Marvel 616 Comic Book Review – Tales to Astonish #40

Tales to Astonish Issue 40 Photo Credit: Marvel

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!

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Marvel 616 Comic Book Review – Tales to Astonish #39

Tales to Astonish Issue 39 Photo Credit: Marvel

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!

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Marvel 616 Comic Book Review – Tales to Astonish #38

Tales to Astonish Issue 38 Photo Credit: Marvel

After several issues of Henry “Hank” Pym fighting generic communists and occasional street thugs we finally come to an issue where a real villain is introduced. Due to Ant-Man consistently crushing crime with his amazing abilities and legions of ants who can drop in at just the right moment the crooks in the city have decided to put a stop to him. They know they are no match for him on their own. Brute force has failed so it’s time to turn to brains over brawn.

In Washington D.C. a scientist known as “The Egghead” is in trouble with the government. He’s been selling secret information to the highest foreign bidder. His response to these accusations? “To a genius like me your insipid patriotic ramblings are laughable! I sneer at you all!” Okay, so the early Marvel 616 wasn’t great at subtlety but you know a villain when you see one. I should also mention Egghead fits his moniker not only because he is smart but because his head is drawn in the shape of an egg.

The government doesn’t actually have proof of Egghead’s crimes so they let him go. Criminals get wind of this and figure he’s the right guy to take down Ant-Man. They get twenty grand together and pay him half up front, half to be paid once the job is done. If you’re wondering how these criminals could so easily get twenty thousand dollars together when they say they’re having so much difficulty getting away with crime, welcome to the club.

Anyway, Egghead actually takes the time to study Ant-Man and his insect allies. He figures out pretty quickly Ant-Man must communicate with the ants through electronic signals. Egghead plans to turn these ants against our hero and trap Hank with flypaper. He invents a machine to communicate with them and appeals to the insects’ sense of greed and vanity.

The next phase of Egghead’s diabolical plan is to steal a valuable necklace, allowing the criminals to get away with the goods, and trap Ant-Man at the same time. Only, as soon as Ant-Man is caught, things start to go wrong for Egghead.

Ant-Man doesn’t stick to the fly paper at all. The tires of the getaway car have been flattened. And a gang of thugs is trapped in a huge sheet of flypaper by the ants. It turns out the ants are not greedy and vain. In fact, they see themselves as Henry’s friends and partners in the crime against war. Most of the thugs are taken away but Egghead takes his defeat pretty hard, although he gets away. He ends up “wanted by the police and hunted by the underworld as he holes up in a dingy bowery flophouse…” (By the way it’s this sort of description that makes these early issues so much fun to read. You just don’t see narration like that in comics anymore)

The people around him now seem to regard him as a worthless bum who keeps going on and on about ants. But this being a Marvel comic, we know we have not seen the last of Egghead. He’s definitely going to want to take his revenge and he does become a notable villain not just to Ant-Man but to a few other superheroes down the line.

This is sort of the first Ant-Man story where it feels like Henry is being brought into the larger world of superheroes. There have been a few hints and subtle, possible connections to people like Reed Richards and Bruce Banner but you’re not really a Marvel superhero until you get a repeat villain. Egghead will be the first one for Ant-Man but he certainly is not the last.

Next up on the reading list it’s time to pull out your best purple pants because we’re going back to the big, green guy himself with The Incredible Hulk #5!

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Marvel 616 Comic Book Review – Tales to Astonish #37

Tales to Astonish Issue 37 Photo Credit: Marvel

Tales to Astonish by the 37th issue was basically the Ant-Man book. He gets the longest features and he’s regularly spotlighted. The problem with that is there are only so many ways to make a guy who can reduce himself to the size of an ant heroic. Mostly, he has been fighting communists and trying to keep his formula a secret from anyone who might use it for ill (mostly meaning communists). But he’s also taken on a bit of street crime as well. So it is in issue 37 where we might think for just a moment Ant-Man was getting a unique villain by the name of The Protector.

The Protector has a unique costume, uses a disintegration ray to bully jewelry store owners into paying him protection money, and more or less has all the hallmarks for what could be a repeat villain or even a potential nemesis for Ant-Man. That’s not what happens here though. Henry Pym is getting his news from ants on the ground who are near police stations and when he hears about a disturbance at a jewelry store he rushes over there. Turns out there is a bully named The Protector who is shaking down jewelry store owners for cash. If they don’t pay, he wipes out the jewelry in the store. Never mind that if the store owners have no jewelry they can’t pay protection money. Either way, Henry “Hank” Pym is going to put a stop to this criminal.

Fun fact, did you know you could “rent a jewelry shop”? Neither did I but that’s what Pym does. When The Protector comes to shake Henry down, he has a plan and it involves ants. We’ve definitely seen this story before. The ants signal the police and of course The Protector is ultimately caught. Not only that but The Protector turns out to be the jewelry store owner who Hank first talks to. He made it look like he had been attacked by The Protector so no one would suspect him. Then he would act like he was disintegrating the jewels but in fact he was stealing them. It’s not a very inspired twist here but with thousands upon thousands of comic stories written in the 616 continuity they can’t all be winners.

In my opinion a much better scheme would have been to “rent a jewelry store” steal the jewels and then skip town. Considering how fast Hank was able to do that, it had to be less work than this whole disguise and fake out thing. Ant-Man will eventually get better and more interesting stories but for a while we’re going to be stuck with this kind of action for him.

We do at least get to see his catapult again although it was never clear how exactly he could fly for however long it takes for him to get all over the neighborhood just by being shot out of a tiny cannon.

Next up on the reading list we’ll be revisiting Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm in Strange Tales #103.

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Marvel 616 Comic Book Review – Tales to Astonish #36

Tales to Astonish Issue #36 Photo Credit: Marvel

Tales to Astonish has sort of become the Ant-Man show at this point. While there still are other features in this book, the biggest draw is Henry “Hank” Pym who has developed a serum capable of making himself the size of an ant. He also has a cypernetic helmet which allows him to communicate with the insects.

Apparently, since we have seen him last, he’s been out adventuring and helping the public. In the first two stories of Ant-Man, it was pretty much just Hank Pym who knew he had these capabilities. In this issue, we see him free some bank robbers who are trapped in a time-lock vault. The cops are there to arrest the men once Ant-Man let’s them free so they don’t suffocate. While the public seems to know Ant-Man is a hero, that’s about all they know about him. He just shows up at the right place at the right time to do some good. Turns out when you can communicate with millions of ants you have a pretty good idea of what is going on in your city.

Meanwhile, “the commies” are learning about Ant-Man and devise a plan to use Comrade X to trap him. They, of course, want to know his secret so they can apply it to their army.

So, yes, this is once again, yet another story involving the cold war. We have to take into perspective that things were pretty frightening as far as the nuclear arms race went and people were legitimately fearful at the time. It stands to reason this would be reflected in popular culture, including comic books.

The story is fairly standard. Henry gets trapped but he uses his helmet to help escape. He also uncovers the fact that Comrade X is really a woman who claimed to have fallen in love with Comrade X. She was just in disguise. Hank had found her rubber face mask when he was hiding in her pocketbook at one point.

There isn’t much here that I would say is incredibly significant in this story but it does do a couple of things. It sets up Comrade X as a possible return villain and since Ant-Man doesn’t have a main nemesis yet, this could be a possibility. More importantly, the story does establish Henry as a public hero, albeit one the public doesn’t know much about. Down the road when superhero teams are formed, Ant-Man will be involved and that’s only the case because the public does know about him. After all, it would be pretty easy to never let the public see what you are doing when you are the size of a tiny insect.

Next on the reading list we’re getting mighty again with Thor in Journey Into Mystery #86!

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Marvel 616 Comic Book Review – Tales to Astonish #35

Tales to Astonish #35 Photo Credit: Marvel

Starting with Tales to Astonish #35 this comic book basically becomes Ant Man with a few other back up stories in it. The last time we encountered Henry “Hank” Pym in Tales to Astonish #27 he invented a formula that allowed him to shrink to the size of an ant. He also had a serum to allow him to grow back to normal size. His adventure remained confined to his backyard but it was enough for him to decide he should destroy his formula lest it end up in the wrong hands.

Well, here is the thing about Henry Pym – he’s a bit wishy-washy. In order for his story to continue he has to decide to make the formula again, this time deciding his discovery is too important to be forgotten entirely. He plans to keep the formulas locked in his safe where no one can get to them.

The issue and the idea of Ant-man takes a lot of suspension of disbelief to pull off but then again these comics are made for escapism so we’re already predisposed to just go with the flow here.

Hank develops a formula and locks it up before it can fall into the wrong hands. (Seriously Henry, do you think this is a good formula or a bad one??) He then invents his famous cybernetic helmet that allows him to communicate with ants. This is a major development in his suit and his capabilities. Having ants at your beck and call is more useful than one would expect and they are an abundant resource so they are not usually far away.

Soon after this, the government tasks Henry with inventing a gas “to make people immune to radioactivity.” A few weeks later, some cold war thugs try to steal the formula for this gas. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have waited for it to be completely invented and then steal it but that’s not what they do. These guys are not very sharp because they leave Henry alone and search his lab for notes on the formula. They do tie his assistants up though. This of course gives Henry time to put on his new Ant Man suit and helmet. He also uses a rubber band stretched across an ashtray to catapult himself out of his office and is able to sneak into where his lab assistants are. With the help of some ants that Henry is able to control through his helmet, he gets the better of these criminals. He uses honey ants to jamb a gun, uses a different group of ants to chew through the bonds of his assistants and uses a host of ants to attack the criminals. The day is won and Henry is able to sneak back to his lab without his assistants ever knowing how he helped them.

There are a few notable things in this issue. One, we see that the cold war continues and this backdrop provides inspiration for literally hundreds of stories in the 616 universe. The cybernetic helmet is also hugely significant. This is often times the true power of what Hank Pym can do. Another notable bit about this story is the costume Henry wears. We find out it is made out of “unstable molecules” that adjust with his size. If the “unstable molecules” thing rings a bell it should. This is the same thing they say allows The Fantastic Four to use their powers with their costumes. This establishes at least the possibility that Hank Pym is aware of and has possibly worked with the one and only Reed Richards. It’s small connections like these which build a connected universe.

At the end of the issue Henry Pym wonders if he will “ever be forced to become the Ant-Man again?” The question is immediately answered with the announcement that he will in the next issue of Tales to Astonish.

Other than the Ant-Man story there are two really forgettable stories and a prose selection. These do not count in the Marvel 616 continuity and are only significant because they appear in the same issue as the second appearance of Ant-Man.

Next on our reading list, things are about to get serious as certain god of mischief is about to give our good friend Thor some trouble in Journey into Mystery #85!

Marvel 616 Comic Book Review: Tales to Astonish #27

Tales to Astonish #27 Photo Credit: Marvel
Tales to Astonish #27 Photo Credit: Marvel

Tales to Astonish is an anthology comic book that has tales of terror, aliens, horror, and superheroes. This issue has four comic stories plus one prose story. There is a story about an alien trying to conquer a planet, a story about a mean jockey who learns his lesson thanks to a talking horse, the story of a cursed mirror, and the prose story tells about a boy who accidentally creates an unbreakable bubble.

There is also one more story. The first story is the only one that matters in 616 continuity. That is the first story that stars Henry Pym called The Man in the Ant Hill. This character will go on to fame as one of the founding members of The Avengers and will also have some extremely disturbing moments as in the future he abuses his wife. This troubled background is probably one of the main reasons Henry Pym is not the Ant-man used in the Marvel movies and instead, we get the much more likable Scott Lang.

Anyway, this story does introduce us to Ant-man, although before he has a suit and cybernetic helmet. A seemingly mad scientist, Henry Pym has created a solution that can shrink anything. This is a major triumph for Henry because the scientific community has thus far seen him as a crackpot. Henry imagines using his formula for military purposes like transporting an entire army in a single airplane. But first, he must test it on a human.

As any good mad scientist would do, he immediately uses it on himself. He is shrunk down to the size of an ant. He goes outside and realizes he can’t get back to get the antidote to his serum. Henry finds himself near an anthill and is attacked by several ants. He ends up in a pool of honey but a friendly ant pulls him out of it.

A group of other ants is about to attack when Henry finds a matchstick and uses a rock to light it. He then makes a lasso and climbs his way out of the anthill. But before he gets to the top a single ant attacks.

To me, this is the best part of the issue. Henry realizes, “But I have one advantage! A human brain…”

At this point, I am thinking, yes, he is a smart scientist he must have some intellectual way out of this dilemma. Then comes the next panel where Henry Pym proudly proclaims

“…which has learned the art of Judo!”

He throws the ant over the side and makes his escape.

A fortunate circumstance occurs and Henry encounters the ant who helped him before. The ant lets Henry get on his back and he makes it up to his serum and can grow to full size. Henry decides to destroy his serum and never let any human use it again. The story ends with Henry lying to the scientific community, saying he was wrong about his theories and notes that Henry Pym never steps on an anthill again in his life.

So what is significant about this story? Of course, Henry Pym will rise to become Ant-man. We also see a few things established about him. He has a temper, and this will become a theme for him. He is not highly respected in the scientific community although he is right. This is another theme that tends to follow Henry. And, we see that he has a relationship with ants. Almost as if he can communicate with them. This will be essential to his character in the future.

While this could have been a throwaway one-off story, it is significant in 616. Mostly, in the future things will be added to Henry aka Hank Pym, including the ability to grow large as well as small and a love interest. Ant-man, unlike in the movies, in the universe of 616 is a founding member of the Avengers and the universe does not move forward without this little story. Tales to Astonish will also, in the future introduce several other heroes so we are not done with this title yet. Not by a long shot.

Next on the reading list, we go back to Reed and company with Fantastic Four #3.