Ant-Man/Giant-Man Marvel Masterworks volume 1

By Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers, with Ernie Hart, Don Heck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2049-0 (HB) 978-0-7851-6768-6 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Nostalgic Marvel Mayhem… 8/10

Marvel Comics initially built its fervent fan base through strong, contemporarily relevant stories with strikingly illustrated art, but most importantly by creating a shared continuity closely following the characters through not just their own titles but also through frequent guest appearances in other comics. Such interweaving meant that even today completists seek out extraneous stories for a fuller picture of their favourite’s adventures. The quest was not helped by the House of Ideas releasing vintage tales in any kind of chronological order, and Henry Pym (in all his many costumed iterations) was one of the last Marvel Superheroes to get the prestigious Masterworks treatment. The movie franchise might also have had something to do with it…

If you’re of a particularly picky nature – and what comic fan isn’t? – you could consider the Astonishing Ant-Man to be one of the earliest heroes of the Marvel Age of Comics. He first appeared in Tales to Astonish #27 (cover-dated January 1962), in one of the splendidly addictive men-vs-monsters anthology titles that dominated in those heady days of Science Fiction Double-Feature B-Movies.

This episodic, eclectic and entomologically edifying compendium – available in hardback, trade paperback and digital formats – gathers pertinent portions of January 1962 cover-dated Tales to Astonish #27 and the first tranche of the succeeding superhero series that eventually followed. Included herein are the relevant contents of issues #35-52, spanning September 1962 to February 1964, preceded by a fascinating and informative Introduction from Dick Ayers who inked the debut tale and was artistically associated with the characters for much of the run.

The itty-bitty sagas reveal the scintillating solo outings of a brilliant but troubled scientist who became an unlikely, uncomfortable and even mentally unstable superhero and here begins with what was just intended to be another throwaway filler thriller…

The initial 7-page short introduces Dr Henry Pym, a maverick scientist who discovers a shrinking potion and becomes ‘The Man in the Anthill!’: discovering peril, wonder and even a kind of companionship amongst the lowliest creatures on Earth… and under it…

This engaging piece of fluff, which owed more than a little to classic movie The Incredible Shrinking Man, was plotted by Stan Lee, scripted by Larry Lieber and stunningly illustrated by Jack Kirby & Dick Ayers.

Clearly, the character struck a chord with someone since – as the DC Comics-inspired superhero boom flourished – Pym was rapidly retooled as a full-fledged costumed do-gooder, debuting again with TTA #35 in ‘The Return of the Ant-Man’(Lee, Lieber, Kirby & Ayers). The plot concerns a raid by Soviet agents (this was during the height of Marvel’s “Commie-Buster” period when – a bit like now – every other villain was a Red somebody or other and rampaging socialism was a cultural bête noir) wherein Pym is captured and held prisoner in his own laboratory. Forced to disinter the abandoned shrinking gases and cybernetic devices he’d ambitiously built to communicate with ants, Dr. Pym soundly trounces the spies and resolves to use his powers for the good of Mankind…

The same creative team produced the next four adventures, beginning with ‘The Challenge of Comrade X!’ (#36) as an infallible Soviet super-spy is dispatched to destroy the Diminutive Daredevil, after which Ant-Man is temporarily ‘Trapped by the Protector!’ – a cunning jewel-thief and extortionist who ultimately proves no match for the Tiny Titan.

‘Betrayed by the Ants!’ features the debut of intellectual arch-foe Egghead, a maverick and mercenary research scientist who attempts to usurp the hero’s control of insects whilst ‘The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!’ sees a momentary return to scary monster stories as a radioactively mutated, super-intelligent bug seeks to eradicate humanity with only Pym capable of stopping him…

Sol Brodsky replaced Ayers as inker for ‘The Day that Ant-Man Failed!’ in #40, as a deadly Hijacker robbing freight trucks pushes the shrinking inventor to new heights of ingenuity, after which Kirby moved on: his lavishly experimental perspectival flamboyance replaced by the comforting realism and enticing human scale of Don Heck who limned a classy alien invasion yarn in ‘Prisoner of the Slave World!’ before depicting a mesmerising menace who controls people with ‘The Voice of Doom’ in TTA #42.

The following issue H. E. Huntley (AKA veteran writer/artist Ernie Hart) replaced Lieber as scripter with ‘The Mad Master of Time’: a run-of-the-mill mad – or, rather, disgruntled and misguided – scientist yarn. With the next issue (#44) Kirby returned to pencil a significant change to the series….

Inked by Heck, ‘The Creature from Kosmos’ introduces The Wasp – Pym’s bon vivant crime-fighting partner Janet Van Dyne – in a double-length tale featuring a murderous alien marauder who kills her father. There was even an expanded secret origin for Ant-Man: a rare and uncharacteristic display of depth revealing that Pym was actually a tragic widower. When his Hungarian wife Maria was murdered by Communist agents, it irrevocably changed the young scientist from a sedentary scholar into a driven man of action….

Ant-Man uses his discoveries to endow bereaved and vengeful Janet with the power to shrink and grow wings and she becomes his crime-fighting partner. In double-quick time they overcome ‘The Terrible Traps of Egghead’ (Lee, Huntley & Heck) before travelling to Greece to thwart another alien invasion ‘When Cyclops Walks the Earth!’

Back in the USA, the Diminutive Duo battle magic trumpeter Trago in ‘Music to Scream By’ and defeat an avaricious weapons designer who builds himself a unique battle suit to become super-thief ‘The Porcupine!’: all serving as placeholding before the next big change which manifests with Tales to Astonish #49’s ‘The Birth of Giant-Man!’.

Lee scripted and Heck inked Kirby who had returned to pencil the epic story of how Pym learns to enlarge as well as reduce his stature, just in time to tackle the threat of trans-dimensional kidnapper The Eraser. In the next issue Steve Ditko inked The King in ‘The Human Top’, the first episode of a 2-part tale showing how our hero struggles to adapt to his new strength and abilities.

The blistering conclusion ‘Showdown with the Human Top!’ was inked by Ayers who would go on to draw the bulk of the succeeding stories until the series’ demise. Moreover, with this issue (#51) back-up feature The Wonderful Wasp Tells a Tale began. It initially mixed sci-fi mystery vignettes narrated by the heroine, fact-features and solo adventures, before evolving into Marvel’s first female starring solo feature. Here however Janet is simply a whimsical narrator detailing chilling space thriller ‘Somewhere Waits a Wobbow!’ (actually related by Lee, Lieber & George Roussos in his Marvel identity of George Bell).

The super-hero adventures settled into a rather predictable pattern from then on: individually effective enough but rather samey and uninspired when read in quick succession. You’ll need the next volume for most of those but here at least the comics craziness concludes with a straightforward super-villain clash as TTA #52 ‘The Black Knight Strikes!’ (Lee & Ayers) is supplemented by the Wasp’s crime & punishment homily ‘Not What They Seem!’

Despite variable quality and treatment, the eclectic, eccentric and always fun exploits of Marvel’s original “little guy” and premier “odd couple” remain an intriguing and engaging reminder that the House of Ideas didn’t always get it right, but generally gave their all to entertaining fans.

By turns superb, stupid, enthralling and merely engaging, this tome is augmented by house ads and a gallery of original art pages by Kirby & Brodsky and Don Heck, epitomising the best and worst of Early Marvel (with the delightful far outweighing the duff). It certainly won’t appeal to everybody, but if you’re a Fights ‘n’ Tights fan with a forgiving nature or a movie-goer looking for extra input, the good stuff here will charm and amaze you whilst the rest could just be considered as a garish garnish to provide added flavour…
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