On my travels across this great internet I’ve been lucky enough to find forums filled with what I can only describe as “rabid” comic fans. Comic book fans that live and breathe this medium far more than I do. Make no mistake, while I can call them my comrades, a lot of them are off their nut in ways that continually impress me. But that’s the best breed of fanboy – if you hang out with them long enough, fan theories and explanations bubble up that can completely change your outlook on the characters and stories we’ve known and loved for decades. Why do I bring this up? Because I have a DOOZY for you guys, but I really can’t take the credit for it. So whoever you are, thanks.
So what’s this all about? One of my favorite classic characters:
I make fun of Pym all the time. Don’t expect it to stop—he’s an easy target, and I’m not above snatching the low hanging fruit—but if you really dig deep into his history you find a man who EMBODIES the struggle to make yourself a better person. No matter what happens to him, no matter what he does, no matter the situation – the dude just keeps putting one foot in front of the other.
His breakout story in comics was in the anthology book Tales to Astonish #27 in 1962. It was meant to be a one-off tale of a scientist who was shunned by his contemporaries; a guy who decided to research ideas that came from his imagination, and not just conventional wisdom. He discovered how to shrink things down to a fraction of their size through a special serum, but somehow (oh no!) he shrank himself down and had to fight off ants. During his adventure he befriended one of the ants, and it helped him get back to his lab so he could grow back to normal size. It’s actually a really fun tale – a Twilight Zone kind of thing. It sold so well, Stan Lee said, “That sold so well that I thought making him into a superhero might be fun.” And thus, Ant-Man was born.
But let’s stick with his origins for a second. With only a few panels to learn something about the man and why he shrank himself in the first place, we learn that it was all because he wanted to show those narrow-minded scientists what he could do; he wanted to show his genius! How could they belittle him like that? He storms into his lab, quickly tests his shrinking serum on a chair, and then says “oh hey, I need a test subject. I’ll use myself!” This is crazy behavior, especially for a scientist. You know who does stuff like that?
He then started dong insane things like shrinking himself down and talking to ants; fighting crime while riding on bugs; and stopping super villains by mini-punching them in the schnoz. In the middle of all that, he met Janet Van Dyne – who would eventually become his wife and superheroing partner. Her father (another scientist) was killed during an experiment by an interdimensional monster, and she pressured Pym into giving her powers so she could help him stop the creature and avenge her father. So what does Hank do? Injects her with Pym Particles and mutates the hell out of her to give her weird insect wings and energy blasts! This was a completely reasonable and scientifically safe thing to do!
After that Janet became more than his crime fighting partner – they fell deeply in love, and married. More importantly, she became his foil – where he was a mad genius, she was a lover of life. Where he would normally stick himself in a lab for weeks on end, she would pull him out into the sunlight and get him to have fun. That’s what an insane inventor usually lacks in all those movies, isn’t it?
They always have mistresses, or captured beauties, but they never have an equal. There is never a best friend or lover that keeps them from being isolated, resulting in an echo chamber of self-doubt and anger at a world that would never understand their amazing minds. Having someone who understood and appreciated him forced Hank further into being a hero. Without her, the logical conclusion for good ol’ Hank would have been a crazy hairdo, giant ant troopers, and shrink rays that could hold whole cities hostage. So what now? What does a mad scientist do when the love of his life convinces him that being a good person and helping others is a worthwhile pursuit? He invents ways to make himself grow huge in addition to shrinking, and he starts augmenting all of his powers with more gear and tech.
Throughout his career he’s had more name changes and power sets than any marvel hero I can think of. Ant-Man, Giant Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket – he even just goes by “Doctor Pym” for a time, and uses completely reasonable science to help people. With every step he is forcing himself to be a hero, when his obvious true path would have been one of the greatest science villains the world has ever known. But when you force yourself away from your true calling, things keep going wrong.
He’s always trying to help, trying to make the world a better place with the only skills he has—crazy science no one should ever mess around with—but instead of intentionally destroying cities or keeping the world in the pit of fear, he does it by mistake. “Hey! I’ll make a robot that can think for itself, and program it to improve humanity! Oh, what if I shrunk down all of our problems? Why is everyone looking at me like that?” His name as a scientist is marred, even to this day, and his most amazing accomplishments are overshadowed by his worst failures.
What do you think that would do to a person? To ultimately fail, even when you succeed? To know that everything you feel inside is yelling “I’LL DESTROY THEM ALL” but always ignoring it for the greater good? You go crazy, that’s what.
Eventually, with all of his pressures to be a hero, all of his defeats staying with him (while all of his victories are forgotten), and all of his achievements turned on him – he suffers a psychological break and undergoes a total personality shift. His mind can’t handle being Pym anymore, and he dives head first into being his exact opposite – Yellowjacket, a swashbuckling hero that dives headfirst into the fray. But this doesn’t work either, because it’s not him. It’s not even the man who he truly wants to be – it’s a made up persona. And eventually he ends up hurting the people he loves most.
On a personal note, this is actually one of my favorite parts of his history—in the grand scheme of things, mental illness isn’t really touched upon in super hero comics—and this subject was presented in a way that wasn’t incredibly insulting to the reader, and didn’t make him out to be a villain. He was just not well, and through a lot of work and support he got back to a place where he could live a happy life. I think that’s a great story to tell.
So who is Pym, really?
He is a man who has the soul of a hero and the mind and skills of a supervillain. His madness isn’t an obsession with hats, eggs, giant mechanical spiders, or any of the usual things you expect from a cackling genius – but it’s manifested as an obsession with being a good person. Over the past few years he’s opened a school, stopped a threat to the entire timeline, and started his own team of Avengers. However, the school was opened to stop a group of young people from turning into super villains; the universal threat was something invented by him and was solved because of an incredibly convoluted plan involving mind-wiping and creating a computer virus that is currently attacking mankind; and the new team (Avengers AI) which includes Vision, a repurposed Doombot, and Victor Mancha (basically the son of Ultron), among other various robots, was put together to fight that same virus he created.
Oh, and S.H.I.E.L.D hates them.
Persistent universes, characters that are written throughout decades (hell in 25 years we’re going to see the 100th birthday of Superman) take on a life of their own. The constant additions and redactions of many different talents creates a person with a history and depth that transcends one writer’s idea of a hero. He isn’t just The Man in the Anthill anymore – He’s Hank Pym, and thank god for that, or else I think he would have given Doctor Doom a run for his money.