Robot 6

The Fifth Color | Janet Van Dyne, the first Avenger

Tales_to_Astonish_Vol_1_44Tales to Astonish #44 hit newsstands, and our hearts, in June 1963. The cover promised us a cool, green space monster and the debut of a new character: “Meet the flying Wasp!,” we’re told and, hey, there she is flying across the front of the book in a triumphant fashion. While she may be Ant-Man’s new “partner-in-peril,” she doesn’t look too imperiled as she carries what looks like a swooning Hank Pym out of the creature’s grasp.

The Wasp rarely is the swooning, damsel in distress: She’s gone through some peril to be sure, from her personal life to her costumed adventuring career, but this woman doesn’t shirk her responsibilities or morals to cower or retire. Technically, she’s been an Avenger since the team’s inception and remains unique in the field of superheroics: while most heroes have greatness thrust upon them or fight to survive, Janet Van Dyne actively chose this life. She’s accepted herself enough to be public about being a “costumed adventurer” and is rich enough to make it her primary occupation with little to no angst about how she got to where she is today. Becoming the Wasp was a way for her to avenge her father’s death, and that may have inspired the name for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

This month is the 50th anniversary of the winsome Wasp and, while most think of her in small terms, her impact on the Marvel Universe is gigantic.

Starting with her origin from the pages of Tales to Astonish #44, what really fascinates me is how she gained her powers and took off for a life of adventure, because it really was her decision. Quick recap: Vernon Van Dyne is working on a “Gamma Ray Beam” device to contact another galaxy (is there anything that Gamma Rays can’t do?), tries to get Dr. Hank Pym on board for help, but Pym declines as their fields of science don’t jibe. Vernon Van Dyne goes ahead with his project anyway, unwittingly releases a creature from the planet Kosmos and is killed. The monster sets off on a rampage, and Janet comes home to a slain father and a crazy science device gone horribly wrong.

Now, it would be a perfectly normal story beat for Janet to faint right on the scene — for her to scream or panic or hide, maybe get terrorized a little by the title villain only for Ant-Man to save her. 1963 isn’t exactly the time in which women were taken that seriously in science fiction, but here she is, dialing up the last scientist who saw her father alive to tell him the whole story. After some investigating as Ant-Man, wherein we learned that Vernon was killed with “pure fear,” Janet Van Dyne (showing some fearlessness) meets again with Ant-Man and Pym before the latter just comes clean as the former. Does she swoon and wait patiently for the day to be saved? Nope, she signs right on up for genetic testing. Experimental genetic testing that Pym hasn’t worked on anyone else with. Janet is getting powers to avenge her father’s death, and there’s no time to waste.

That is what makes her incredible: She really is fearless at an age when fear is a perfectly acceptable response to the situation; ladies in sci-fi thrillers of the day are still the fairer sex, and any horror movie heroine from that era I can think of is still clutching and shrieking in the face of fear. It’s a foolish to jump feet first into the science project of a man you just met and then throw on a super-suit to battle a monster from outer space, but here we are. Janet Van Dyne has turned foolishness into heroism in an era when the former was far more expected.

It’s a recklessness that causes her to be full of fancy and girlish cliche in future appearances, but please note how she is still standing shoulder to shoulder with some of Marvel’s greatest heroes. Ant-Man and the Wasp are a weird choice to be co-founders of the Avengers, but that’s the beauty of being Earth’s greatest heroes: Sometimes being great isn’t about who can punch harder, it’s about being brave. The Wasp is the one who dubs this band the Avengers, possibly after her own idea of heroism, and the name sticks. Considering how young she is, she grows up as a member of the team, switching from reservist to active duty as needed. This wasn’t a college job for her or a passing fancy; this is a level of commitment we normally praise Spider-Man for. Having lost his father figure because of his own lost moment of selfishness, Peter Parker realized that with great power comes great responsibility. Janet Van Dyne, through no fault of her own, lost her father and devoted herself to avenging his death then and there, and really never stopped.

No matter what, the Wasp has been fighting. Costumed adventurer is her career, right along aside fashion design and being fabulous. She doesn’t have a traditional uniform in the sense that she has to put something on to become the Wasp; in fact, she has a whole wardrobe to declare herself to the public and evil-doers everywhere. And yes, it’s incredibly sad that her personal life has eclipsed her heroic calling, but even then, at her worst, Janet doesn’t stop fighting. After Hank’s meltdown, Janet again would have a right to retire, to rethink her choice to get mixed up in all this superhero nonsense, at least take a long vacation somewhere far away. Instead, just four issues later, she steps up and lays out her plan to become chairwoman of the Avengers. Although her teammates are perplexed (below), she demands straight answers from them and winds up getting a unanimous vote in. Thanking them graciously, they get down to business. As Avengers chairwoman, she recruits both She-Hulk and Monica Rambeau (as Captain Marvel), she leads the team through one of the darkest storylines of the time in “Under Siege,” and she even buys them a Quinjet! The Wasp will never stop fighting.

The Wasp won’t stop being herself, either. Her powers have remained relatively the same for 50 years (we do not talk about “The Crossing”); even with the ability to grow to giant-sized, she’s stuck to the small and dangerous life. Sure, she’s been an “airhead heiress,” but the Wasp hasn’t shied away from the moniker, knowing full well that it was a valid description in her younger years. When she was removed from the Marvel Universe, there was something missing in a long-lasting female champion in our grand cast of heroes. Not as strong as the Hulk or as tough as Thor, but she is as valiant as any of them and it is because of those limitations that she deserves even more respect as an inspiration to never stop fighting.

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thank you to ladyliberators @ tumblr for the scans above

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Comments

14 Comments

I think the coolest thing is the double the on the cover. Ant Man and the The Wasp. Priceless.

I started buying the Avengers when Janet was in charge, so I honestly have never seen her as anything other than one of the most capable leaders the Avengers ever had.

This article is such an amazing summation of everything that makes Jan an amazing character and an amazing Avengers. Thank you so much for writing this.

Simply put when I started reading American comics I jumped on board the Stern + Buscema Avengers run, so Jan immediately became a favourite of mine. Over the years I’ve read how she got to that point and in doing so she’s become my favourite of them all (well maybe Captain Britain…).

The fact she’s never even had a mini to call her own is a crime!

Was just reading the latest issue of Uncanny Avengers. love that Remender has added The Wasp to that cast, In that latest issue, the way he wrote her delighted me immensely. It is good to have her back in the Marvel U.

Great article for a woefully underappreciated character. When Bendis “killed” the Wasp in Secret Invasion, I felt it was another injustice done to her by people who don’t know how to write her. She hasn’t been well written in a very long time from Chuck Austen having her be Hawkeye’s Friend With Benefits to Bendis basically making her the cause of Avengers Disassembled (her poolside conversation in a flashback with the Scarlet Witch was awful) . Rick Remender has a chance to do some Roger Stern level good stuff with her (though I wasn’t really big on the flirting with Havok). For me, her leadership during the Masters of Evil’s siege of Avenger’s Mansion is a highlight to what a great character she is.

On a side note, I miss Bob Hall’s art in the Avengers.

A great piece on a woefully under appreciated character. in my honest opinion the greatest leader the Avengers ever had.

Nicely done Carla, Janet really is up there with the Marvel Universe’s best characters. As Colin said, it’s terrible that she’s never had a shot at a solo series.

I’m beginning to think Jan might be the greatest female superhero ever. I know it sounds nuts considering she never had her own title and isn’t exactly a household name, but over the years she has been consistently valuable member of the Avengers. She stepped out of Hank’s shadow and developed into a better hero than he was. She powerful enough to stun the likes of Thor and Galactus. She’s perfectly comfortable around gods and kings.

I’ve always had problems with Wonder Woman because her concept is complicated. She supposed to be this promoter of peace while at the same time being the fiercest, strongest woman kicking butt on the planet.

I do sometimes wonder if part of Jan’s strength as a character is in fact down to not ever having had a series of her own. As a bit player, even written by so many writers, she’s never been a focus, so I can imagine writers looking at her, reflecting on were she was from what had gone before and moving on. They’ve not felt any pressure to reinvent her, to come up with a new angle. They’ve simply looked at what was there and used her or not, moving her forward, or not. In doing so she’s had a very realistic (well as realistic as you’ll get in mainstream superhero comic over 50 years) growth as a person.

Its quite possible if she’d had her own series people would be looking at that, reinventing stuff, twisting event to fit into their perceived notion of what she should be etc etc.

Now why this should make her, rather than the hundreds of other characters in a similar position the best is a debate for more thought. i do have a theory but its one I’d need to think about. It is however very possible as a fan of Jan its both a blessing and a curse she’s never had the focus move on her the way it has on say Carol Danvers.

I just love that the Wasp has such and anti-grim and gritty origin. Yes, you could argue she did it to avenge her father, but, deep down, her origin was that Hank Pym asked her if she wanted super powers, and she enthusiastically yelled, “Yes!” The fact that she has a relatively weak power set (shrinking, growing wings on back when shrunk, and a bio-sting) and she still continues to fight evil speaks volumes about her. And, yes, I can agree with the idea that she has surpassed Henry Pym as a hero. And, I just love the fact that she’s an unrepentant debutant and a fashion designer, which, on the surface, seems girly-girl. But, when you consider that every other heroine is trying to prove that they are just as tough as the boys, to the point of losing their femininity, this all makes her very unique.

That the Wasp has never had a comic or mini-series to her own has always baffled. Or an appearance in the Avengers Assemble. Though she was always a decent character in the cartoon series. One of the best characters in the Marvel Universe. Glad she is back from her supposed death (or Microverse) and to a central role in the Avengers.

Ant-Man and the Wasp have always been my favourite Avengers and I’ve always thought both deserved their own individual series. The decision to kill Janet off a couple of years ago was just senseless.

Jan and Hank are the original Avengers (err, besides Steed and Peel) and I’ve really enjoyed watching her grow over the years. It’s a shame that the “new” crop of writers aren’t interested in adding to that growth.

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