Feb
2

BHM #1: Beast History Month

Posted by Chris Eckert on Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011 at 05:48:05 AM

I’m guessing anyone reading this blog knows about David Brothers’s Annual Black History Month blogging . If not, go read them. And then know that this series of blog posts is an affectionate tribute to that.

With a small wholesome whimper, the Comics Code Authority has gone gentle into that good night. For many reading comics today, the Code never made a significant impact on their funnybook experience. But I recently saw someone ask, “Why is Beast in X-Men Blue?” Of course there’s the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe answer, but the deeper causes of Hank McCoy blue-ing himself involve the dearly departed Code! Or at least I think they do.

A decade and a half after the Code’s establishment in 1954, one set of prohibitions really seemed to chafe at publishers, General Standard B5:

Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.

Clearly this ban was inspired by the gruesome gore of pre-Code horror books: not just EC’s famous titles, but also Harvey, Key, Star, and other bandwagon jumpers. It didn’t disallow “monsters” or “aliens”, but it was a hardline prohibition against anything that brushed up against explicit horror archetypes. The ensuing fifteen years saw a horror renaissance: a TV revival of the Universal Monster films, Hammer Horror, The Munsters, Addams Family, Dark Shadows, The Count and various and sundry Monsters on Sesame Street… by 1971, these banned creatures were cuddly enough to be the spokescreatures for a series of breakfast cereals.

Cannibals and the walking dead were still left out in the cold, but this was the cultural atmosphere in which the first-ever Code revision emerged. Among other changes, it stated:

Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, or torture, shall not be used. Vampires, ghouls and werewolves shall be permitted to be used when handled in the classic tradition such as Frankenstein, Dracula, and other high calibre literary works written by Edgar Allen Poe, Saki, Conan Doyle and other respected authors whose works are read in schools around the world.

So it was in this “classic tradition” that Marvel and DC launched or revamped a whole mess of supernatural/horror books. The early 1970s saw the debut or revival of Beware!, Chamber of Chills, Crypt of Shadows, Creatures on the Loose, Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love, Fear, Frankenstein, Ghosts!, House of Mystery, House of Secrets, Journey into Mystery, Monsters on the Prowl, Sinister House of Secret Love, Spirit World, Supernatural Thrillers, Tomb of Dracula, Vault of Evil, Werewolf by Night, Weird War Tales, Where Creatures Roam, Where Monsters Dwell, and more. It also led to the creation of Blade, Daimon Hellstrom, Etrigan the Demon, Ghost Rider, Man-Thing, Morbius the Living Vampire, Swamp Thing, and even Howard the Duck.

The Beast wasn’t a new character in 1972: Henry “Hank” McCoy debuted a decade earlier in X-Men, where he was simply a big strong galoot with oversized hands and feet. The X-Men may be their own cottage industry today, but by 1970 sales had dipped so low that Marvel placed it on hiatus, eventually bringing it back as a bi-monthly reprint book.

x-men66

In the year that the X-Men lay fallow, the Comics Code was revised to allow more “horror” comics, and then in March of 1972, who should be given the featured slot in Amazing Adventures but…

amazingadventures11

The Beast’s spotlight run in AA only lasts seven issues, one of which is mostly a reprint of old X-Men stories. There’s some suitably creepy art by Gil Kane, Tom Sutton, Mike Ploog, Marie Severin and Jim Starlin along the way, and while Kane’s cover closely resembles the Beast millions recognize from comics, cartoons and movies, the interior art is portrays him looking more… well, bestial. It owes more to the horror genre than superhero:

the-beast-huntsiron-man-doa

At the outset of the run, the Beast leaves the X-Men to “study genetic mutation” for the Brand Corporation, where he’s clearly the junior researcher to Dr. Carl Maddicks, the father of current Fantastic Four supporting cast member Artie. This is a great example of  Genius Creep in Superhero Comics: anyone who is portrayed as “smart” will eventually become a universally knowledgeable intellect. In this story, Hank is just a promising twenty-year old lab assistant. These days Wikipedia says he’s

a world-renowned biochemist, having earned a Ph.D. in biophysics and genetics… [a] field medic and in-house physician for the X-Men… well-versed in many fields including languages (fluent in English, German, French, Latin, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, and Russian), literature, philosophy, psychology, and sociology, history, art and art history, anthropology, linguistics, and music, as well as in political science and economics with a special affinity for science and technology and a penchant for quoting literary classics. His vast scientific knowledge ranges from theoretical physics, quantum mechanics, differential equations, nanotechnology, anatomy, biomedicine, analytical chemistry, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering to the construction of a hyper-magnetic device.

Despite lacking these accolades in this story, he still manages to isolate the “mutant hormone” in only three weeks, and when he discovers his employer’s sinister ties, he drinks the evidence and turns into a monster.

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Conway and Sutton lean heavily on the Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde vibe, having the beastly transformation be both mental and physical:

nothingbutabeast

And true to form, the Beast spends the next few issues raging and nearly killing everyone he sees: Iron Man, Mastermind, the Juggernaut, random passers-by. He’s able to calm down outside the heat of battle, but unable to lose his monstrous form. Despite this diminished intellect, he is able to make his own Hank McCoy mask and a series of trusses to make himself stand upright:

beast-disguise

So this explains why the Beast is furry, but why is he blue?  As you probably noticed, he’s gray in all the art excerpted above. Well, eventually Quasimodo, a lesser Lee & Kirby FF villain, shows up wanting to steal the Beast’s “lifeforce” and become a real boy.

vampire-machine

You can tell how much everyone loved being able to use vampires again. They even named the story “The Computer Vampire”! When Quasimodo drains some of the Beast’s energy it doesn’t kill him, but instead sends hims into a coma. He wakes up a new color, but not the one you might expect!

beast-black

Oh, my stars and garters! The Beast has BLACK fur! He’s basically covered in Superman’s hair, I guess. It only took a few years for Marvel to start coloring his fur blue, but apparently I was writing a Black History Month and didn’t even know it!

After this blackifying, Englehart’s AA run with the Beast didn’t last much longer. His fifth issue was part of a wacky stealth crossover described by Brian Cronin last year, and his final issue involved only a brief framing sequence around some X-Men reprints. And while he’d pop up a few times in the next three years, Hank did not get another recurring role until Englehart brought him on board in Avengers #137, when he shows up at Yankee Stadium for an Avengers membership drive disguised as Edward G. Robinson. No, really.

beast-prankster
As you can see, this Beast had found his smile. As explained in this issue, it was the result of some soul searching:

Eventually, it all got too heavy. I had to drop out of sight and come to terms with my new self. I let time pass however it wanted. I watched old movies, read some Casteneda, listened to Stevie Wonder, and, by and large, put my cruel fate out of my mind.

That’s right, “Boogie on, Reggae Woman” is partially responsible for the beloved Cat-Monster That Frasier Played in a Movie we all know and love today! Then another thirty-four years worth of stories happened, but for now you know… the rest of Beast History Month!

Posted in Articles · Read more by Chris Eckert

3 Responses

  1. Ugh, never understood the whole blue coloring for black thing. I’m really suprised Venom never ended up as a blue character.

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