While The Fantastic Four, Thor, and even The Incredible Hulk chug along nicely with their stories in the early days of Marvel 616, Ant-Man has sort of struggled to gain footing in the pages of Tales to Astonish. His powers are pretty interesting and what he does with them can be intriguing but he hasn’t gained a real nemesis and his stories are fairly run of the mill superhero stuff. Which leads us to issue 39 of Tales to Astonish where things get rather strange. That’s saying something for a guy who has insect based powers but the issue here really demands a lot of suspension of disbelief.
As you can probably tell from the cover, the story involves an oversized beetle with an attitude problem. Right there it seems the issue will be different, which is not a bad thing, but the story, unfortunately, doesn’t really live up to its potential.
The issue begins with Henry Pym, as usual, monitoring the activities of the insect world. He can see there is something brewing, something “strange– and dangerous!” He does the logical thing and hops into the Ant-Man suit to go investigate. We see him launch out of his secret catapult and there is a handy note to the reader telling us “Although unnoticed by other eyes, the building which houses Henry Pym contains many secret devices for use by an ant-sized human!”
After being catapulted onto a pile of waiting ants Henry rides an ant into the sewer. He finds hundreds of insects gathered together. Out of all those insects he notices there is a beetle glowing strangely and all the other insects seem to be paying attention to it. Luckily for us, Pym’s helmet can pick up mental telepathy which the beetle is using to communicate with the insects.
We get the standard explanation of strange stuff in the early Marvel 616 stories. This beetle has been accidentally exposed to radiation due to “one of mankind’s atomic experiments…” Radiation and radioactivity are pretty much magic in these comics and can do anything the writers and artists want. To be fair, it was the time of the cold war and atomic exploration so there was a lot of fear around it. The reading audience at the time probably had an easier time believing this could happen than we do now. Turns out the radiation gave the beetle human level intelligence on top of the mental telepathy.
This beetle wants to organize the insect world to rise up and become masters of the world. After all, they number in the trillions. Henry realizes he needs to stop this. Before he can get to the Scarlet Beetle a bunch of body guard beetles knock Hank out cold. The Scarlet Beetle is smart enough to realize he should use the growth gas Ant-Man has to become bigger.
A little later Henry wakes up without his helmet or his vials that help him change size. The Scarlet Beetle takes the opportunity to go on the attack. He has termites cut down telephone poles, taking out human communication systems. Several groups of insects steal boxes of dynamite from the most unobservant military guard in existence. Meanwhile the Scarlet Beetle has some of the more deadly spiders bite key politicians to take down the government systems in place. The only insects not participating in the nefarious deeds are the ants, who are loyal to the Ant-Man.
For a beetle, this dude is shockingly organized and well planned. Honestly, he seems like he has it together more than The Wizard did when he first attacked Johnny Storm, aka The Human Torch. Now that the Scarlet Beetle has had his minions wreak enough havoc he appears on the scene himself. He takes down television stations while his other insect pals go right for the police. The police are desperately hoping Ant-Man shows up at this point.
Luckily for humanity, the ants find Hank’s helmet and realize there is something wrong. They use their sense of smell to find Ant-Man and get him out of the ditch he is stuck in. Ant-Man comes up with a plan involving the ants. One of the text boxes reads, “After giving his ants their instructions, the tiny avenger goes into action…” This is sort of interesting considering Henry Pym will be one of the founding members of The Avengers soon.
Hank uses honey ants to slow the beetles, beats away grasshoppers with an ice-cream pop stick, and gets a group of ants to bring a bunch of DDT. For those who may not know, DDT was a type of insect repellant that was fairly commonly used in the 1960’s. In fact, it was used so much it turned out to be harmful to humans, and for the most part is no longer used. Back then it was everywhere though. The DDT does the job but the Scarlet Beetle remains. Hank’s plan is to go into a toy store. He hops in a toy car to outrun his enemy. Then he grabs a lance from a toy knight and chucks it right at the container of reducing gas the Scarlet Beetle is wearing. The beetle is reduced and Henry places him inside a balloon to take back to his lab.
Henry is able to counteract the radiation and remove the human intelligence the Scarlet Beetle has. There’s not really a thought of what an ethical dilemma this might be but since the bug is just a bug again Henry lets him out in his backyard.
The issue ends with the police wondering where the heck Ant-Man was in all this, never realizing it was Henry Pym who saved them.
I think this issue might have been intended to create a repeat villain for Hank. I’m not sure if that ever did happen but Ant-Man by this point does really deserve a true nemesis. It’s going to be a while before we get there so we can expect more odd and zany stories that don’t exactly age well from the pages of Tales to Astonish. This was definitely one of the less believable stories but it helped to keep Ant-Man popular enough that people were still reading the book.
Next up on the reading list we’ll see how the rematch between The Wizard and The Human Torch shapes up in Strange Tales #105!