Sunday, 19 June 2016

Astonish: The Rise of Giant-Man

I HAVE A SPECIAL affection of the Marvel character Giant-Man, not least because he was the first ever Marvel character I came across in the winter of 1963/4. I was still in primary school and we'd been dragged off one cold morning to play football in Charlton Park, some distance from my school. I was never a fan of football, so I was more interested in a colourful American comic one of the kids had. The front cover showed a guy in a red costume trying to catch another green spinning guy, appropriately called the Human Top.

The first Marvel Comic I ever saw back in the 1960s. Kirby's bird's-eye view of the action meant it wasn't immediately apparent to me that the guy in the red costume was a giant, but I figured it out once I opened the book.
I leafed through the comic, noted that the red guy was called Giant-Man and could grow in size to about ten-foot tall, then handed the comic back. I pretty much immediately went back to my then-preferred DC comics - Flash, Green Lantern and the enjoyable Justice League and didn't think much about Giant-Man until quite some time later, when I discovered the Marvel version of The Justice League - The Avengers - and noted that Giant-Man was also a member.

So while others might see a corny name with a mediocre costume, for me Henry Pym was my gateway into the Marvel Universe ...


GROWING IN POPULARITY

After getting more into Marvel Comics, I understood that Giant-Man had enjoyed a previous life as Ant-Man (covered in more depth last time), and set about finding copies of earlier Tales to Astonish, to get the full picture. And many of those Astonish comics featured further Giant-Man adventures, as well.

It seems to me looking back that Stan had a particular loyalty to the Henry Pym characters. He tried very hard to make Ant-Man work and, though sales on Astonish were probably the best of the fantasy anthology titles, Stan still didn't seem satisfied. He had given his brother every support as scripter on Ant-Man from the character's inception in Tales to Astonish 27 and 35 up to issue 43, then hired veteran Timely editor Ernie Hart to take over script chores. But Stan was to discover the problem with Ant-Man wasn't with his brother Larry.

"I had problems [writing] the dialogue," recalled Lieber in a 2007 interview, "and Stan said, 'Why did you say that? You could have said it this way, or this way or that way,' and I’m realizing, yeah, I don't think of it that way or this way. So at any rate finally I think at one point he got a little exasperated and he said, 'I’m going to hire some of the old pros.' He remembered writers from the past. He still gave me work, he didn't want to take work away, but they were putting out a few more books. So he hired somebody and then the next week when I came back to him he said, 'Larry, you know something, you’re no good, but you're better than these other guys'. So that was my first victory if you want to call that a victory, right. The others are worse than me."

Ernie Hart scripted the remaining Ant-Man stories up to Tales to Astonish 48 (Oct 1963), and it's true, the quality did drop a little. Stan must've realised that having others script the stories resulted in comics he wasn't happy with ... and you know what they say about wanting a job done properly.

So with Tales to Astonish 49 (Nov 1963), Stan took over writing the main strip himself, put Jack Kirby back on pencils (keeping Heck on inks) and gave his pet character a big makeover. And it can't be a coincidence that over in Tales of Suspense the same month, Stan took over scripting of the main Iron Man feature from another veteran, Robert Bernstein, who was a mainstay of the Weisinger books at DC Comics.

Tales to Astonish 49: Stan's taking over the scripting of the Giant-Man strip results in much sharper dialogue and pacing that what we'd been getting throughout the Ant-Man run.
The plot of "The Birth of Giant-Man!" was pretty much a re-hash of the Ant-Man story in Tales to Astonish 41 (Mar 1963), "Prisoner of the Slave World", expanded to 18 pages. In both tales Earth scientists are being kidnapped by Aliens to build weapons. But the later story spends quite a bit of time explaining how Henry Pym enhances his powers so he can be Giant-Man as well as Ant-Man and almost relegates the angle with the alien teleporter, The Living Eraser, to a subplot.

Examining the artwork leads me to conclude that crediting Kirby with "Drawn by" is probably a bit generous. The finished art looks more like Heck's work than Jack's and if Kirby contributed anything beyond the simplest of breakdowns, I'd be very surprised. For me the biggest change here is that Stan is doing the full writing. His dialogue is much peppier than anything that came before and he very quickly focusses on exactly how he wants the characterisations of Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne to go. Within a couple of pages, Stan has established a brighter, sharper relationship between Hank and Jan and the story just reads better than what has come before.

Giant-Man essentially retains the Ant-Man costume, but the headpiece changes. Stan gets rid of the Ant-Man helmet and replaces it with a sleeker, antennaed cowl. It's possible that Kirby drafted the changes, but I'd have thought Stan would still have been telling Jack what he wanted at this point in Marvel's journey. Stan also establishes that Pym's lab is in the Palisades in New Jersey (in Tales to Astonish 42, Larry Lieber had stated that Ant-Man lives in "Center City"), bringing the character into the same universe as the rest of the Marvel characters.

In and of itself, the story isn't much of an improvement over the Ant-Man material that had come before, but there is a definite flavour of how the character would develop.

Tales to Astonish 50: The Kirby cover sets the tone for the story. Giant-Man is too big and too clumsy to effectively battle a nimble and speedy opponent like The Human Top.
Tales to Astonish 50 (Dec 1963) was again scripted by Stan Lee, pencilled by Jack Kirby with (rushed, it looks like) inks by Steve Ditko. It's a much better story that last month's, due in no small part to much smarter action sequences by Kirby. The issue also introduces the first reasonably effective antagonist for Giant-Man - the mutant Dave Cannon who becomes The Human Top.

Stan expands on the chemistry between Hank and Jan adding more banter into the dialogue between them, which does make for a more engaging read. But Kirby makes a couple of mistakes, probably due to not being that familiar with how the characters had been developing in earlier issues of TTA. His first mistake is to draw The Wasp with wings at full size. It had been well-established in earlier stories that Jan only sprouts her wasp-wings when she shrinks to insect size, but here she is, standing in a lift with a member of the public. Nick Caputo has observed that Heck made some changes to The Wasp's face, but maybe there wasn't enough to time to fix Jan's wings.
Here's the Wasp with wings ... while she's at her normal height. Yet back in TTA44 Hank clearly states that her wings appear only when she shrinks to wasp-size.
The Human Top's costume (and name) is a bit goofy, but he's a smart villain who runs Giant-Man ragged in this first part of the story. That's right, this is the first two-part Hank Pym story. The first half of this tale ends with Giant-Man - having been made a fool of - trying to train himself to be faster.

Tales to Astonish 51: Jack Kirby's cover is good, but I'd have thought a low angle shot, looking up, would have emphasised Giant-Man's size more effectively. It wasn't immediately apparent to me when I first saw this cover in early 1964 that Giant-Man was supposed to be a giant.
Tales to Astonish 51 (Jan 1964) was also produced by the Lee and Kirby team, with Dick Ayers on inks. It doesn't look quite as rushed as the previous issue's story, though Kirby's still drawing the Wasp with wings at her natural height.

This issue also establishes the Giant-Man Fan Club that would show up in a few stories, but unlike Rick Jones' Teen Brigade, they didn't really contribute to the plot ... in fact Giant-Man seems to think of them as more of a nuisance than a benefit. And The Wasp gets a slight change to her mask ... Kirby gets rid of the old "pointy-head" helmet and replaces it with a simpler design.

Wasp's headpiece and antennae become a little more discrete in this issue.
With the aid of the police, Giant-Man seals off several blocks of Manhattan (we see the canopy of the Radio City theatre in the background of one panel) and waits for The Top to spin into the trap. With restricted space, The Top soon spins himself out, allowing Giant-Man and The Wasp to capture him.

Also in this issue, one of the back-up fantasy stories was turned over to The Wasp, who narrates the tale entitled, "Somewhere Waits a Wobbow" intended, I suppose, as a counterpart to the "Tales of the Watcher" feature, which began over in Tales of Suspense the same month. Both back-up features were scripted and drawn by Larry Lieber.

Tales to Astonish 52: As is frequent in these early Giant-Man stories, it's The Wasp who is the major catalyst in the story. Here, she sees The Black Knight before Giant-Man.
Tales to Astonish 52 (Feb 1964) introduced another strong villain, The Black Knight. The 18-page story opens with a three-page action sequence as Giant Man breaks up transaction between traitor Prof Nathan Garrett and a group of "red Chinese spies". Though Garrett is arrested, he skips bail and hides out in Europe where he spends his time developing a winged horse and some nifty weapons. He returns as The Black Knight to seek his revenge on Giant-Man.

With good teamwork, Giant-Man and The Wasp manage to defeat the Black Knight, but he escapes to fight another day. He would return a few months later as part of Baron Zemo's Masters of Evil, who would give Giant man and his team-mates a hard time in The Avengers 6 (Jul 1964).

In TTA49, Giant-Man's costume is essentially the same as Ant-Man's. But as soon at Kirby takes over drawing in TTA50, the solid black bands become three or four thin lines, a variation I never cared for. But in TTS52, Ayers makes the bands solid black, making for a stronger and more distinctive uniform.
One curious thing ... Dick Ayers, who drew this story, introduced a slight refinement to Giant-Man's costume. The "braces" that cross Giant-Man's chest became solid black in this story, though Kirby was still drawing the bands as four wispy lines on the front cover.

The five-page back-up feature is the Wasp narrating the tale, "Not What they Seem", written and drawn by Larry Lieber and inked by George Roussos.

Kirby is finally drawing the Giant-Man costume correctly on this cover. Inside, Dick Ayers does a passable job with the art, though it does look rushed, so the quality drop might have been due to deadline problems. He would soon be doing much more polished art over on Sgt Fury.
Astonish 53 (Mar 1964) featured the return of the best of the Ant-Man villain, The Porcupine. This time he infiltrates a chapter of the Giant-Man Fan Club and joins them on a visit to Giant-Man's downtown "combination gym and lab". The Fan Club don't seem to have any trouble getting into the building, and there's no security mentioned ... unlike, say, the Baxter Building, where Reed Richard's security devices keep all but the most determined villains out.

The Porcupine manages to trap The Wasp in his car and dose the members of the Fan Club with sleeping gas before engaging Giant-Man in hand-to-hand combat. He seems very spry for a man who appears to be about 50 years of age, diving out the window of Giant-Man's building and swinging to ground-level like a middle-aged Spider-Man. He then makes off with the captive Wasp and tries to coerce her into revealing Giant-Man's identity. But his real plan is to allow her to escape and track her to Hank Pym's New Jersey home. In the ensuing fight, The Porcupine grabs a handful of Giant-Man's size-changing capsules and swallows the lot, thinking he's going to become even bigger than Giant-Man. But they're actually shrinking capsules and the Porcupine dwindles away, presumably into the micro-world.

There's also a five-page back-up story with The Wasp telling a barely-interested Hank Pym the tale, "When Wakes the Colossus", with script and art by Lieber again and a nice inking job from Don Heck.

Tales to Astonish 54 (Apr 1964) was a bit of a filler issue. Giant-Man travels south of the border to Central America to take up against a bullish dictator called El Toro. However, the good news is that Don Heck is back on art chores and, as you might expect, he turns in a more-than-capable job.

At the request of the government, Giant-Man travels to Santo Rico to investigate El Toro's election fraud. Once there, The Wasp is arrested and Hank Pym is stuck at giant-size while trying to evade El Toro and his militia. Most of the story has Giant-Man running away from El Toro's men while his costume alternates between the "wispy braces" of early tales and no braces at all. It just seems like the character isn't getting the attention from the Bullpen that he needs in order to become more of a success. And the story runs just 13 pages, leaving room for two back up stories from Larry Lieber, one a standard fantasy filler with inks by Paul Reinman and another 'Wasp Tells a Tale", inked by Sol Brodsky. With the latter, The Wasp - in costume - is baby-sitting a girlfriend's son, who actually addresses her as "Aunt Jan" so I'm not really sure why she refuses to give up Giant-Man's identity in the previous issue while flaunting her Wasp alter-ego to her friends. And there's a punchline where Tommy asks Jan at the end why she doesn't have her Wasp wings at normal size. It all just seems a bit ill thought-out.

Giant-Man gets a new way of swinging into action and The Human Top grows to 12-foot tall to give him added menace.
Issue 55 of Astonish (May 1964) featured the return of The Human Top. The tale opens with another visit from the Giant-Man fan club. Jan is at full size and unmasked, so she can't be too worried about the kids recognising her as socialite Janet Van Dyne. Elsewhere, The Human Top escapes from jail and, for his first act of freedom, robs a bank. Hank swings into action using a spring-loaded pulley to lower himself to street-level, and sets off to track down the marauding villain ... but the Top finds Hank and Jan first and manages to snatch Giant-Man's belt and all his size capsules. The Top takes one of the capsules to grow to 12-foot, but fighting at that size proves tougher than it looks and the spinning menace is defeated again. The 18-page tale is pencilled and inked by Dick Ayers and is not bad, but still has the feel of a B-feature. And Giant Man's costume once more sports solid black "braces".

Tales to Astonish 56 (Jun 1964): It turns out that The Magician really is just a Mandrake knock-off, as he tries to use his greatest power - hypnotism - on Giant-Man. The Wasp defeats him by letting the "air"out of The Magician's escape-blimp (though she probably means Helium).
Giant-Man's next opponent was pretty poor, even by the standards of this series. The Magician is essentially just Mandrake the Magician as a bad guy. Stan wasn't the first to swipe the character, as DC had already used a Mandrake lookalike, Zatara, starting in Action Comics 1 during the 1930s and running through to 1950 in Action and 1951 in World's Finest. And in all fairness, Mandrake was just a fictional version of famous stage magicians like Howard Thurston (1869-1936), who pretty much invented the whole black tie and tails image, and Harry Blackstone (1885-1965), who followed in his footsteps.

In the 18-page, Dick Ayers-drawn tale, The Magician robs a charity function which Jan is attending. Alerted by the ants, Giant Man arrives too late at the party - The Wasp has already been captured by The Magician. Interestingly, the party's host, Sterling Stuyvesant doesn't seem to know who Giant-Man is. At a loss as to how to track down the Magician and rescue the Wasp, Giant-Man resolves to throw a (fake) society party to lure the villain to him. It's The Wasp who saves the day by letting the gas out of the blimp that The Magician is escaping in.

Guest-starring a better-selling character like Spider-Man was one of Stan's favourite ways to boost the profile of one of his lesser characters. First the two heroes would fight, then work together to defeat the bad-guy. This would be the standard plot line for almost every guest appearance, and the very premise of the later Marvel Team-Up comic. This adventure also established the long-running enmity between Spider-Man and The Wasp.
The guest-star in Tales to Astonish 57 (Jul 1964) was a sure indicator that the character just wasn't the success Stan was hoping for. Giant-Man's answer to Lex Luthor, Egghead, once more dusts off his communicator device that allows him to talk to ants. He sends a message out to the ants that Spider-Man is about to attack Giant-Man. The duped ants pass the message on and Giant-Man sends The Wasp out to locate Spidey (when he should have probably just asked the ants). But he's not sending her out empty-handed. Hank's created an air-power "sting" for her. Even at wasp-size the sting has a kick like a mule. It doesn't take long for Jan to locate Spider-Man and instead of reporting back to Hank, as ordered, she zaps Spidey with her sting. Though unhurt, he catches The Wasp in his web and, moments later, Hank is on the scene looking to squash a spider. The ruse is quickly exposed and Ant and Spider team up to tackle Egghead and his gang. It's a little bit by-the-numbers and isn't helped by the rough-and-ready Ayers art. And I really didn't like Kirby's "yellow spaghetti" webbing on the cover (though in all fairness Ayers draws it that way in some of the interior panels, too.)

The Wasp back-up tale is sort of interesting. Jan doesn't tell a story, but has a solo adventure where she defeats a jewel thief all by herself. The twist is at the end, Hank thinks she's just spinning one of her tall tales and doesn't believe her.

Despite a great Jack Kirby cover, this story, about Giant-Man fighting an enemy even bigger than himself, was one of the weaker stories in the series, using the old Stan Lee cliche of "advance guard of an alien invasion", that we'd seen dozens of times before.
Tales to Astonish 58 (Aug 1964) featured an villain who was even bigger than Giant-Man. Assigned by Captain America to investigate reports of a giant terrorising locals in Africa's Bora Buru region, Giant-Man and The Wasp arrive in the area only to have their plane destroyed by the monster, who calls himself Colossus. Our heroes take the monster on, but he proves too powerful, even for Giant-Man. However by combining their various powers, Giant-Man and The Wasp are able to keep the creature off-balance long enough to  paste him with a double haymaker. And when Giant-Man "vanishes" again by shrinking to ant-size, Colossus has had enough and flees in his flying saucer. It turns out that he's the advance guard for an alien invasion but decides that, as Earthmen are "magicians", they'd better call the whole thing off.

The big change in this issue is when Giant-Man announces that he's no longer reliant on swallowing his capsules to change size ... he can now become giant or ant sized by willing it. Stan doesn't give us an explanation for how that works, though it would later be explained by Roy Thomas that the years of taking the size-changing drugs had permanently affected Henry Pym's metabolism.

Here's Colossus again, misdrawn by Jack Kirby for old-time Iron Man villain Gargantus,
from 
Tales of Suspense 40.
The only thing I couldn't figure is why the creature called himself Colossus. Surely on his own planet, his people would all be the same size as him ... and bizarrely, the giant would show up in an Iron Man story the following year, mistakenly substituted for Iron Man villain Gargantus.

The Wasp back-up tale is another solo adventure, with Jan tackling - and defeating - The Magician all by herself.

Tales to Astonish 59 was a battle issue, paving the way for the new Incredible Hulk strip that would begin in Astonish 60. Villain The Human Top tries to orchestrate a battle between Giant-Man and the Hulk and talks the military into detonating a nuclear warhead on American soil. Wonder what the President thought about that breach of protocol?
Tales to Astonish 59 (Sep 1964) was a companion piece to the same month's Tales of Suspense 58, a battle issue to introduce a new character to the comic. Henry Pym and Janet Van Dyne travel to New Mexico in search of the Hulk, unaware that they're being trailed by The Human Top. Hank tries to question Dr Bruce Banner about the Hulk's whereabouts, but is fobbed off. Banner sneaks off but soon transformed into The Hulk, now angry because he knows Giant-Man is hunting for him. The Top tries to pit The Hulk and Giant-Man against each other, then persuades General Ross to open fire on the town where The Hulk and Giant-Man are fighting.

Yet, for all The Top's machinations, it's The Hulk himself who saves the endangered Giant-Man. As the military fires a nuclear shell at where the two super-beings are fighting, the Hulk leaps upward to intercept the missile and hurl it away. The force of the explosion transforms the Hulk back into Banner and Giant-Main fails to find The Hulk to persuade him to re-join The Avengers.

Stan also included a five-page bonus feature, intended to explain Giant-Man and The Wasp to new readers, but it was probably too little too late. Giant-Man's days were numbered, as there was about to be a new (green) star in town.
Even though Stan was about to co-star The Incredible Hulk in Tales to Astonish, he seemed keen to remind readers who the true star of the comic was. He put together a five page feature that explains who Giant-Man is and what his powers are with art by series regular Dick Ayers and Paul Reinman.

Yet for all this effort, Giant-Man was never the hit Stan wanted him to be. He would limp along in Tales to Astonish for another nine issues before being dumped from the title he helped establish and ignominiously being replaced with the villain Namor the Sub-Mariner. Quite why this was has never really been explained, though Stan took a stab at it in a 2007 interview: "I loved Ant-Man, but the stories were never really successful. In order for Ant-Man to be successful, he had to be drawn this small next to big things and you would be getting pictures that were visually interesting. The artists who drew him, no matter how much I kept reminding them, they kept forgetting that fact. They would draw him standing on a tabletop and they would draw a heroic-looking guy. I would say, 'Draw a matchbook cover next to him, so we see the difference in size.' But they kept forgetting. So when you would look at the panels, you thought you were looking at a normal guy wearing an underwear costume like all of them. It didn't have the interest."

In the end, I think the real problem was that Stan just didn't have the time to spend on the character. He had his hands full with other titles that were doing better sales-wise, like Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, and anthologies that were generating more mail. Tales to Astonish actually sold better than Suspense and Strange Tales, but it probably wasn't generating the fan-letters the others were.

Tales to Astonish 60 was the start of a whole new period in the history of the title. I'll look at Steve Ditko's Hulk series in greater detail in another blog entry soon.
But whatever the reason, the introduction of The Hulk strip, drawn by Marvel's other superstar artist Steve Ditko, just put another nail in the over-sized coffin of Giant-Man. By the following year, it would all be over.

Next: The Fall of Giant-Man