Superman and Ant-Man aren’t usually compared, but one Silver Age story transformed the Man of Steel into an even grosser version of ‘Ant Man.’
When people think about Superman’s counterpart in the Marvel Universe, they usually come up with god-like beings like Thor or highly moral heroes like Captain America. Low-level characters – like Marvel’s Ant-Man – rarely make the list. However, a look at DC’s Silver Age of Comics shows a time when Superman didn’t just become an ant-themed hero – he became a literal giant ant.
The story took place in an era when Superman was frequently exposed to red kryptonite, a substance that temporarily gave him bizarre new powers or transformed him into a baby, a giant… or in this case an ant-headed humanoid. Even more bizarre? Superman chose this transformation on purpose!
In “The Invasion of the Super-Ants,” a story featured in Action Comics #296, Clark Kent and Lois Lane report on an ant colony exhibit. Clark takes the opportunity to inform Lois (and the readers) about the incredible attributes of ants – how they can lift many times their own weight, build complex structures, and have a social system of their own with a queen and worker drones. Clark goes on to mention that if ants were ever man-sized, they could easily take over the world thanks to their abilities and numbers.
By incredible coincidence (and typical Silver Age storytelling), Clark’s prediction immediately comes true when some lost hikers encounter a group of giant ants. At first the ants seem benevolent – even forming a bridge with their own bodies to aid the hikers. However, they soon start acting strangely, stealing materials from train tracks and warehouses. Superman investigates, but the ants have also been stockpiling green kryptonite, making it impossible for him to get close.
Superman teams up with the army, but their efforts prove ineffective. When the ants kidnap Lois Lane to be their queen, however, Superman gets a brilliant idea – fly into an outer space cloud of red kryptonite dust and become an ant-headed man! While the effects of red kryptonite are usually unpredictable, Superman is somehow able to choose the transformation he wants simply by willing his head to turn into an ant’s head. He later comments that he knew this would work since his Super-Dog Krypto once flew into the same cloud and purposefully turned himself into a collie.
(Apparently Krypto thought becoming a collie would make him more handsome to female dogs, but later found out the Red-K had also given him a temporary sex change as he wanted to look like Lassie… you gotta love the Silver Age). Conveniently, being exposed to this particular type of Red-K also makes Superman immune to green kryptonite for a while, allowing him to approach the super-ants (and freak out Lois Lane with his new look). So, why did Superman want to swap his head for a more insect-like look? Apparently, just as Marvel’s Hank Pym and Scott Lang were able to communicate with insects using their Ant-Man helmets, Superman can now use his antennae to talk to the super-ants!
Turns out these super-ants really are nice guys and only traveled to Earth to warn the humans about the perils of nuclear war. As such a war once devastated their own planet (and led to their evolution), the ants now feel a civic responsibility to travel the universe requesting that other alien races avoid their own fate. Okay, but why did the ants steal from trains and warehouses – not to mention kidnap Lois Lane? Apparently, the ants needed the supplies to repair their damaged rocket ship and decided that making Lois their queen was a good way to remind Superman of the way ants operate and inspire him to communicate with them in their way. (Luckily this was the Silver Age when Superman was completely open to such things – if it had been a different era he might have just unloaded his heat vision on the ants and fried them all).
After bidding farewell to his new friends (who only needed the green kryptonite to fuel their rocket ship), Superman delivers the ants’ message to the United Nations, warning them that if they don’t avoid atomic war “the ant-head I grew will symbolize our Earth’s future!” Everything gets wrapped up tidily as long as you don’t think about it too much (if the ants meant to warn Earth about nuclear war, why didn’t they make sure they could communicate with humans before they landed?)
Regardless, “The Invasion of the Super-Ants” is a fun story, reminiscent of the atomic-age monster movies (particularly the giant ant movie Them!) of the 1950s, and a great example of the regular wackiness of the Silver Age. Who knew that Superman was doing the “Ant-Man” thing long before Hank Pym had discovered his Pym Particles?