Thursday, July 15, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #25 (Part 1): November 1994

In the Heart of the Beast, Part 1


X-Men Adventures (Season II) #10

Writer: Ralph Macchio          
Penciller: Paul Borges
Inker: James Pascoe
Colorist: Joe Agostinelli

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Fantastic Four #1, and the birth of the modern Marvel universe. Most of the most recognizable Marvel characters debuted within a couple of years of that landmark issue. And most of those characters have had stories told about them for every single month since. That adds up to a staggering number of tales.

Even more staggering is that we're meant to believe all of it actually happened, despite the fact that most of the characters have barely aged, and that different writers and editors have had vastly different interpretations of the characters. The result is that superheroes have the most convoluted backstories in all of fiction, and yes I'm including soap operas characters in that.

This means that reading superhero comics takes a level of compartmentalizing, contextualizing, and meta-analyzing that no other type of fiction can match. If comic readers didn't do those things, they'd surely drown in a sea of incoherence.

I submit for proof Dr. Henry McCoy, the Beast.
Why write about the Beast in a series of essays about the 1990s? Well, besides the fact that he was one of the stars of my very first comic, one of the high water superhero moments of the decade was the fall 1992 debut of X-Men: The Animated Series on Fox Kids. The show was a massive hit, and introduced the X-Men to an entire generation of fans. It wouldn’t be too difficult to make an argument that it’s the definitive non-comic depiction of the X-Men we’ve seen thus far. And in some cases, honestly, it surpassed the comics. For example, how it depicted the Beast.
Henry McCoy was one of the original five X-Men created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, a mutant with ape-like agility, humongous hands and feet, and superhuman strength. The inconsistencies in his character cropped up very early on. In the first two issues of the Uncanny X-Men, Hank's dialogue is interchangeable with everyone else's. In issue #3, though, a sudden shift occurs and he begins speaking highly articulately. He also claims to be a pacifist, and then underscores it a couple of issues later when he states that he doesn't enjoy the superheroing element of being an X-Man.

As the series went on, Hank shows a proclivity for dropping poetic phrases and Shakespeare quotations into his fighting patter. Issue #15 reveals some of his past, and we learn that he excelled in both sports and academics in high school, but was constantly ridiculed because his mutation was so pronounced.
Lee and Kirby moved on from Uncanny X-Men after only about a year and a half, and a carousel of writers and artists followed: Roy Thomas, Jay Gavin, Don Heck, Gary Friedrich, Werner Roth, Arnold Drake. Despite the different writers, the Beast stayed pretty consistent during these years, and Drake expanded upon his origin in a five-part back up story in issues 48 through 53. 

Strange as it seems now, the X-Men weren’t all that popular in their initial run, and so with April 1970’s issue #67 the title stopped running original stories. With that, Hank McCoy and his teammates went into mothballs.
Then, in 1972, writer Gerry Conway and artist Tom Sutton brought Hank back in the pages of Amazing Adventures #11. In the story, Hank leaves the X-Men to work as a biochemist for the Brand Corporation. There, he creates a “genetic extractor” that isolates the mutant gene and makes it so anyone could become a mutant for a “carefully controlled period of time.” Why, exactly, he would want to use his momentous discovery for that particular purpose is baffling. At any rate he ends up testing it on himself, causing a secondary mutation into a gray furry fanged clawed creature. His appearance finally truly matched his name.

Writer Steve Englehart took over for the next issue of Amazing Adventures. Under Englehart’s pen, Hank was no longer hyper-articulate, and, as before, no explanation was given for the switch. Englehart wrote the Beast for five issues of Amazing Adventures, wrapping up the threads of his plotline in the pages of Incredible Hulk #161 in March 1973. 

From there, Hank once again went into storage for a couple of years until Englehart had the brilliant idea to add him to the Avengers. Hank would serve with Earth’s mightiest heroes for six years in, what many consider to be the team’s ideal line-up.

In the pages of the Avengers, Englehart moved the Beast even further from his intellectual roots, casting him as the team clown and wiseass. He’d always had that element, but Englehart emphasized it while deemphasizing his intelligence. It was here that the Beast picked up his catchphrase, “Oh my stars and garters!” Avengers writers that came after – Gerry Conway, Jim Shooter, David Michelinie – followed Englehart’s lead (one exception was Steve Gerber’s weird one-off Beast spotlight issue, #178).
With Avengers #211, written by Jim Shooter, Hank left the team in a sort of meta-acknowledgement of how far the character had strayed. In explaining his decision to go he says, “You know, I used to be a scientist. I used to have a future besides my next gag and tomorrow night’s date. I want to see if there’s anything left of Hank McCoy besides a ‘blue-furred buffoon.’”
Hank landed promptly on another team though, showing up just a few months later in the pages of the Defenders, a group that had originally started as a weird alliance between Silver Surfer, Dr. Strange, the Hulk, and Namor, but had evolved into a misfit gang comprised of Valkyrie, Nighthawk, Gargoyle, Clea, Hellcat, and Damion Hellstrom. Hank showed up in issue #104, and would stick around until the title’s end in 1986. Under writers J.M. DeMatteis and Peter B. Gillis, the Beast was less bombastic and silly than he had been in Avengers, but he did not return to being a scientist, nor did his speech patterns change.

To his credit, DeMatteis did try to explain why the character had become so drastically different over the years. In issue #116, Hank opens up to his on-again-off-again girlfriend, Vera, saying,

“Since I was a kid I stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb! So I developed an interesting skill. I learned how to recreate myself –how to construct new personalities to win people over – and protect me from them at the same time! In my X-Men days it was the ‘intellectual’ game. That was the Hank McCoy you first met – the guy who hid behind a smokescreen of big words and big ideas. But inside I was the same scared kid I always was. I thought I was beginning to find myself when I left Professor Xavier’s school and went out on my own – but then I was accidentally turned into this overgrown Muppet – and it was back to square one! My whole world fell apart! To keep myself together I put on a new mask. No more stuffy, brainy, Henry McCoy. Now I was happy-go-lucky Hank, the man of a thousand jokes! I’ll tell you, Vera, sometimes I don’t know who I am.”
But DeMatteis never followed up on this, nor did Gillis.


Hank’s next big spotlight was in X-Factor. Debuting in 1986 from writer Bob Layton and penciller Jackson Guice, the book reunited the original five X-Men. Within the first three issues, Hank was reverted to human form. When writer Louise Simonson came on, she added a new wrinkle: Hank’s reversion had increased his strength but was steadily draining his intelligence. Whether this was a not-so-subtle acknowledgement of the different depictions of the character over the years, Simonson’s idea of good drama, or both, the storyline went on for nearly two years before the Beast returned to his furry, fully loquacious self.
In many ways the Beast that emerged was a combination of the two main iterations of the characters. He kept his sense of humor, but his jokes were framed using the “big words” from the early Lee / Thomas / Drake issues. He had become what one of his co-creators intended. Stan Lee said in 1993, “The Beast I loved – he looked like the crudest one, but he was the most well-educated and cultured.” 
When the original X-Men returned to the team in X-Men #1 and Uncanny X-Men #281, Chris Claremont continued this portrayal of Hank, and so did Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza when they took over the books.

The comics had seemingly finally settled on a definitive version of the character, and then came X-Men: The Animated Series. In defining the Beast's personality for the show, the creators started with the Simonson iteration as base, but also went all the way back to the original Lee / Kirby version (well, from issue #3 on at least). Showrunner Eric Lewald and his wife, scriptwriter Julia Lewald, glommed onto the contrast between Hank’s appearance and his demeanor. “We at X-MEN:TAS ran with this idea, supercharged it. Our constant method was to differentiate our characters as much as we could, so we wrote Hank to be as thoughtful and considerate as we could make him.”

The show’s Beast was a furry blue hyper-intelligent lug with a huge heart, a deadpan sense of humor, and a proclivity for timely quotations. The latter was something Hank had only occasionally done in the comics, but X-Men: The Animated Series made it a defining trait. In the first episode, as he tries to navigate security lasers, he quotes Victorian poet Coventry Patmore’s “A Farewell”: “With faint heart, averted feet / And many a tear, / In our opposed paths to persevere.” What really makes it though, is his dry commentary on his own quote: “A minor poet for a minor problem.”
Throughout the series he’d quote from the likes of John Wesley, Richard Lovelace, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Francis Quarles, Emily Dickinson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and, yes, Shakespeare. As uttered in the enunciated baritone of character, voice, and stage actor George Buza, the words of these authors never sounded better. When Kelsey Grammar was cast as the Beast in Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies, it was Buza’s work he was living up to.
Lewald and his team – which included producer Will Meugnoit, head writer Mark Edens, director Larry Houston, and designer Rick Hoberg – also reached back to Lee’s depiction of the Beast as a pacifist at heart. One of the first season’s ongoing storylines finds Beast imprisoned for a breaking into a government building (the one in charge of mutant registration). Rather than escape, as he easily could, he chooses to stand trial. There’s a direct correlation between this and the civil rights activists of the 1960s who were arrested protesting Jim Crow laws and refused bail to make a point. This made Beast the embodiment of Professor Xavier’s teachings.

So, it only took 30 years and being translated to a new medium, but there was finally an ideal version of Henry McCoy. His personality rollercoaster ride seemed to be at an end, and there was just one more aspect of the character to reconcile: His love life. 

We’ll take a look at that in part 2.

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