The Unbearable Lightness of Pym
Love at First Fight
by Rachel Helie
|Tales to Astonish #44|
Jack Kirby-Artist, Editor/Writer-Stan Lee, Writer-H.E. Huntley
The boom years of the sixties saw many characters born of Stan Lee’s utilization of the Marvel Method; Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men were born of those years. These characters often stand alone, and therefore withstand the test of time through a constant evolution of self as it relates to the time period in which they are written. During those tumultuous years of the American experience, Stan Lee dared to deviate from an idealized notion of the "hero" and expand more completely on the concept of the "human" in the same way American society was sloughing of idealized notions of itself, taking a hard and firm look at its own ugliness.
Nowhere has a depiction been quite so torturous to portray as it has been with Janet and Hank Pym. They, unlike many of their counterparts, began their journey together, their fates intertwined and interdependent. Their experience of exacting justice is born of the mutual experience of grief that permeates their interaction.
In Tales to Astonish #44, Dr. Henry Pym has lost his wife, Maria Trovaya, during their tour of her home country of Hungary and has undergone a series of injury and hardship in an attempt to avenge her. Set during the Cold War, as many comics were during this time period, Maria is detained due to her status as a freed political prisoner of the Soviet regime. She is murdered, set as an example. The grief stricken doctor throws himself into his research, inspired by an echoing memory of Maria who had said, "Go to the ants, thou sluggard!"
Visited by collegue, Vernon Van Dyne and his daughter Janet in his labs, he is interrupted in his work on size manipulation to inspect Van Dyne’s "Gamma Ray Beam", with which Van Dyne intends to contact other universes. Unable to assist Van Dyne, he sends the doctor and his daughter on their way. Though an initial physical attraction is present between Janet and Hank, their regard is one of mutual disdain and that struggle for power remains evident from those first moments on.
Before their battle with the creature from Kosmos, Janet announces to Hank that she is in love with him. Hank refuses to take this seriously out of fear of being disappointed in love and loss, and in deference to her youth and immaturity. Janet, being who she continues to be from these early moments on, takes that as a direct challenge and vows to transform her partner and colleague into what she desires, namely her lover.
So mutually dependent are they as characters, to excricate them from the tangle of their initial interactions is near impossible. For you see, as love and lust so often do, it locked the players into static expectation. Just as in real human interaction those expectations are frequently and inevitably disappointed, so too are Janet and Hank’s.
There is a singular moment that everyone who has ever followed this story remembers. Indeed, plug in Hank Pym on the Google search engine and the second choice for the win is "Hank Pym wife beater", which though it may apply in the real world, seems a bit unfair to the dynamic of these characters and undermines Janet Van Dyne’s power. (Duy here, plugging my own piece on this) It is by no means an event isolated to just Hank and Janet, but it underscores so completely their insecurities and psychological discord that it stuck hard and fast. By casting Janet into the realm of the absurd object of the pity, she is neutered of her very significant role in the Avengers. In that moment, Hank becomes no more than an unhinged abuser, completely out of control. Readers can’t allow for the evolution of the characters outside of that moment. It was easier to look away than to examine that dynamic. In that way art mirrors life.
Janet and Hank engage in a kind of warped power play throughout the course of their relationship. It is fascinating that the crippling humanity and frailty that both of these characters possess falls on deaf ears; it seems to be easier to label Hank a "douche." But why? People exist within relationships like this in our own world; why not in comics?
I believe that a reticence on the part of the writers to tackle the difficult dynamic between Hank and Janet lies at the root. Hank never seems to reconcile himself to the death of his first wife, seems to exist in a constant state of crippling insecurity as an Avenger and even goes so far as to create an unstoppable robot in Ultron and adopts the name of his deceased wife. It is as if, when forced to see their heroes not for their superhuman qualities but for their very real human attributes, in all of our twisted justifications, the reader and writer alike squirm in annoyance and discomfort at. But let's pick at this for a minute, shall we?
If there were ever a time that the "human all too human" qualities of even the superhuman were going to be received by popular culture, that time would be now, when daily we examine our own motivations and frailty. Never has humanity had the luxury to be so keenly self-examining. Just sit down in front of Facebook or Twitter for a voyeuristic horrorshow that’ll curl hair. Our real-life heroes are exposed in a world where information travels faster than PR reps can keep up with and the spin is on constant. We still want to believe in heroes, in good vs. evil and the good conquering against great odds but there is an element of cynicism that has tinged stories across the board. Dr. Hank Pym is a deeply flawed character, deeply damaged by the force of uncontrollable events and Janet is either emotionally tougher than he is or just emotionally disconnected and underdeveloped as a character. Perhaps it’s time we gave Janet back her power because if there is one thing that Janet Van Dyne loved more than Hank Pym, it was the power to exert her will upon the world and the men in it. Where is that Janet Van Dyne?