Thursday, May 27, 2010

55: Tales to Astonish #44

Tales to Astonish #44
March 5, 1963

  • And so we finally get to the introduction of Janet Van Dyne, the Wasp. And what a tale it is! After over 100 pages of mostly mundane Ant-Man stories, the levels to which this story succeeds is nothing less than astonishing. In part, this may be due to the increased size, as the feature is allotted 18 pages this month instead of the usual 13 - and it makes the most of the them. In fact, when thinking of the device of using one story to tell what's really two, with the flashback origin immediately followed by the monster menace du jour, it's hard not to think of Fantastic Four #1. That may be a lofty comparison with which even the greatest Ant-Man story can't compete ... but the fact that it's even in the conversation is proof of its high marks indeed.

    The one time Larry Lieber tried to write with an evocative style, we got "the octopus
    of crime has many tentacles..."  Ernie Hart's effort is more a success!

  • Had I known ahead of time that this story was going to feature "the secret origin of Ant-Man", I would have laughed. After all, we saw Hank Pym when he first discovered his shrinking formula. And we saw his next story, when he donned super-hero garb, used his cybernetic helmet to talk to the ants, and took down his first Commie spies. What's left to tell? I would have wondered, when the answer is, in retrospect, fairly obvious: Though he was a superhero, he wasn't a Marvel hero. He had no tragedy, no melodrama, no painful beginnings ... and, as so many of his stories to date had shown, no excitement. Until now, when a daydream sends his mind back to the time he visited Hungary with his new wife, Maria. She and her father had once been political prisoners of the state, but they had fled long before to make a new life in America. Sadly, Communist grudges are not easily forgot, and Maria is kidnapped and killed on their honeymoon while her father is similarly assassinated by agents back in the US. And so Pym vowed to one day find the men responsible (and wage war on the criminal element in the meantime), thus providing the drive to develop his shrinking formula in the first place. Oddly enough, this unresolved plot thread wouldn't be touched on again until twenty-five years later...!

    Hank Pym swears vengeance.  Then forgets all about it.

  • After his reverie, Pym starts to think about how effective he's been on his own, and how much better he might be with a partner. Enter society playgirl Janet Van Dyne, who - despite an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife - immediately gives Hank the impression of a spoiled, flighty child. All that changes, however, when her scientist father is killed by a creature from beyond the stars, and she passionately implores Dr. Pym to help bring his murderer to justice. And suddenly we've got so much: A partner for Ant-Man - someone he can talk to besides his loyal insect army. An instant chemistry between the two, though Pym (of course) feels he must resist. And a spontaneous, energetic spirit, to contrast with his upright, scientific one.

    Janet Van Dyne swears vengeance.  And gets it.
    Too bad Hank wasn't taking notes....

  • It's such a great story, and so markedly above what we've come to expect from the standard Ant-Man tale, that the whole creative team should be applauded. The many welcome additions to the usual format had to originate with Stan, of course, but the scripting from Ernie Hart (credited as H.E. Huntley) is also beyond the norm, with some of the narration even reaching for the poetic. The art is incredibly refined as well, but ... who is it by? The credits box in the issue states Jack Kirby on pencils, with Don Heck inking. However, in checking the front-of-book credits in my Marvel Masterworks reprint, I was surprised to see Don Heck listed as the sole artist for #44 - as he has been for the last three issues, and will be for the next four. An accidental omission of Kirby's credit? Or did the Masterworks reprint editor know something we don't? Certainly I was surprised to see the Kirby credit in the issue, as the art looks to my eye wholly Heck, feathery and romantic, without a trace of the exaggerated power that Kirby's figures are known for. On the other hand, another reader has pointed out that the unusual perspectives and intricate machinery in the background are Jack's hallmarks, so perhaps he only did layouts for the story, as opposed to full pencils. (Which we've seen before.) And for a game-changing story like this, you could imagine Stan bringing Jack back to the title to design the new character, and make sure the pages had the foundation of dynamism and excitement they would need. I don't know; am I really just making too much of an omitted credit in the front of a reprint book? It may very well be....

    Melodrama in the foreground, alien menace in the back, army tanks getting set,
    and bystanders fleeing the scene.  You really couldn't ask for a more perfect panel!