Monday, November 21, 2016

When Falls An Avenger!

Unquestionably a landmark issue, Avengers #213 holds a historic place in the team's annals, beyond and apart from the lineup changes that in the decades prior to the 21st century defined significant moments in Avengers history--marking and celebrating the passing of the torch to new Avengers who would establish their own legend. In this story, however, there is no media frenzy, no heady sense of anticipation, no excited crowds--instead, there is a pall to the current proceedings that are held behind closed doors in their Fifth Avenue mansion. The Avengers hold their first court-martial hearing of one of their own, accused of improper conduct on a mission and subject to expulsion if found guilty. Even more eye-opening is the fact that the accused is not some rookie whose inexperience and lack of discipline led to disaster, but one of the team's founding members--Henry Pym, now known as Yellowjacket, whose long service to the team has been distinguished up until this point.

Pym has only recently returned to the Avengers following a new shake-up in membership; and while his wish to rejoin the team was met with a general "welcome back" response that lacked fanfare but acknowledged a returning member who has more than proven his worth, we would soon see that Pym seemed overly eager to make a contribution to the Avengers this time around, his laboratory work having failed to meet his expectations during his inactive status combining with feelings of inadequacy stemming from living off his wife's fortune. In Pym's mind, the Avengers offered a return to prominent status, as well as opportunities to excel in a group setting that would allow his talents to stand out and to once more be at the forefront of solving a crisis.

Nor could Pym be in better company to receive affirmation of whatever skills he would bring to the table. Except for the Hulk, whose (you'll excuse the word) signature on the Avengers charter barely had time for the ink to dry before he angrily departed, and Tigra, who joined the team at the same time Pym returned, this Avengers lineup consists of all the original members (with Captain America retroactively designated as such), men and women (er, woman) who already know and respect Pym and who won't fail to regard him as an equal. Unfortunately, Pym doesn't take this for granted, and feels he must push things along in that respect.

What happened in the prior issue to bring us to this point is something we'll let the preliminary proceedings establish. For now, suffice to say that the mood within Avengers Mansion is tense--not only setting a precedent for convening a court-martial, but throwing the book at a founding member. Only Iron Man has been the subject of formal disciplinary proceedings, a failure to answer an Avengers summons which resulted in a one-week suspension from active duty; in contrast, Yellowjacket stands accused of misconduct in the field, a far more serious matter since his actions escalated a battle that was on the verge of being halted. And so a momentous hearing is held to review the charges and Yellowjacket's response to same.

It's evident that Yellowjacket understands his personal failings in this matter; what's interesting is that he declines to explain himself, even though it's clear that his response (or lack thereof) will determine whether the Avengers convene a court-martial. Given his status as a founding member, and the fact that those facing him are his comrades and friends who no doubt want to make every effort to help him, offering an explanation of his actions would go a considerable way toward avoiding having this process proceed further--yet Pym's thoughts indicate that he's perhaps too embarrassed, even ashamed, of his behavior to lay his cards on the table. Which unfortunately leaves the Avengers no choice in the matter.

To the Avengers, it must seem as if their friend has no excuse for his behavior in the field, which, lacking an explanation, amounts to a lapse in judgment and, by extension, an avoidable mistake. When the Avengers reconvene, will Yellowjacket see it that way?

The court-martial is scheduled to be held in three days' time, which gives the story ample opportunity to have everyone mull over the implications in the interim. For the other founding members, their thoughts naturally turn to Pym, whom none of them apart from the Wasp have known to any extent outside of their activities as Avengers and whose life outside the walls of Avengers Mansion is as private as their own. That can only lead them to wonder what he's been going through during his time away from the team. Pym made no small misjudgment in the battle which led him to be called on the carpet--which is unusual for someone who has kept a level head in countless other Avengers missions. And as Iron Man probes a bit deeper on the subject, he may have stumbled onto the roots of Pym's current difficulties as a hero who seemed to struggle in the role, difficulties compounded by a lab project that would forever stain his career.

Captain America is feeling as torn as Iron Man as far as not offering a more firm hand of friendship to Pym rather than the hard swing of a gavel. Cap, in particular, is aware that a mistake in the field can happen to anyone.

Cap's situation of course differs in that his battlefield experience at the time was practically nonexistent, whereas Yellowjacket by comparison was seasoned by many such battles and didn't lack for experience at the time of his infraction. But both Cap and Iron Man are on the same page as far as admitting that either one of them are capable of misjudging a situation and making a mistake.

As for Tigra, the newest Avenger, her thoughts on the matter serve as an entirely objective viewpoint of both Pym's behavior and of the man himself. She has no context in which to place Pym's heretofore unreproachable status as an Avenger, and no exposure to him to speak of (other than what she may have gleaned from his file, if she's even had a look at it). But she has eyes, and she was a participant in the battle which has called his conduct into question. She's also keenly aware of how he appears to regard his wife.

The only character that writer Jim Shooter conspicuously omits from these scenes is Thor, whose heart "seethes with turmoil" and must tend to his "solemn duty" here but otherwise is passed by as far as musing on the subject of Henry Pym--which is regrettable, as it would likely have made for riveting reading since not many writers have taken the time to see how Thor actually feels about the mortal men and women whom he fights alongside beyond loyalty and respect. It certainly wouldn't do Pym's self-esteem any good to find that the most powerful Avenger, whose history with the Avengers dates back to his own, has no meaningful thoughts to share on his comrade beyond his regret of the circumstances that have brought them all to these grim proceedings.

It's also fair to wonder why Pym's wife and long-time partner, Jan--of all people--hasn't been cornered by the others for her perspective on the problem, or why she hasn't come forward to offer it herself. Instead, Shooter has her pretending that this situation has been blown out of proportion and that everything will turn out fine. Yet there's more to her state of denial: her marital difficulties with Pym, and his growing hostility toward his life and toward her, circumstances that compel her to coax her husband back to his old self by using seductive methods that have always worked for her in the past. In that respect, Shooter has perhaps chosen correctly to focus on Jan's reluctance to address this crisis, since her marriage is understandably a priority for her. Unfortunately, her near-smothering submissiveness and insistence on distraction rather than frank discussion with Pym serve to only make him more driven to isolate himself and brood on ways to solve his problems on his own. That's not at all to say that Jan is to blame for her husband's state--far from it. Jan's approach of unrelenting support isn't necessarily the wrong one--just perhaps ill-suited to his current state of mind, which Jan doesn't seem to want to accept.

Pym locks himself in his lab for the next three days, working on his "salvation." Eventually, Jan, worried for him, decides to become the Wasp in order to enter the sealed room, and is shocked to find a sophisticated robot near completion. Its initial test reveals the unexpected presence of the Wasp--but the robot's creation is just the beginning of what Jan learns of Pym's plans for its use.

And if it's not clear by now that Pym has completely gone around the bend, there will be no room left for doubt when a startling scene takes place, as Pym bullies his wife into cooperating with his scheme to deceive the Avengers.

The way that Shooter describes the scene as intended, Pym's brutal contact was never meant to be a conscious act, but an accidental (if unapologetic) one. Yet the scene works as drawn, since it does a better job of illustrating how domestic abuse can become embedded in a family and how the person being abused can find themselves enduring it. If Pym's strike had been simply brusque, it's hard to believe the Wasp wouldn't use the incident to draw the line and blow the whistle on Pym's duplicity (or threaten to) before he could put his plan in motion; but in the scene as we see it, she's at her wit's end, caught up in a downward spiral that's sweeping her along with it.

In addition, the scene that made the final cut would normally set up a potential problem for Pym's character in future Avengers stories. Mental instability notwithstanding, there's little question that this incident seals the deal as far as Pym being expelled from the Avengers in disgrace, with that expulsion being immutable. It's reasonable for his friends to encourage him to get his act together (which he does), even to eventually forgive him; but even with the Avengers' history of accepting into their ranks those who've been on the wrong side of the tracks, you have to believe that Pym would be permanently barred from reinstatement as an Avenger. Had this scene played out as Shooter intended, Pym returning to the Avengers would have been possible--but it would seem out of the question given his actions in this issue. How strange to look back all these years later and see that the drama that unfolded in this story meant very little vis-à-vis Pym's continued status as an Avenger--how many times he suited up as part of subsequent Avengers lineups.  How would you record such sweeping under the rug in your files?

When the court-martial convenes, we're still waiting to see just how low Pym will sink to salvage his Avengers career. Cap, as the one who's brought charges against him, makes a strong case against Pym's misconduct; but to his credit, he leaves the door open for Pym to admit to his error in judgment and offer an explanation that might serve to mitigate his behavior. With Pym's long service as an Avenger, as well as his founding status, it could make the difference between suspension and expulsion. But as we'll see, it's not necessary for the Avengers to outright condemn Pym's actions, since with his testimony he all but condemns himself.

Game over. What the Avengers have witnessed makes it crystal clear that Pym is not only guilty of the misconduct charge, but also no longer fit to remain an Avenger. But as bad as it looks for him, we truly see how bad bad can get when it becomes clear how Pym's instability has (literally) impacted on his wife.

Almost as if pounding the last nail into his own coffin lid, Pym unleashes his deadly robot as his last resort--his final gambit to turn things around and become the hero of the day in a ruse that will serve to wipe the slate clean of his one mistake. Yet, thanks to the Wasp divulging the truth in mid-battle, there's no hope for Pym's deception to succeed--and to make matters worse for him, it seems he's neglected to program his robot to use only token force against him, and he's rendered unable to perform the "save" he'd planned.

Pym's humiliation is now complete, as he makes his exit from the building with barely a word. Not only does he realize that his mishandling of the situation almost made him responsible for the deaths of the Avengers, but it was his wife who proved to be the more capable team member. How this debacle doesn't shut the door on his Avengers career forever is almost incomprehensible.

In spite of all we've seen, Pym has yet to hit rock bottom, especially with his old nemesis Egghead waiting in the wings. In the meantime, there's still some fallout he has to face from the shambles he's made of his Avengers career--and it makes for a fitting epilogue to what has been the beginning of Henry Pym's long descent.


The Avengers #213

Script: Jim Shooter
Pencils: Bob Hall
Inks: Dan Green
Letterer: Janice Chiang


George Chambers said...

Hank's biggest Achilles heel was never anything to do with his powers. It was his pride. In his very first appearance in TALES TO ASTONISH, he was too proud to work on mundane science; instead he created his shrinking formula, which almost got him killed. Pride made him create his Giant-Man identity, which was deleterious to his health. Pride made him create Ultron. And here, we saw that his fellow Avengers would have shown clemency, had he but admitted the truth that he screwed up in the heat of battle. Instead, pride drove him once again to ruin.

Warren JB said...

The whak heard round the (comics) world! I've sometimes wondered if the fandom concentrates too much on this lapse, and after seeing the context surrounding the moment (here and in your older Hank Pym posts) I still think it might, but for different reasons - there's a lot of unhinging going on in Hank's head! More than I anticipated. That rant against Cap is an eyebrow-raiser, as is his despair that Jan saved them all.

George makes a good point about his pride, I think. It partially answers my question of why he feels like a failure as a scientist after creating, y'know, a relatively stable method of instantaneously shrinking or growing matter, and why he didn't capitalise on it except as a costumed showoff. 'Course, that leads into the theme of why Reed Richards hasn't cured cancer yet, so maybe it doesn't bear too much scrutiny.

"...circumstances that compel her to coax her husband back to his old self by using seductive methods that have always worked for her in the past..."

I take it that's why she's wearing that costume.

Comicsfan said...

George (and Warren), it's hard to say how much stock to put in Pym's pride in his perceived accomplishments. A person tends to have pride in their work or status when they feel it's justified--a healthy conceit, if you will, that stops just short of arrogance or boasting. Yet Pym's work in biochemistry wasn't lauded in the traditional sense, nor could we say it met with any success insofar as his application of it, which he confined to himself only to eventually see his costumed identities based on that work fall by the wayside one by one. Pym's only real measure of success was as Ant-Man, an identity which he all but abandoned when it failed to raise his profile next to more visibly powerful figures. Add to that the fact that Ultron was an unquestionable failure, and it would seem that Pym would have very little to be proud of--that is, beyond his membership in the Avengers, which under normal circumstances certainly isn't chopped liver as far as an accomplishment one could take pride in.

Perhaps defining Pym's motivations is as simple as seeing him continually reinvent himself and improve on his technology in order to be a more high-profile Avenger; and even that seemed beyond his grasp, since he constantly went into action alongside the Wasp and was generally regarded as part of the Avengers' insect-sized contingent, whose skills rarely turned the tide in a battle.

Iain said...

When Hank discovers Jan is spying on him his reaction it to bring a clenched fist down upon his tiny form like he was going to crush her in one blow, is this also a case of art not showing the full story or are we just looking for reasons to show old Hank aint so bad cuffing his wife for arguing with him.

This man had some serious emotional problems over the years he faked his own death, and became a new identity (Yellowjacket) that claimed he was his own murderer and its a shock to us he acts this way?

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