I came to Marvel Comics late in the game. While I had been reading DC’s comics since the beginning of the Silver Age, I didn’t tumble to Marvel until about 1965. Oh, I had seen Marvel Comics. There had been a few lying around the barber shop where I got my hair cut. I had taken a look at them, didn’t recognise any of the characters, and tossed them aside.
It was The Avengers that finally drew my attention to Marvel. I’ve always been a sucker for super-hero teams, and by then, I was able to wrap my brain around the idea of different publishers with different super-heroes. After all, I had had no problem distinguishing between Earth-One and Earth-Two, so I came to view Marvel’s heroes as belonging to yet another parallel world.
Unlike many of my contemporaries, I didn’t rave over Marvel’s different approach to super-heroes. It was different, of course, and interesting, but frankly, I was a bit uncomfortable with the “fuzziness” with which Marvel looked at most super-hero conventions. DC’s super-hero universe was far more orderly. The rules were the rules. Marvel seemed to play fast and loose with them. The Avengers would walk around their headquarters with their masks off and calling each other by their first names. You never saw that in the JLA.
DC's heroes had specific weaknesses. Superman had kryptonite, magic, and red and green suns; J’onn J’onzz had fire; Green Lantern’s ring was thwarted by the colour yellow. Other than those, they were good to go. But you couldn’t be sure what would take out a Marvel hero and what wouldn’t. Thor had that sixty-seconds-without-his-hammer-would-turn-him-back-to-Don-Blake thing going on, but that was the only weakness set in stone. The vulnerabilities of other Marvel heroes seemed less absolute, more easily sidestepped.
Given my preference for uniformity, it’s a curious quirk that one of the Marvel heroes I enjoyed most, my favourite Avenger after Captain America, was Giant-Man. When I went back and captured back issues of Marvel Comics, so I could be up to speed on its super-hero universe, the first old issues I strived to obtain were The Avengers and the Tales to Astonish issues featuring Giant-Man. I was surprised to discover how many ways the character had changed, in both powers and costumes and sobriquets. Clearly, Henry Pym was the most mutable super-hero in the business.
Not that in the more regimented DC universe were changes in costume or powers or names never seen, but it was rare. Seldom was a hero’s costume altered completely. Yeah, the Blackhawks did, the Challengers did; but they were second-tier titles. As far as the starring heroes went, you had the change to Batman’s chest emblem---which was big news---and Gil Kane’s tinkering with the arrangement of green and black on Green Lantern’s uniform. That was about it.
Changes in name? The only place that happened was in the Legion of Super-Heroes. Lightning Lass became Light Lass; Triplicate Girl to Duo Damsel; Lone Wolf to Timber Wolf. And a DC hero’s powers were almost never messed with for more than just the plot of one issue. The only permanent examples I can think of were, again, in the Legion, with Light Lass and Ultra Boy.
But Giant-Man, or Ant-Man, or whomever---in any given story featuring him, you never were sure just what cognomen, what costume, or what powers he was going to have. Other Marvel heroes would change, but never so often or so quickly. And when one thinks about it, it made sense. Henry Pym was a research scientist, and apparently one with independent wealth, so he didn’t have to worry about anything but spending time in his laboratory. (In fact, going by the stories, he practically lived in his lab.) The most logical thing for him to do would be to continually develop and refine his powers and abilities, the same as Tony Stark constantly upgraded his armour.
The Ant-Man series started off specifically enough, in Tales to Astonish # 35 (Sep., 1962). Stan Lee took the protagonist from an earlier tale when Tales to Astonish was a “creature feature” comic---Henry Pym, a scientist who had inadvertently shrunk himself to the size of an ant. In that first appearance, Pym had not been intended to be a super-hero, but merely one of the dozens of unremarkable ordinary-citizen heroes to prevail over “science gone wrong”. Thus, Stan caught a break when he decided to turn Pym into a costumed good guy. Pym’s method of shrinking had come from a serum. By happy circumstance, this method of reduction was sufficiently different from either DC’s the Atom, who relied on white dwarf star matter to shrink, or the Golden-Age Doll Man, who pulled the same stunt by “concentrating his supreme powers of will”, that Stan could legitimately claim he was not copying either previous hero.
The next thing to do was give the new hero an appropriately “miniature” name. With atoms and dolls already taken, Stan christened his shrinking star “the Ant-Man” and designed him around an insect motif.
The Ant-Man’s costume consisted of a silver helmet with antennae and a red-and-blue costume with black designs on the front in an abstraction of an ant’s segmented body. Thanks to the cybernetic circuits installed in the helmet, the Ant-Man could communicate with real Hymenoptera formicidae. While at ant size, it was established, Pym retained his normal-sized strength (pretty much a necessity for shrinking heroes). When called into action, Pym suited up, drank some of his reducing serum, and summoned a flying ant for transportation.
The first change came in the very next story, in TTA # 36 (Oct., 1962)---when Pym converted his reducing and expanding sera to gases and compressed them into twin cylinders he wore attached to the belt of his Ant-Man costume. This wasn’t so much a change, though, as it was a refinement, much in the way Ray Palmer added remote size-and-weight controls to his gloves in The Atom # 19 (Jun.-Jul., 1965). This, logically, would have been the next step of development for a researching scientist and it didn’t change the essential premise of the series. Pym still shrank, talked to ants, etc.
The series rolled along on that premise for the next dozen issues. (My hunch is most fans don’t realise that Pym went that long with the Ant-Man as his sole super-hero identity.) He picked up Janet van Dyne---the wonderful Wasp---as his partner in TTA # 44 (Jan., 1963), but his character remained unchanged. In fact, the Wasp’s light-heartedness underscored Pym’s blandness. Previously, the lack of characterisation had been a consequence of his plot-driven series. Now, his stodginess became a deliberate aspect of his personality.
In the fall of ’63, Stan Lee cranked out Marvel’s answer to DC’s Justice League of America with The Avengers. For the team’s starting line-up, Stan chose two of his headliners---Iron Man and Thor---along with the Hulk, a character for whom the smilin’ editor had plans. To round out the group, he was forced to drop to his second-tier roster and selected the Ant-Man and the Wasp.
One of the first things that must have occurred to Lee was that it made no sense for a super-team to have two members who could do little more than shrink to the size of insects. That meant a revamp was in order for the boring-as-oatmeal Henry Pym.
Stan managed to squeeze that Big Change into Tales to Astonish # 49 (Nov., 1963), before the second issue of The Avengers hit the stands.
In “The Birth of Giant-Man”, we learn that Pym has been seeking to ramp up his act. Step one: he has further refined his size-control method, inserting his reducing and enlarging potions into capsules he can ingest orally. Step two: he has increased the potency of his enlarging fluid, enabling him to exceed his normal human size.
In the first self-test of his new growth serum, Hank screws up and takes too great a dosage. He shoots up thirty feet, smashing through the walls of his New Jersey home. Too weak to move his own body, he lays helplessly in the rubble until the Wasp can slip him a reducing capsule.
(Those in the Hank-Pym’s-mental-problems-began-with-his-insecurity-over-being-a-foul-up-as-a-scientist camp---which I am not---point to this episode as validation.)
After some experimentation, Pym discovers that twelve feet is his optimum size. At that height, his strength increases, making him capable of pressing a ton. He can grow larger; however, if he does so, it weakens him proportionately. (Which is a touch I liked; it was a left-handed acknowledgement of the square-cube law.)
To me, this was a novel thing, indeed. Since I rather backed into Marvel’s early history, I knew Pym as a giant before I knew that he had an alternate identity of Ant-Man. I had never heard of a character having two different super-hero identities simultaneously. It wasn’t quite the same thing as the hero possessing the ability to change his size either up or down; the scripts constantly referred Pym “becoming Ant-Man” or “changing back to Giant-Man.”
This was also the beginning of many costume changes for the Master of Many Sizes, as he exchanged his clunky silver helmet for a simple red cowl with antennae. Other than that, his costume remained essentially unaltered, except that the black pattern on his chest eventually shifted its aspect from that of a segmented ant to one of a pair of suspenders. When fans think of Giant-Man, this is the version they remember.
The next development snuck in almost unnoticed, when in TTA # 59 (Sep., 1964), it was established that Giant-Man no longer needed the capsules to change his size. Frequent use of the pills now permitted him to change height by mental command.
And that brings me to the Giant-Man everybody forgets. Everybody wants to forget, more likely.
In TTA # 65 (Mar., 1965), Henry Pym creates an ultra-cybernetic device which gives him the ability to mentally control the size of other living things. The design of the device requires a modification---something along the lines of an ancient battle helmet---which he fits over the cowl of his Giant-Man outfit. To match the new appearance of his headgear, Jan insists on making him a new costume. She calls his current costume “atrocious”, but it’s a bit calling the kettle black, since the new one she comes up would’ve given Bill Blass nightmares.
Jan essentially fits a black sweater-vest over the costume’s torso, then adds a blue shoulder assembly with flared ends. It’s bad---real bad. (In all fairness, it’s Pym’s new helmet-cowl that sends it over the edge.) Unfortunately, by his own admission, he’s a scientist, not a fashion model, so he wears the damn thing.
But not for long. Giant-Man’s days as an active Marvel super-hero were numbered. In The Avengers # 16 (May, 1965), he and Jan, along with the other two remaining charter members, decide to take a break from Avengering. Then his own solo series ends with Tales to Astonish # 69 (Jul., 1965).
In less than three years, Henry Pym had gone through two super-hero identities, three costumes, and several adjustments of his powers.
It’s often commented that writers of super-hero team books prefer to cast heroes who do not have their own series. Team members with their own series impose a status quo that the team-book writer cannot step outside. With team members who have no other exposure, the writer is free to experiment with their personalities, relationships, and premises. The demise of Giant-Man’s TTA series probably accounts for why he and the Wasp were the first original Assemblers to return to the team.
Only a year after taking their leaves, Hank and Jan returned to the Avengers. Kicking off a running plotline that begins in Tales to Astonish # 77 (Mar., 1966), the Sub-Mariner disrupts an ocean-bed drilling operation overseen by Pym. When the hostile Namor abandons the station to head for New York, Hank orders Jan to follow as the Wasp. This ultimately draws her into the clutches of the sinister Collector.
In The Avengers # 28 (May, 1966), Hank rings in the Avengers’ help to rescue her by revealing his identity as Giant-Man. After satisfying Captain America with his bona fides, Pym makes a revelation. The principal reason he left the Avengers was because he discovered that his frequent size-changes were putting a potentially lethal strain on his body. He has limits, now. Hank can no longer vary his sizes; he can achieve only one height, that of twenty-five feet, and he must remain at that height for fifteen minutes exactly. If he attempts to return to his normal size before or after that, the strain may be deadly.
If the Scarlet Witch had done nothing else for the Avengers or the world, she would be regarded as a heroine for sewing a new costume for Hank, “in case [he] ever did return”. (Seriously, that girl had no social life.) Wanda’s design is reminiscent of the first Giant-Man costume, but in blue and yellow and with more elegant lines. When Hank shoots up to his twenty-five foot size, Cap remarks, “You’re a real Goliath!” And as easy as that, Pym discards the name “Giant-Man” and becomes Goliath.
It’s not too hard for the Assemblers to track down the villain’s secret hide-out, and an enraged Goliath keeps the Collector on the run. But in the end, good old Avenger teamwork rescues Jan. In the heat of battle, though, Goliath overstays his fifteen-minute time limit and, when he tries to return to normal height, he stops at ten feet and passes out.
Goliath awakens several hours later, and a medical analysis determines that he is stuck at a ten-foot height permanently. Trapped in a World Too Small for Him became his Marvel “handicap”, good for the hand-wringing that Stan Lee liked to insert in all of his titles. After a few issues, Captain America gets tired of Hank’s “poor me” whining and delivers one of his patented star-spangled pep talks. Freshly motivated, Pym hunkers down and seeks a cure for his condition, with the help of his new assistant, Doctor Bill Foster.
All the sweat pays off when their experiments finally restore Goliath’s ability to return to normal height in The Avengers # 35 (Dec., 1966). As a bonus, Pym regains his full range of size control and he can once again become the Ant-Man.
Though Hank’s plight of being stuck at ten feet tall didn’t last all that long, it introduced the notion that his constant size-changing had a detrimental effect on his body, a concept which would resurface many times. In fact, it didn’t take that long to crop up, again. Though able to grow or shrink at will once more, Goliath tended to stick to a ten-foot height while in action. In The Avengers # 48 (Jan., 1967), he is forced to shoot up to twenty-five feet in order to save some bystanders from a plummeting chunk of stone. Even as he does so, Hank thinks, “I’ve been warned not to . . . it might permanently affect my ability to grow in size.” Pulling off the save, he manages to shrink back to normal size with apparently no ill effects.
The next two issues are plotted slyly. Events transpire in such a fashion that Pym has to employ only his Ant-Man identity. He never grows above normal size. But so neatly did that fit into the plot that it gets completely by the reader, until Hank himself lays it out: “Years of fantastic strain on my very molecules---plus the recent overtaxing of my size-changing powers---have finally had their effect on me! Though I can still become Ant-Man . . . I can no longer become a ten-foot giant!”
The way Pym’s powers came and went, the readers were probably a lot less concerned about it than he was. And sure enough, two issues after losing his power to grow, Goliath gets it back---at the hands of the Collector, no less, who wants a flawless set of Avengers to add to his acquisitions. Not only can the new, improved Hank resume his usual ten-foot height, he can now safely increase to a height of twenty-five feet for brief periods.
It couldn't have been more than a mild surprise that the story contained yet another costume change for Goliath. It wasn’t shown on the cover, probably because it wasn’t much of one; just an alteration in the colour scheme, the blue-yellow becoming red-blue.
By now, the Master of Many Sizes was becoming Who Am I This Week? Henry Pym had gone through all the permutations of his identities. Ant-Man only. Goliath only. Both. Neither. It was growing wearisome. Hank’s most recent problems with his powers had come from writer Roy Thomas, whose back-and-forth handling of them suggested that he didn’t know what to do with the character.
For the next several issues, Goliath put in solid, reliable service with the Avengers, while the focus shifted to new members the Black Panther and the Vision. But soon enough, the writers would jigger Henry Pym once again. Only this time, there was none of the “Ant-Man only” or “Goliath only” nonsense. The end of the Silver Age brought Pym the most dramatic change of all.
An accident in his lab exposes Hank to a combination of unknown gases which cause him to experience a personality shift. Pym adopts the completely new identity of Yellowjacket. No longer aware that he himself was Goliath, he informs the Avengers that he has killed the giant-sized hero. Furthermore, he kidnaps the Wasp and intends to marry her. In short, as Yellowjacket, Pym was acting out his sub-conscious desires.
All becomes clear immediately following the wedding of Yellowjacket and Janet van Dyne, in The Avengers # 60 (Jan., 1969). When the Circus of Crime attacks during the reception, the Wasp is imperiled. Seeing Jan in danger restores Pym’s mind to normal, and once the heroes have put paid to the threat of the villains, Hank and Jan happily agree to let the marriage stand. Particularly, Jan, as she had tumbled to the fact that her kidnapper was an off-his-nut Hank and went along with the wedding plans just so she could finally get him to the altar.
Citing the medical dangers of constantly enlarging his body, Pym decides to remain Yellowjacket permanently.
Yellowjacket was essentially the Ant-Man with some factory-installed extras. His yellow-and-black costume included artificial wings which permitted him to fly while insect sized. Devices installed in his gloves enabled him to deliver electrical jolts in the fashion of “stings”.
Changing Goliath to Yellowjacket marked an axial shift in the Avengers for me. As far as I was concerned, his oversized presence on the team was as integral as that of Captain America. And I wasn’t placated when, a few issues later, Hawkeye abandoned his bow to become the new Goliath. It was a move that seemed forced and wasteful to boot. Why have one Avenger who could shrink and another who could grow, when there used to be one hero in the group who could do both?
Whether he was Ant-Man or Giant-Man, as a solo act, Henry Pym was always a second-string hero. But as an Avenger, he was a cornerstone of the team for years, despite the way writers would tinker with his powers. That’s the way those of us who read his adventures ‘way back then saw it, and removing Goliath from the team was, for me, one of the strong Marvel indicators that the Silver Age was over.