Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Troubles of X-Factor Part 2: The Beast and the Trouble With Character Regression

By 1972 the X-Men had more-or-less dropped out of comic books, but the newfound interest in horror/super hero hybrid tales led to a solo series featuring the Beast which began in Amazing Adventures #11. Although he had lasted the sixties with his large hands + large feet "apelike" appearance, the newly-reimagined Beast now sported a permanent coat of fur (initially gray but quickly changed to blue). The Beast's solo adventures didn't last very long, but his new appearance caught on as he soon joined the Avengers and his newfound high-spirited attitude and sharp quips made him one of the most beloved members of the team's 70s incarnation; from there, he skipped and bounced into the "New" Defenders and then into the pages of Bob Layton's X-Factor.

By the third issue of X-Factor, the Beast had been changed out of his fur coat and back to his "apelike" appearance, with his spiked hair being the sole memento of the previous 14 years worth of stories. Changing the Beast into a more human visual held certain value to the series as X-Factor were meant to be disguised as humans hunting mutants, a role which the Beast couldn't play so long as his fur marked him publicly as a mutant.

Bringing the Beast out of his fur was no mean feat; Layton didst implore the Gods of Continuity and yea, he didst offer to invoke the plot of Amazing Adventures #11 by bringing back unto the sacred pages one Carl Maddicks, the very scientist responsible for the Beast's transformation. The Gods of Continuity didst thunder in their rage, noting that Maddicks had perished in that same issue, but behold, Layton didst kill Maddicks again by the end of X-Factor #3 and his blood offering didst atone for all continuity shenanigans.

But beyond the series' need for a quasi-human Beast, why did this change come about? In one word: nostalgia. X-Factor was, after all, a series designed to bring the original five X-Men back together. Jean Grey's resurrection was one part of the formula; presumably the cancellation of New Defenders (to free up Angel, Beast & Iceman) was another; undoubtedly Claremont wrote Cyclops out of Uncanny X-Men to likewise oblige them. But not only did Layton bring the "classic" five together again, artist Jackson Guice redesigned them into visuals which intentionally evoked the designs of the Neal Adams era. Setting Beast back into his "classic" appearance fit right in with the series' intent.

Strangely, however, the Beast's regression actually began prior to his transformation! In X-Factor #2, there's a scene where the Beast and Iceman went to visit Beast's old flame Vera Cantor (his frequent girlfriend of the 1960s). Much to Beast's surprise, the previously-conservative Vera now sported a "with-it" hairdo with a partially shaved head and enjoyed listening to Elvis Costello. However, the intended humour of the scene was drawn from Beast's discomfort at her interests. Layton wrote him there as being very "square." His Beast had the same loquaciousness and large vocabulary which Stan Lee had originated, yet somehow Beast's fun-loving, wild-living ladies' man persona from the Avengers had mysteriously vanished. Before the Beast's physical appearance had changed one iota, Layton was already turning back the clock on the Beast's personality.

As I meditated upon the Beast's regression to his 60s identity, I became startled to think of how unusual this was in 1986. Nowadays characters frequently go back to wearing old costumes, dredging up long-abandoned personalities, reactivate long-lost powers and so forth. And yet, in that "quantify and qualify" period of the 80s which I mentioned in part 1, there was a feeling that Marvel's characters were progressing into something else. Yet after the Beast's character regression I began to realize many other characters followed him:

  • Hank Pym retired from being a super hero in 1983; resumed being Giant-Man in 1993 and over the next decade revisited his three other identities.
  • The Wasp became the Avengers' leader in 1982; by the mid-1990s she had shed her leadership qualities and become a secondary, more submissive character - as well as getting back together with Pym.
  • Hawkeye got married in 1983 and became a stalwart Avengers leader in 1984; lost all of that by 1989.
  • Morbius cured of being a living vampire in 1981; back at it in 1990.
  • Vision & the Scarlet Witch happily married in 1975 after a long courtship and a lengthy origin for the Vision; by 1989 the marriage, origin and their children were excised.
  • Thor grew a beard, lost his father and saw Asgard cut off from Earth during Walter Simonson's famous run; all of this was done away with by the very next writer.
  • Spider-Man adopted a new black costume with much fanfare in 1984; put it away (after a period of switching between it and his original duds) in 1988 in favour of his "classic" appearance.

...And so forth. It seems as though no character can achieve escape velocity from their own past, not when nostalgia is concerned (or the need to make a buck from a character; no corporation can afford to leave a potentially profitable property on hiatus indefinitely). Beast's own teammate Angel would be resdesigned by Walter Simonson in later X-Factor issues to be a Horseman of Apocalypse, granting him blue skin and metal wings. By 1994 he was back in his Neal Adams costume; by 1996 his feathered wings were back; in 2002 his blue skin went away; then in 2008 he went through his Horseman of Apocalypse story and appearance all over again! Comic book characters seem cursed to constantly revisit their pasts - which is why you should never allow yourself to get too bent out of shape about their present-day condition. Everything new will be made old - that is the promise of nostalgia and that's what Beast's transformation portended.

Tomorrow: Jean Grey.

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