Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Tie-ins, Part II: Ant-Men : Marvel Premiere #47 and The Irredeemable Ant-Man #6

 Waiting to see what this feedback loop produces

Nick Fury used to be a white guy in the comics.

Technically he still is a white guy, but since the Marvel's Original Sin crossover event, he's been replaced by his son Nick Fury, Jr. And Nick Fury, Jr is a black guy. A black guy who looks like Samuel L. Jackson.

We all know that Samuel L. Jackson is the actor who plays Nick Fury in the Marvel cinematic universe movies, a role that he was coaxed into because artist Brian Hitch drew his version of Nick Fury to look like Jackson when Hitch was drawing "The Ultimates".

The Ultimates was a comic made to re-envision the Avengers for Marvel's lineup of an alternate reality timeline. All the titles set in this alternate timeline started with the banner "The Ultimate…", so there was an Ultimate Fantastic Four and an Ultimate Spider-Man, etc. With this imprint, Marvel could erase years of continuity and update the characters so they appealed to a younger demographic. The first thing they used it to do was to produce a modern-day Spider-Man who was still a teenager in high school.

When they got around to the Ultimate version of the Avengers…let's just say some changes got made. The Hulk became more of homicidal maniac than a troubled man-beast, Thor showed up as an environmental activist who everyone thought was crazy with his delusions of godhood and as for Nick Fury? Nick Fury became a black man.

Mark Millar, the writer of the book, even had the Ultimate Fury character state unequivocally that if there was a movie based on The Ultimates, Fury would be played by "Mr. Samuel L. Jackson, of course, no discussion." The way the popular story goes is that the real life Mr. Jackson is a comic book fan himself and that after seeing the storyline, he approached Marvel for the role of Fury in any movies they might make.

And you don't turn down Samuel L. Jackson when he wants to play a part in your franchise. He's been in more recent big box office movies than anyone.

Where does Ant-Man play into all of this, you may ask?

The  Ant-Man mantle has been worn by several different characters, each very much a product of their own era but all of them exhibiting some tendency toward a shady, "chaotic good" alignment bent. Also because with the Ant-Man movie opening this weekend, we get a front row seat to see if the Marvel's Cinematic Universe Ant-Man will impact and change the very comics that inspired them.

Because changes made in the MCU are being woven back into the Marvel comics. Don't believe me? Just ask if Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are mutants anymore. Or try to find new issues of the Fantastic Four.

Or look at Nick Fury. Marvel created an entire limited series to replace the white Nick Fury with his African-American son.

Had it not been for the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie's popularity, I'm pretty sure this wouldn't have happened. And to be clear, I'm not upset by it. I think the more the characters mirror the demographics of the country that spawned them, the more inclusive comics are to the buyer and readers, which is what it really is all about anyway. Reading comics that inspire us to be like our heroes. 

However it brings up a very important point: the popularity of the MCU is changing the comics that inspired them and that means with the Ant-Man movie poised to drop this weekend, the character we see on screen may alter the history of the guy sandwiched between the pages of the comics I hold in my hand.

So I thought a bit of a stroll down Ant-Man's storied lineage was in order.

Every iteration of the character has a dark side, something about him that makes him less than heroic in some ways.

The original man in the tiny costume didn't start out that way. He began as pure pulp comics hero. Created by the original trio of Marvel's heyday, Stan Lee, brother Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby, Ant-Man first appeared in Tales to Astonish #27 in 1962. Originally the story was to take place outside of Marvel continuity, featuring scientist Henry "Hank" Pym using a shrink ray on himself and getting into all kinds of trouble with now giant-sized insects chasing him. Eight issues later, the team revived the character in a three chapter story that saw Pym using his technology to outwit communist spies intent on stealing his anti-radiation serum. It was here that Pym first used his technology to communicate with ants and took the actual title of Ant-Man.

Stan Lee loved the character and the stories, but they just weren't successful financially, even after they added a love interest in super-heroine Janet Van Dyne, who ended up becoming the Wasp. However Stan's love of the character wound up being a big break for him because in September 1963 Ant-Man and Wasp starred in first issue The Avengers, becoming founding members of the team.

And it was through the on-again, off-again membership in that team book that the character of Hank Pym was truly developed. Shown as a brilliant scientist, Pym tweaked his formula to become Giant-Man for a while, went through mental and emotional issues while taking on the identity of Yellowjacket and later joined the West Coast Avengers sans costume, using his skills as a scientist to help the team battle evil.

It was during the Yellowjacket phase that the character's darkest period came about. Hank Pym accidentally created one of the Avenger's greatest foes, the maniacal obsessive computer intelligence known of Ultron. Which is sort of a big oopsie.

Sorry guys! My bad!

To further his decent into pathos, Pym botches an experiment and inhaled chemicals that induce schizophrenia. Under the effects of the drugs, he adopted the Yellowjacket identity, married Van Dyne, and became emotionally unstable. After suffering a complete mental breakdown, Pym attacked the very team he helped found and in a controversial panel, smacked down his own wife. Writer Jim Shooter said he wanted it to appear to be accidental, but the panel drawn by Bob Hall makes it appear to be spousal abuse.

From hero to zero in one panel

Pym eventually regained most of his hero status owing to being under the influence of the evil chemicals and he resumed a romance with Van Dyne. In recent issues, through a series of misfortunes Yellowjacket has been merged with Ultron and is currently lost in space.

So the original Ant-Man has this arc about a standup guy who through his own failing suffers a collapse and allows his darker emotional impulses to surface leading to loss of status, love and eventually identity. It is a tragic tale of a man at war with himself and his mistakes.  

With the second Ant-Man, Marvel went in this direction again, although re-arranging the elements a bit and it is THIS Ant-Man that is the focus of the current movie.

Scott Lang begins as a criminal looking to reform his life after incarceration for several burglaries. He is an electronics genius with a lot going for him, first appearing as a security expert who locks Beast and Wonder Man out of Avenger's Mansion on accident in Avengers 181.

He next shows up in Marvel Premier #47 in a two-part story.

It's here that we learn that things haven't gone well for Scott. He was apparently moonlighting on the side of his security installation day job as something of a cat burglar, stealing to make ends meet for himself and his daughter. The issue has a wrap-around beginning but once we get to the flashback portion recounting Scott's Ant-Man origin, we get a glimpse of him leaving prison after serving his debt to society.

Here Scott looks like he's ready to re-enter society and turn away from his life of crime. He has a job prospect with Stark Enterprises and the well-being of his young daughter to consider.

Yet into every life in the Marvel universe a little misery must appear. And in this case it cuts right to the heart of the matter.

This is why we need Obamacare, folks. Just trust me, it prevents the creation of super-villains. Or in this case, super-heroes. Wait. Maybe this is the anti-Obamacare stance?

What would it take to spur on such a change? Why having the only doctor capable of saving his daughters life captured by criminals to operate on their own ogre-like leader.

Scott is persuaded into a brick wall, face first. So later that night he decides to break into the company the thugs were working for. What should he find in their immense laboratory complex? It's a working full suit of Ant-Man gear!

Note the suit is hidden behind a panel in a lab. Obviously Pym worked here at some time and forgot this old suit was still there. Sloppy work, but given all the crazy things Pym's done over the years, hardly out of character. Though as we'll see in the next book, the Marvel universe appears to be littered with Ant-Man suits. Just you wait.

Scott uses the suit and shrinks down only to find himself surrounded by ants. He figures out how to communicate with them and give them commands through the helmet…but it is at this point that I have huge entomological problems with the book. And all Ant-Men books for that matter.

See this picture here? I'm going to nitpick it. That is a flying ant that Scott is riding. An ant colony is made of female workers, one queen and lots of ant larva. Once a year or so, usually right before summer, the queen ant will produce a few winged male ants and some winged fertile female ants. These are the only ants capable of flight. They also have one job and one flight only: they fly up in a mating dance, the males mate with the potential queen in the air, then both drop to the ground; the male to die within a few hours (must be great sex or something) and the female to lose her wings, dig a starting ant hill and start popping out new workers for her new colony. This mating dance lasts about 24 hours or so.

The Marvel comic universe is lousy with Ant-Men flying around on the backs of ants like they were swallows or something. My inner science geek always rankled at this fact. Com'on comics! I can take your cosmic rays and gamma radiation but don't screw with the basic facts of insect biology. Jeeze.

Anyway Scott breaks in and meets the doctor. She is being forced to perform surgery on the bloated mini-Hulk known as Darren Cross and before he can free her, the man-monster jumps off the operating table to attack him. That's where the issue ends, but I'm certain he will prevail.

As for Scott currently in the Marvel comics? Well, he's been killed once, had his death retconned by time travel, been believed killed once more only to wind up coming away unscathed, his daughter became a superhero, was killed by Doc Doom and then resurrected by him as well…There's tons more but it really is nothing but a wash-rinse-repeat of disastrous circumstances.

This sounds like the Scott Lang we will see in the movie: the "thief with the heart of gold" model. Lots of personal problems and family issues. But what if Marvel mixes and matches? What if he comes out with a bit more of Pym's decent into madness? Or, Heavens FORBID! He end up like the Ant-Man that follows him. That being one ex-SHIELD agent Eric O'Grady, the most challenging one to like yet.

O'Grady is a self-centered anti-hero, being concerned with two things: taking things that don't belong to him and using the Ant-Man costume to look at women naked. His comic book adventure lasted a scant 12 issues before being cancelled. The book was primary about O'Grady trying to escape the relentless pursuit of his ex-best friend and fellow SHIELD agent Mitch Carson.

Here is Carson and O'Grady having a heart-to-heart. The disfigurement you see on Carson was caused by O'Grady as we will see in a minute.

This little scuffle leads to a flashback to happier times when Carson was about to arrest O'Grady for stealing the prototype Ant-Man suit, only to have O'Grady use the suit to attempt to escape. Which of course lead to Carson pursuing his best friend by also putting on a spare Ant-Man suit….

WAIT! what?

A spare Ant-Man suit?

Who are they kidding? Did Pym just make a million of these suits or something? I'm only going to allow it because we get to see two tiny Ant-Men fighting in the cafeteria lunchroom and being hurled into mountains of mashed potatoes.

With gravy.

Culminating in a pugilistic contest across the brim of Dum-Dum Dugan's bowler hat.

Silly? Yes. Especially when the book gets deadly serious next in an unexpected tone shift.

Eric O'Grady wounds his best friend and has to make a choice between escaping or staying so he can save his buddy's life. A bit of that goodness in him makes the call and he rushes Carson to sick bay, leaving the crowd in the cafeteria wondering what went on.

C'mon, Dum-Dum. Seriously? You've been looking for the guy for several issues now.

Anyhow, O'Grady escapes off the helicarrier to Earth, just in time to set himself up for some people-watching at Ant-Man size. Female people that is, mostly while they are unclothed and showering. He may get more than he bargained for though. It looks like he hopped a ride home in the wrong lady's purse.

Yup! He's going to get to see Ms Marvel naked next issue.

So we've got three Ant-Men, each of which is a shade of gray darker than the one before it. It will be interesting to sit with our popcorn and try to decipher which they are using for a character template in each of the scenes. We might also be on the lookout for changes to Scott Lang that may jump off the big screen and into the four-color world we know so well.

After all, Nick Fury used to be a white guy.

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