Ant-Man is the latest obscure comic book superhero to make the leap to the big screen this week, and his movie is pretty fun! You might even like it enough to want to read some Ant-Man comics.
But recommending where to dive into Ant-Man comics? That’s a bit harder than you might think it is.
Unlike more popular heroes like Spider-Man or Captain America, Ant-Man has never really starred in his own long-running comic book, despite the fact that he was created way back in 1962 by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Larry Lieber, and that he’s also a founding member of the Avengers.
Add to that the fact that the first guy to call himself Ant-Man would go on to take no less then half a dozen other alter-egos in addition to the roughly half-dozen other people who would assume the Ant-Man identity over the years, and well, yeah. Things get confusing.
Lucky for you, there are really only two Ant-Men you need to concern yourself with, and they’re both in the movie version: Hank Pym and Scott Lang.
Unfortunately for you, they’re also the most troublesome of the bunch. Don’t worry, though. We’re going to help.
The first Ant-Man
Much like in the movie, Ant-Man’s story begins when a scientist named Hank Pym creates what he calls Pym Particles — a miraculous substance that allows matter of all kinds to shrink. In conjunction with his special helmet that allows him to control ants, he becomes Ant-Man.
As you might imagine, this didn’t quite set the comics world on fire, and eventually Pym would discover his eponymous Particles could also be rigged to make himself grow as well. Thus, he renamed himself Giant Man (not a subtle one, that Hank Pym) and with his exciting new powers he finally measures up to heavy-hitters like Thor.
This is followed by a parade of personal tragedies, psychotic breaks, and identity crises so extreme they resulted in the creation of a small army of alter egos and a certain unstoppable killer robot named Ultron (in comic book land, it was Hank Pym, not Tony Stark, that created Ultron). Through it all, Hank Pym endures, although often wracked with guilt by the things he has done and the people he has hurt — most notably his wife, Janet Van Dyne, who often adopted similar powers to team up with Pym and the Avengers as The Wasp.
Comic book Hank Pym, you see, is a much more tragic figure, and despite being the original Ant-Man, that identity isn’t nearly as important to his character as the creation of Ultron is, or his various struggles as Yellowjacket — this list of the best Hank Pym stories barely mentions Ant-Man.
Scott Lang, the good thief
Like with Hank Pym, the movie is remarkably faithful to the most important beats of Scott Lang’s character. Created by David Michelinie and John Byrne in 1979, Lang is an electrical engineer who wasn’t able to make ends meet and turned to burglary, got caught, and did time. He gets out and reforms, but when his daughter Cassie Lang falls ill, Lang returns to a life of crime.
There are a few differences between Lang of the comics and the one we see in the movie, but they’re mostly minor: In the comics, Scott knows about Hank Pym and Ant-Man, and steals the suit so he can use it to get a cure for his daughter. In the movie, he’s recruited by an older Pym and trained to replace him as Ant-Man. In the comics, Pym quickly becomes aware of why Lang stole his technology and tells him to keep it — as long as he uses it to be a hero.
Like Hank Pym, Scott Lang also has the unfortunate problem of never really having a comic series to call his own throughout his thirty-plus years of being in the Marvel Universe. However, unlike Hank Pym, it’s much easier to go out and find a few good Scott Lang stories immediately without having to wade through decades of Marvel minutiae.
Diving into the comics
If you just saw the movie and want more, all you really have to do is jump aboard Marvel’s new “Ant-Man” series by Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas. The first volume, “Second Chance Man,” is a really fun comic book and the perfect jumping-on point for new readers. Also, since Marvel is wont to capitalise on movie hype, new paperback collections of classic Scott Lang stories are also easy to come by these days.
But there’s a bit of a problem if you dive into those older Ant-Man comics: Scott Lang is a totally different guy. While his motivations are the same, he’s portrayed as more of a rough-and-tumble guy in the hero biz for the thrill of it. The Paul Rudd-esque loveable screw-up isn’t anywhere to be found in the comics outside of Spencer and Rosanas’ new series — and even that’s a new development.
Scott Lang never really had a defining story. Hank Pym has Ultron, but Lang has no comparable calling card. In fact, he doesn’t become truly interesting until he dies in the cataclysmic “Avengers: Disassembled” story by Brian Michael Bendis and David Finch.
In the fallout of his death and the dissolution of the Avengers, his daughter Cassie finally gets the chance to shine when she discovers she has absorbed her father’s powers. In an attempt to live up to his legacy, she becomes the hero Stature and joins the ragtag Young Avengers.
However, this is short-lived. In a bit of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey weirdness, the Young Avengers go back in time and save Scott Lang (among other things), but at great cost: Cassie dies.
On the one hand, this was really lousy. Cassie was shaping up to be a fantastic addition to the Marvel Universe, a great new female hero in a lineup that really needed them. On the other, it paved the way for the actual best Scott Lang story thus far: Matt Fraction and Michael Allred’s “FF.”
Why a “Fantastic Four” spinoff is the best Scott Lang story
Little-read but much-loved, “FF” was a story about a replacement team the Fantastic Four puts together to keep an eye on the motley crew of child geniuses they have assembled as a part of a program they call the Future Foundation, while they’re away on a crazy inter-dimensional road trip. Of the four people they ask to step in, Lang is the one in charge — a job he doesn’t want to take, as he’s still grieving over Cassie’s death and doesn’t feel cut out for the responsibility of watching out for children when he couldn’t keep his own daughter safe.
It’s a touching exploration of grief and family rarely seen in comics, and Scott’s grief and recovery is the beating heart of “FF” set against the backdrop of one of Marvel’s most delightful series in recent memory — perhaps the closest they have come to doing Pixar-level storytelling that really has something for everyone.
It’s also relatively self-contained. Soon after “FF” concludes, much of Lang’s circumstances are undone: His daughter is brought back to life (younger, and not as Stature) and Lang is recast from the somber-yet-responsible man we saw in that series to the down-on-his-luck guy who can’t keep a job or make his ex-wife happy that appears in Spencer and Rosanas “Ant-Man” comic (and, consequently, the movie).
There are more Ant-Man comics, and more Ant-Men (including one created by “The Walking Dead” mastermind Robert Kirkman), but much like Hank Pym and Scott Lang, they’re all tangled in the fabric of the Marvel Universe, rarely cast in a lead role but often very important.
They’re kind of like the insects they’re named after in that way: Never really in the spotlight, but always there, doing their part to make sure the world spins on.
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