When Marvel’s latest screen slayer shrinks into theaters this weekend, he’ll be fighting a fairly standard supervillain. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it used to be different. In the past, he fought the biggest fight imaginable — the one against Soviet Russia.
Just as Captain America battled Adolf Hitler and his Nazi scum, Ant-Man took on the stone-faced Russian hordes. Well, Hank Pym did anyway. Pym was the original Ant-Man, whose size-shifting Pym Particles attracted the attention of the Communist CCCP.
In Tales to Astonish #35, Pym and his fellow American science associates are tasked by the government to develop a gas that would make innocent Americans immune to potential Russian radioactive threats. A corresponding panel shows an obvious caricature of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev ordering a high-ranking Soviet official to notify agents in the West of the anti-radiation formula.
When Soviet agents break into Pym’s crowded office to steal the goods, he transforms into his alter ego, exclaiming that if his escape plan fails, “The commies will have the anti-radiation gas, which will put them miles ahead of us in the Cold War!” Eventually Ant-Man calls upon an army of ants to plug up the Soviet agents’ guns with honey (yes, that’s correct), enabling the other scientists to attack the “murderous reds” and foil their plan.
In the next issue of Tales to Astonish — Ant-Man never had his own comic series early on — a header at the beginning of the story reads: “And thousands of miles away, behind the Iron Curtain …” There, another Soviet official sits, maybe in the Kremlin, in front of a gigantic portrait of Khrushchev, sending a mustachioed villain called Comrade X, who is later revealed to be a deadly female Soviet spy, to capture Ant-Man.
“If we can discover his secret, our scientists will develop an antidote!” the Soviet stereotype says. “Then we could reduce our entire army to ant size! It would be an easy matter for military divisions to enter enemy nations…unseen!” Comrade X heads to America and, surprise, fails to capture Ant-Man and his technology.
America: 2, CCCP: 0.
But when readers were introduced to Ant-Man’s wife Maria in Tales to Astonish #44, the Cold War got personal for the little superhero. She was revealed to be Maria Trovaya, a refugee and former political prisoner from communist-controlled Hungary, who makes the idiotic move of bringing Hank back to Hungary on their honeymoon to see her old home again.
The pair stroll through a Hungarian street, followed by sketchy men in overcoats and fedoras who eventually kidnap Maria while shouting such subtle instructions at her as, “You will not make a sound, Maria Trovaya, or your American husband will be shot!” and “Silence, American!” Pym is later informed that his wife’s dead body was discovered bearing a note: “This is what happens to those who attempt to escape from behind the Iron Curtain.”
Pym, distraught, sobs that “I sit here doing nothing while throughout the world, criminals prowl, injustice is rampant, tyranny tramples the underdog!” then promises to avenge her death. “I will strike back at all of it, wherever rottenness exists!” he says. The header explains he “threw himself into his work, driving always to keep the painful past from his mind, a man possessed, a man pushed beyond the limits of scientific reason by memories,” only to take up the mantle of Ant-Man because of her.
In the comics, communism launches Pym’s personal crusade to become the hero Ant-Man. Besides the fact that the character’s groundbreaking work as a scientist continually puts him in jeopardy of having his work stolen by Russian spies or being killed for what he knows, he vows to fight against the “rottenness” of communism in his wife’s honor. Now there’s motivation for you.
It’s a strange but clever hook for a comic book character, especially one tied to an insect whose masses echo the perceived militarism and collectivist mindset of the U.S.S.R. But it makes the Ant-Man character anti-communist in ideology and metaphor, which is as political and personal as any comic book character out there. It’s a shame, though. We’re probably not going to get anything nearly that provocative on the big screen. Thanks, Ant-Man, for winning the Cold War too soon.