Monday, November 30, 2015

The Astonishing Turmoil of Henry Pym!

Whenever a comics cover is split into parts, teasing the reader with glances at most if not all of the story's different scenes, you have to admit it's a pretty decent selling tool--even in a case where several of the captions make light of the contents, such as this cover to Avengers #227.

Captain Marvel, a brand new character at this point, receives prominence, since it's quickly becoming apparent she's being groomed for Avengers membership (more quickly than we realize, as it turns out, which the story will make clear), though she doesn't turn out to be the story's eventual focus. The She-Hulk, with only five issues under her belt as a new Avenger herself, also receives cover attention, with the caption doing its best to highlight her relatively low-key appearance. The same might appear to hold true for the Wasp--though her frivolous caption belies the somewhat more serious scene that waits within.

No, this story's real focus is assessing the state of Henry Pym, disgraced Avenger--currently incarcerated at the prison facility of Ryker's Island, where he receives a visitor who will attempt to determine his mental fitness to stand trial for his federal crime. Sifting through Pym's mental state is a tall order, no doubt; but as a result, this issue will provide the most comprehensive look to date at his life and career, which must include his steady spiral to rock bottom.

Yet before covering what's sure to be a lot of ground in the case of Pym, the story by Roger Stern (who with this issue begins his long and distinguished run on Avengers) and Sal Buscema (whose pencils receive some rather nice finishes by inker Brett Breeding) deals first with the other featured segments--beginning with Captain Marvel, whose abilities make for an impressive demonstration, to say the least.

Naturally, the Avengers snap her right up (they'd be dopes not to)--with the Wasp in particular pushing through a vote in her favor, making good on her stated desire to add "more girls!" to the team's roster. And with the government now overseeing the team closely and regulating the size of their membership, the Wasp devises an "Avenger-in-training" status for Marvel, the better to tutor her in the use of her new powers.

With Captain Marvel getting settled, Stern swivels to She-Hulk, who continues to acclimate favorably to the team--but there's one member who's visibly uncomfortable with how the status quo is shifting.

There isn't really much for She-Hulk to do in this issue beyond "strut her stuff" in the strength department by hoisting a 5-ton piece of machinery as if it were a duffel bag, though Stern uses the limited time he has with her to further distinguish her as a transplanted L.A. native who has a taste for the city life. Fortunately, New York might just suit her in that respect.

In Jan's case, Stern begins to expand on her decision to propose herself for and accept the position of Avengers chairwoman. Captain America makes a good point when he says that she seems to be growing into the post--though perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say she's throwing herself into the job, as swiftly as she deals with administrative matters and as efficiently as she applies her style of leadership to the team. It's probably just the thing she needs following her divorce from Pym--but her friends, Reed and Sue Richards, don't necessarily see it that way, in a rare moment of down time which has the three of them lunching together and catching up.

Personally, I might have left the scene at the misgivings expressed by Sue and Reed, since Stern gives us cause for concern in the bathroom visit that Jan might indeed crack at some point--and what a relief that wasn't the direction he decided to go in, as it would have proven to be disappointingly predictable. (The "I don't need him... [I] don't need anybody!" line was bad enough.) Instead, Avengers chairmanship proved very therapeutic for Jan, and she earned high marks from both her team and, by most accounts, the book's readers.

That leaves us with Pym, whose visitor has the unenviable task of deducing what led the former Avenger to this low point in his life. For us, however, it's a well-laid-out digest that allows us to visit the various periods in Pym's career that helped to shape his self-perception, giving due attention to each point in time while not lingering overlong on any of them. Buscema must have pencilled dozens of these retrospectives, and I can't recall seeing any of them handled poorly. Brief though these scenes are, they're concise yet representative of a great deal of history in Pym's life. Buscema must know his Marvel history backwards and forwards.

Despite the attempt to suggest a logical connection that establishes the death of Pym's wife as a motivating factor that eventually led to pursuing a life as a costumed adventurer, Stern never quite gets us there. Pym's reducing potion "shouldn't have worked, but I made it work!" "I'd never planned to become a costumed crusader. It just... happened!" The problem Stern must work around here is that those early 1960s stories in Tales To Astonish never took themselves too seriously; things did just happen, and experiments did have improbable, astonishing results that didn't bear scrutiny. Stern, on the other hand, has the opportunity to provide such scrutiny to Pym's choices, yet chooses not to--and so, consequently, Pym's backstory involving Maria's death doesn't really justify the incredible direction that his life takes from that of a content researcher. "But I was never all that comfortable in playing Ant-Man." Well, Doctor? You've become a crime-fighter as a means of avenging your wife's death (and a "crusading" crime-fighter, at that)--but on the other hand, your heart isn't in it?

Fortunately, Janet Van Dyne enters the picture, and the two have something in common: a desire to avenge the death of a loved one. And so Pym takes on a partner in crime(fighting). The strange part of this new arrangement is that, even as difficult as he's finding it to continue in the role of Ant-Man, he decides to commit more fully to that role by formalizing it with someone who now joins him at that size. It's only when he feels overshadowed by his far more powerful partners in the Avengers that he decides to trade one extreme for another.

Pym is somewhat understating his role as Goliath on the team. Now doing considerably more in the Avengers than "pull his weight," Pym was now the most powerful member in their roster at the time (at least until the Vision's arrival), and would often take the initiative against their foes, his size-changing ability restored to its peak by the Collector (and a booster treatment from Iron Man). He also notes that, with Captain America now on inactive status, he was the Avengers' most experienced resident member. (We could also argue that the Wasp shared that status, though she often deferred to Pym in the field.)

Regrettably, it was during this time that Pym began experimenting with robotics and A.I. work--which of course led to the creation of Ultron, who would become one of the team's most persistent and deadliest foes. Yet Pym's lab work would also lead to another shift in his life, one that at first worked out for the best.

I remember my reading of Avengers at this point in time and having a take-him-or-leave-him opinion of the presence of Pym/Yellowjacket on the team, with the character again a formal member on the roster but not really holding any interest for me beyond that (especially with he and the Wasp often going into action as a pair)--so Stern appearing to suddenly shift gears and attribute Pym's uneasy state of mind to his unease at once again being on active status isn't as odd a shift in this look back as it might seem. We can only wonder if things would have been different for him had he decided to remain a civilian and focus on his lab work; after all, this retrospective begins by making a point of mentioning that Pym often had to be pried out of his lab after his college days. Yet now he was trying to placate Jan by maintaining his life as an Avenger while also dividing his time as a researcher--and it's understandable that his lab work became less rewarding to him and more of a reminder of his inability to enjoy it as he once did.

And talk about things going from bad to worse:

It bears pointing out that Pym's mental instability has on at least two occasions been the result of outside factors having nothing to do with the natural course of his life (the accidental release of gases in the lab, and Ultron's tampering with his mind)--both of which, granted, afflicting a mind already under stress, but which arguably served to push him beyond the point that he might have been able to manage normally. It's another "what if?" question worth mulling over: Would Pym's marital difficulties otherwise have escalated to the point they did? Would he have felt so inadequate as an Avenger that he would act irrationally on a mission and later disgrace himself by manufacturing a false crisis?

When the government hands down new regulations for the Avengers and forces them to limit their lineup to a smaller roster, Yellowjacket finds himself a member of an Avengers team consisting of almost all of the original members he'd co-founded the team with--which, depending on how you looked at it, either made him more comfortable as an Avenger, or served to close the circle as far as reminding him of how inadequate he seemed next to his peers. It only took the new lineup's first mission to make that determination.

It's at this point that Dr. Edmonds' visit with Pym ends, as does this look back at this scientist's troubled life as a hero. Yet despite having been through so much adversity, and so many low points in his life, it's to Pym's credit that he's not willing to just throw in the towel and be trampled on by the injustice perpetrated by his old foe, Egghead. Pym, one of the original Avengers, has one last fight left in him--not to avenge, but to retrieve something that he must, if he's to go on.

We know that Pym will indeed have his day in court, and, despite appearances, the result will lead to his reclaiming his life and exonerating himself. For good or bad, his story is far from over--but Stern sets the wheels in motion that allow him to pivot on his own terms.

The Avengers #227

Script: Roger Stern
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Brett Breeding
Letterer: Joe Rosen

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