Continuing the read-through of as many Avengers and Fantastic Four–related Marvel comics as possible!
Tales to Astonish (starring Ant-Man) #42-46; Tales of Suspense (starring Iron Man) #40-44; Journey Into Mystery (starring Thor) #92-96; Fantastic Four #14-18, Annual #1; Strange Tales (starring the Human Torch) #109-112, Annual #2; Avengers #1; year: 1963.
We meet Janet Van Dyne, a.k.a. the Wasp, who becomes Ant-Man’s sidekick in TTA #44. This brings us up to two female superheroes in the Marvel Comics Universe—one who turns invisible and one who shrinks.
Unless I missed someone, we also get the first non-white, non-extraterrestrial super-villain who would recur, the Radioactive Man, in JIM #93 (though back then they hyphenated it as “Radio-Active”). He comes from Red China, of course.
The Fantastic Four battle the Mad Thinker and his Awesome Android for the first time in FF #15, and in the next issue they take the first trip to the Microverse. In #18, the shape-shifting alien Skrulls introduce their Super-Skrull.
The Human Torch endures his first team-up with Spider-Man in Strange Tales Annual #2 (though they first met in the first issue of Spider-Man’s series, which we’re not covering here).
And the Avengers assemble in their own first issue, with the initial line-up of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Ant-Man, and the Wasp.
The Status Is Not Quo
–So, back in the day, Ant-Man had a somewhat reckless method of travel.
At the size of an insect, he catapults himself out his window and across the city. While he’s being a projectile, ants converge at the landing spot he calculated, and they act as a cushion for him to fall on. He gives the Wasp wings so she can fly, but Ant-Man, the little reckless daredevil, keeps catapulting himself and never thinks to give himself wings. Though in TTA #46, he does start riding flying ants “like a Pegasus.” The man travels in style.
–Iron Man’s armor is powered by “transistors,” not “ark reactor” technology as seen in the movies and modern comics. And as Tony Stark, he doesn’t just have the glowing circle in his chest—he has to wear an entire armored chestplate under his clothes at all times. To recharge, he literally plugs the armor into everyday electrical sockets, the same ones you would use to plug in a toaster, and he sits there and waits. Tales of suspense, indeed.
Tony is seen dating different women in several issues, but none of these relationships last, presumably on account of his inability to take his shirt off without having some explaining to do. Though how these women never notice the peculiar hardness of his chest and stomach remains a mystery, unless Tony Stark dances like a middle school kid.
Whereas the DC Cinematic Universe feels like a rushed response to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, things were kind of the other way around in 1960s comics. DC restored the popularity of superheroes in the mid-to-late 1950s, and the publisher achieved great success teaming up the various superheroes as the Justice League of America beginning in 1960.
Marvel’s response began with the Fantastic Four, but the Avengers were considerably more JLA-like—a bunch of characters who were separately introduced in their own series coming together in the face of a powerful threat. The big difference, though, is in the JLA’s first appearance, they united to stop an alien invasion. The Avengers united while Loki was trying to get revenge on Thor.
Loki frames the Hulk so Dr. Donald Blake would have a reason to transform into Thor. Hulk’s former sidekick, Rick Jones, leads a group of youthful ham radio enthusiasts who call the Fantastic Four to investigate. But Loki diverts the message to a different wavelength, which is heard not only by Thor, but Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp as well. They meet at the teenagers’ house (or teen-agers, because hyphens were all the rage). Thor quickly suspects Loki’s involvement and ditches the others without one word as he goes to Asgard, leaving Iron Man, Ant-Man, and the Wasp to battle the Hulk for no real reason. Thor brings back a defeated Loki to sort out this misunderstanding, but Loki prepares to launch another attack, which is thwarted by Ant-Man. And Ant-Man and Wasp suggest making the team-up a regular thing, and they all figure, “Why not?” (That’s actually a direct quote from Iron Man.)
So, the Avengers—brought to you by Loki’s insecurities and ham radio. And the success of the Justice League.
But unlike in the cinematic universes, though Marvel was following DC’s lead, Marvel still wound up putting out the better product. DC rejuvenated the superhero genre, but Marvel took it to the next level by giving it more personality.
It’s still the 1960s, and it still shows in so many ways.
So let’s talk about Wasp’s first appearance, during which we also learn about Hank Pym/Ant-Man’s backstory for the first time. Turns out his wife Maria had escaped Soviet Russia, and for that affront, she was kidnapped and murdered.
When Hank meets Janet Van Dyne, his first thought is, “She…she looks somewhat like Maria! But she’s much younger! Not much more than a child!” And later on that same page: “So much like Maria! If she were not such a child…!”
So what does Pym do about these conflicted, improper feelings for a young woman he just met? After her father is killed by an alien, he decides to reveal his identity to another person for the first time and make her a superhero. I’m uncertain which stage of grieving this would be considered for either of them.
“Ant-Man…I think you’re wonderful! I want you to know, in case this creature kills us, as it did my father, I—I’m falling in love with you!” she says the day her father died. Not the healthiest beginning to a relationship there ever was.
“No! You mustn’t say that!” Ant-Man immediately responds. “You’re only a child! Let’s get this straight…I chose you as my partner simply because I thought you had a reason, as I have, to fight for mankind!” Keep telling yourself that, Hank.
Though the Ant-Man/Wasp adventures aren’t classics, her introduction enlivens the series tremendously. She shows much more personality than he does, and though she’s clearly following his lead, she demonstrates some independent initiative. But in the first Avengers, she mostly just objectifies the men and tries to make Ant-Man jealous.
However, for all the sexism that was present in these days, sexual objectification of female characters hadn’t become a thing yet, as these books were still intended primarily for children. The Invisible Girl and Wasp are fully clothed at all times.
–The Fantastic Four were the trend. They cameoed in the first issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Avengers (even appearing on the cover of the former) because they were the star attraction of the Marvel Universe. Yes—back in the day, Spidey and the Avengers needed boosts from the Fantastic Four.
–Stan Lee was on a hypnotism/mind-control bender in these issues. The Puppet Master mind-controls Namor the Sub-Mariner; a villainous Dr. Strange (no relation to the superhero Sorcerer Supreme) hypnotizes Iron Man; Radioactive Man hypnotizes Thor (because radiation can do anything); and Loki alters Thor’s personality by striking his “chromosomatic gland.” Those Asgardians and their wacky glands.
Tales to Astonish #45 – It’s so ridiculous it’s kind of amazing. Ant-Man and Wasp imperiled by an ant-eater! Ant-Man fights an iguana by riding an ant as a horse and using a pin as a lance! The Wasp uses that same pin as a stinger to disarm henchmen! And lines like “Oh, Ant-Man, can’t you see I’m a woman and in love with you? How can a man so brilliant be so blind?”
Fantastic Four #18 – A great example of old-fashioned comic book–style action as the Fantastic Four battle a Skrull that possesses superior versions of all their powers. And the warm-up act is the FF getting mobbed by adoring fans while shopping at the mall.
Fantastic Four Annual #1 – The longest story by this point, and it builds on elements previously established, such as the attraction between Namor and Sue Storm. Namor has finally found the Atlantean race, and they declare war on the surface world. What’s most interesting, and groundbreaking for the era, is how Namor meets his defeat. The FF don’t succeed in overpowering him, but when the Invisible Girl is seriously hurt, Namor drops everything to get her to a hospital. The Atlanteans see this as a betrayal and abandon him, leaving Namor ostracized both on land and in the sea.
Thor’s solo stories are pretty bad. Chief offender:
Journey Into Mystery #95: Thor’s physician alter ego created an android, because what doctor doesn’t have enough spare time to create artificial intelligence? “Dr. Blake’s fantastic anatomical knowledge enabled him to construct this synthetic creature down to its last cell!” But the android is soon destroyed by a jealous scientist, who then unleashes his own duplicator ray on the world, which says to hell with physics and creates matter—and life—instantly out of nothing. This era has plenty of charming absurdity, but this is just dumb absurdity. Before meeting his demise, the scientist accidentally duplicates himself, producing a non-evil but still brilliant duplicate whom Thor feels will be good for mankind. But the evil scientist had kidnapped Jane Foster, and Thor tells her, as she’s still tied to a chair, that the scientist has “snapped out of it and he’s sorry for what he’s done.” Yeah, that makes kidnapping all better.
“So he’s from Red China, huh? That explains why he’s after Thor!” –Dr. Donald Blake, JIM #92, noting the commies’ well-documented hostility toward Norse mythology.
“Stop acting like a lovesick female…!” –Ant-Man, not the perfect gentleman to the Wasp, in Avengers #1
“But there is one thing I can do…avenge him!” –Janet Van Dyne, immediately pre-Wasp in TTA #44
“That’s right! We need a name! It should be something colorful and dramatic, like…the Avengers…” –Wasp, Avengers #1. So when she’s not pining away for Pym, she’s all about the avenging. How’s that for a multi-dimensional, consistent character?
“That means I timed the incident so perfectly that the hammer hit his chromosomatic gland, which determines and changes personality!” –Loki, JIM #94, for the benefit of those of us who don’t understand Asgardian physiology.
“Since there’s little chance of another crisis arising right after that one, I’ll leave my costume behind!” –Tony Stark, tempting fate in TOS #43
“Anyone ever tell you that you complain a lot for a superhero?” –Human Torch to Spider-Man in Strange Tales Annual #2
To Be Continued…
An Avenger quits, already! Ant-Man grows up! And Captain America…On Ice!