If you ever find yourself on QI and are asked "Which was the second Marvel superhero strip of the Silver Age?" think very, very carefully before risking an answer.
(For those unfamiliar with it, QI is a British television comedy quiz show devoted to obscure trivia and pedantry. Often the questions asked have a seemingly obvious answer that is in fact wrong and giving this answer sets off a klaxon and loses you points.)
"The Man in the Ant Hill!" from Tales to Astonish #27 is part of another, now obscure genre - the science fiction/fantasy and monster stories that Marvel had been telling prior to the superhero revival. It's the all too common tale of a scorned scientist seeking fame but finding his invention backfires on him, as Henry Pym's shrinking formula reduces his body in size too quickly, and he has to find a way to get to the growth formula with the complication of facing down ants. This is really part of the old genre rather than the new, although the divide between the two is far more blurred than is often assumed. There are no real signs of the traits of the superhero era that was growing - there's no costume, no real villain and no great characterisation of Pym beyond being a stock fame-seeking scientist. It wasn't until issue #35 in September 1962 that he became a regular feature and a costumed hero. So his claim to be the second hero feature after the Fantastic Four is contentious (as are some of the other claimants' but let's not go into those now).
As for Tales to Astonish itself, this was another of the various Marvel anthology series that morphed into a superhero title and is best known for carrying the Incredible Hulk from issue #60 onwards, eventually transforming into the Hulk's own title. The later issues would also carry Namor the Sub-Mariner, who took over Ant-Man's slot. We'll look to see why a vacancy opened. Essential Ant-Man volume 1 carries the Ant-Man/Giant-Man strips from Tales to Astonish #27 & #35-69, including the various back-up strips featuring the Wasp either solo or telling a story. All but a couple of the issues are plotted by Stan Lee who also scripts many, with others scripted by Larry Lieber or H.E. Huntley. The other two issues are written by Leon Lazarus and Al Hartley. The art sees runs by the likes of Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Carl Burgos and Bob Powell, with Steve Ditko contributing one issue and Larry Lieber drawing all the Wasp features, which he also scripts over Stan Lee plots.
The publication of this volume was a landmark back in 2002. Up until this point the Essential series had only focused on the biggest name heroes and teams and the idea of an Essential Ant-Man was largely just idle speculation on Usenet. But Marvel took the plunge in bringing one of its more obscure heroes' series back into print and the success of the volume has led to many other Marvel series being rescued from the depths of obscurity and brought back into print, including the Human Torch in Strange Tales, The Man called Nova, Ms. Marvel, Dazzler, Godzilla and many more.
But the volumes has also revealed just why these adventures are so forgotten. Frankly this is a series that's never quite sure why it's there, which does little to develop the world around the hero and which sees motivations, costumes, powers and identities regularly changed. And few of these changes feel like natural developments but rather sudden alterations made in individual stories. The result is that the series never gets a clear identity for itself. Perhaps that’s appropriate given Hank Pym's subsequent career with yet more identities to the point that he’s never really been clearly identified with a single one.
On the face of it a man who can shrink to a tiny size and communicate with ants sounds plainly silly. But aren't some of the other Marvel heroes equally silly? A blind man with enhanced senses becoming an all action crime fighter is patently absurd. So's a teenager getting the powers of a spider. Or another teenager who can turn into living flame. Or a man who can stretch his body in all manner of ways. But we've already made those leaps of faith and it's how the concepts are handled that has determined whether or not such characters have durability. One could easily nit-pick the shortcomings in Ant-Man's powers or question some of the leaps of logic (such as how exactly does a man move around so quickly either flying on the back of an ant or by catapult?) but such silliness is part and parcel of the era and a good writer in a later generation could doubtlessly easily come up with explanations for some of that if it was deemed necessary.
The real problem stems from the limited scope and development in the series. Apart from the Wasp the only recurring supporting cast that I can spot is a US government agent who appears twice. Otherwise we're limited to just Hank Pym and, from issue #44 onwards, Janet van Dyne. And Hank's motivations for why he does what he does change a bit without clear explanation. In the initial story he's just a fame seeing scientist whose invention gets out of control and he destroys it. But then he becomes an ongoing series and suddenly his serum is back with no explanation for why he brought it back. Nor is it clear why he's switched from using it as a way to cut down storage and travel to becoming a crime fighter. Nor is it clear why a biochemist is suddenly able to discover the means by which ants communicate and devise artificial means to enter that conversation.
A change of tack comes in issue #44 when we suddenly learn a whole new element of Hank's backstory. Now we discover that he once married a Hungarian woman called Maria who had fled communism but choose to visit the country on their honeymoon, where she was recognised, kidnapped and executed. And so the widowed Hank was motivated into fighting crime back home. Some of that just doesn't add up, and after being introduced in this issue the whole point is then ignored for the rest of the series save one issue when he goes on a mission behind the Iron Curtain. And there's also the uncomfortable point that Janet looks very much like a younger Maria, a point explicitly remarked upon at the time. And this was nearly two decades before a similar plot point was used in X-Men.
With the introduction of the Wasp the series takes a shift but in no way is this a partnership of equals. The Wasp may be brave and resourceful in battle, but all too often she is otherwise presented as a silly, flighty girl who spends her time wishing Hank would be more romantic or worrying about clothes and the like. Between issues #51 & #58 she gets her own back-up feature but in nearly all of these stories she is just narrating various science fiction stories to either orphans or veterans. The early 1960s were not yet a time for enlightened women, but even compared to Marvel Girl over in the X-Men the Wasp is not the most advanced character of her era. And Hank's attitude to her may not be overtly sexist but he frequently doubts her word and makes comments that border on misogynistic. And there's a late development when Hank devises the means to change size merely by thinking commands into his headgear - and he also adds the ability to make Janet shrink down without having to do anything herself! I don't know how many young girls were reading Tales to Astonish at the time (or many women have picked up this volume) but I doubt many dreamed of growing up to be the Wasp.
Throughout the run there's a succession of changes in the way that Hank operates his shape-changing powers. At first he pours a serum on himself but later he switches to a gas, then later to pills and finally to some undefined method of incorporating the size-changing into both his and Janet's bodies and activating it by cybernetic enhanced thought. There are several times where the method of the day fails, either because Hank gets cut off from what he needs to change size or because a foe makes use of them instead, but it rarely directly leads to him looking for a new method that will prevent such repetition.
Issue #49 sees the big change when Hank now starts growing and takes on the identity of Giant-Man. (Very rarely is the "Gi-Ant Man" pun actually exercised within these pages.) Yet it's here that his identity problems begin. He retains his power to shrink and for some strange reason he continues to use the moniker "Ant-Man" when he shrinks down, despite the difference between Ant-Man and Giant-Man being merely one of size. There's no attempt to pretend that the two are in any way separate individuals so one has to wonder why he uses the two separate names instead of finding one that can cover multiple sizes. The problem is resolved in issue #68 when it's revealed that his encounter with the Hidden Man's sill absorbing rays in the previous issue has robbed him of the ability to shrink down to Ant-Man (a point that makes no sense as Hank can still shrink to human size, albeit with more difficulty now) but up to this point it has left the hero with an inconsistent confusing identity. The final issues also see Hank settling down into a single size for his Giant-Man form but it's another change to add to the mess. And the structure of the stories isn't one of a long, ongoing journey of development so this doesn't feel like a natural turning point but just one more change in a long line of them.
The stories are also inconsistent on some basic details. For example exactly what communication is received from the ants - is it just normal words or just pictures? Are Ant-Man/Giant-Man and the Wasp's identities meant to be secret or not? Several stories use them as a plot point but in others both are pretty free about taking off their helmets and masks, and Hank is not exactly hiding his connections to the giant hero. He is also quite easy to contact in an emergency, especially when various foes strike.
Quite a number of the villains introduced in these stories have made appearances elsewhere, including Comrade X, Egghead, the Scarlet Beetle, the Hijacker, the Voice (although here he's mainly identified by his real name, Jason Cragg), the Chiltarians, the Porcupine, the Living Eraser, Supremacy, the Human Top (who later underwent a name change to something less hilarious), El Toro and the Beasts of Berlin. We also get the Black Knight, a modern day descendent of a hero from the 1950s "Marvel" (I forget what they were called at each precise stage). However without checking every single subsequent appearance in databases, I'm not sure how many of the "returns" are in fact reprints or flashbacks or other features reliving these adventures. And I suspect if they have shown up in further issues, they've been selected precisely for their ultra obscurity. The villains who appear to have never been seen since include various generic Communists, the Protector (who is running, surprise, surprise, a protection racket), Kulla the ruler of an alien dimension (who, amazingly for an alien in an early Silver Age Marvel, isn't trying to conquer the Earth - but then this is Tales to Astonish), the Time Master, the Kosmosians, Trago, the Magician, Colossus (no relation to the X-Men member), Second-Story Sammy, the Wrecker (no relation to the Thor villain), Madame Macabre and the Hidden Man. Villains from other series are strictly limited to Attuma and hordes of Atlanteans, from the pages of Fantastic Four. So really there are only three villains of any lasting note in this volume - Egghead (a name that back then was the equivalent of "nerd" or "geek"), who is still very much Hank Pym's enemy whatever title he's in, the Human Top who is better known as Whirlwind, and the second Black Knight who didn't last long anyway before being replaced by his nephew as a hero, and in any case was a revamp of a 1950s character. Consequently, the most significant villain to exclusively come out of the pages of these issues is none other than Whirlwind. That says a lot about why these stories are so often overlooked.
As for the stories themselves, they are frankly not at the cutting edge of early Silver Age Marvel. Rather they feel very generic. The artwork is generally okay but suffers from a turnover of pencillers and even though several of them are amongst the biggest Marvel names of the early 1960s such as Jack Kirby, Dick Ayers or Don Heck, few seem to be giving their best. The writing is also rather pedestrian - other than his relationship with his partner the hero experiences no present day problems outside of his adventuring. There's no supporting cast to interact with. Some of the villains are hooded but usually only one suspect is presented - this is especially true of the Protector. Few present any real lasting threat. Nor does the hero face any problems with public adulation, beyond getting irritated by visits from his fan club. This series is very much a conventional superhero feature from a company that was elsewhere doing a lot to beak down the pre-existing conventions.
There are, however, a few signs of the Marvel changes breaking through in the later issues. We get a couple of stories with big name guest-stars, including a battle with Spider-Man that is probably the volume's best known tale, and a fight with the Hulk that set up the latter's transfer to Tales to Astonish. That was the first sign of Giant Man's popularity starting to collapse. Up until issue #59 his page count had steadily grown, even if some of the pages were devoted to the Wasp's stories (which aren't terribly memorable - in most the protagonist finds their cunning backfires on them), culminating in issue #59 containing an eighteen page story plus a five page feature reminding us of our heroes' powers. But then the Hulk took up residence in half the book from issue #60 onwards, forcing the Giant-Man feature to shrink to fourteen pages, then twelve, until finally issue #69 ends on an ambiguous note as Hank worries about the danger he has put Janet in, and she wonders if he's about to retire. Issue #70 saw the feature replaced by Namor the Sub-Mariner.
And it's hard to get upset about the fate. The series was not the most dynamic or ground-breaking being put out even at the time and little was being done to develop the characters. Instead we have a comic pot-boiler, produced by many great talents passing time between more amazing assignments. The result is a series that doesn't try to push against the conventions or really develop the lead character but instead wanders through a succession of generic situations. Ant-Man may have had outrageous powers but in themselves that should have been no impediment to doing something bold with the character. The Wasp is equally not the most developed sidekick and so neither of the characters is really given a strong core for later writers to build on. Many have complained that they've found it difficult to take Hank Pym to a point where his late lashing out at the Wasp is forgotten, but it's clear from the character's roots that there wasn't a lot to the character to fall back on. This volume is very much one for completists.