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Green Day: The Rehabilitation of Henry J. Pym

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Kelvin Green



EDITOR'S NOTE: ComicsBulletin.com proudly inaugurates a "True Believer Tuesday" exclusive monthly column: "Green Day" in which Kelvin Green applies his unique perspective and rapier wit to a Marvel Universe character. This month: Hank Pym. Next month: Reed Richards.



Poor old Hank Pym. In a universe in which you can't go ten feet without tripping over a genius scientist who uses his vast intellect to fight crime, Pym is the perpetual C-lister whose inventions and discoveries always either go wrong, or weren't much good to start with.

Pym's groundbreaking research into artificial intelligence resulted in the creation of Ultron, whose genocidal hatred of mankind has done more damage to machine/human relations than thirty years of Microsoft products. Not content with popping up to menace the Avengers every so often, Ultron also wiped out the entire population of Slorenia* and more latterly turned up in deep space at the head of a staggeringly vast and frighteningly voracious robotic plague that absorbed or destroyed whole star systems. Happily, Ultron has since moved on to Being A Lady And Standing Around In The Nude, which I'm sure we'll all agree is far more dramatic.

Pym's other inventions have been rather less malevolent on a planetary scale, but aside from that none of them could really be considered a major success. He gave his name to the size-changing Pym Particles, which suggests that he's quite proud of their creation, and to be fair, I don't think there's been an Avengers story in which Pym Particles have gone rogue and dabbled in genocide. Still, the Particles are more useful than exciting, and the psuedo-science involved is just based on what the Hulk does naturally anyway, so you could say it was Bruce Banner's idea.

Aside from the Pym Particles and the killer robots, Hank's other big idea is a helmet that lets him talk to ants.

Right.

Again, many and varied practical possibilities in the world of science spring to mind, but it's not a brilliant ability to have when Galactus turns up demanding to be fed, is it? Oh no, it's the Devourer of Worlds! Quick, let's send some really tiny insects to bite his toe! That'll work! Will it bollocks.

So his inventions are either ridiculously dangerous or useful but dull, but one could argue that Pym also partly "invented" the Avengers, Marvel's premiere superhero team. It is true that he was a founding member, and has had a long association with the team, but here again the albatross of being "the rubbish one" hangs heavily from his neck. You've got powerhouses in the Hulk and Thor, a genius with inventions that actually have some relevance to the world of superheroing in Iron Hitler Man (and more on him below), and arguably a national icon and paragon of human perfection in Captain America**. I suppose it could be said that in those early days, the Wasp was less impressive than Hank, but she went on to prove her credentials as a strong leader and valued team member, while Pym ambled about messing things up and developing an identity crisis.

And of course, it's in his relationship with the Wasp that Hank Pym's greatest failing comes to the fore. Yes, inevitably, we're now going to talk about Henry Pym, Spouse Smasher!

It always comes up, as if every Avengers writer feels an irresistible compulsion to dredge up this event from Avengers #212-213 (only three-hundred-odd issues back, so clearly very much a going concern), and as such, it has quickly become very much a defining trait of the character, as if there's nothing else to write about in a Hank Pym story. As an example, in his short run on the title, Geoff Johns did exactly one Pym story, in which he established (for only the ninety-eighth time in the title's history) that Hank suffered from massive self-confidence issues, and hinted that he might become violent once more. Johns cleverly diverted attention from the idle rehashing of decades-old plots by inserting an ill-advised sex scene that Marvel were too embarrassed to reprint in the TPB, but still.

It all seems quite indicative of the bizarre topsy-turvy moral structure of the Marvel Universe, in which Tony Stark can operate a weapon of mass destruction while drunk, order the execution of the Supreme Intelligence, go mental and murder his team-mates, and build a concentration camp for his friends, yet is always forgiven (I expect the whole Civil War imbroglio to be waved away in a similar fashion). Pym, on the other hand, slapped his wife once, and has ever since been burdened with the moral implications of that act, torn by his own guilt and inadequacy and distrusted by his friends and team-mates. Now I'm not belittling the very serious issue of spousal abuse, and in theory, I admire Marvel's attempts to deal with it, but given how Pym's stories have been written over the past thirty or forty years, the impression is that it's the only issue worth talking about, which is a bit of an odd standpoint when there's a homicidal drunk with a fondness for concentration camps swaggering around in red and gold armour just over there by the smouldering corpse of Rita DeMara. It's the equivalent of every single issue of Amazing Spider-Man featuring Hydro-Man, or each and every Northstar story being about homosexuality. Actually, every Northstar story is about being gay, but that's a matter for another day. Anyway, rubbish scientist or not, Hank Pym surely deserves a broader approach to characterisation?

(One might even argue that it says something about the writers, who continually return to this point, almost with relish, and yet largely fail to do anything constructive with the issue.)

Perhaps someone has been taking notice, or perhaps the writers are just as bored of Wife-Slappin' Hank as I am, because in recent times, there's been a bit of a rehabilitation of the character. The Slap Heard Around Earth-616 hasn't been mentioned in his most recent appearances, and his involvement in Civil Bore aside, Pym's had a rather positive time of late. He accurately predicted the likely outcome of House of M (although apparently neglected to warn Alpha Flight), saved the day when he and a mismatched group of heroes and villains were captured by a faux-Beyonder, and has even undergone something of a reinvention as a bit of a ladies man, engaging in trysts with Firebird and Tigra, among, I'm sure, many others. He's been made Man of the Year by the Marvel Universe's version of Time magazine, and has even been put in charge of The Initiative, when before the Avengers wouldn't trust him with the toaster, in case he accidentally turned it into a hateful bread-spewing Antichrist. All in all, it's looking up for Henry Pym.

It's only a matter of depressing inevitability before some lazy writer decides that he really should tackle the issue of spousal abuse by writing a story with no useful or informative outcome in which everyone reminds Hank of something he and the Wasp had long ago put behind them. Until then, however, Henry Jonathan Pym seems to be enjoying a brief period of being treated as a proper three-dimensional character rather than a walking After School Special.

Long may it continue.



* Although perhaps this isn't too bad considering that the Marvel Universe is packed full of largely identical Eastern European nations and could probably do with losing a couple.

** Not technically a founder, I know, but close enough.

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