Tuesday, 26 August 2008

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #5: Fuzzy

First of all, and I’ve been meaning to mention this for a little while now, but big ups to UXMN. Its “Spotlight On” series has been a massive help in filling in the gaps of my knowledge regarding the activities of various X-Men whilst they're not with the main team. Clearly, this is especially important with the franchise-skipping Beast, so this article would have been much the poorer without the website above.

Excellent! It may have taken five articles, but we’ve finally arrived at an X-Man I can really get behind. Xavier and Cyclops are blindly dedicated, Iceman is childish, and Angel unnecessarily cold, but Beast is different. Well, not different, per se; in fact he demonstrates all those faults at one time or another, but the beauty of Edna McCoy’s bouncing baby boy is that he combines all those aspects, and much, much more. Beast is a Gordian Knot of a character. Actually, even that doesn’t go far enough. Beast is a series of Gordian Knots threaded through each other. Every strand loosened in one knot tightens one somewhere else. In fact, McCoy is so complex, I’ve had to re-think the structure of this article numerous times just so I could fit it all in.

To an arguably unique extent amongst the X-Men (if not more generally), Beast suffers from the massive gap between his inner and outer self. In my last article in this series I pointed out Angel’s difficulty in passing for normal compared to Bobby Drake, but neither of them (nor anyone else, save perhaps Marrow) have anything on Beast. Whilst he is generally drawn as somewhat cuddly, without his gentle demeanour and intellectual bon mots, McCoy is absolutely terrifying. This is a mutant who escapes being arrested by leaping at two police officers whilst disengaging his image-inducer to take advantage of the resulting incontinence. The sheer gap between his involuntary-bowel-movement appearance and his genteel soul is striking.

At least, that’s how it has been ever since that fateful injection of serum turned him blue and furry. But let’s go back to the beginning.

Even as a teenager, Hank is teased by his peers about his appearance. Known as “Magilla Gorilla” thanks to his disproportionate appendages, he becomes withdrawn, and might have stayed that way indefinitely but for a fellow student named Jennifer Nyles. What starts with Hank simply tutoring Jen in biology leads to her demanding that he take her to the prom, and ultimately her punching out one of the bullies who have been bothering Hank for so long. From then on the two of them become inseparable friends.

They should be more than that, of course, but Hank’s natural shyness prevents him from telling her how he actually feels (given how much time his classmates had spent telling he was ugly, this is hardly a surprise). In fact, it isn’t until after she moves to London to study genetics that they finally admit just how much they love each other. Badly-timed though this admission is, they continue to stay in touch. With his quarterbacking going well, and with his considerable intellect to fall back on if necessary, it must seem to Hank that knowing that Jen reciprocates his love made his life complete, at least for the foreseeable future.

No-one in comics is allowed to be so content for long. Hank foils three criminals attempting to flee across the pitch whilst he is playing football. The footage of him using his mutant-enhanced agility to knock out the hoods is played on the evening news, and attracts the attention of the villainous El Conquistador [1]. Realising that Hank would be useful as a thief, the Conquistador kidnaps his parents and threatens them in order to force him into stealing a nuclear reactor (if only he’d found Angel instead, he could have just taken that weird nuclear test-tube thing off his hands, and everything would be gravy). Ultimately the X-Men arrive, and together they defeat the Conquistador.

Grateful and curious, Hank agrees to join the X-Men. That same day he phones Jen only to discover that she has forgotten him. Xavier confesses that in order to keep the X-Men safe, he has erased the memory of anyone who knew too much about Beast’s true nature, including the girl he cared for so completely.

Understandably, Hank is furious at this. The woman he loved, and who loved him despite so many others seeing him as a freak, no longer has any knowledge of him. Ultimately Professor X persuades him that it was necessary. Or at least, that is the impression Beast gives. It is just as likely that he realises that if he left in outrage, Xavier would erase his mind too. Perhaps he would have restored Jen’s memory, perhaps not. Perhaps he would remove Hank’s memories of her too, the only place where their relationship still exists. Given all that, what choice does Hank have but to stay?

As horrible as this incident is in isolation, it becomes all the worse when you realise that it begins a pattern that continues to haunt Beast to this day. Hank is a man starved of romantic contact. In fact, there is a persuasive case to be made that Hank is by the loneliest of the X-Men. He hides it with humour (though he uses his wit as distraction, rather than as a blunt defence as is the case with Iceman), and with dedication, but look hard enough and it becomes easy to spot.

Indeed, how could things be any other way? Henry’s self-esteem takes such a beating as a teenager that Jen has to put in a tremendous amount of work to draw him out of himself. Then, as soon as she has finally managed to inspire Hank to reveal his true feelings, her memory is erased. Later, when he finally stops hiding behind his jokes and agrees to a blind date with Vera Cantor, her ex-boyfriend the Mimic interrupts, using his powers to show Hank up [2]. Although the incident was fairly minor, it was likely another step backwards for Hank’s self-confidence. Watching someone beat him with his own powers (which he refused to employ for fear of discovery) must have been humiliating. Although he continued to see Vera, they quickly drifted apart.

Soon, he decides to pursue a life beyond the X-Men, unsure that the life of a super-hero is for him. Instead, he joins the Brand Corporation as a bio-chemical researcher. There he meets his beautiful research assistant Linda Donaldson, and again it briefly looks as though Hank might be able to assemble a future for himself.

Except guess what? His new boss Maddicks proves to be a foreign agent, out to half-inch government secrets. Unable to defeat him unaided, Hank injects himself with an experimental serum he has developed, which increases strength and agility at the price of making your skin erupt into grey fur. With only one hour before the serum becomes permanent [3] Hank is on a tight schedule. Ultimately he does foil Maddicks, but fails to reach the antidote in time, and remains fuzzy.

This, perhaps, is the birth of the true Beast. For a while he wears a latex mask and gloves so as to appear human. He continues to flirt with Linda, but now cannot allow her to kiss him in case she discovers his disguise. Whatever progress he has made reconciling his personality and his appearance is now torn to pieces, and he is forced to begin again. This difficulty is brought into sharp focus soon after when Iron Man visits the Brand Corporation. Another crisis strikes, and both he and Hank attempt to help. Seeing Beast, though, Tony Stark mistakes him for a villain and attacks.

This development is worth considering for a moment. In many ways, Beast is more than just a character in the X-Men; he is a reflection of the themes of the comics themselves. He is the embodiment of Xavier’s dream. Sure, some people would say that such is Cyclops' role, but as I’ve argued before Cyclops really only mirrors Xavier’s dedication. Summers is essentially just another dreamer. Hank McCoy is the dream. There’s a reason why Professor X is frequently compared to Martin Luther King Jr., it's because he has his own version of King’s speech on the Lincoln Memorial running around his head. “One day mutants will be judged not by the colour and furriness of their skin but by the content of their character". Henry’s personal crises, his difficulty with connecting with anyone due to his appearance, are a microcosm of the struggle for mutant rights. Xavier’s mission gives Beast hope that eventually, people will see past the fur and the fangs.

Perhaps this is why he invariably returns to the X-Men, despite frequently questioning his aptitude for and interest in the life of a super-hero. A super-hero in a team oftentimes branded terrorists, at that. Had he stayed with the Avengers after he left the Brand Corporation (having been tricked by Linda who also turned out to be a foreign spy [4]), he would have been accepted as a hero first and a mutant second (certainly the women seemed far more into him at this point), but rather than stomach the public’s hypocrisy, he chooses to return to the X-Men, to fight for all mutants to be accepted, rather than just the celebrities (mutants being far from the first minority in history who the population are happy to encounter as long as they are sufficiently entertaining or sufficiently useful).

There is another plausible reason why Hank fights alongside the X-Men, of course, which also explains why despite his insecurities he returns time after time to the life of a superhero (whether it be with the X-Men, X-Factor, the Avengers, or even the Defenders). It isn’t often discussed, but there is in fact no compelling reason to believe that Henry’s towering intellect is actually connected to his mutation. He may in fact have gained almost nothing from being a mutant at all. Sure, he’s more agile, but the price of that is a lifetime of mockery and hatred. Moreover, he has demonstrated time and again that he could manage perfectly happily with his intellect alone. He has gained almost nothing from his “gifts”, certainly considering the cost, but by choosing to employ his powers to fight for mutant rights, he forces them to have some meaning.

Of course, this decision to make use of his mutant skills (as oppose to just boosting an image-inducer and spending the rest of his life looking like Brad Pitt) comes at further cost. It forces him to accept his hideous form, to try and live his life as if everyone already can see him for what he truly is [5]. This is exactly what Wolverine throws in his face after Hank seeks a cure for the mutant condition from Kavita Rao. He has chosen to be an inspiration to the next generation, Logan reminds him, and he cannot simply toss that aside in the hope of once more passing for human.

Eventually Hank acquiesces to Wolverine, but it is perhaps unlikely that he ever truly agrees. After all, his decision to try and “cure” himself came only after his secondary mutation kicked in and left him more feline than hominid. In fact, Hank’s various regressions mean that Hank not only represents Xavier’s dream, but also the difficulty in making that dream actually happen. He mirrors the seemingly constant set-backs to the X-Men’s ultimate goal. Each time he might have a chance at mastering his circumstances, the universe conspires to throw him another curveball. This brings us back to the true tragedy of Beast (and all the best heroes have a detailed entry on their profiles under the “true tragedy” heading), the degree to which he suffers from the lack of human contact. Sure, he has friends, though the degree to which they can penetrate the twin shields of his formidable intellect and his constant wise-cracking is an open question, but that isn’t really enough. Perhaps he needs someone that he feels understands him, or perhaps it is simply that the New York winters are too cold for him even with the fur. Regardless, Hank’s romantic nature is painfully obvious from his patter, and its constant frustration seems to weigh heavily upon him. Consider how often he gives his ex-girlfriends another try: Vera once, Trish Tilby at least twice; and that was after she told the world a new mutant virus was absolutely, positively going to kill every mother-fucker in the world. Even though it was clear Vera or Trish weren't right for him, Hank’s need for some kind of contact meant he kept trying with what limited options he had. After all, each of the various X-Women that have come and gone over the years have invariably fallen for one of the more handsome, less hairy individuals in the Xavier Institute. To the best of my knowledge Cecilia Reyes was the only team member he very clearly had feelings for, but why should I find it easier to get through his defences than anyone else has?

In the end, though, it doesn’t matter. All of Beast’s attempts to keep the plate spinning with regard to Trish falls apart after the secondary mutation kicks in. “You’re still the same lovely Hank inside” she tells him, but “The Enquirer ran an article on us. The word ‘bestiality‘ was used three times”. Then the kicker: “I couldn‘t do anything to hurt you, my dear lovely Hank, but this could ruin my career as a broadcaster”. It all comes down to how you look, and what other people think (not to mention that the woman does it by phone ). As his brain begins to shift into new patterns, as his hands become pens incapable of holding a pen [6], the one woman he hoped he could rely on cuts him loose for fear The National Enquirer might cause trouble for her.

So how does Hank respond? He buries himself in his work. Well, actually he tells Trish he’s gay for a laugh, but mainly he buries himself in his work. Much as he always does, in fact. Attempting to cure the Legacy Virus back before Trish’s phone-call-of-doom (which he eventually managed, albeit with Moira MacTaggert doing most of the ground work) became a bona fide obsession for the man. How better to prove to himself that he was worth a damn?

OK, maybe that’s unfair. Certainly, when someone is trying to neutralise a disease designed to wipe out all of humanity it seems churlish to find fault. But this is just the most extreme example of Hank’s insistence upon proving himself through his intellect. After all, without that, without the planet-sized brain that the X-Men rely upon for "Everything from battle scenarios, tech-support and medical evaluations to studying the Legacy Virus!” (to quote Dark Beast, and don’t worry, we’re getting to him), then what exactly is he? An ambulant azure rug, basically. His brain is the only thing Hank can think of to be grateful for, aside from his friends, whom in any case he constantly attempts to prove he has earned, rather than has had given to him. It’s why I think the greatest period of despondency in Beast’s life comes during the tenure of the original X-Factor, whilst fighting Apocalypse’s Horseman, Pestilence. Her touch is simply supposed to make him grow sick and die, but instead it interferes with the serum he injected himself with years before. Pestilence’s power returns Beast to his original appearance, but leaves him unable to use his enhanced strength without it feeding off his intellect. Every time he exerts himself to defeat a villain or to save his friends, he becomes a fraction less smart. He loses more of the only thing that he can be proud of, the one thing that makes him more than the gorilla that nobodycould ever love.

He does it anyway, of course, connecting with Trish Tilby and eventually being cured in the process. This is the true measure of Beast’s heroism, that he would take the only part of himself that isn’t somewhere between mediocre and a cluster-fuck and toss it aside to aid his friends. Of course, Beast has always tried his best to do the right thing under difficult circumstances. This was obvious as early as his tenure with the Avengers. When a Skrull impersonating Jarvis poisons Vera whilst she is visiting Avengers Mansion, he demands the heroes steal the Resurrection Stone. This they do, only for Beast to shatter it to prevent it falling into alien hands. This is a decision that leaves Vera in suspended animation for some time, (until Doctor Strange eventually revives her), but it was what Hank's conscience demanded of him.

The moral compass of Henry McCoy keeps cropping up across the years. As he himself says, "Science is one of the things we picked up in the course of evolution. Like opposable thumbs, and the ability to use tools." Again, this is a sign that he operates as more than simply a character; he often voices the objections of the reader when various characters step out of line . It is he, for instance, that admits doubts over Xavier’s plan to intentionally downplay the seriousness of the Legacy Virus outbreak in order to prevent panic and further death (after the uninfected mutant Dennis Hogan was beaten to death by panicked humans). Perhaps his most interesting moral challenge, however, occurs after Scarlet Witch almost erases the entire mutant race on M-Day (a population of hundreds of thousands or even millions are suddenly reduced to around two hundred). Faced with the possible extinction of his species, and unable to discover the root cause, Hank first asks a selection of characters (ranging from the morally questionable to the outright evil) for assistance. "I've sold my soul. Would any of you care to ransom yours?". Eventually, though, he begins searching various unsavoury locations for clues. Eventually this leads him to the mutant concentration camp known as Neverland, where he meets and strikes an unholy deal with his alternate universe counterpart, Dark Beast.

We should probably discuss Dark Beast at this point. A refugee from the Age of Apocalypse, the Hank McCoy of that reality never bothered with anything so inconvenient as a conscience. Free from such restrictions, he became a markedly superior scientist to our own blue-furred version of the Beast. Certainly he was smart enough both to escape his reality before the metaphysical walls started falling, and create the Morlocks in our dimension. At one point he replaced his counterpart and lived amongst the X-Men, who were none the wiser until X-Factor released the original model from his prison. Since Dark Beast had been entirely happy to leave his genetic twin to rot(the only reason DB hadn't executed his double immediately was on the off chance that there was something useful in his head), our own McCoy harbours a healthy loathing for him.

After M-Day, he resolved to set aside his loathing, at least temporarily. Both McCoy's were desperate to undo what Wanda Maximoff had done; why not work together? Well, aside from the fact that DB thinks Hank is afraid of allowing himself to be pushed over the line, but that's never really a possibility. Or is it?

During their partnership, Beast reminds himself "From the moment I chose to devote my life to scientific research, I knew I'd face ethical dilemmas". Of course, he does it whilst grave-robbing Genosha for "fresh" mutant DNA. For a few moments, it seems as if Beast might finally have given up on morality for the sake of expediency.

It can't last. The instant his shadowy twin attempts to upgrade their blasphemous experiment to the living, Hank ends their alliance with a claw to the face. Of course, this leaves him with very little in the way of alternatives. His faith in science dashed by his failure, his desperate hope in magic ended by the sad testimony of Doctor Strange, there is only one thing left for him to try.

He goes to visit Wanda.

It doesn't go well. He fully intends to explain what has happened to her, rip aside whatever defences her magic has erected over her fatigued and barren brain in order to persuade her into undoing the damage she has done. Wanda realises this on some level:
"A man gets a certain look in his eyes when he's fishing for omens. When he's trying to nerve himself up to something he knows, deep down, is wrong.
"You've got that look."

In the end, he can't bring himself to do it. He realises that his cause is lost, he is lost, and he leaves. He returns to Neverland to do the only thing he can do.

He buries the dead.

That, then, is Beast. Too smart for words, and certainly too smart to easily gauge. "Brilliant and unloved", as Steven Moffat might say (if he wasn't busy trying to work out how to make children afraid of tables, or something). Xavier's dream given form, and its reality revealed. The conscience of the team, dedicated to the correct course of action no matter what. A man who, at the end of his rope, and at the end of his hope, works to give his respects to the dead, because he is sure that it is the right thing to do.

"I gave the past its due", as he puts it, as he begins laying skeletons to rest. "Which is all you can do, in the end, for the dead, and for the past."

"Well, that and live".

Next time: we give thanks to the God of the Marvel Universe that she won’t let a hot red-head stay buried for very long.

[1] Early X-Men stories seemed to spend a lot of time fighting against various Mesoamerican-themed bad guys. Of course, to the Americans, this is presumably like fighting Nessie.

[2] Given Bobby has a hand in arranging the date it is perhaps remarkable that it all went as well as it did.

[3] One day I’m going to sit down and write "SpaceSquid’s Top Twenty Abominations Of Science Apparently Considered Worthy Of Funding By Fictional Governments". If it’s not this then it’s those damn acid-resistant velociraptors.

[4] "SpaceSquid’s Top Twenty Outrageous Failures To Adequately Check Applicant Background" would also not take too long to slap together.

[5] This is another reason why Beast is great. The other five original team members are, in general, hard to relate to, at least when you’re at the modal age at which people start getting into comics. Xavier is a teacher, Cyclops insanely dedicated, Angel rich as hell and arrogant as fuck. As a man I can’t decide how easy it is to identify with Jean Grey, but my guess is that for much her early years she can be written of as “generic woman” (though I may change my opinion once I’ve researched the next article). Xavier has her in charge of fashion, FFS. Bobby, fair enough, has the whole cocky wise-ass shtick, so that works, but Beast takes the crown for relatability. Who hasn’t thought at one time or another that if they were as attractive on the outside as they’re sure they are on the inside, then everything would be better?

[6] This whole storyline sort of reminded me of Stephen Hawking, actually. It’s the same principle of an exceptionally powerful mind being frustrated by base physical inadequacy (that keeps getting worse, too). Of course, to make it a complete match, you have to ignore the whole nurse/affair/blow-job thing.

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