Tales to Astonish always features a few stories but with the consistent use of Ant-Man as the featured character on the cover, the book basically belongs to him. Hank Pym has gone on several adventures as a costumed super hero and so far things have worked out fairly well for him.
The police see him as someone they can rely on, he’s getting paid by the government to invent new products, and in general, the public likes him. When you are this set up for success there has to come a point where you fail. Of course, as one might imagine from reading the cover, Ant-man is not actually going to fail. After all, what hero does? In the end the good guys and gals will win out.
This particular story reads very much like an old episode of Scooby-Doo.
It starts with Hank in his lab creating a gas mask made of unstable molecules. Sharp readers of 616 comics know unstable molecules are used in all kinds of things for superheroes. The Fantastic Four have costumes made out of these molecules so they can wear clothes and still use their powers. It was a way of explaining why Sue Storm could be invisible without removing her clothing, why Reed can stretch and his clothes don’t rip and why Johnny Storm’s clothes don’t burn up the instant he flames on. It’s also why Hank can shrink to the size of an ant and his clothes still fit him. It seems Stan Lee hit on what he thought was a good scientific sounding (but not actually scientific) reason to explain all sorts of things.
Anyway, this gas mask Hank invents shrinks to the size of the wearer’s head which I guess is something the government is looking for.
Next we see some security guards who can’t seem to remember what just happened. Their armored truck is gone and it seems a villain known as The Hijacker has struck once again.
Howard Mitchell, who owns the Mitchell Armored Truck company is furious at his guards and wishes he could contact Hank as he says, “Only the Ant-Man would be clever enough to catch the Hijacker!” Of course, ants are everywhere and it is no surprise Hank Pym does pick up on this message. He has a watch which picks up signals from the ants telling him to don his cybernetic helmet to find out what is happening.
From the background of the panel we can see Hank has a very sophisticated computer system set up. There are tape reels and everything plus lots of switches so you know it’s modern technology. Hank narrows down what sector of the city the ants are signaling from and hops into his costume and launches himself from his catapult. I’m still not certain how the catapult could be so accurate as to get Hank around corners but we’ll just let that go for the moment. He lands on a pile of ants, after nearly missing them, and makes his way to Mitchell’s office.
Mitchell gives Ant-Man the rundown of what has been happening and asks for help. Henry first asks Mitchell to announce one of his trucks is going to make a huge shipment. Mitchell reluctantly agrees and then Henry asks Mitchell about his, “primitive art” asking if it is Inca in origin. Mitchell answers, “I spent some time with the Indians in the jungle! But that’s unimportant now!”
Occasionally, (well sometimes frequently actually) you run into some pretty bad stereotyping in old Marvel comics. We probably do need to look at these through the lens of the time they were written in but this still does not excuse much of what shows up on the page. From the art being called primitive and drawn very stereotypically to the ridiculous false mysticism which will later be mentioned in the issue, these things are hard to read. But, as far as this goes, this issue is one of the milder instances of harsh stereotyping and not nearly as problematic as some of the characters which will show up soon in the pages of Iron Man. That being said, for the plot of the story, knowing Mitchell has Inca statues and was in the jungle for a year is key to the end of the book.
As Hank leaves he tells Mitchell, “Don’t Worry! Whoever he is– however he operates– the Ant-Man will defeat him! I promise you!”
The next day the guards are loading up the truck and very relieved when Ant-Man shows up. Before the shipment can leave, however, Hank says he is in great pain, likely with appendicitis. The guards are upset but can’t blame the poor guy because it could happen to anyone, including Ant-Man.
Hank rides off on an ant but Mitchell decides to proceed with the delivery. Thus, Ant-Man leaving the scene is, “The first time the Ant-Man’s ever failed anyone!” according to one of the guards. Soon the armored truck comes upon a moving van stalled and in the way. The guards think about getting out to help but before they do the back of the van opens and a huge magnet is used to pull the armored vehicle into the moving van.
The Hijacker appears and lets out a gas grenade, knocking out all of the guards. But, surprise, Ant-Man was only faking his appendicitis and snuck onto the armored vehicle. He uses a catapult and a model airplane to do it and he’s sure to put his gas mask on.
There’s a bit of a chase where Hank ends up in the ignition of the car and then ends up on the engine block. Unfortunately for him, the Hijacker thinks to blast the horn as loud as he can, making Hank grab his ears. It takes a bit and an editors note explaining once again how Ant-Man still retains his human strength when small but Hank pulls out some engine wires to kill the horn.
With the help of some ants, Henry Pym is able to jump onto the Hijacker’s gas mask and tear it open. Once the Hijacker falls to the ground unconscious, Hank pulls the mask off to reveal… It’s Howard Mitchell. Hank suspected Howard as soon as he saw the “primitive art statues” and knew Mitchell had spent time in the jungles of Peru. Apparently, according to Hank Pym, “the Indians there have an ancient vapor, the inhaling of which causes a lapse of memory!”
This explains why Ant-Man had to fake appendicitis. He needed to convince Mitchell he wouldn’t interfere, therefore allowing Mitchell to commit the crime Hank suspects him of.
While this twist is not very original and it’s ridiculous in a lot of ways, this will not be the last time strange things are blamed on mysterious vapors coming from any number of jungles in the Marvel 616 continuity.
Mitchell was losing money at his company and thought he could make it back by stealing it from his own customers. As Tony Stark might say, “Not a great plan.”
This prompts the guards to realize Ant-Man has not actually failed and one of them says, “Mister, even when that guy fails, He wins! That’s the Ant-Man for you!”
Something to mention here is this attitude is completely different than the public has for most of the rest of the heroes in the 616. The Fantastic Four are sometimes beloved figures but they also have a contingent of serious detractors and the public turns on them frequently. The Hulk is almost never seen as a real hero, even though he does things which are notably heroic, often things similar to what Hank Pym does such as stopping communists from stealing secret plans. Spider-Man is anything but loved at his debut. Probably the only hero who is also popular at this point of the 616 universe would be Thor. The majority of people who have seen him in action do appreciate Thor but so far Ant-Man would be polling best with the public in the fictional version of the 616 universe.
Next up on the reading list we’ll be checking in with The Human Torch as he stars in Strange Tales #106!