The Avocado and the Return of the Ant-Man: Tales to Astonish #35-36

Welcome to Marvel Librarian. Having missed out on comics in my formative years, I’m reading Silver Age Marvel comics for the first time, and writing about their highs, lows, and general weirdness.

When we last saw Henry Pym, he was the fairly unremarkable star of a fairly unremarkable stock sci-fi story in one of Marvel’s anthology books. Now it’s half a year later, Fantastic Four is a huge success, and the anthology books are on their way out in favor of the new Marvel superhero paradigm. To add a recurring superhero feature to Tales to Astonish, Lee and Kirby returned to an earlier idea to create a superhero whose power is shrinking and conversing with insects. Out of the superhero concepts introduced this year, Ant-Man is possibly the least successful out of the gate apart from the Hulk, although a future version of the character did become a well-loved part of the MCU.

This story picks up where that last story left off. We learn that Henry re-created the potions he irresponsibly poured down the drain, just weeks after he made the decision that they were too dangerous to society to exist. This mirrors my experience with most of my personal projects.

In addition to restoring his growing and shrinking potions, Henry has also started studying ants, their capabilities and communication. He devises a helmet that lets him talk to ants using electronic impulses.

I looked up how ants actually communicate, and while that is potentially one of the ways, another prominent form of ant communication is throwing up in each other’s mouths. Imagine if that were part of Ant-Man’s power set.

It’s the early 60s and the Marvel bullpen doesn’t quite know what to do with a character, so guess what it’s time for? Generic Cold War paranoia, that’s what!

A gas to make people immune to radioactivity sounds impossible, but so do growing and shrinking potions, so who am I to question it? Clearly this is why I don’t have a lucrative career in irresponsible super-science.

Enemy agents from a euphemistic “country on the other side of the world” invade Henry’s lab and capture his fellow scientists. With guards posted at his door, Henry decides to escape by using his secret shrinking potion to reduce himself to the size of an ant. One nice thing about this story compared to his origin is that he’s actually very prepared for shrinking. Here, we see him using a makeshift catapult to escape out the window. It took me a hot minute to realize that the object he’s using here is a glass ashtray, an object that was ubiquitous in my youth but not one you see very often these days.

It’s no Baxter Building schematics but I’ll always enjoy labelled diagrams.

The most fantastic part about this by far is the decoder. Not only can it somehow translate flawlessly from Human to Ant and back again, but even before application of the shrinking potion, it’s small enough to fit in a helmet. This was back in the day when a simple computer required an entire room.

Henry willingly enters the anthill hoping for allies. Using his helmet, he gets most of the ants under his control, except for one particularly large worker. Last time, Henry had to defeat a hostile ant with judo; this time, we introduce the conceit that Henry still has his full human strength even at ant-size, so that he can dispatch enemy ants with ease. It’s pretty similar to the idea behind Spider-Man’s strength, which was conceived at around the same time. (

Another concept borrowed from other Marvel books: the idea that costumes made of “unstable molecules” can work perfectly with the wearer’s powers comes from the Fantastic Four.

Henry and his ant companions defeat an attacking beetle and scale a wall with ease. I’m sure that one of the early conceits was that this character could show off fantastic miniature adventures with bugs and such, but unfortunately, that idea ended up not being used as much as you might expect.

One limitation is that there’s really only one logical way for a swarm of ants to attack a person, and here it is. To be fair, I’ve kicked a fire ant hill before, and the idea of being covered in dozens of stinging fire ants is legitimately terrifying.

Anyway, Henry and his ants subdue the communist agents and untie Henry’s assistants, wrapping the story up neatly.

It’s kind of amazing that Henry plans out a suit made of unstable molecules and a helmet that can communicate with ants, but still forgets to make his enlarging potion easily accessible.

To be honest, I enjoyed the first story more, logical leaps aside. The sci-fi / horror elements of the artwork of the original story worked well there, and the entire thing had a kind of fantastic journey vibe. Here, the plot line of taking out communists who have kidnapped American scientists is a bog-standard one for Marvel, and the Ant-Man concept doesn’t really add much to it. As you will see, they’re going to flounder with Ant-Man’s character quite a bit.

This issue also includes a few anthology tales. This is a five-pager about a criminal hiding out in an abandoned home, who discovers a mysterious closet. Anything he puts inside the closest disappears once he closes the door. Naturally, he puts himself inside, thinking it will allow him to enter a strange new dimension, and the above happens. It’s a little too drawn out for a middling conclusion.

Insert joke about 2020 here.

The final tale is the very uncreatively-named “Thing from Outer Space.”

The story is supposedly narrated by intrepid astronaut John Rogers. He’s brought back this impressive example of alien vegetation and is showing it to a huge crowd with no form of shielding or protection, which seems very safe.

The plant somehow starts screaming that he is actually the real John Rogers, and the human has actually been possessed by the plant. The plant describes how he landed on an alien planet, admired the unusual vegetation, and then was possessed, waking up in the form of a flower with his own human body staring up at him. Surprisingly, a lot of the crowd believes this story: “I doubt that any creature would dare make up so fantastic a lie!”

One person in the crowd asks, logically, why John-Rogers-in-the-plant can’t just use the plant’s abilities to reverse the process, and he says that it only works in the atmosphere of the distant planet. I don’t know how he knows that, but okay. They decide to reproduce the conditions of the planet, and the plant is actually able to perform the switch.

I like that the alien plant just immediately owns up to what happened. “Yeah, I totally possessed this guy, sorry about that. Instinct, y’know? No hard feelings?”

It turns out that the entire story was narrated by the plant, who has now been returned to his home planet to dream about the time when he was a human being. It’s a pretty basic story, but I think the conceit of presenting it from the point of view of the alien plant – who is seemingly not at all malicious – elevates it a bit.

Well, we’ve established a brand new superhero to headline the anthology book. With Thor, we had his second adventure be a generic Cold War anti-communist thing even though that doesn’t really fit Thor. We should do something different with Ant-Man, right?

…right?

I do appreciate that they’ve trapped Ant-Man in pretty much the same way you might catch an insect running around your house. Oh, no, an overturned Solo cup! My weakness!

“Hey ant, check out this guy’s stupid mustache. What a loser.”

We open on Ant-Man freeing some bank robbers who accidentally got caught in the vault they were trying to rob, so they can be arrested. He can crawl into the lock to manipulate the tumblers, which is actually a pretty clever use of his power. This kind of makes me think of all the morally gray and questionable ways Ant-Man could use his powers, except we’re a while off from having that kind of character as a protagonist and making him interesting.

You know that we’re “behind the Iron Curtain” because there’s a giant portrait of what I think is supposed to be a yelling Khrushchev on the wall.

Sugar! Spice! And everything nice! These were the ingredients chosen to make the perfect little girls. But Professor Utonium accidentally added an extra ingredient… COMRADE X. And thus the Communist Girls were born!

We get a couple of pages recapping Ant-Man’s powers, and learn that he’s monitoring nearby police stations with ants who relay important information back to him.

Having read some of this early Ant-Man, I genuinely think this is one of the places they went wrong. They’re making Ant-Man battle street crime, when his power set is far better suited to fantastic miniature adventures. I’m not saying it would definitely work, but it seems like this may have been more successful as a book where Henry solves sci-fi problems using his miniaturization technology instead of generically fight crime.

I’ll never pass up a labeled diagram, but this is no Baxter Building schematic. I do like the little elevator.

One thing Henry commonly does in these books is cushion his falls with a big pile of ants, and I’m sorry, but I can’t get over how absolutely gross that would be. Riding around on one ant is cute. Landing on top of a big squirming pile of hundreds of ants is nightmare fuel.

So anyway, Henry used his ants to overhear a woman at the police station asking for Ant-Man. The police say they have no way of contacting Ant-Man, so she goes home. Henry decides to find her, sneak into her purse, and emerge into her bedroom, which isn’t creepy at all no sir.

The woman explains that she was once Comrade X’s lover, but he jilted her for another woman. Now she’s out for revenge, so she’s going to warn Ant-Man that Comrade X is after his secret of shrinking. Henry doesn’t stop to consider how contrived this is and how it’s probably a trap.

It is, of course. Ant-Man boards the freighter where Comrade X is supposed to be, and is immediately captured. Henry solves this problem by signaling ants to go to the dock, push pieces of wood into the water, and drift to the departing ship. I guess there are no ants on the ship except those Henry brought with him? They crawl up the leg of the guy guarding Ant-Man, and he drops his gun on the glass cage, freeing him. Why’d they make it out of glass?

Having the ants subdue an opponent by crawling up his legs and biting him is exactly what happened in the previous issue, which kind of goes to show you the limitations of ant-based crimefighting.

Anyway, there’s some sneaking around on the ship and taking out commies. Henry reaches Comrade X, who decides he’s going to destroy Ant-Man with DDT. That’s logical, I suppose.

Henry gets out of his predicament by having the ants douse the lights and then tying Comrade X’s shoelaces together. Once he falls to the floor, the ants swarm him and – gasp! – the woman who contacted Ant-Man was Comrade X all along! Henry radios the Coast Guard, she gets arrested, the end.

And now, anthology stories!

I swear this is how I feel every day.

“I will now explain my fantastic invention to myself. But instead of actually using my life’s work that I have now completed, I’m going to take a nap.”

A criminal on the run from the cops overhears this, and realizing he can steal the clock to evade the police and even become younger. He sets the clock back to 1927 when he was only twenty years old.

He can’t take having this fantastic invention and not being able to tell anyone about it, so he accosts a homeless guy and tells him all about how his time-traveling clock lets him get away with crime. The homeless man understandably thinks he’s crazy. The criminal says he’ll demonstrate by killing the homeless man and getting away with the crime, and wow, that escalated quickly.

In their struggle, they break the clock and the criminal immediately drops dead, because it was a load-bearing clock.

How do you know this, guy in a bowler hat? You haven’t been in the story before this panel. You’ve only known this guy as a corpse.

I kind of think they have a fun premise totally squandered here.

This one’s about a small town with a local legend that the mythological Pan exists in the nearby woods. They use this legend to attract tourists, and this one asshole is irrationally angry about this totally harmless folklore.

I’m not sure how he thinks he’s going to disprove that Pan exists. Or why this makes him so mad in the first place.

Our protagonist roughs up a bartender to get information where Pan might be. The bartender begrudingly tells him. We get a couple pages of the protagonist being stalked by Pan, until the goat-man finally reveals himself and the protagonist is scared senseless.

Cut to the bartender talking about what happened, pan down (pun intended), and he has hooves! He was Pan all along!

Maybe I’m just being a curmudgeon today but I can’t say anything in this issue was all that exciting.

Next time on Marvel Librarian! I am BURDNED WITH THE GLORIOUS PURPOSE of presenting one of my Marvel favorites! It’s the debut of Loki!