[29 June 2010]
“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.”
—President William Jefferson Clinton (1946-present)
“Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.”
—Doctor Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)
“Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification.”
—Sir Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994)
“It’s on, bitch.”
—Doctor Henry Jonathan Pym (created, 1962)
It only happened once, and it didn’t even happen this decade, but it’s one of the very few moments comics fans will never let go no matter what happens: the slap heard ‘round fandom, when Doctor Henry Pym, founding Avenger and award-winning scientist, backhanded his wife, Janet van Dyne, better known to the world as The Wasp. In the midst of his debilitating mental illness, Hank, as Yellowjacket, had done more damage to the emotional fabric that made up the Avengers than he had when he created Ultron by striking down one of their most beloved members.
Pym had always been an “off” person, as most scientists are. In a lot of ways, he was the Xander Harris of the Avengers. In the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Zeppo”, Cordelia Chase pointed out to Xander that he’s basically the Zeppo Marx of the Scooby Gang; Willow had her magic, Buffy and Faith had their slaying prowess, Angel was a vampire. What in the world did Xander have?
It’s hard to imagine Pym never felt that way in a room filled with World War II’s greatest living legend, a Norse god, an obnoxiously successful and egocentric philanthropic scientist, a movie star, an African king, the planet’s foremost archer, the greatest spy in the world and a beautiful marine-turned-space heroine. Even their allies were intimidating, to say the least: an Atlantean prince, the sentinel of the spaceways, the man without fear.
It must have been horrible to be Hank Pym, to be the Zeppo of the team that has long been called Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. And it must have been all the more crippling that a sensitive, troubled soul—again, like most scientists and most troubled minds—would have his transgressions discovered by those he both respected and felt denigrated by.
Well, like Xander Harris, Hank Pym had two things that always drove him on: one, the obvious scientist’s desire and goal to create a better world not just for himself but for everyone on Earth, and two, compassion.
It’s strange to talk about a man who so infamously struck his wife as being compassionate. We must remember, though, that this occurred during a period in his life when he was suffering a massive psychotic break…and because he knows how others view him, he’d have been the very last to tell you this, because he wore his faults on his sleeve.
This concept is the focal point for Dan Slott’s brilliant run on Mighty Avengers, which recently concluded with the end of the series during Marvel’s “Siege” event. Hank, leading an internationally-sanctioned team of Avengers, is challenged by magical occurrences, alien threats, the Dark Reign of Norman Osborn (himself an extroverted, villainous version of Pym), the covert divine espionage of trickster god Loki, the conflicting personalities of his own teammates and, of course, his own state of mind following his return from Skrull captivity and the death of the Wasp. At the start of Slott’s first arc, “Earth’s Mightiest”, three words haunt Hank, three words that exemplify what so many denizens of Marvel’s superhero community think about him. When expressing his desire to form a new Avengers team to the newly-on-the-run fugitive Iron Man, the armored Avenger tells Hank that there are is a simple phrase that proves that the widower, now walking around after giving himself his wife’s old callsign, is incapable of leading a team of heroes.
Those three words, of course, are “You’re Hank Pym.”
Tall words, one must think, coming from Tony Stark, recovering alcoholic, ousted Director of SHIELD almost directly responsible for the destruction of said agency, the passing of the Superhuman Registration Act, the Skrull invasion and the deaths of Steve Rogers, Bill Foster and, indeed, Janet Van Dyne.
After a series of events leads to Iron Man gaining a newfound, tentative respect for Pym, the man in the iron mask still declines membership on Pym’s roster, offering instead three words to the newly-christened Avengers leader: “don’t screw up”. Even after that, though, Tony Stark’s comment, “You’re Hank Pym”, resonated and stuck with Pym for the duration of the series.
It was only one of the latest, never-ending blows to his ego, a series of attacks later dealt with by Slott in the most cosmic way possible. Combining all of Pym’s personal demons into one moment, Pym comes into the presence of the personification of Eternity in Mighty Avengers #30., the fourth part of the epic arc “The Unspoken”. Eternity notes that Pym has “found other ways to measure” himself than through size, while telling the scientist that for duration of their conversation, Pym is “outside time and space. While [he is t]here, [they] are separate.” In those moments, the cosmic being, explains to Pym, he is “the rest of the universe”. Almost instantaneously, and in one of the greatest introspective moments in Marvel history, Eternity folds his hand into a fist and punches Pym, telling him that Eternity himself “can’t stop this”, and that Pym has to be the one to actualize his redemption. “If this is how you think the rest of the universe treats you…then that is how you will be treated.”
This sequence is, largely, the key moment of Slott’s run. By teaching Hank Pym that only his perception of himself matters, not what others may or may not think of him, Eternity has legitimately started Pym’s road to redemption, turning him away from what Max Alan Collins would no doubt call “the road to perdition”. Eternity goes on to tell Hank that he is the scientific counterpart to the Sorcerer Supreme, a role that, until recently, was held by Stephen Strange and is now presently held by Jericho Drumm. Hank, still shaking off the punch Eternity hit him with but not yet quite feeling the kick in the rump, protests. He invokes Reed Richards and Tony Stark, whom Eternity says don’t quite fit the role. Reed, he says, is The Explorer, Tony the Engineer. Hank, Eternity says, is the Mage, and the last page of the issue proves it as Hank sets out to stop the Unspoken One and, in his own words, “save everything.” A stunning contrast, then, to the concurrent storyarc in Fantastic Four that wrapped up that month, as Reed Richards traverses dimensions in an effort to “Solve Everything.”
Obviously, Pym is not the only Avenger on the team during Slott’s run, but his character arc serves as the overall template, and sometimes even mirror, for many of the other characters in the book, Avengers or otherwise. Quicksilver, in a lie that only his daughter Luna catches him in, absolves himself of all his past crimes, claiming them to be the work of a Skrull impostor (In keeping with the character, this act, of course, does him more harm than good). Even Edwin Jarvis, the Avengers’ loyal butler since their inception at the behest of Tony Stark, helps put the Avengers back together to assuage his guilt over the Skrull who wore his face brought down the SHIELD Helicarrier. Then there’s U.S.Agent, who joins Pym’s squad after soundly rejecting Norman Osborn, whom he originally supported, only to be stripped of his rank and uniform by the man himself.
And then, of course, there’s Norman Osborn, the personified darkness existing in the soul of every single heroic scientist in the Marvel Universe, from Reed Richards to Bruce Banner to Tony Stark and King T’Challa to Peter Parker. Osborn was the central character in the Marvel Universe during Dark Reign, appearing in nearly every in-continuity Marvel book, including Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, Invincible Iron Man, Agents of Atlas and a headlining turn as the leader of the Dark Avengers. Though he wasn’t a regular fixture of Mighty Avengers during Slott’s run, his presence was palatable in every issue, and when he did appear in the series, usually briefly, he served as a solid counterpoint to Pym, a sort of walking “road not taken” of where the insect-fixated scientist could have gone if his life was just a little different.
When Pym and Osborn meet in one of the latter issues of the series, Osborn, obviously agitated at Pym’s filter-less brilliance, asks him if he’s “still slapping women around”. Hank, with his newfound flippancy, invokes the death of Gwen Stacy in his curt reply, cutting Osborn to the quick: “You still throwing ‘em off bridges?”
That, right there, says everything anyone needs to know about the different paths these two men walked.
There one sees where the evils of Norman Osborn begin, and the compassion-driven redemption of Hank Pym starts fresh.
But all this talk of compassion being at the center of the redemption-filled Dan Slott run on Mighty Avengers is entirely moot without the mention of Janet van Dyne and what the final issues mean for her. Towards the end of the series, readers discover what only Pym and Reed Richards already knew: Janet van Dyne exists in a limbo dimension, permanently moments away from death, and Hank had built the Avengers’ headquarters nearby so that he could focus his efforts on saving her.
When Ultron invades the “Infinite Mansion” and assumes control of Jocasta and her drone bodies, Pym has to make what Alan J. Pakula would describe as “Henry’s Choice”: save the world from Ultron, or save Janet.
Like a true hero, he shouldered the weight of his own grief and chose to save the world.
The old Pym, who the new Pym still has traces of in his personality (as all those striving for redemption do), would have damned the world in order to save his ex-wife. This new Pym hopes that one day he’ll be able to save her some other way, and in the end, after defeating Ultron, stands side-by-side with Quicksilver, USAgent, Stature and various other members of the team one final time during the Siege of Asgard. Henry Pym, having put aside his personal feelings for one person for the betterment of the world and all its people, finally and truly earned the right to be called a hero. By successfully ridding himself of the stigma of self-centered, wife-beating egomaniac, Hank Pym deserves the compliments heaped upon him over the years by Stature, Hawkeye and others.
Hank Pym now deserves to stand as tall as he did when he was Goliath, and be counted as one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.