Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Beware Of... The Beast!

Given the amount of exposure the Beast went on to receive in the Avengers and the revived X-Men title, to say nothing of his appearances in the X-Men motion picture franchise, you may have a certain impression of the character, depending on what years you were reading of his exploits or whether or not you limited yourself to his film appearances. Whatever the case may be, you'll definitely want to include his "rebirth" tale from 1972 in the various presentations of the character you've seen over time--the ambitious story that took one of the founding members of the X-Men and radically altered him in both character and, it goes without saying, in appearance. It was quite a change in direction for Hank McCoy, making his code name of "the Beast" apply in almost every sense of the word--and it was riveting.

The icing on this cake is the array of creative talent assembled to put this story together, with all of the choices seeming to be a near-perfect fit for this new Hank McCoy, this new Beast. Artist Tom Sutton, arguably the perfect choice for this type of story (and inked nicely by Syd Shores), brings his flair for depicting the horror genre, blending the shocking and tragic aspects of the Beast's appearance with the level of intrigue that the plot demands--while scripter Gerry Conway gives us a sense of what McCoy has lost thrown away, for reasons even McCoy doesn't fully understand. Nor does letterer Sam Rosen disappoint--his sense of a story's shifting moods and heightened drama is as fine-tuned as ever, meshing perfectly with Sutton's imagery and Conway's text to give us a full sense of the change in direction McCoy experiences and the mix of frustration and anger of the creature now truly known as the Beast.

To get a sense of all of that talent coming together in one place, you have only to look at the opening page of the story, presenting a scene taken from developments occurring further into the issue. Obviously we don't yet know the identity of the Beast, if he even has one--the only thing that's made clear to us so far is that this creature is stalking a figure, under the cover of darkness. His victim (?) is unsuspecting, but uneasy, the shadows from his flashlight and the smoke wafting from his cigarette heightening the mood. And finally, his hunter is revealed--his name doubling as the story's title to not only serve as his dramatic introduction, but to enhance both the anticipation and dread of what's to come.

In the first scenes we're presented with, it becomes clear that this security guard isn't simply making his rounds. Furtive, looking over his shoulder, using a special device to gain access to classified areas of this plant, his thoughts betraying his guise... he's after something, or someone. But since the story's title virtually announces the Beast to us, these first few pages take the opportunity to show him in action--and our guard learns soon enough that there is something also after him.

Thanks to Conway's script, we're learning about the Beast as we go--for instance, that he's only recently come into being, and seems to be coming to terms with his new state. And in his struggle with the guard, we learn that he can not only speak, but also appears to be intelligent. In addition, as the guard, fearing for his life, fires on the Beast, we see that this creature can survive bullet wounds--initially feeling pain, but afterward continuing without any loss of blood or stamina. We're never told in this story why that is, but somehow that adds to the allure of a creature like the Beast, who will keep coming for you in spite of gunfire that would ordinarily drop any creature alive.

The Beast's night ends with an interesting revelation--that this guard is actually a spy, who meets his end not from the Beast but from exchanging fire with soldiers stationed at the plant. The Beast realizes that he's taken a risk when it wasn't necessary--and when he returns to a secure location, we learn the nature of that risk, as well as this creature's shocking true identity.

The hook to the story and its apparent commitment to charting a new direction for the X-Man known as the Beast is made clear--that this change to the character is now permanent, tragically brought about by circumstances McCoy didn't foresee. And by learning of this change so early in this tale, it serves to enhance our interest in how this all came about. Why did McCoy alter himself in this way, and how? Why is he acting independently of the X-Men? And where is all of this taking place?

The X-Men must be our starting point for looking back, since this story occurs two years to the month after their title ceased publication and segued into reprinting its earlier stories. The flashbacks Conway and Sutton provide for us (by way of McCoy's tortured memories) serve two purposes: to show us how McCoy decided to say his farewells to the X-Men and strike out on his own as a scientist specializing in genetic mutation, but more importantly to drive home the sense of loss that McCoy feels at his transformation effectively severing his ties to his former life forever.

The fact that McCoy departed from the X-Men with the intention of leaving them forever serves as a bitter reminder of what he's done to himself and the circumstances that now force him into handling this problem on his own--or at least that's the approach that Conway appears to be taking here. There's no reason other than pride for McCoy to seclude himself from his friends--though this early in the Beast's story, it's understandable if his anger drives him to attempt to sort things out himself.

But let's learn about the company he became employed at--the Brand Corporation, which in later stories became a subsidiary of Roxxon Oil. For now, Brand seems to be the perfect fit for McCoy, but the circumstances of his employment are curious. For one thing, Conway continues to foster the perception of McCoy's motives being self-serving (if well-intentioned), and that he appears to be a bit over-eager to leave his old life behind.

Since it's logical to conclude that Brand would have no knowledge of McCoy being a mutant, we'd have to assume that Brand's interests and McCoy's align to some degree. An advanced installation such as Brand would have specific expectations of McCoy's research, and for now those seem to point to discovering the cause(s) of mutation. Yet there's also a colleague that McCoy is assigned to work with--Professor Maddicks, who angrily rebuffs McCoy and wants nothing to do with him.

As the story seems to be leaning in the direction of, McCoy and Linda Donaldson grow much closer during his time there, and fall in love, a development which McCoy is understandably elated at. His situation in regard to Maddicks is more complicated, nor is McCoy's supervisor, Mr. Grant, in the clear as far as being a character who doesn't raise an eyebrow. For instance, why would Grant hire McCoy to work with Maddicks, only to make it clear to Maddicks that McCoy will be working alone and independently? It has to be either one way or the other, doesn't it? And if McCoy isn't going to be interacting with Maddicks, why would Maddicks be so angry at McCoy's appointment? He wants McCoy to leave him alone, and that's exactly what he's getting.

And then there's Grant, who receives confidential reports of McCoy's progress that completely bypass Maddicks' review, another thing about this arrangement that Maddicks isn't happy about.  (Can't this man make up his mind?)

In short, we don't know a great deal about Maddicks--specifically, why McCoy's project (the details of which he should be fully aware of, by the way!) would annoy him to this degree. We know that he has some involvement with Grant that's suspect; but when McCoy makes a breakthrough in his research, we learn that whatever progress McCoy is on the road to making is the source of Maddicks' consternation--even though he's kept out of the loop and doesn't have any specifics on McCoy's project. It's a tangled web of a foundation that Conway nevertheless feels is sufficient to trigger the events that lead to the debut of the Beast.

Which brings us back to where we came in, with McCoy downing his own solution in order to deal with the attempt on his life. (For now, let's not dwell on the fact that McCoy seems unusually excited about the prospect of his formula being able to create mutants, something that would ordinarily give us pause. Instead, it appears to be no more than a simple plot device that sets up the time limit factor of McCoy's change.)  If you're thinking what I'm thinking--that McCoy didn't have to resort to the drastic option of using his formula on himself--you've caught on to Conway's own thoughts on the subject, as he appears to blame McCoy's urge to take action on the combination of his new, ground-breaking discovery and the man's ego, which has asserted itself during his time on his own. They're new facets to his character that he'll continue to explore and question, as he strives to come to terms with this new form he finds himself in.

After the Beast's confrontation of the undercover spy sent to kill him, he's now asking those hard questions back at his lab, with the only answer he receives being the mocking tick-tock of his clock that seems to remind him over and over that his fate is sealed.

Indeed, what was he trying to prove? We can only speculate at this point. If it was independence from the X-Men and making his own decisions, that would imply that he felt stifled or suffocated at their mansion. Otherwise, I'm drawing a blank--and perhaps that's why Conway's scene works as well as it does, since the Beast asks that question with a mixture of confusion and rage. Very often, one asks such a question knowing that no answer is likely to spring to mind.

What the Beast does know is that there's someone to hold accountable other than himself, someone who has been taken into custody thanks to the dying spy who named Maddicks as his accomplice.

The Beast comes within an inch of strangling Maddicks to death before stopping himself and recognizing that it wasn't Maddicks who was truly responsible for his change. And so he leaves the scene of carnage, and Maddicks with his life; but this story's level of intrigue is heightened with one final act that sets the stage for the new Beast and the stories to come, even as Maddicks' involvement ends here after all.

This "limited series" for the Beast would end after six more bi-monthly issues, the sixth being mostly a reprint that served to bring down the curtain. Conway's involvement would end with this opening tale, with Steve Englehart taking over the character for the duration and bringing more mainstream elements into the Beast's story such as the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants as well as the X-Men and the Juggernaut, though with the result of this new Beast almost immediately losing the air of independence and uniqueness that Conway had established for him. Whether Hank McCoy could stand on his own as a character in his own right--and whether the Beast could support a title of his own--would have been interesting to explore, with perhaps new villains introduced to challenge him rather than stacking his exploits with familiar faces from his past. However, for the purposes of enjoying this debut issue, it may be best to consider it on its own merits, which held the promise of something more.

Amazing Adventures #11

Script: Gerry Conway
Pencils: Tom Sutton
Inks: Syd Shores
Letterer: Sam Rosen

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