Fails to Ughstonish: The Villains of Ant-Man
In the Ant-Man movie out this week, the titular character faces off against Darren Cross in the guise of Yellowjacket. Yellowjacket is not a villain in comic books; instead, he is an identity of first Ant-Man Henry “Wifebeater” Pym, who bears little resemblance to cunnilingus expert Michael Douglas in the source material. The reasoning for this is not immediate but nonetheless is there. Unlike other Marvel heroes, there is no formidable rogues gallery for any of the three Ant-Men. The most notable villain is Ultron, which can’t be used for obvious reasons. Beyond the killer robot, Ant-Man’s foes are cold soup. I know this because I purchased the Ant-Man/Giant-Man Epic Collection and read all 400+ pages of it. I think a lack of memorable villains explains why Ant-Man is an also-ran compared to merchandising juggernauts like Spider-Man and Iron Man. Spider-Man has the Green Goblin, Doc Ock, Vulture, Electro; Iron Man has Communism, alcoholism, paternity suits and venereal disease. What Ant-Man must compete with straddles the line between ridiculous and pathetic.
He’s the George Costanza of supervillains!
Who Is He?: Ant-Man’s archnemesis who predates the Vincent Price Batman character. In later issues of The Avengers he would coerce Pym into committing robbery and make him look like he orchestrated his own jailbreak. But in these early stories, things are simpler. Suspected but not convicted of selling government secrets to the other side, Egghead’s whole thing is he’s really smart and his head is literally shaped like an egg. Some street toughs hire him to take out Ant-Man, so Egghead learns how to communicate with ants using his scientific acumen and most importantly the book All About Ants. Egghead appeals to the ants, offering to help them overthrow Ant-Man’s leadership and make him work for them. He’s also got a repertoire of flypaper, anteaters, iguanas and other known enemies of ants and ant-themed people.
How’s He Defeated?: Unfortunately, ants aren’t dicks and indeed are as committed to crimefighting as Hank Pym is. They let him know the details beforehand, so Ant-Man came prepared for flypaper. Now’s as good a time as any to discuss the character’s weapons or lack thereof. Beyond the cybernetic helmet that lets him communicate with ants, he’s got a lasso and boots with springs in them. Those boots are how he escapes Egghead. When the hero’s main weapons are the proportional strength of a man, a lasso and some boots, it should go without saying his villains won’t be as intimidating as Dr. Doom or Magneto. Egghead reappears in a few of the stories I read, and his schemes are as ignoble if not more so. One time he sends a false message to the ants, telling them that Spider-Man wants to attack Ant-Man. He figures the cops will all go to the brawl, leaving him and his associates free to loot the other side of town. Diverting police resources isn’t a very sexy master plan.
Where Are They Now: Killed by Hawkeye when an arrow caused Egghead’s gun to backfire. This week, the Ant-Man Annual reveals he survived, because why the hell not!
Second greatest danger: mercury poisoning.
Who Is He?: Scarlet Beetle can thank the Marvel Universe’s copious, unregulated atomic energy for his (hers? Its?) intelligence; without it, he’d be a regular beetle. He immediately declares war on humanity, convincing all other insects (besides ants, who remain loyal to Ant-Man) to attack humanity and assert dominance. They fare pretty well: spiders incapacitate politicians and other figures of authority with purposeful bites, grasshoppers surreptitiously pilfer dynamite from the National Guard, bees prevent police from aiming and firing their guns. Yes, bees could’ve saved Michael Brown’s life. As for the Scarlet Beetle himself, he takes ownership of some of Ant-Man’s enlarging gas and becomes horror movie size. For some reason Jack Kirby gives the villain human eyes and thereby makes the thing horrifying. If I saw a big beetle with black pupils and white sclera I’d be simply done. I would never stop shitting myself.
How’s He Defeated?: With the help of his ants, who really deserve most of the superhero accolades, Ant-Man lures him to a toy store, a veritable armory for any miniature man. Pym takes a knight’s sword and punctures the reducing gas canister on the apparatus the Scarlet Beetle’s wearing. Back to normal size, it’s a cinch for our hero to stuff him inside a condom. Or balloon.
Where Are They Now: Pym undoes the radiation treatment, meaning Scarlet Beetle went back to being an ordinary bug. So that means he’s been crushed to death or sprayed with poison to death or eaten as part of Shailene Woodley’s natural diet for a long time.
A certain number of fanboys would rather he be Thor than some woman.
Who Is He?: Kulla is the only alien warlord in Marvel Comics to be, I believe, in a partnership with a crooked window washer. The window washer enters scientists’ home under washing pretenses, dumps paralyzing liquid on them and transports them to another dimension. Kulla wants scientists so they can build him an “electro-death ray”; window washer receives gold in return, because of course Kulla’s paper currency can’t be exchanged for Earth money. Probably got green monsters on it instead of famous genocide committing presidents. Forcefully recruiting scientists to build machines of death is reminiscent of Operation Paperclip, only with more window washer-related subterfuge.
How’s He Defeated?: Pym badmouths Kulla, getting himself thrown in jail. With his cybernetic helmet is able to tame the yellow monster insects of the planet. Kulla paralyzes him with the liquid again, but before the alien dictator can pound Ant-Man to death with a hammer, the insects fire the ray at Kulla, killing him instantly. Now the people of…somewhere have nothing to fear. Ant-Man commanded a bunch of insects to topple of malevolent regime. The window washer remains in the other dimension, kept by Kulla’s people until he’s “truly reformed”.
Where Are They Now: Never appeared again, proving some comic book characters do stay dead. The window washer presumably is still breaking rocks (or sucking…no, no, prison rape is no joke) in a dimension of off-model Hulks. Do not fuck with Ant-Man: he’ll strand you in another dimension indefinitely.
Salon.com: “The Toxic Effects of Ant-Man’s Height Privilege”
THE MAN WITH THE VOICE OF DOOM
Who Is He?: The most absurd Ant-Man villain, and that is saying something. In one of the most blatant instances of “radiation can do anything”, a nearby atomic research lab shuts off their radiation machine, while one stream of ionized atoms is picked up in the microphone of a mediocre advertising announcer for a radio station. Radiation + microphone = impossibly persuasive voice. He abuses his power in a much less rape-y manner than future Daredevil foe Purple Man, getting free train fare and steak dinners. Exactly the kind of perks a fat guy would want. Ego gets the best of him when he finds there’s one man in Center City (Ant-Man’s home before Stan Lee decided every hero should live in NYC) more beloved than he, three guesses to who that is.
How’s He Defeated?: Ant-Man’s plan is two-fold. First, he gets his ants to set up a prop gun so that when Jason Cragg gives an address on television the threat of being shot in the head will cause him to retract his previous Ant-Man statements. As for a long-term solution, Ant-Man surreptitiously coated Cragg’s microphone with laryngitis microbes. Some may question the strategy, but it’s superior to Option B, which was to have the ants tear open his throat and sever his vocal cords. Germ warfare is positively sunny by comparison.
Where Are They Now: The Man With The Voice of Doom was repowered by the evil Hungarians (who surprisingly comprise 25% of Hank Pym’s rogues gallery) and eventually wound up working for the Red Skull as part of the Skeleton Crew. Like many criminals, he had to ally with White Supremacists to survive. Schillinger sure could’ve used somebody with this guy’s talents.
You think the writer might’ve been paid by the word?
CREATURE FROM KOSMOS
Who Is He?: Halfway through the collection, the Ant-Man strips receive a major shakeup in the addition of partner/sidekick The Wasp. Tales to Astonish #44 added a tragic backstory for Ant-Man and introduced Wasp in the midst of hers. Ant-Man was once married to a Hungarian national named Maria who was kidnapped and killed when they went back to the old country, despite Hungary’s apparent dissatisfaction with defectors. Janet Van Dyne’s father is killed when he brings the Creature from Kosmos to our world via his poorly explained science machine. This is fortuitous because Ant-Man wanted a partner with whom to fight crime. Thankfully, Pym had a costume ready on the off chance said partner was a nubile young woman who the comic describes as somewhere between 19 and mid 20s. (Discerning whether “girl” was an accurate appellation or casual sexism was difficult.) I should note that never again in this collection is either character’s tragic reasoning for becoming superheroes mentioned. It was the right choice because Hank remarking multiple times how Janet reminds him of his dead wife is less romantic and more creepy than your average Nicholas Sparks book.
How’s He Defeated?: The Creature from Kosmos is not only an alien, it’s an alien criminal. Donald Trump, apparently, was right. The Creature tried to enslave his entire planet and failed; I give it credit for almost succeeding. Its powers are to kill with a look (which felled Dr. Van Dyne) and more generally is a blob made of formic acid. Pym concocts an antidote to formic acid, loads them into shotgun shells and the final battle between the heroes and this villain involves ants holding up a shotgun on a rooftop and an ant-sized man pulling back the trigger twice. I think that may’ve been how Kurt Cobain actually died.
Where Are They Now: This particular creature appeared in a Quasar comic and the race of beings appeared a few times in Avengers and Thunderbolts comics. Between Mark Gruenwald and Kurt Busiek, it’s not a matter of if something comes back, it’s when.
If the reaction to Marvel’s Hip-Hop variant covers is any indication, things haven’t gotten better.
Who Is He?: What dates Silver Age Marvel comics the most, beyond the casual sexism, is the preoccupation the characters have with jazz music. While the genre itself is timeless, the idea of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (or…what’s that again?) going to jazz clubs as a show of hipness was a definite early 60s thing. Hank and Jan go to such a club and hear Trago, who makes off with the club’s cash box after his set. He doesn’t get very far, and the owner is willing to make a bargain: he won’t press charges and will buy Trago a ticket out of the country. I’m not sure…maybe deportation was an informal means of restitution in the 60s. Imagine if the criminal that killed Uncle Ben was offered a one way ticket to India instead! There Trago seeks out a mystical white man who teaches him forbidden trumpet notes that can hypnotize and control creatures, including humans.
How’s He Defeated?: Trago (now with fancy cultural appropriatin’ turban) gets a set on the radio and sends his hypnotizing trumpet through the airwaves. Like other jazzmen such as Buddy Rich, he commands his band to loot the city for him. Ant-Man travels inside the trumpet, uses his trusty lasso to fuck some shit up and causes Trago to plays those magic trumpet notes that cause partial amnesia and criminal rehabilitation. I’m surprised the comic didn’t have greater ramifications for the Marvel Universe. A weaponized jazz combo could redeem everyone from Charles Manson to Matthew Broderick and give the drug addicted ruffians of America a way to positively contribute to society.
Where Are They Now: Going by the trajectory of most jazz musicians, Trago became a heroin addict, abused multiple women, mismanaged his finances and died destitute, although he lives on as an obscure reference hipsters use to impress each other. Serves him right for having his garden snake kill Korr, Hank Pym’s trusty winged ant. Korr’s brother Foss showed up in the next panel to help, but it’s not the same, dammit.
Less a porcupine and more an exterminator wearing bushels of sticks.
Who Is He?: Marvel’s is a legacy of scientific geniuses using their gifts for crime for flimsy reasons. Alex Gentry creates a Porcupine costume with “quills” that contain everything from ammonia to liquid fire. He decides to become a criminal because of his belief that the defense department will give him a pat on the back and nothing else. Public sector workers need to receive incentives for inventions or else they’ll start robbing banks; that is the lesson of Tales to Astonish #48.
How’s He Defeated?: Porcupine gets a hold of Ant-Man and throws him in a bath, but thankfully Wasp’s women’s intuition senses her partner is in danger and helps him out of the tub. They fill his weapons tubes with liquid cement, and though Porcupine escapes, he cannot use his lethal radiation gas on our heroes. Given his repertoire of fantastical gas tubes, you’d think he’d be more of a threat. Perhaps looking like a bundle of sticks amidst a gas mask is a self-fulfilling prophecy of obsolesce amongst the Baron Zemos and Green Goblins.
Where Are They Now: Porcupine features in one of the most goddamn tragic comics I’ve ever read. Gentry becomes disillusioned by supervillainy and tried to sell the suit, with no one interested except the Avengers. In a battle with the Serpent Society, Porcupine accidentally impales himself on a poisonous quill and laments that he’ll never be remembered in death either. Captain America decided to bury him at the Avengers graveyard and place his armor in the mansion as a tribute to the “honored foe”. He has yet to be resurrected, although there’s another Porcupine running around. No concept in Marvel Comics goes unmolested for long.
Now Hank knows how a member of the Communist Party feels.
THE LIVING ERASER
Who Is He?: First, a quick note. The Living Eraser coincides with the first appearance of Giant-Man, no doubt created because two shrinking heroes were redundant. He can only grow up to 12 feet for now and in his first panel he’s already burst through his house. It takes a while for Pym to become competent at huge superheroics. Apparently the creators figured Giant-Man was enough inspiration for one comic, because Eraser’s story is suspiciously similar to that of Kulla’s. Eraser uses swipes of the hand to “erase” people, in actuality sending them to Dimension Z, where his boss wants the kidnapped to create atomic weapons for him.
How’s He Defeated?: The erasing ability comes from a circuit taped to the guy’s palm, so after beating the shit out of a number of aliens, Giant-Man takes it and all the humans return to Earth. Eraser makes a point of noting this circuit is the only one in existence, so the Dimension Z people can’t return to kidnap again. Can’t master the atom, only makes one copy of technology that can travel between universes…starting to think these guys aren’t too smart.
Where Are They Now?: Tried to steal atomic weapons but was eventually stopped by a questionable team-up of Morbius the Living Vampire and The Thing. Also once kidnapped She-Hulk because his boss wanted a wife. Well, they’re both green…
A padlock on a sack just seems unnecessary.
THE BLACK KNIGHT
Who Is He?: Like 39% of professors during the Cold War, Professor Garrett was caught selling secrets to “the Red Chinese”. They pay his bail and Garrett subsequently flees the country to a European country unworthy of a name. Garrett looks at a statue of Pegasus and is inspired, devoting months and months in the quest to create a flying horse. It’s like that movie Zoo, only he doesn’t get fucked by the horse and die soon after. Once you’ve created a flying horse, the inspiration doesn’t stop flowing, so Garrett also creates a multi-purpose lance (fires flames, bolo balls, functions as a machine gun) and a paralyzer pistol that freezes cats as opposed to kill them. That and the “itch ray” are the more dubious of Garrett’s inventions and they don’t fit the Black Knight motif.
How’s He Defeated?: Wasp uses her amazing ability to pinch Black Knight off his horse such that he falls into a roller coaster car, but then the horse bucks and it’s up to Giant-Man to save the Wasp. Good thing Giant-Man’s antennae can hear the hammer of a gun and down a shrinking capsule accordingly or else he’d be frozen like a cat. Unfortunately, the Black Knight manages to get away, in no small part due to the flying horse. Inject enough eagle blood cells into a horse and a traitor professor has the perfect getaway vehicle.
Where Are They Now: Fell off his horse, died and bequeathed all his Black Knight possessions to his nephew, Dane Whitman, who used them to become a heroic member of the Avengers and a few other superteams. (Probability the character becomes an Avenger or Defender in Phase 4-19: 33%.) Although he had an ignominious supervillain career, I can say one thing about Professor Garrett: his death inspired Christopher Reeve.
As Boyd Crowder will tell you, a trowel bound together with some sticks of dynamite does not make a specially constructed anything.
THE HUMAN TOP
Who Is He?: Dave “Davy” Cannon has had the ability of spinning around and around without dizziness since childhood, meaning he’s slightly more skilled than me at age 10. The ability makes him adept at both speed skating and crime. The evasiveness of his powers make quick work of Giant-Man. His first fight with the pair actually takes place over two issues, that’s how successful the Human Top is. Or how inept Giant-Man is. 12 of one, half dozen of the other, etc.
How’s He Defeated?: Moving past simple payroll ripoffs, Cannon steals civil defense plans with the intent on selling them the Communists. The authorities know this, though, so they and Giant-Man set up a sting. (I’d make a Wasp sting pun, put at this point her Wasp sting is a pin. She later gets a miniature air gun.) Once he learns it’s a set up, Top tries to escape but finds all the alleys fenced off. Then it’s a simple matter of Pym punching him while he’s spinning.
Where Are They Now: The Human Top eventually changed his name to Whirlwind and developed an obsession with the Wasp, which included him posing as her limo driver and hiring prostitutes to dress in her costumes so he could then assault and kill them. The latter occurred in the same comic where Ant-Man shrunk down to stimulate the Wasp’s clitoris. Comics: not for kids anymore, or anyone else, really.
Despite the gentle (and less than gentle) ribbing I gave these characters, I did find these Tales to Astonish comics to be fun nonsense that hopefully translates to the film instead of just redoing Iron Man with a thief instead of an arms dealer. If Paul Rudd doesn’t use a catapult/cannon to propel himself to his desired location, his fall broken by a bed of ants, and must watch in melancholy as his winged ant friend Korr sacrifices its life to defend him from a garden snake, I’ll be nonplussed. I’m sure a Marvel movie can at least be condescending and dismissive towards women.