Hank Pym, hero: For when your wife doesn’t know when to shut it.
Jesus H. Forbush, there’s so much more to the character than that one panel taken out of context and an easy glib joke about wife-beating.
I read that infamous issue when it came out in 1981 within the context of the storyline and had been reading the Avengers (both the then-current issues and the reprints of the 1960’s issues in Marvel Triple Action and Marvel Super Action) for five years at that point.
In the intervening time, I think that I’ve since read every major Hank’n’Jan appearance from “Tales to Astonish” to the attempted relaunch in “Marvel Feature” to “The Defenders” to “Marvel Team-Up” to minor appearances and guest shots in titles such as “Captain Marvel” and “Godzilla”.
At some point real soon, I shall have to post a “Too Many Words” style column about Hank and Jan since trawling the #Hank Pym tag is often so depressing.
Yes, it is depressing. Domestic violence is not something to take lightly. But neither is hero worshiping a character that hauls off and hits his wife. Hank Pym is a wife beater. He also created a mass murderer in his lab because he could. Even if we discount the Ultimate Universe, these are the realities of the character.
He’s a failure. He is a failed super-hero, a failed scientist and a, by this scene, a failed husband. Hell, he even failed to kill himself.
That’s who Hank Pym is: A failure.
And here we see a prime example of missing the point of a storyline (or of several storylines). The story of Hank Pym, as told by Shooter, Stern and Englehart is not only about the fall, but about the redemption of a character.
In a redemption narrative, one has to hit bottom before one can rise above. Too many Johnny and Janie-Come-Lately Hank-haters, for reasons of their own, want to focus on the fall and wish for the character to remain at the bottom, utterly condemned for eternity for his faults and failures and forever unredeemed. “Once a wife-beater, always a wife-beater!” comes the cry, which may (or may not) be true in the real world, but not necessarily so in the comic world in which a distraught Peter Parker may punch a pregnant Mary Jane without suffering one scintilla of opprobrium from the collective comics-readership. This outrage over one display of domestic violence at the expense of another featuring a more popular character is selective at best and disingenuous at worst.
To find a character fascinating, even with significant faults and flaws, is not necessarily hero worship, but let’s be accurate about those flaws, not exaggerate them well beyond the point of caricature.
Hank Pym is and was a character who, in the words of a psychiatrist Tony Stark hired to examine him to determine his mental fitness to stand trial, “suffered at least four nervous breakdowns in the last ten years.” Hank also has, or rather, had at the time a massive inferiority complex that I would argue was brought about by his own perfectionism making him his own worst enemy.
As each setback in research undermined his sense of self-worth, his need to appear perfect, or at least as more than a second-rate Reed Richards in the eyes of others made it impossible for him at that point to reach out to get the psychological help he needed.
By the time of that fourth breakdown, not only had outer society come to see Hank as a failure - just as you (and Bendis and Millar) do - so, too, did Hank.
By the time of the third breakdown, the Ultron Incident portrayed in Avengers #161-162, Hank had come to be seen as a manic-depressive. Today, we call that bipolar depression. When deep in the throes of a bipolar episode, whether at the manic end or the depressive end of the spectrum, one is not mentally competent and one’s actions and decisions under those circumstances tend to be faulty as one’s mental and emotional processing has gone awry. One regains mental competence as the episode ends.
The incident of domestic violence above that almost every critic seizes upon to label Pym an irredeemable wife-beater was a singular incident in the mainstream MU. The Ultimate Universe’s version of Hank, however, was a habitual wife-beater and, unlike the Pym in our universe, was on prescribed medication prior to his attempt to kill his universe’s Janet. In the mainstream MU, the abuse seems to begin sometime between Avengers #211 and #212, escalating from increasingly bad temper, impatience, irritability and nasty remarks and property destruction (one of Jan’s costumes when she can’t decide between two of them) to the physical incident in #213… a progression which takes place over, at most, two weeks of narrative time in the midst of what is being portrayed in the narrative itself as a complete psychological breakdown. If I can show (and am expected as a reader to show such) compassion for a distraught Peter Parker for punching a pregnant Mary Jane into a wall when he thinks that he’s been the Parker-clone for years and his entire life has been a lie, so too can I, as a reader, show compassion for a mentally-ill character, especially when it’s shown in the context of being in the midst of a complete mental breakdown.
As to your statement that Hank created a mass murderer in the lab just because he could, Ultron was not created to be a mass murderer. Ultron broke free, mindwiped his creator, then went on to recreate himself into a mass-murderer. Decades later (our time), it was retconned that Ultron’s initial consciousness was based upon Hank’s brainwaves, like over in Star Trek, where Dr. Richard Daystrom impressed his memory engrams into the M-5 Multitronic computer in “The Ultimate Computer”. (The Pym-Daystrom connection seems thematically fitting as “The Ultimate Computer” aired on March 8, 1968, and Avengers #57, in which Ultron created the Vision using Wonder Man’s brainwaves hit the stands the following July.) Parents are not generally considered culpable for the crimes their children commit even though they provided the genetic material that make up their children and their moral and ethical upbringing. We also generally do not hold J. Robert Oppenheimer and the rest of the Manhattan Project legally responsible for the deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a result of the development of the atomic bomb. From the moment it mindwiped Hank and broke free, Ultron was an independent, sentient entity responsible for its own crimes and decisions.
Now, Hank may hold himself morally culpable for Ultron’s crimes, or not, as he sees fit. The MU press may do so, and certainly the MU populace is likely do so, but since they’re liable to violently riot over anything almost as often as the people of Springfield, I certainly wouldn’t consider them viable arbiters of morality.
Ultimately, your position comes down to Hank Pym being a “failure” and failures have no right to be portrayed heroically.
Let me let you in on a little secret of Life: Almost everyone is a failure at some aspect of life. Donald Trump? He’s a failure - a rich failure to be sure, but a failure at being a decent human being. Mitt Romney? A failure… J.D. Salinger? A failure…Ernest Hemingway? A suicidal failure (but since he succeeded in killing himself, I guess that makes him more of a success than fictional Hank Pym)…
I would argue that it’s a greater act of heroism just to persevere against the forces that would grind one down, whether those forces be external (societal and economic) or internal (physical, mental, or psychological challenges). Getting back to the topic, Hank Pym the character has screwed up greatly. He’s risen to great heights and fallen to great depths and risen again… and fallen again and risen again (and that has nothing to do with his power-set).
To some people (and comic writers like Bendis, Millar, and Austen) he’ll always be Crazy Hank, Hank the Wife-beater, Hank the failure, and nothing more. Yet, the character survives because still other readers and writers (like Shooter, Stern, Englehart, Busiek, Slott and Gage) find the mix of neuroses and flaws and the struggle to rise above them fascinating and engaging.