Betrayed by the Ants: Tales to Astonish #37-38

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.

I have two thoughts here. One is that “The Protector” is kind of an odd name for a villain, since it’s a word that usually has positive connotations. He looks sinister enough, I guess, if a bit mundane.

Secondly, this trap doesn’t seem all that dangerous. If you’ve ever tried to catch an insect in your hands, you know how hard that is, and insects don’t have human intelligence.

I do like the crowd of snappily dressed innocent bystanders.

The first few pages of this one are all setup, and once again we have the issue that Ant Man’s powers can easily be creepy. Look at that big pile of writhing ants on top of a shop awning. If I saw something like that in real life, I’d have nightmares for years.

Ant-Man responds to a police call and arrives at a jewelry store that has been robbed. We get this panel efficiently establishing that we’re on the wrong side of town. We learn that the Protector got his name because he’s a “protector” in the organized crime sense, shaking down store owners for “protection” money. When this jewelry store owner was unable to pay, the Protector used a futuristic ray gun to disintegrate some of his goods.

Ant-Man sets up ants in every jewelry store in town to alert him to when the Protector appears. Two days later, he gets a signal, and catapults to the store, narrowly avoiding a close call when his giant nightmare pile of ants can’t arrive in time and he has to land in a baby carriage.

Ant-Man and the Protector do battle. Here is our hero, defeated by, no kidding, a water gun that the Protector stole from a passing child.

After that humiliating failure, Henry tries plan B, using himself as bait. He rents a jewelry store, and I was unaware that that’s something you can actually do. How much would that cost, renting an entire jewelry store? It seems like it’d be cheaper and easier to just go to one of the jewelry stores that’s being terrorized by the Protector and offer to run the counter.

The Protector shows up, and Henry presses a hidden button under the counter. The narration assures us we’ll soon learn why.

Incidentally, the Protector is demanding $300 a week, which amounts to $2,700 a week in today’s money. This honestly seems like less than I’d expect for a mob shakedown of a jewelry store.

Anyway, the hidden button isn’t to call the police or anything like that. It instead summons ants to hitch a ride on the Protector’s boot so that Ant-Man can track him.

Well, Henry was defeated by a water pistol earlier in this book. Surely he’ll avoid such embarrassing incidents this time.

…or not. Is it wrong that my favorite aspect of these early Ant-Mans is seeing Henry getting trounced by ordinary household items?

The Protector seals up the vacuum bag with glue, giving us this climactic, triumphant moment where our hero literally punches his way out of a paper bag.

Henry uses a fan to blow the dust from the vacuum cleaner into the Protector’s face, blinding him long enough for the police to arrive.

In a genuinely amusing twist, the Protector was actually the first jeweler Henry talked to, wearing a mech suit. This is one of those cases where you’d think the ability to build this functioning mech would be worth more than the amount he’s getting from committing crimes.

But what about the disintegrating ray? According to Henry, it caused a smoke screen, giving the Protector the opportunity to steal the jewels and drop sand in their place. That seems far-fetched, but we’re on the last page, so whatever.

Maybe I’m being too hard on these Ant-Man comics, but I’ll just point out that the last panel of this one is an advertisement for you to read anything else.

It’s anthology story time! This is a really solid opening panel, conveying the desperation of the man and the desolation of the setting.

As is often the case in these stories, our protagonist is a real piece of work. His job is “manufacturing nuclear instruments for the government,” but we see he’s constantly careless about safety. His supervisors frequently chew him out, and given what industry they’re in, I’m firmly on the supervisors’ side.

While he’s inappropriately ogling a secretary, he accidentally hits a lever and doses himself with a massive amount of radiation. He’s apparently fine the next day, which seems implausible.

That night, he has a vivid dream of a circus, something he hasn’t thought about since he was a boy. He’s astonished when, the next morning, he passes by a circus parade exactly the same as the one in his dream, right down to how the onlookers are dressed and what they say.

He realizes that he has the power to make anything he dreams of come true. Before bed, he concentrates on having great wealth, and the next day, he gets a windfall inheritance. He dreams that the supervisor he hates quits the plant, and sure enough, the supervisor gets a better job offer from a plant far away.

He gets drunk to celebrate, and that night, he forgets to concentrate his thoughts before bed. He has a dream where he’s dead, as one does. Upon awaking, he panics, and flees the city, in the hopes that he’ll get far away from anything that could harm him and that his dream will not come true. This leads us to the opening panel of the man on the lonely mountain, where, just before midnight, he gets buried in a rockslide.

This is an example of an anthology tale that works really well. It’s not hard to see the twist coming, but it’s told well and it’s snappily paced.

Cue the haunting Torgo theme.

This final story is about a band of space pirates, notorious throughout the galaxy. They’re contacted by a man from the planet Zenn. He wants them to go rob and pillage Zenn’s sworn enemies on the planet Quo. The man from Zenn assures them they’ll have no problem doing this, because the people from Quo are very small.

The pirate crew worries that it’s a trap, but the greedy captain wants to go through with it anyway, planning to first rob Quo and then Zenn. When they arrive on Quo, they find that it’s actually a planet of giants. The Zenn man didn’t lie: it just so happens that the Zenn people are enormous themselves.

This one isn’t terribly compelling and the setup is very contrived.

Henry being stuck to a piece of flypaper just makes him look like a doofus. How’d he miss that? And if he still has full human strength while in small form, can’t he just rip right through it?

This guy is Eggman, and I do wish it were the Sonic version.

Normally Kirby’s art is really good so I don’t know what happened here. He was clearly trying for a dramatic perspective on the hand but kind of screwed up the guy’s proportions or something. The part of the scene with Ant-Man silhouetted against the wall is good, but the rest of it is not Kirby’s finest hour.

So anyway, generic members of the criminal underworld are upset because Ant-Man is foiling all of their generic crimes. They decide they need a sharp mind to find a countermeasure, and they turn to this guy, Eggman. He’s so brilliant that he gets caught selling atomic secrets to the highest bidder and then has no defense against it, getting him fired from his government job.

Anyway, here he is watching documentaries to find out that Ant-Man uses ants to fight crime. In a world where Ant-Man is common knowledge, you’d think this also would be.

Eggman’s plan is to turn all the ants in the general vicinity against Ant-Man. This… just… doesn’t seem like a good plan. For starters, it hinges on the idea that Ant-Man is actually forcing the ants to do his bidding. It also requires that the ants are smart enough to understand the concepts he’s trying to tell them, but also too dumb to recognize his obvious dishonesty.

An actual genius could probably come up with a better way to defeat someone a couple inches tall. That’s all I’m saying.

The next panel has Eggman gloating that he’s appealed to the ants’ vanity, which makes it seem like he doesn’t even know what an ant is.

I’m just kind of amused we get nearly a page of Ant-Man just kind of slowly making his way through the museum on ants, and Eggman waiting for him with bellows. Again, this is a tiny man who moves at the speed of Ant and this is the best plan you have?

Eggman traps Henry in a box lined with flypaper. He defeats it by having springs in his shoes.

This seems like something that really wouldn’t work at all. it seems like those little discs would just stick to the flypaper and leave Henry bouncing against the box floor. Again, he should be able to simply free himself from the flypaper because he still has human strength, but I guess that would be less interesting or something. On the very next page, Henry uses a tiny nylon lasso to fling a full-grown man around while in small form, so it seems like the flypaper should be nothing.

Henry has his ants drop a enormous, blanket-sized flypaper on the group of criminals, which is kind of funny if not a believably effective trap.

When the criminals get free and run out of the museum, they discover that the tires of their cars have been slashed, and they’re caught by the police.

Henry explains that instead of betraying him, the ants explained Eggman’s entire plan to him. They see him as a friend, and have no concept of vanity or greed.

I kind of wonder if this part was inspired by letters asking if Ant-Man actually controls the ants as though they are his slaves. Considering the ants are intelligent enough to understand complex commands, it’d be pretty morally questionable to control them in that way, especially since some of them no doubt die on these missions.

You know, Henry says the ants have no concept of vanity or greed, but I’m also pretty sure they have no concept of friendship with a human either. Or of crime-fighting, for that matter.

And so, the villain ends up muttering to himself about how he’s dumber than ants.

They chose to bring this guy back again, and I can’t imagine why. He’s not very interesting, and his only “power” is intelligence, which doesn’t really come through when his plan is so stupid.

In the first anthology tale, we have a man who is using a time machine to go one million years into the future. You’d think he’d choose a more reasonable number of years considering the Earth could very well be uninhabitable by then, but hey, I’m not a scientist who invented a time machine.

When he emerges from the machine, he looks exactly like Reed Richards has lost ten years of his life, but doesn’t remember a thing.

We then see what actually happened to him. He did indeed emerge into the future, where he’s immediately greeted as a visitor from the past and shown around the blissful utopia.

This panel of the utopian future being all white faces is something that I sure hope wouldn’t fly today.

They have the standard utopian trappings: no wars, instant teleportation, lifespans increased to two hundred years. This is one of the standard features of midcentury utopias that I never understood, though, the idea of having your food in pill or ray form. Even if it somehow still has the flavors, you’re missing out on the textures and presentation.

I don’t want to be part of a utopia where I can’t eat proper food, that’s all I’m saying.

There’s another amusing bit about the “mentho ray” that transmits thoughts directly to paper. It always amuses me whenever they show a society with technology far advanced from our own that doesn’t anticipate the smartphone.

They show the time traveler their vast treasure trove of gems and gold they use to trade with aliens (apparently). He immediately decides that he, an ordinary unarmed guy from the past, wants to steal from this fantastic future society with technology he can’t understand.

He does this in the most ham-fisted way possible, by trying to pit two of the future men against each other. As part of their criminal justice system, they hook all three up to mind probes and discover that the time travelers was playing a cheap trick. He’s then thrown into prison for ten years, and then his memory was erased before being sent back to the past, leading to the beginning of the story.

This all seems just to be an excuse to show off a cool future society, and I don’t blame them. I couldn’t get enough of that kind of thing as a kid.

This last story is about a man in a remote home out in the woods, who sculpts weird human-like figures. Two guys see his work and go send an art critic, uninvited, out to review his art. This art critic looks like a real piece of work.

The artist protests that he doesn’t want his work reviewed, but the critic barges in anyway. He complains that the sculptures aren’t realistic enough, and geez, this is an awful critic. It turns out that the sculptures are aliens in disguise. They throw the critic out of the house and blast off in their spaceship. The end.

Next time on Marvel Librarian! Is Paste-Pot Pete the greatest villain of all time? No, not at all, but here he is anyway.