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FROM ANT MAN TO YELLOWJACKET: The Many Figures of Henry Pym Part Three

This is part three: if you’re just joining us, check out the first two installments of this series first. Go ahead, we’ll wait.

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Marvel Comics has never been afraid of bugs — the number of insect-themed characters buzzing around the MU entered the double digits long ago. In Avengers #59 a new one debuted, but whether he was a hero or villain was something that remained to be seen. After thwarting a robbery, a gum-chewing louse who went by the name of Yellowjacket showed up unannounced at Avenger’s Mansion. He wanted to join their little group, and knew there was an opening since he’d just killed founding member Hank Pym.

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It was a bold claim, but only the beginning of the story. After bragging about his prowess, Yellowjacket went on to challenge Hawkeye to a fight, but crumpled before the archer could throw a punch. The Avengers, not knowing what to make of their offbeat guest, were taken by surprise when Yellowjacket spontaneously zapped them all and abducted the Wasp. The winged stranger spirited her away to his secret lair where some heavy action went down. Check out this awesome John Buscema artwork — no dialogue required:

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Having gotten a taste, Yellowjacket decides he’s all in and asks Jan to marry him. To the other Avenger’s surprise, she agrees. Well, the story plays out and — SURPRISE! — Yellowjacket is actually Pym. The scientist is having one of his trademark breakdowns and, if you didn’t see that coming, please turn in your Fwoosh membership card at the door. But Pym wasn’t the only one off his rocker: the Wasp, who is obviously neither deaf nor blind, accepts the proposal, knowing full well that, whatever goofy name Pym is calling himself that week, their union was still legally binding.

The happy couple went on their honeymoon, but couldn’t stay away from the Avengers for long. The Pyms remained core characters, anchoring the book when superstars like Captain America and Thor had more important business to attend to. In 1972, the Pyms got another shot at their own series, but it was as wooden and dull as the old Tales To Astonish adventures had been, and it ran only seven issues. They fared at bit better in the hands of John Byrne, who teamed the couple up with Spider-Man in Marvel Team-Up #59 and 60. These issues played to their guest stars’ strengths, with Jan getting a significant power boost and Hank rising messiah-like from the ruins of an exploded oil tanker.

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Awesome guest-spots notwithstanding, it wasn’t long before Pym’s problem’s resurfaced. With his scientific research going nowhere and his role as a superhero in constant question, he fell prey to Ultron’s latest scheme. Using hypnosis, the robot convinced Pym that it was still the dawning days of the Marvel Universe. In his original identity as Ant Man, Pym goes to the Avengers mansion; finding the present-day team instead of the original group, Ant Man attacks!

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His unexpected assault, combined with the Avengers unwillingness to hit their obviously deranged partner, allowed Pym to temporarily get the upper hand, but it was hardly a victory. Pym helped capture the Wasp, aiding Ultron in his bid to transfer Jan’s brain-patterns into Ultron’s robotic “bride” Jocasta. The scheme failed, but Pym remained in a paranoid state for the next few issues. Cutting-edge medical science and good old fashioned bed-rest restored Pym’s mind, but all was not well.

The Pyms spent the next few years hanging around. While the Wasp was a key member of the team during this period, Hank was clearly at loose ends. If idle hands are the Devil’s playthings, then Pym was the ideal puppet.

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Hank Pym was destroyed in Avengers #213. He wasn’t brought down by Egghead or Ultron or the dozens of other villains out for his head. It was Marvel’s editor-in-chief who finally took the hero out — not in the obligatory blaze of glory, but in an attempt at injecting relevance and realism into a story about superheroes. Here’s writer Jim Shooter to explain what happened:

“Hank is supposed to have accidentally struck Jan while throwing his hands up in despair and frustration—making a sort of “get away from me” gesture while not looking at her.  Bob Hall, who had been taught by John Buscema to always go for the most extreme action, turned that into a right cross!  There was no time to have it redrawn, which, to this day has caused the tragic story of Hank Pym to be known as the “wife-beater” story.”

An easy enough claim to make decades after the fact, but it doesn’t ring true. It’s clear Shooter was attempting to introduce more adult themes into the books he was writing, which is laudable — in the early 1980s comics were still considered kiddie fare. Remember, this story predated such genre-breaking books as Sandman, WATCHMEN, and The Dark Knight Returns (all DC publications, you’ll note), yet in spite of writing some of the greatest Avengers stories of the bronze age, Shooter’s take on the Pyms was out step with their previous characterization.

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Like any married couple, Hank and Jan had their problems, but theirs was never an abusive relationship. Yes, Hank could be cold and distant, and Jan could be aggressive and invasive, but that hardly made them the dysfunctional yuppie power-couple Shooter portrayed. You came to expect friction between the two as a result of their contrasting personalities — it’s what seemed to provide the spark in their relationship. But their history shows the domestic violence angle was completely forced: as characters, Hank simply wouldn’t do it and Jan wouldn’t take it. Their relationship was conflicted, complex and more than a bit bizarre — but that’s to be expected when living the life of an Avenger.

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Like many great couples, Hank and Jan were better together than apart. Their interconnectivity provided the core strength the Pyms’ needed to face the fantastic, and often impossible, challenges they faced as superheroes. Sadly, all of this went out the window when Jim Shooter decided he wanted to tell a story about domestic violence. His decision ruined one of Marvel’s earliest successful properties and soiled Henry Pym in the eyes of fans — no one could accept what “he’d” done. In spite of Shooter’s own efforts to redeem him, the character remained damaged goods in reader’s eyes, and grist for an entire generation of comic bloggers who condemn Pym for hitting his wife while using that very image to increase their site traffic.

Pym truly floundered after this. He retired his Yellowjacket identity, joining the West Coast Avengers as a non-powered “consultant,” but found it impossible to stay out of action. Donning a red jumpsuit he began calling himself Doctor Pym, Scientific Adventurer and used his shrink-tech to miniaturize gear, weapons, and a sentient vehicle he called ROVER. It… wasn’t great. When WCA folded he migrated back to the East Coast team, but they’d been a change. For the first time in almost twenty years, Pym could grow again.

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By returning Pym to his pre-Yellowjacket roots, Marvel was attempting to right the ship, but the character had taken on too much water. In the following years he went through as many changes as writers, becoming whatever was needed to fit the story: he got back together with Jan, he broke up with Jan, he was Goliath again, then Yellowjacket, then both at the same time. Marvel’s approach to Pym had become as schizoid as he was. In the end, they did the only thing they know how to do anymore: have Wolverine kill him.

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And so it goes. Pym is dead, at least for now. Hopefully when Marvel decides to bring him back (right around the time of his movie debut, I’m guessing) they’ll do so in a way that frees the character from the burdens imposed upon him for so long. Hey, they managed to make him pretty cool in the cartoon. It stayed true to Pym’s roots, hitting all of the important beats without dragging out the baggage. With luck, the comics will follow.

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So, yeah. Toys. I apologize for this article getting away from me — obviously I had more to say on the subject than I thought! I hope you enjoyed it and will perhaps come away with a different perspective on this unusual and controversial hero. Without further ado, let’s get to the good stuff!

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Yellowjacket first appeared in the Marvel Legends line as an non-articulated accessory for the series 11 Wonder Man figure. It was a fun little add-on, but fans wanted the real thing. They’d have to wait until the brand changed hands (from ToyBiz to Hasbro) to finally get a full-on figure of Yellowjacket.

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It was an easy enough figure for Hasbro to do, given the parts reuse, but I still remember being floored by the news. I never actually expected Yellowjacket to get a figure: it seemed so unlikely, given the circumstances. Hasbro’s effort was decent, but it does have its flaws: the wings are oddly shaped, with an ugly “dip” at the front. I’m not sure if this was a machine error or not, but it’s frustrating. The figure was cast in yellow plastic, which made Pym look very “toy-like” next to earlier Legends figures. Also, his noggin is a little big for the Bullseye body; it’s not horrible, but the head-swaps I’ve seen using Kree soldiers show how much better the figure could have been.

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Yellowjacket showed up in the Marvel Universe line, but his bizarre proportions make him look more like a marionette than a human. I like the Ant Man pack-in, though.

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Yikes! It’s actually worse than I thought — what the heck is going on with his waist? Is he wearing a corset?

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Marvel Universe : making bootleg figures look good since 2009!

Heroclix has always been all about getting us Pym stuff, and here they deliver a nice, oversized Yellowjacket for their tabletop gaming system. He doesn’t do anything but stand there fiddling with his belt, but it’s still great to be able to play him.

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Minimates has also been a staunch Pym supporter, providing figures for each of his costumed identities. Here’s their version of Yellowjacket. While I don’t collect these figures, if I ever saw this guy, I’d have to buy him. That’s the nifty thing about Minimates: they’ve done so many characters over the years you can find one for just about any pop-culture display.

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In closing, here are a few non-toy items I wanted to share. Dig these amazing Slurpee cups from the mid-1970s. Sold at the 7-11 convenience store chain, the line featured dozens of Marvel heroes and villains. Featuring art pulled straight from Marvel comics, they are quite rare and highly collectible today.

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Recognize that image of Yellowjacket? Of course you do — it’s from the cover of Avengers #59!

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Man, that takes me back! Y’see, I actually had this lunchbox as a kid — I’m that old! Just looking at it I can smell the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Amazingly enough, it would be my first exposure to a character I would go on to write all about 30-odd years later. The beginning — it’s a perfect place to end this article.  Thanks for readin’! Face front, True Believers!

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Jason R Mink – 06/02/13

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