book and its conclusion in #159 are only so-so. However, with #160 Shooter started a truly memorable run, to many somewhat of a modern golden age not seen since the Roy Thomas/John Buscema heydays of the late 1960’s. Hank and Jan are featured only on a couple of panels in this story, but in a most cryptic fashion. As they are departing Avengers Mansion, Hank says to Jan, “Head for the lab, Jan… That battle convinced me that Yellowjacket’s powers need improving (Avengers 160, page 2)!” And off they went.

The splash page by George Perez to #161 showed Ant-Man lurking in a ventilation shaft while Cap, Iron Man, Vision, Wonder Man, and Wanda enter the room. Making himself known via the use of a magnifying glass, Ant-Man addressed the group. It didn’t take any time at all for the reader to know that Hank was not right. The potential seemed great for a mental breakdown along the lines of that suffered through Avengers #59-60 – and that is what came to pass. Hank was enraged that the Avengers were not present for their “first official meeting” – no Hulk, no Thor, and Iron Man not in his old, clunky yellow armor. Referring to Wanda as “the chick in the swimsuit” and Cap as a “two-bit imposter” (Avengers #161, page 2), Hank asked for answers and when receiving only stunned silence launched a one-man (and mega-ant) attack against his friends. As the Beast and the Black Panther entered the fray, Hank single-handedly dismantled the team. During the fracas, his speech was unlike anything we’d seen from him. In response to the Vision’s suggestion that Hank is somehow putting them on, Ant-Man snapped: “Back off, Red Puss! And you can drop the weird hollow voice bit! Special effects don’t impress me (ibid)!” It’s only when the Wasp suddenly appears, startling Hank and attacking him with her stings, that he is subdued. After containing him and restoring him to his normal height, Jan related the recent backstory of their personal lives, as she said, “It’s been…building for a long time…and I’m afraid his mind…has finally snapped (page 10).”

Jan took the team back to shortly after she and Hank were married. She mentioned the accident that led to Hank taking the Yellowjacket identity and that subsequent to that his lab work began to go awry. Hank had begun to respond with rage and violence, often destroying machinery and other resources. Jan said that in days past it was always she who went to Hank for strength and support, but during this period their roles reversed. Knowing this, the reader had to ask if the exchange on the quinjet mere issues before was a smart conversation to have had in mixed company. Jan mentioned that she had suggested therapy but that Hank would never have agreed to it; she went instead and was told to try to bring Hank back to life as it had existed before he had become YJ. She stated that things had been going well, and that she was excited when he agreed (seen in #151) to join her back on the team. But, as they flew back to the lab mere days before this, Hank sped away from her (see quote from #160, above). And then the attack in the guise of Ant-Man…

Actually chapter one of a four-part story spread over almost a year, #162 was a first “conclusion”. Ultron was revealed as the true villain, having somehow mind wiped Hank and placed his memories well before he and Jan were married, and before the time when Hank had created Ultron. Ultron’s goal was to sap the life essence from Jan and instill it into his cybernetic bride (later to be known as Jocasta). Another battle royal ensues, Ultron is ultimately defeated, but at a cost of Hank’s permanent sanity. As the story winds down, and Hank is in custody, he screams out, “Ultron will be back to free me – and then we’ll crush you! That includes you, Janet! Now that they’ve somehow managed to make you whole again, your loyalties are apparently with them! How could I have ever thought I loved you (Avengers #162, page 31)?” In comfort, Iron Man says, “It…seems he’s gone totally mad, now – but don’t worry, Jan. After we study Ultron’s equipment, we may be able to restore his mind!” “Aye, ‘tis possible,” agreed Thor (ibid).

A pretty depressing way to leave a reader hanging, don’t you think? I was frankly crushed at this new development in the Pyms’ lives. How could Hank have let himself get to the point where he could speak to Jan that way? It was warming to see the other Avengers embrace and care for Jan in her time of need; that same picture, however, made me think of Hank as all alone and somewhat hopeless. Yes, the team had said they’d try to help him, but it seemed to me lines had been drawn; whilst one may forgive, can they ever truly forget? What Hank said – even if they could restore his mind, he’d said those words. Nothing could change that.

I was eager to see how events would unfold over the next several stories. I assumed Hank and Jan would be missing for several issues, much as they had after the events of #’s 139-140. After a seeming fill-in in #163, where Iron Man did battle with the Champions and Typhon (years later, I’d see this for the marketing gimmick that it was – an attempt to build up sagging sales on a title Marvel would have liked to save), the team was back in action in #164 against a revised line-up of baddies calling themselves the Lethal Legion. The opening scene showed Simon Williams going through tests under the supervision of Tony Stark, the Black Panther, the Beast and… Yellowjacket?? After I had read the issue, I went back to look for clues to Hank’s sudden sanity. None. When the next issue came out, same thing. And again, and again – and no hint whatsoever as to how Hank had gotten back up and running. Nada. When #170 arrived and I saw that the "Bride of Ultron" story was apparently being continued, I thought surely Hank’s mental state would be addressed. Even when he was brought face-to-face with the robot for whom Jan’s life force was intended, he remained calm, almost as analytical as the Vision might have been. And that was that. The story, which was very good – I certainly don’t mean to diminish its wonderment and lasting greatness – ended and Hank was just status quo.

And he remained that way until Avengers #193 (March 1980), when I quit buying new comics. I was about to enter high school. I had big disco hair, acne, and no girlfriend. Solution = quit being a “comic geek”. So I quit cold turkey. It wasn’t until I was in the second semester of my freshman year in college that I found out there were friends of mine who were interested in comics – and at that time I had a decent haircut, my face had cleared up, and I was dating the girl who would become my wife. The first issue I bought off the spinner rack at the drug store closest to my campus was Avengers #257, drawn by one of my childhood idols, John Buscema. The line-up took a bit of getting used to, with the new Captain Marvel and Starfox seeming somewhat out-of-place. It took several issues, too, to get used to the Wasp being in the book without Hank in some incarnation. But I soon began to figure out why he wasn’t around. His betrayal of the team, physical abuse of Jan, and their divorce became apparent. As money was available (God bless student loans!), and as I found out that there were now comics shops run through a “direct market”, I attempted to fill in the gaps in my collection that had in reality become a chasm during my high school hiatus. I also decided I’d attempt to get a complete run of the Avengers.


david_b said...

Doug, as one of your loyal 'students of all things Pym', thanks for this new edition.

Jeez, wasn't 161 a spectacular Ant-Man issue, although not for the right reasons.. EXCELLENT cover, wonderful Perez art, great to see Hank nearly taking down the entire team. Although one would suspect Vish could have zeroed in on him quickly enough and zapped Hank in flight, a little suspension of common sense is needed for this battle.

It was gratifying to have a nice backdrop of previous events through Jan's eyes, and while the apprehension of Hank in the next issue was depressing, I'd agree it was surreal to see YellowJacket appear in the following Legion stories. There could have been at least some passing comments or thought balloons to convey a coherent sense of continuity.

I haven't looked at those issues for a while, so thanks for noticing that.

And Doug, funny you should mention the college 'come-back'.. Ish 161 was probably the last Avengers issue I had picked up until a few years into college and a couple of girlfriends later. I started up around 257 as well. Agreed on Marvel and Starfox ~ Never saw any point to either of them (especially Starfox), but just seeing Cap drawn by ol' John Buscema again was enough for me..!!

Edo Bosnar said...

Hank "getting better" off-panel always left me puzzled as well - he's a raving madman at the end of that issue, and a few issues later everybody's acting like nothing happened. That was never really satisfactorily explained, was it?
Otherwise, I agree with you about Shooter's writing in the Avengers at that point: it was very good. Then came that post-200 run, which was an unmitigated disaster, and not just because of the Hank b-slapping Jan scene.
As for the 'new' Captain Marvel, I actually really liked the character, I just never saw the point of calling her Captain Marvel...

J.A. Morris said...

I always loved the way Ant-man(a character often dismissed as a joke0 took down the team, even if I knew Hank's story would have a sad ending.

Great cover, especially the Gil Kane-esque perspective that makes Wanda look ridiculously zaftig!

dbutler16 said...

Not only was 161 a great issue, it was the first issue of the Avengers I ever bought! Having Hank take on the Avengers realistically required some fine writing.

You sure missed a turbulent time in ol' Hank's life when you were in high school. Avengers #229 was a high point for Hank, though, as he singlehandedly defeated Egghead and the Masters of Evil, without any super powers. As osmeon who thoughty Hank got a raw deal, that was a sweet issue for me.

William said...

Awesome topic. This has long been my favorite Avengers story. (With #164-166 a close second). I too was always flabbergasted that they just dropped the whole thing with Hank like it never happened. Maybe Shooter didn't realize what an impact that development had on readers. Maybe he just assumed that everyone would figure that the Avengers did indeed fix him up between issues and that was that.

This was the first story I'd ever read with Ultron in it, and he has been one of my favorite baddies ever since. There was just so much to love about these comics. Starting with the cover to #161. It must have taken Perez forever to draw all those ants. Another thing I loved about this one was Wonder Man's costume. A lot of people don't like it, but when I was a kid I thought it was totally awesome. It was the first time I'd ever seen Wondy and he instantly became one of my favorite B-listers. (I would kill to have a Marvel Legend's figure of him in that costume, as well as a classic Ultron). The fight between the Avengers and Ultron in this issue was truly epic. From the dramatic entrance of a tattered Beast, to the moment when Jarvis turns on the lights and sees the aftermath of the battle, this comic blew my young mind! In fact, to this day the end of #161 remains my favorite cliffhanger ending of all time.

The next issue was incredible as well. When Thor shows up, and he and the remaining Avengers (Iron Man, Black Panther and Wonder Man) set out to take down Ultron. When they finally discover Ultron's location and they charge into battle with Thor dramatically declaring that they would fight to death and Wonder Man doubting himself. When Black Panther confronts Ultron in his lair, and the maniacal machine tells him he was a fool to come there alone. Then dramatically Thor, Wonder Man and Iron Man come crashing in, declaring "He didn't come alone! Not by a long shot!" I still think that scene is the coolest moment of any comic I've ever read. (I've actually borrowed it more than once for my own action figure comics). Then the subsequent battle and defeat of Ultron. Just wonderful, wonderful stuff. One of the most satisfying comic stories I ever read - and it was all done in 2 issues. Today it would have taken 6 minimum and it wouldn't have been nearly as fun or satisfying. They just don't make them like this anymore. (long sigh)

david_b said...


Ditto on Wanda's 'zaftig'.. Hey, a little cheesecake here and there never hurts..


david_b said...

Hey, distinguished comrades, here's an research update..:

I read through the issues 164-167 and a brief explanation for Hank's return to service on the Letters Page in ish 167 (2nd column), where it provides credit to Tony Stark's machines for reversing Hank's instability.

Fairly weak, but I guess it suited the Shooter regime at the time.

Fred W. Hill said...

Yeah, that was rather weak, David b -- this issue was a strong start to what could have been a very interesting story line but IMO Shooter dropped the ball and a reference to the outcome in the letters page just doesn't cut it. Shooter had some great story ideas but too often the overall execution left something to be desired. It does seem Shooter had it in for Pym, the way Byrne later had it in for the Vision and later writers had it in for Wanda and Jan, but I was long gone prior to the character deconstruction of the latter three.

Donald G said...

IIRC, there's a throwaway line in Avengers #163 just before Typhon attacks where Iron Man tells the Beast that he's heard from Jan that Hank's responding to treatment and should be back on duty in a couple of weeks.

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