1. Humble beginnings
Part of any good story about how a superhero came to be is the humbleness of his origins. “Two kids dream up strong guy in cape; get turned down by almost every publisher before hitting it big.” “A strip about kid with spider powers gets stuck in last issue of cancelled series; publisher takes chance after issue sees spike in sales.” You get the idea. Ant-Man is no different. Henry “Hank” Pym, a shrinking scientist who falls inside an anthill, first appeared in a short story in Tales to Astonish, one of Marvel’s generic mystery-and-monster magazines. It was as run-of-the-mill, Code-approved “horror” as you can get; there were no costumes or other superhero trappings, and definitely no sign that Lee and Kirby had a second story, much less a continuing strip, in mind for the doctor. (Pym even dumps his shrinking formula down the drain at the end of the tale.) But whether it was a spike in the book’s sales or an attempt to match DC’s recently launched Atom with a shrinking hero of its own, Marvel resurrected Pym as Ant-Man just nine months later, and then made him a founding member of the Avengers a year after that. The rest, as they say, is history.
If there’s one thing that separates the Silver Age superhero stuff from the stories that came before or after it, it was the almost obsessive focus on science. And that’s not surprising when you consider the times in which those stories appeared; the Cold War pushed science to the top of America’s education agenda, and Americans were surrounded daily by ads and media stories about the latest “miracle” breakthroughs in cars, cleaning products, you name it. DC’s books were more likely to turning into impromptu science lessons (reading an issue of Metal Men was equivalent to half a semester of a chemistry course), but Marvel didn’t leave its budding scientists behind. For instance, did you know ants could lift 50 times their weight, and that each colony only had a few female ants who were also called queens? Well, you did if you read Ant-Man’s early adventures.
Speaking of science. The 1950s and early ’60s were fascinating times for most Americans, but also a little bit terrifying, too. On the one hand: rapid advances in atomic energy research and amazing new discoveries involving radiation. On the other: constant threat of nuclear annihilation from missiles raining down from the sky. You took the bad with the good. The public’s fear of and fascination with radiation (especially when it came to radiation’s many unknown effects on the human body) made it the perfect “wizard-did-it” explanation for all kinds of improbable super-powers. Whether it was “cosmic radiation” or “gamma radiation” or just plain radioactive spiders, there wasn’t anything that radiation couldn’t do. And so it was that a few of Ant-Man’s earliest foes came to be because of exposure to radiation, from a humble beetle given human intelligence via exposure to radiation to a simple radio announcer whose exposure to “ionized atoms” somehow turned him into a super-persuasive fellow.
4. Instant respect of law enforcement and the public
It was right there in black and white: “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.” When the Comics Code Authority came into effect in 1954, it spelled an end to all the crime comic books that literally put “CRIME” front and centre (“11. The letters of the word “crime” on a comics magazine shall never be appreciably greater than the other words contained in the title”) while also putting the superheroes in an interesting position. By definition, the masked heroes were vigilantes, and so the writers had to find a way to get around the problem of their heroes appearing to operate outside the law. The answer, as any fan of the Batman TV show can tell you, was to portray the heroes as masked Boy Scouts: following all rules and laws, receiving plaques from the police honoring their service, and basking in the adulation of the public. Several of Ant-Man’s early stories featured scenes like this one, with citizens and police officers giving him the thumbs up while he patrolled his city (though how anyone could actually see him while he was ant-sized is a good question; methinks this whole “I’m too shy” stuff was pure hooey and he spent a lot of his time jumping up and down to attract attention).
5. The daftest bunch of super-villains you can imagine
I’ve touched on this already with a list of Ant-Man’s sillier villains from his early days, but it’s worth repeating because this was one of the more common traits of those early Silver Age superhero comics. Starting with the debut of the Silver Age Flash in 1956, the sudden increase in the number of superheroes led to an increase in the number of super-villains for them to go up against — and let’s face it, not all of them could be winners. For every Loki or Sinestro or Green Goblin that showed up, there were platoons of pitiful perpetrators who all but screamed “five minutes to deadline” just by appearing on the page. Alien warlords, Communist spies, embittered scientists, fedora-wearing gangsters, two-bit criminals who lucked across some piece of technology or object of mystical power — they all trudged through those early Silver Age stories, many of them never to be seen again. If they were really lucky, they came back years later to score an ironic appearance in a comic starring She-Hulk or Squirrel Girl, where being ridiculous (hey, Living Eraser!) worked in their favor.
6. Cutaway diagrams of secret headquarters
Call me nerdy, but I am an absolute nut for cutaway diagrams. Anything that takes me inside something, I’m totally there. And the Silver Age was awash in these fun peeks inside secret headquarters and hideouts, playing to the new sense of “realism” that was missing in the Golden Age stories. Ant-Man’s cutaway moment happened in one of his earliest issues, showing off the “secret room” inside his lab that allowed him to do his super-heroics. And right off the bat, I have questions. What reason did he give his contractors for creating tiny passageways inside his foundation and exterior wall? Where exactly did he find an “ant-size elevator”? Why go through all this trouble when he could have just left his window open a crack? Who seriously thought they needed to label the “ground outside” for Ant-Man’s readers? I mean, I know us comic readers aren’t known for our love of the great outdoors, but I’m reasonably sure most of us know how to recognize grass.
7. Waved-off explanations for obvious plot holes
Guaranteed, as soon as the scientists get their mitts on our favorite superhero stories, they’ve got to get all science-y and ruin our fun: “Proportionate speed and strength of a spider? Ho, ho, ho! Oh, you crazy kids.” And don’t even get them started about the impossibility of giants roaming the land, because they’ll just be all square-cube law right up in your face. So naturally, you can expect them to have a few issues with a hero whose shtick is shrinking in size; even if you can faux-scientifically explain away the issues involving mass and density (this fascinating article from Wired discusses the science behind Ant-Man’s size-altering science, suggesting he’s not really “shrinking” or “enlarging” but instead shifting himself into another dimension), there’s still the issue of Ant-Man’s limited effectiveness as a crime-fighter, given how ineffective his teeny fists would be against any normal-sized human. Lee’s explanation? When Pym takes the shrinking serum, it reduces his size but not his strength. See? Problem solved. Of course, this opens up a whole new set of questions about leverage and surface pressure and… dang it, who let the killjoy scientists back in?
8. No real motive for putting on tights and fighting crime
The best superheroes have clear reasons for choosing their career path. Batman has vengeance. Spider-Man corners the market on guilt. Green Lantern has that sense of duty that comes from being part of something greater than himself. And then there are the other heroes who didn’t really have any clear reason for pulling on the union longjohns. One minute, Pym’s inventing shrinking gases and helmets that let him talk to ants; the next, he’s out taking down bank robbers and alien conquerors. Why? Who knows? That’s just how they rolled back in the Silver Age: you get a super-power, you bust some heads. The writers did eventually come up with a motive involving a murdered wife and a Bible verse about going to the ants, but it was still pretty weak sauce. And it still didn’t explain how the hell a scientist who worked by himself in a laboratory in his house made the money needed to afford swanky ant-sized elevators.
9. Death traps, death traps, death traps!
I don’t even have to explain this one, do I? Death traps are a time-honored tradition in the comics, what with the plethora of criminal masterminds who keep insisting that shooting a hero at their mercy is too quick a death for them and oh my God just shoot them already!!! A common theme in Ant-Man’s early adventures involved his adversaries underestimating his ability to get out of traps involving bathtubs, flypaper, glass cages, sewer grates, vacuum cleaners, and other deadly obstacles for an ant-sized adventurer. One criminal mastermind even said, “To hell with it — he’s showing up with ants, I’m bringing a goddamn anteater to the party.” Readers were supposed to thrill at the artful ways he escaped from these traps (“That lollipop stick — it’s my only chance!”), but on the whole they were slightly underwhelming, and you’re left wondering why no one just squished the little bugger under their shoe.
10. Typical-for-the-times attitudes about women
I’m not going to sugarcoat it — the ’60s was a lousy time to be a woman working in the superhero business (unlike today, a time when the ladies are given — ahem — nothing but the utmost respect). For the most part, women in the Silver Age stories were objects for the boys to moon over, occasional hostages, frequent wet blankets, and flustered flibbertigibbets who only got in the way. Even Sue Richards, the fully grown member of the Fantastic Four who was known as the “Invisible Girl” until freakin’ 1985, was often cast in her early years as someone whose main purpose was fretting over the boys. Sadly, Ant-Man’s adventures weren’t much better; when Marvel introduced the Wasp to give the strip a boost, they did it in the most patronizing way possible, casting her as a socialite-turned-lovestruck naif who professed her love for Pym in her very first adventure, only to have him pat her on the head and call her a child for having those — what do you call them? — feelings. After all, he could never reciprocate those feelings for her! That would be crazy! Now let’s button those ruby lips and never talk about this again, okay, sweetcheeks?