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Tales to Astonish 44
"The Creature From Kosmos!"

COVER IMAGE NOT FOUND June 1963; Marvel Comics; featuring the astonishing Ant-Man and a new ally in battle against "The Creature From Kosmos!", a story edited and plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by "H.E. Huntley" (a pseudonym, I believe, for former Atlas Comics staffer Ernie Hart); pencilled by Jack Kirby and inked by Don Heck. (And reviewed, here, by Bill Henley.)

On the cover by Kirby and Heck, Ant-Man is pulled from the grasp of a green, globby monster by a figure then unfamiliar to readers, a young woman in a costume similar to Ant-Man's but with the addition of insect wings sprouting from her back. A blurb enclosed within an arrow pointing to her invites us, "Meet the flying WASP, Ant-Man's gorgeous new partner-in-peril! " Just so we know for sure who all the players are, another blurb announces, "ANT-MAN and the THE WASP battle "' THE CREATURE FROM KOSMOS!!" (Yes, the letterer put in two "the"s) And yet another blurb promises, "A Double-Length Ant-Man Super-Epic!" (Hmmm... previous Ant-Man epics ran between 10 and 13 pages. This one has 18 pages. So, technically speaking, this is false advertising-- the story would have to be at least 20 pages to be "double-length".)

The Ant-Man strip had been running not quite a year at this point (not counting the one-shot sci-fi tale in ASTONISH #27 that introduced the non-costumed Henry Pym). Stan Lee apparently thought the series was lagging in reader interest (I had figured it was probably lagging in actual sales, but checking circulation figures cited in the "Standard Catalog of Comic Books", I find that ASTONISH at this time was at 189,300 copies an issue, right on par with the other "ex-monster" superhero books, JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, STRANGE TALES and TALES OF SUSPENSE). Anyway, Stan pulled out the stops to give the insect crusader a relaunch of sorts. He brought back Jack Kirby for an issue (Kirby had begun the Ant-Man series and then handed it off after a few issues to Don Heck). He put in a big green alien monster, just in case anyone was missing the kind of creatures that were headlined in ASTONISH before Ant-Man came along. He added some fillips to Ant-Man's origin and gave the previously rather dull and sobersided Henry Pym a dose of character development and Marvel-style superhero angst. And, most significantly, he gave Ant-Man something no other Marvel hero of the period had, a costumed sidekick. (I was gong to say no other hero had a sidekick, period, but then I remembered the Hulk and Rick Jones...) This sidekick would not be a young boy liable to raise doubts among the evil-minded about the hero's masculinity, however....

On the splash page, both Ant-Man and the Wasp (or should it be "the the Wasp"?) are fleeing the grasp of the Creature from Kosmos, Wasp under her own wing-power and Ant-Man astride a pair of his loyal ant steeds. A verbose opening blurb promises us, in part, "You will learn here, for the first time, the reason that Henry Pym BECAME the Ant-Man, the past that gnaws like a cancer at the soul of this man, giving him no rest, driving him to the strangest adventures any man has ever known! You will see him find a companion to aid in his solitary fight against injustice, tyranny and crime, the companion who will become known as...THE WASP!"

As this momentous tale begins, the Ant-Man returns to his lab following an unspecified mission. Dismissing the "huge soldier ant" he has been riding, the tiny hero releases his "growth gas" and resumes his normal size and his identity as "the sceintist Henry Pym, a man driven to restlessness by bitter memories!" Weary from his labors and suffering apparently a fit of depression, Pym sinks into an armchair and muses, "I must always be alone! It is my fate!" But his memories go back to a time when he was not alone, when he had a bride, a beautiful woman of East European extraction named Maria Trovaya. The newlywed Pyms had decided-- against Henry's better judgment-- to spend their honeymoon in Hungary, a country then (in the real world as well as the Marvel Universe) under dictatorial Communist rule. Henry worried that Maria might be recognized as a refugee from Communism. But Maria wanted to revisit the scenes of her childhood, and she was confident that the Communist authorities would not make the connection between political prisoner Maria Trovaya and American visitor Mrs. Henry Pym. Maria was at ease enough to make a mild joke with her husband, who admitted he was glad to be with her rather than slaving away in his science lab at home; "Ha! You are becoming a lazy husband! My father always used to say 'Go to the ants, thou dullard!"' But you are not an industrious ant, are you, my love?" Unfortunately, Maria was harboring a false sense of security, and her bubble was popped when a secret-police thug pulled her into a car while another trench-coated goon pistol-whipped Henry and leaves him unconscious on the street. An hour later, Henry was at the American embassy, waiting for officials to obtain word of his wife. Alas, when the word came it was not good; Maria Pym nee Trovaya has been found dead, with a note warning "this is what happens to those who attempt to escape from the Iron Curtain". To compound the tragedy, it was learned that Red agents in America had murdered Maria's father, a fellow refugee, by blowing up his science lab.

An enraged Henry Pym shrugged off promises of action by the American government, vowing personal revenage; "I'll find the ones who did this! I'll make them pay! I swear it!" But he lacked the power to make his vow good, and the only result was that "The young scientist went berserk, and within a few days landed in jail on the verge of a mental and physical breakdown!" He was released from the Hungarian jail by Ameican pressure, and sent home, but he found no peace there, haunted by a chance saying of his lost wife; "I remember what she said; "Go to the ants, thou sluggard!' [A Biblical proverb, I believe, though I don't know chapter and verse.] Yes, she was right! I sit here doing nothing while criminals prowl, injustice is rampant, tyranny tramples the underdog!" And it was under this compulsion to imitate the lowly but industrious ant and to do something to change the world, that Henry Pym invented his shrinking and growth gases and adopted the costumed identity of the Ant-Man.

(This is clearly an early example of a retcon, since the original Henry Pym story from ASTONISH #27 includes no suggestion that he has a mission of vengeance or any motivation for his shrinking experiments besides a wish to impress his fellow scientists with his genius. Moreover, in that story Pym's initial reaction to a harrowing experience within an ant hill is to destroy his serums and swear off wild adventures, not to turn his invention into a weapon against evil and tyranny.

However, much later, after Henry Pym no longer had his own series and was a supporting character in AVENGERS and elsewhere, later writers depicted him as a man with a tendency toward mental instability and wild mood swings. Some fans complained this was a case of latter-day "deconstuction" of a once noble and stalwart hero. Here, however, we see the idea of Henry Pym as mentally and emotionally unstable was planted within a year of his series' start. Even the inconsistency between the first "Man in the Ant-Hill" story and this one could be explained as Pym's bipolar or manic-depressive tendences playing themselves out-- in depressive phase he gives up shrinking, when he returns to manic phase he recreates the serum and becomes the costumed Ant-Man.)

Anyway, now Henry Pym begins obsessing with the idea that as a lone crusader he is still not doing enough, that he needs a partner not only to watch his back but to"carry on if some day I meet defeat and death!" He begins working with cells of another type of insect, the wasp, to find a way to grant special abilities to a potential partner. But who will that partner be? "Who could I ever trust to know the secrets of the Ant-Man...know my TRUE IDENTITY?" Seemingly not either of the pair of visitors who interrupt his work one day. Dr. Vernon Van Dyne is a gray-haired fellow scientist, not the man of action type. And tagging along is his daughter Janet. Henry Pym notes she has a resemblance to his lost Maria "but she's much younger! Not much more than a CHILD!" For her part, Janet Van Dyne thinks, "He's quite handsome! But scientists are such bores! I prefer the ADVENTUROUS type, not those dull, intellectual bookworms!" In any case, Dr. Van Dyne's errand is not to make a match for his daughter, but to enlist the aid of eminent scientist Henry Pym in his own pet project-- "a gamma-ray beam to pierce space and detect signals from other planets!" However, Pym shows scant interest in the project, for it is outside of his scientific specialty-- "My field is molecular cell transition and cell specialization!" (This is a rare example of a comic-book writer showing awareness that scientists have specialties and that being an expert in one scientific field doesn't make one an expert in all. More commonly, a comic-book "scientist"-- such as Reed Richards over at the Baxter Building-- is assumed to be a polymath genius at everything from physics to chemistry to biology to astronomy.)

While Henry Pym returns to his experiments and his monitoring insect communications for signs of trouble requiring the Ant-Man's aid, Dr. Van Dyne continues with his own lone experimenting. And one day he finds success, but it is a pyrrhic victory indeed. Traveling bodily across space by means of the gamma-ray beam (which perhaps operates on similar principles to the Zeta-Beam or Professor Erdel's robot brain teleportation beam, over at the DC universe) a "vast, shapeless, viscous" life-form arrives in Dr. Van Dyne's lab. Like DC's J'onn J'onzz, the visitor from the far planet Kosmos is green and amorphous of shape. (Though Hulk fans may have wondered; did he start out green, or did the "gamma-ray beam" turn him that color?) Unlike J'onn, this alien is no friendly visitor. The Creature introduces himself with perverted pride as "The greatest criminal Kosmos has ever seen!" He just missed managing to conquer his homeworld and enslave its inhabitants. But now, Van Dyne's beam offers him a second chance to conquer a world-- ours! One necessary precaution is to destroy the teleportation beam, and the mind that created it, lest other Kosmosians pursue their world's archcriminal. And so, the Creature hypnotically forces Dr. Van Dyne to meet its baleful gaze. And some time later, when young Janet checks in on her father at his lab, she encounters an "awful mist" which parts to reveal a still more horrifying sight. Frantic for help, Janet takes it into her head to call scientist Henry Pym rather than the police or medics. Pym is initially skeptical; "These bored society playgirls are all alike! But it's pretty gruesome for her to get her kicks by making up a horror story about her father!" Considering some of the things Pym has already seen in his short career as Ant-Man, he is hardly the one to discount bizarre "horror stories"; and a signal from his ant network makes clear that Janet's horrific tale is no mere ploy for attention. He resolves to come to Janet's aid, not as Henry Pym, but as Ant-Man. But when the mini-hero arrives at the Van Dyne lab, nothing can help the elder Van Dyne, for he lies dead on his lab floor. And his ray machine is wrecked; "but what kind of thing could twist and smash heavy metal that way?" Janet Van Dyne is bowed by grief, made worse by the realization that "I never showed [my father] how much I loved him! I thought it wasn't sophisticated! Now I'll never have the chance! But there's one thing I can do... AVENGE him!" And now Henry Pym sees in the distraught young woman a kindred spirit; "The bored, flighty shell she wore is gone! She has determination, strength of character! I wonder if SHE....?" Ant-Man directs Janet to put in a call to Lee Kearns, Ant-Man's contact with the FBI, and then visit Henry Pym at his lab. Leaving the Van Dyne lab, Ant-Man is puzzled to find his usual swarm of attending ants gone. When he finds them, they explain that they are afraid of the alien creature that visited that place-- even though it is seemingly akin to the ants themselves, since the mist the alien left behind contains traces of formic acid, a substance secreted by ants.

Back at his own lab, Henry Pym greets Janet Van Dyne, wearing a robe over his Ant-Man costume. After satisfying himself that Janet's newfound thirst for vengeance and justice matches his own, he reveals his secret identity to her. "I put my LIFE in your hands! I tell you because I need a PARTNER... and I have CHOSEN her! I am-- THE ANT-MAN!" If she is willing, Henry Pym will use his experiments with wasp cells to give her abilities complementing his own, and "I can make you a human wasp! ANT-MAN AND THE WASP!" "I say, YES! Show me how and I will stand beside you always-- to avenge my father's death! I swear it!" And so, Henry Pym proceeds to implant microscopic wasp cells in Janet's body. cells that will give her abilities complementing his own.

Meanwhile, panic erupts as the Creature from Kosmos flows from under the street to reveal its existence. Receiving alarms both from the ant world and the FBI, Ant-Man directs Janet to don the Wasp costume he has made for her, and for the first time she experiences the "weird" feeling of shrinking to the size of an insect under the influence of Henry Pym's shrinking gas. And when she does so, the wasp cells in her body develop into wings to bear her aloft and antennae to put her in touch with the insect world. As his tiny catapult hurls Ant-Man across the city, towards the George Washington Bridge which the Creature is threatening to demolish, the Wasp keeps pace with him under her own wing-power, and she declares the experience "exhilarating!" And then she reveals another feeling; "Ant-Man, I think you're WONDERFUL! I want you to know...in case this creatures kills us, as it did my father, I-I'm falling in love with you!" But as they approach the chaotic scene of the Creature's attack, Ant-Man rejects this romantic overture; "No! You mustn't say that! You're only a child! I chose you as my partner because I thought you had a reason, as I have, to fight for mankind! I never want to love again! I-- couldn't bear it if I had to lose a loved one-- twice!" In the privacy of her thoughts, the Wasp takes this rebuff as a challenge rather than a rejection; "So I'm only a CHILD, am I! Well, Mister Ant-Man...we shall SEE!" And so, the Ant-Man faces the murderous Creature From Kosmos with the aid of the Wasp-- but not that of his faithful horde of ants, for they warn that "something about it prevents us from approaching it!" Nor are the Army soldiers sent to attack the creature much help; their modern weapons are of no use, and they risk being hypnotized and destroyed by it if they even look into its eyes. Without further aid, Ant-Man warns the Wasp, "we have hardly a chance!" Taking caution for timidity, the angry Wasp leaps into battle against the creature on her own, only to be caught in its deadly gaze and nearly drawn to her doom. Pulling the wayward Wasp to safety just in time, Ant-Man rebukes her but also reassures her; "Don't you try anything like that again! I didn't say I was quitting! I've just got to find a WAY to fight that thing! And I think I've FOUND it now!" Back at his lab, Ant-Man muses on the discovery the ants made earlier, that the Creature is composed mainly of formic acid. And formic acid, used by "certain species of ants to sting and kill enemies," has an antidote! Concocting that antidote, Ant-Man directs the Wasp in filling 12-gauge shotgun shells with it. The shotgun and box of shells are too big for the tiny Ant-Man and Wasp to carry to the scene of the Creature's attack, so they recruit a swarm of ants to carry them. (This seems like a situation where it might make sense for our heroes to stay in normal size....) Climbing to the roof of a building and then ordering the ants away to safety, Ant-Man prepares to attack the Creature while the Wasp wonders how they can even pull the shotgun trigger in their tiny size. Ant-Man explains, "You will find, as I have, that even though you are reduced in size, you still retain much of the strength of a full-grown human!" Once, twice, the antidote-filled shotgun shells are fired at the Creature...and though it momentarily continues to advance, the Creature begins "falling apart...wavering,..." and then vanishes from sight altogether. After a brief moment of elation over his victory, Ant-Man assumes a stoic mask and chides his new partner; "From now on you must not disply such emotion! It-- it isn't PROPER!" But later at his lab Henry Pym, the Ant-Man, lets drop a hint of his true feelings when he talks to FBI contact Lee Kearns on the phone and Kearns urges him to form a more regular relationship with the agency; "Look, you can't keep on doing it alone!" Looking with a smile at the Wasp, Pym replies, "I'm NOT going it alone, Kearns...not anymore.... not ever again!" And the Wasp thinks, "No, my darling! I will ALWAYS be beside you! And some day I will MAKE you realize that you love me as I love you! But until that day comes, it will be as you want it...just partners... the Ant-Man and the Wasp fighting side by side!"

And so it was, for the rest of the Ant-Man series (which in a few issues became the Giant-Man series) and beyond. This story with its overtones of "I Led Three Lives" anti-Communist paranoia and romantic tragedy only partly reflects the later stories of Henry Pym and the Wasp, though. The Wasp quickly grew back her "flighty shell", and though she remained clever and resolute underneath, she put on something of an act of being airheaded, bubbly, and prone to see superheroing mainly as an excuse to flirt with other heroes and even some of the villains. In contrast with the soap-opera tones of many other Marvel tales, the Ant-Man/Giant-Man series took on almost a romantic screwball comedy vibe, with sobersided and ultra-serious Henry Pym serving as a foil for the Wasp's antics. And yet, for all her outward flakiness, the Wasp fulfilled her promise as a lifelong crusader against evil-- even after her partner's increasing mental instablity broke them up as a couple and sidelined Henry Pym as a hero. The Wasp became a charter member of the Avengers along with Ant-Man-- she even coined the new group's name-- and she would continue to serve with the group off and on up to the present, with and without Henry Pym, even taking a term or two as leader.

The "double-length" Ant-Man adventure squeezed out one of the two non-series fantasy stories that usually appeared in the back pages of ASTONISH at this time, but there was still room for "Hunted!", an atmospheric twist-ending tale by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. On the splash page, a single man stands facing an angry mob approaching him, while the shadows of still more pursuers appear at his back. "The year is 2000-- the place is New York, capital of Earth!" (Funny, I missed seeing in the news about how the Big Apple was named the global capital that year.) The "Daily Telenews" features a warning about a handsome and seemingly harmless man who nonetheless is a public menace, for he has "contacted-- THE PLAGUE!" A little child spots the fugitive, sending him on a desperate chase down into the bowels of the city and through a "pneumatic-pressure air vent" to another part of the city. But to no avail, for the alarm is out everywhere and there is no place the hunted man can go where he will not be recognized and pursued. His only hope is to reach the city spaceport and flee Earth altogether on a starship. But even this hope fails, for once again he is spotted by authorities and "all the starships will be grounded until I'm caught!" Backed into a corner, the fugitive threatens to unleash "the plague" he carries against his pursuers. But police officers proclaim, "We are willing to sacrifice our lives to rid you of the plague!" Closing in on him, the police lay hands on him and remove from his person the object which has set the whole city, the whole world, in fear of "plague". "You took it from me-- the thing I spent my life trying to obtain!" "It is too dangerous for any man to possess! But now we will return it to where it belongs!" What is it? A simple pistol-- a gun! "We will return this last remainin weapon on Earth to the museum from where you stole it! For, with that deadly thing in the hand of a man, who knows how soon the dread plague of WAR might have spread throughout the world!" (Many ironies to be found here in this simplistic little morality play. The real-life city of New York is indeed known for its stringent gun control laws, but, seven years after the supposed date of this story, there remain millions of guns in the city. The idea of eliminating all guns except for a single museum piece is a virtual absurdity, for it would be almost as reasonable to expect human beings to forget and "uninvent" the wheel as to lose the ability to build a gun. Nor, even if guns did somehow disappear, could we expect all war and violence to disappear with them-- war and violence were known ages before guns, and without guns, humans could be expected to find many other means to commit violence. And considering that advocacy of banning guns is generally regarded these days as a liberal/left-wing political cause, it's ironic that this tale should have come from the pen of Steve Ditko, in later years known as one of the most politically right-wing of comics creators.)