TALES TO ASTONISH #27: “Let’s Get Small!!”

Published: January, 1962

“The Man in the Ant Hill!”
Writers: Stan Lee, Larry Lieber
Artist: Jack Kirby
Inker: Dick Ayers
Letterer: John Duffy

I wish I’d had the foresight to begin blogging as soon as I started reading Marvel Comics. I’d like to be able to record my truly “first time” reactions. But it seems I’ve read ahead about 200 issues, so for the first several (or dozen, or more) blog entries, I’ll be looking backwards a bit. In time, I’ll catch up, and read and review at the same time. But for the moment, I’ve got to confess…I already know a bit about some of these characters. In a way that’s a bad thing, but in another way, it’s great! Because it enables me to say with absolute clarity at this point: I LOVE ANT-MAN!

Okay. There. I’ve said it. I’ve already read about 25 Ant-Man stories, and he has quickly become one of my favorites. Actually, I don’t think I enjoy Ant-Man so much as the interaction between him and the Wasp…or, maybe more so, between Henry Pym and Janet van Dyne. But now, once again, I’m getting way ahead of myself. Let’s see if I can concentrate on this one story, the origin story of Ant-Man, as it appears in Tales to Astonish #27.

We start with Henry Pym, a scientist who is ridiculed by the scientific community, but continues to pursue his dreams by only working on things that appeal to his imagination. His pet project is a duo of serums that make an object get really really small (think: 1970’s Steve Martin) and then once again return to normal size. He dreams of practical uses for his fantastic serums, like reducing shipping costs, and transporting entire armies in one airplane. So, yes, he is a mad scientist. But it’s for a good cause.

Of course, like any good mad scientist, he has to test his invention on himself. For a smart guy, though, he blunders big-time when he makes himself small but leaves the “return to normal” serum on the window ledge. You would think he would have thought to put it in his pocket, where it would reduce to the same small size he is, right? But if he did that…we might not have so much of a story, right?

Because as soon as he gets small, he gets frightened, wanders outside, and runs into a group of ants that want to attack him. For some reason he thinks that their ant hill would be a good place to hide. Again, not a really smart move for a supposedly smart guy, but I did mention he was terrified. “Fear grips his heart” and “the frantic man” is “too panicky.” So I think that’s been established.

Anyway, he runs into the ant hill and ends up falling in a puddle of honey. (Did you know ants collect honey for food? I didn’t.) All seems lost…but then one friendly ant helps him out and eventually gives him a ride up the side of the building to the waiting tube of growth serum. He gets inside the test tube, gets big again, and the first thing he does, after exclaiming, “I’m normal again!! I’m a man again!” is to dump the serums down the drain, declaring “They’re far too dangerous to ever be used by any human again!!”

I don’t remember what will make him change his mind, why he decides to go back and re-create the serums. But I’m glad he does. Because this is just too much fun. As we all know from watching various fantasy and science fiction movies, such as Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Borrowers, The Incredible Shrinking Man (and The Incredible Shrinking Woman), being really really small can make for some interesting storylines.

In this story, I particularly liked when tiny Pym finds a matchstick standing up inside the ant hill, and decides to throw a pebble at it, to get it to light. And it does! The fire distracts the attacking ants momentarily, but then one big bully ant grabs him, and he says “Uhhh…strong…too strong for me! But I have one advantage! A human brain…which has learned the art of judo!” And he gives the bully ant a judo chop.

C’mon! Judo moves on an ant? This is good stuff.

I guess co-writers, brothers Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, realized there was potential in a story like this. As Russ explains, this book, Tales to Astonish, was originally a collection of several short tales of horror and suspense. The Man in the Ant Hill was never meant to develop into a major Marvel superhero. I think the readers wrote in their approval, asking for more. And whatever the readers want…they get!

I have a lot more to say about Ant-Man, but it will have to wait until I get to future issues. For the moment, I just want to note that I’m not particularly fond of the artistic depiction of Henry Pym in this first story. He should be a lot more handsome (as he will be later). I also thought it odd that the artwork on the cover depicts neon green ants, while the ants in the story are red. We know there are “red ants” (and you don’t want to get bitten by one of those!) but are there “green ants”? Was the decision to depict the ants in green merely someone’s idea that it would make the cover more visually appealing on the newsstand, or is there a subliminal message that perhaps these ants are aliens? Back in the sixties, green was the color of choice for beings from outer space. Was someone trying to suggest these ants could have been an alien menace?

But then again, when Henry Pym is having his adventure with the ants, he is wearing a white shirt and blue pants…and has blonde hair! The guy on the cover, being attacked by the green ants is wearing an orange shirt, and black pants, and has brown hair! It’s like it’s not even from the same story! Hey! What’s that all about?

One more thing about this very short story. Henry Pym’s first encounter with ants is harrowing! Except for one extremely friendly and helpful ant, most of them are trying to attack him. Later, Pym will learn how to communicate with the ants, and then not only are they his friends, but also his servants. I think the message here is obvious: if we make the effort to communicate, and accept each other’s differences, not only will we can overcome prejudices, but also become friends, and even help each other out.

But once again I’m getting ahead of myself. There’ll be lots more to say about Ant-Man in the future.

Want to read this comic on your computer? Marvel has a scan!
Want to own this story? Buy the Masterworks!
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6 Responses to TALES TO ASTONISH #27: “Let’s Get Small!!”

  1. Locust75 says:

    You bring up a good point about making this short story into something more. I always wondered how they decided on making Pym a superhero. As far as I know no behind the scenes book talks about it. I was hoping Russ might know more.

    Also, you talk about the cover being different from what’s in the story. Nice catch. Both the cover and the splashpage are very striking. If I was a little kid back in the 60’s. I would want to know what happens from just seeing the cover alone.

    Is it wrong to like the Evil Mirror & Dead Planet stories more?

    “But I have one advantage! A human brain…which has learned the art of judo!”-Henry Pym

  2. nick caputo says:

    Hi Chrissy,

    Great to hear from a fellow Ant-Man fan! I’ve always found these early stories quite charming, and its the (excuse the pun) little things such as the matchstick and judo throw that add to the offbeat quality. I look forward to your views on my favorite issue featuring the Scarlet Beetle!

    I agree with Will Murray’s explanation on Timely-Atlas. It was all about sales figures. Martin Goodman must have been impressed with the sales, and either he of Stan thought to turn the character into a super-hero, which was beginning to gain in popularity again.

    I look forward to reading your thoughts on other Marvel comics.

    • Russ says:

      Let me provide a little background to what Nick has just posted. This morning I posted Locust75’s question to a mailing group dedicated to Marvel historians. Renowned Marvel guru and novelist Will Murray replied to the group:

      “Basically, Sales on that issue spiked. Which is why they did Man in the Beehive a year later. Since marvel was onto doing superheroes in 1962, it was decided to turn the character into a superhero instead of simply sequeling the original story.

      “In addition, Dick Ayers once told me that after inking that story he suggested to Stan Lee that he should bring Henry Pym back.”

      So, there you have it.

      Thanks, Nick, and welcome aboard. Chrissy’s worn out from watching college football all day, but she’ll be along Sunday morning to give you a proper welcome!

      • nick caputo says:

        Thanks, Russ. I’m greatly enjoying catching up on earlier posts. I always appreciate commentary that has insight (and humor), and Chrissy has accomplished that here.

    • Chrissy says:

      Russ has a saying: Why do people do things? Sex, or Money. I don’t know that there was any sex involved in Ant-Man at the time (though later, with the Wasp, we do have delightful flirtations between her and Pym….well, with her, directed towards Pym, at least as far as I’ve read…) so the explanation of sales figures makes a lot of sense. As much as we might like to believe Creativity and Art were driving forces, this was a BUSINESS, so I’m sure the bottom line was $$$.

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