Thursday, July 22, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #25 (Part 2): November 1994

In the Heart of the Beast, Part 2

X-Men Adventures (Season II) #10
Writer: Ralph Macchio
Penciller: Paul Borges
Inker: James Pascoe
Colorist: Joe Agostinelli


As we learned in part 1 of this essay, 1992's X-Men: The Animated Series had distilled 30 years of drastic personality changes into an ideal version of the Beast – smart, funny, kind, disciplined.

But there was one aspect of the character remained extremely unsettled: His love life.

A season two spotlight episode of X-Men: The Animated Series is an encapsulation of the Beast’s miserable romantic history, which is perhaps even more convoluted and confusing than his personality issues.

First airing January 15, 1994, “Beauty and the Beast" was based on an idea by Julia Lewald and written by Stephane J. Mathison. The story finds Beast working at a clinic to give sight to a blind woman named Carly Crocker. In working together, they have developed a strong mutual attraction, but of course Carly doesn’t know exactly what Hank looks like.
When the radical anti-mutant group Friends of Humanity get wind of the fact that Hank is working at the hospital, they attack. Hank helps fight them off, but in the fallout the hospital’s board, and Carly’s angry bigoted father, demand Hank quit working with Carly. He obliges, but sneaks in to witness the results of the procedure. When Carly sees Hank’s face she isn’t horrified, and in fact says that he’s “beautiful.”
But no sooner does this wonderful moment occur than the Friends of Humanity attack again, this time kidnapping Carly. With Wolverine and Mr. Crocker’s help, Hank recuses her. As they part ways, they promise to keep in touch, but they both seem to know that this is the end for them. She tells him to carry her love with him always.
There are both personal and universal elements to this episode. In terms of the former, it gives us some great insight into the Beast’s character, exposing the emotional core underneath Beast’s intelligent, patient, and humorous exterior. While he turns the other cheek to Mr. Crocker’s insults, when he gets alone he breaks down. He wishes he were normal, and laments the fact that he can’t get close to a human without putting them in constant danger. He admits that he distracts himself with work and fools himself into pretending he doesn’t care what others think. It shows that even those most dedicated to hope, kindness, and nonviolence have their dark nights of the soul.
This story also a lot to say about societal issues. Since their inception, the X-Men have been allegories for issues related to race. In some stories it’s less direct than others. “Beauty and the Beast” is one of the direct ones. You have a hate group masquerading under an innocuous-sounding name. You have a prejudiced and ignorant father. You have a love affair that’s doomed before it begins, simply because of who the couple were born. The Friends of Humanity’s disgust at seeing the Beast “holding a human girl” is a chilling parallel to the lynchings of young black men who happened to interact with or even look at a white woman. When the Friends of Humanity first attack, Beast remarks, “I’m sorry gentleman. Your anger at the inexorable alienation of late 20th century life is sadly misdirected.” It’s funny, but it’s also chillingly predictive of the wave of race-based fear and fury that put the 45th president in office.

“The Beauty and the Beast” was adapted as both a children’s book (published by Random House) and in an issue of X-Men Adventures by writer Ralph Macchio (not the actor) and artist Paul Borges. Neither adaption was an improvement on the TV version. Both eliminated a vital emotional component of the story, Hank’s breakdown. That said, the ending of the comic is a bit more satisfying, with Jean Grey telling Hank not to torture himself and him responding dryly, “Ahh, who better, Jean? Who better?”
But beyond its allegorical powers “Beauty and the Beast” is very much in line with how the Beast's romantic travails have been depicted in the comics throughout the years. Though I’m pretty sure it’s not the case, it almost seems as though every writer who has worked on the character has been directed to not allow him to find any romantic happiness.

It started with Stan Lee, who introduced bespectacled librarian Vera Cantor in Uncanny X-Men #19. Hank and Vera become a steady couple despite Hank’s tendency to disappear every time there’s danger, which became sort of a running gag. 

By the time of the Beast’s reappearance in Amazing Adventures, Vera is out of the picture. At Brand Corporation Hank immediately falls for Linda Donaldson, who is secretly a double agent. This storyline seemed destined to end in heartbreak, but due to the Beast’s spotlight in the series being cut short, it was never resolved. 

Instead, writer Steve Englehart had begun a subplot in which he brought back Vera. He picked up on that subplot in Incredible Hulk #161, where it’s revealed that Vera's been seeing the former X-Men Calvin Rankin, Mimic. He's losing control of his powers, and Vera thinks Hank might be able to help. Long story short, Mimic dies at the end.

This could have led to Hank and Vera striking back up, but when the Beast joined the Avengers in 1975 she was nowhere to be seen. Instead, for the most of his time as an Avenger, Hank was depicted as a sort of playboy ladies’ man.
Vera did return, though, in 1981’s Avengers #209 (written by J.M. DeMatteis). But no sooner did she and Hank rekindle their romance than she was poisoned by a Skrull who wants help retrieving a Macguffin called the Resurrection Stone. The story followed Hank into the pages of the Defenders, where Damion Hellstrom helps cure Vera. After that, she appeared as a background character for several subsequent issues, where it’s made clear that she and Hank are a couple once again.

But they soon fall into the old pattern of him running from emergency to emergency and ignoring her, and her being justifiably frustrated and annoyed. This is humorous in one way, because it’s almost like DeMatteis commenting on his own lack of effort in actually carving out time for the couple. It also leads to Hank’s heartfelt confession in Defenders #116 (see part 1 of this essay).
But the confession doesn’t change anything, so five issues later, Vera essentially walks out on Hank, who admits to his friends, “Sometimes I think the only reason I’m with Vera at all is because she’s a comfortable piece of my past to hold on to while I face a verrry uncertain future.” 

It seemed that no one really wanted Vera around, so this seemed like clear break. But then for some inexplicable reason, writer Peter B. Gillis brought her back in Defenders #140, with Hank sending her a love poem. She’s touched, but also angry, saying, “Not only do you break more dates than I can count – flirt with everything this side of Boy George –but you move to New Mexico without telling me -- !” There’s not a single sighting or mention character again until issue #149, when Hank gives her a Beast signal watch and then bounds away. Maybe Gillis had bigger plans for Vera, but Defenders ended with issue #152. 

Bob Layton used her almost immediately in X-Factor, though for dubious comedic effect. In X-Factor #2 we learn that some time has passed since Vera and Hank last saw each other.  She’s moved to New York, ditched her glasses, shaved half of her head, and opened a bookstore that “specializes in left-wing music and literature from South America.” She’s heavily involved in pro-mutant causes, and she and Hank become an item again, with her giving him a New Wave makeover in X-Factor #5. But her last appearance of this stretch was in X-Factor #8; as before, she just disappears with no explanation given to the reader.
The last word on Vera Cantor appeared in X-Factor #55 (June 1990), a winking fill-in issue by Peter David and artists Terry Shoemaker and Colleen Doran. Titled “Desperately Seeking Vera,” the story finds hypnotist villain Mesmero using Vera to lure Hank into a trap. In the end, she helps Hank defeat the villain and then they finally put some closure on their relationship
In the case of Vera, Hank was cast as the passive heartbreaker. He didn’t have bad intentions, he was just clueless and noncommittal, and at the mercy of easily-distracted writers who didn’t have a clear idea of who Hank was as a character. In every subsequent doomed relationship, Hank would be the victim.

In fact, he already had been a victim by the time things ended with Vera. The 1985 miniseries Beauty and the Beast had nothing to do with the aforementioned X-Men: The Animated Series episode. Instead it was a strange story by Ann Nocenti and Don Perlin that found Hank striking it up with Alison Blaire, the mutant singer known as Dazzler. Their affair arises quickly in the midst of investigating a conspiracy plot, and it ends just as quickly. The Beast would appear the next year in the final issue of Dazzler's ongoing series, but there was only a brief mention of his love for her, and his invitation for her to join X-Factor would be spurned.
Beauty and the Beast was weird, but the 1991 X-Factor: Prisoner of Love prestige one-shot by Jim Starlin and Jackson Guice is most definitely The Strangest Beast Story You’ll Ever Read. It’s also a sterling entry in the Beast-gets-his-heart-trampled subgenre. As it begins, Hank is feeling down about how he’ll never have a normal life. He goes out for a walk and ends up rescuing a statuesque blonde in an alley. He falls head over heels in lust, and the woman - called Synthia - invites him back to her apartment. There they have a dreamlike extended session of lovemaking and elliptical conversation. It’s all great until Beast starts to deteriorate, both physically and emotionally, and begins to have disturbing nightmares.

Synthia then reveals to Hank that she is some sort of alien / otherdimensional being who has been feeding off of his energy to gather strength to fight a creature she calls the Dark One. After he and Synthia defeat the villain, Hank finds himself back in the same place where he first encountered Synthia, no time having passed. It’s an exceedingly odd and uncomfortable comic, especially if you start to think about what sort of theme and message Starlin thought he was a conveying. To me it seems rather than having something interesting to say about the Beast's character, Starlin was using Beast and this story to work out some sort of personal issue. Case in point, none of Hank's concerns from the beginning of the book are resolved in any way.

Hank’s next major love interest was reporter Trish Tilby. Beginning in the pages of X-Factor, this romance was just as much of a rollercoaster as his relationship with Vera Cantor had been. It never truly seemed on solid ground, with Hank struggling with his jealousy of her ex-husband, and Trish being unsettled by his transformation back to a hyper-verbal blue fuzzball. Their relationship would seesaw for several years until she cruelly dumped him in the pages of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men (issue #126, July 2002). He had just made another transformation, this time into a more feline-looking form, and their relationship became public with the newspaper article referring to it as bestiality. Beast's response, trying to hurt her back, was to tell Trish he thinks he might be gay. 

When she leaks that to the media, Hank decides to go with it. Both Cyclops and Emma Frost confront him about it, and he says he "might as well be" gay because of the way he's been treated his whole life, and because he could serve as a positive representative for the gay community. 

This was fertile ground to explore, but thus far no writer thus far has decided to do so. And that's a shame, because Hank’s healthiest and longest-lasting relationship is with a man, Wonder Man. And though it’s never been depicted as a romance, there’s no reason it couldn’t be. 

The first mission the Beast participated in after becoming an official member of the Avengers was dealing with former member Wonder Man (Simon Williams) having made one of his patented returns from the dead. Almost immediately Hank gave Simon the affectionate nickname “Wondy,” and over the course of the next 50 issues their friendship would grow steadily. In Avengers #161 he designed a breathtakingly bad new costume for him that ranks as the second worst of Simon’s many superhero outfits (it's the the second from the left in the picture below).

Writer David Michelinie and artists John Byrne and George Perez advanced the Beast / Wonder Man relationship most significantly, depicting them going to the movies together, having a disastrous double date, getting drunk at the pub, and fighting sewer creatures in their own spotlight issue. In #196 Iron Man even comments on their friendship, holding it up as the epitome of people with great differences finding common ground. In Defenders #104, Simon tells Dr. Strange, “Hank’s my best buddy in the world.”
The pair left the Avengers at the same time and went their separate ways. Since then, writers have continually nodded to their bond, but with frustratingly-long gaps in between. When Wonder Man got his own book in 1991, the Beast guest-starred in several issues. Several years later, writer Kurt Busiek and artist George Perez took great joy in bringing them back together in 1999’s Avengers #14. 

The next year they got their own mini-series by Roger Stern and Mark Bagley, the awkwardly titled Avengers Two: Wonder Man and the Beast. But the promise of this didn’t last, and the next time the two were paired was in 2017, in issue #28 of Uncanny Avengers. It was a satisfying issue, but not enough. I’m putting this idea out there for free to any Marvel writer and/or editor: Make these two a couple and put them in an ongoing book together. The subtext is already there and the groundwork has already been laid.
In recent years writers haven’t even bothered with Hank’s romantic life.

Additionally, the character has strayed farther and farther from the balanced figure he’d become in the early 1990s, making a series of morally questionable, out-of-character decisions that continue into the current 2021 issues of X-Force. I won’t detail those here, as they fall outside of the scope of this essay series and I’ve already gone on long enough. Writer Jim Zub and artist Sean Issazke summed up a lot of the Beast's poor decision-making pretty well here: 

It’s a writer’s job to put their characters through the wringer, that’s just part of the definition of storytelling. But there's a line between complications that challenge the character and complications that torture the character, and the Beast - outside of a few choice instances - has spent too much of his existence wrong side of that line.

But that 1990s version is still one of my favorite characters. I hope one day he lands in the hands of a writer who feels the same.

Works Cited
Lee, Stan and Patrick Daniel O'Neill. “X Marks the Spot.” Wizard: X-Men Turn Thirty (1993).

Lewald, Eric and Julia. “Our Wisest, Kindest Soul: The Beauty of the Beast.”

Lewald, Eric. Previously on X-Men: The Making of an Animated Series. Jacobs Brown Press: San Diego. 2017

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