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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

That Time The Beast Lost His Brains

I do strongly recommend this as an enjoyable superhero story, my kvetching about the disability representation notwithstanding.

Finding disability studies-themed readings of comics is difficult, so if I'm to keep this blog around (and I want to do so), that's what I'll focus on. So without further adieu;

It's a common plot in any series where the hero has a superhuman ability, to take away that superhuman ability and force the hero to cope with being brought down to a normal level. For the superhero themselves, that's a disability (as disability itself is a social construct; the one-eyed man being king in the land of the blind, to use an old cliche), because their normal involves having that superhuman ability. Of course, the writers usually aren't aware that they're touching on any disability themes when they do these stories, even when they take the story to such extremes that it rings painfully true for some members of the audience with similar kinds of experience. Case in point: Hank "the Beast" McCoy's loss of intelligence in the late 80's X-Factor (original X-Men team) comics.

I'll keep the continuity mentions to the foot notes so that the meat of the essay will be as readily understandable as possible, even for non-comic readers. All you need to know about the story is a basic run-down of the Beast's history. He was born Hank McCoy, a mutant with superhuman strength, agility, and prehensile toes, as well as a super-genius intellect that contrasted his animalistic powers. In his adolescence Hank started his superhero career as an original X-Man, and later launched a solo career with a new, blue fur-covered look he acquired from foolishly testing a mutant extract potion on himself. After joining various superhero teams (including a few reunions with the X-Men), he eventually rejoined the original X-Men when they formed X-Factor*. In what appeared to be an effort to court original X-Men fans' nostalgia, Hank was kidnapped in the second issue by a mad scientist who tested an anti-mutant drug on him, which caused him to lose the fur (but not his strength).

Hank kept his passable-as-human look for a while, but encountered a cruel twist of fate when he was infected by a villain named Pestilence. Pestilence's plagues interacted with the earlier anti-mutant drugs to overactivate his immune system, causing his physical strength to increase exponentially with each exertion. However, every time Hank used his mighty muscles, he not only became stronger, but also stupider-- apparently his power was "drained from his mind", or some other such pseudo-scientific explanation, as though he were an RPG character who sacrificed the INT stat to boost the STR stat. Over the course of a single battle Hank went from a PHD bio-chemist with the strength of a gorilla to...effectively the Incredible Hulk, a brutish man-child with the strength to lift buildings but with a sub-normal level of cognition.
From a Fantastic Four tie-in issue, where Hank's brain damage was used to remind the deformed Sharon Ventura that she shouldn't complain because she still had her mind. The "Inspirationally Disadvantaged" trope, I suppose.

This kind of degenerative neurological condition would normally raise a lot of different questions. For example, what parts of Hank's brain were damaged by his over-active immune system? Was he losing basic cognitive processing power? Was he losing memories? Were his motor skills affected? Was the damage in terms of the "data" inscribed upon his grey matter, or was he actually causing physical injury to his head? And how far would Hank's intellectual deterioration progress? Would he end up in an animalistic state, or would he just become completely vegetative?

I had all these questions when I read these old issues for the first time. Unfortunately, none of them were answered. Instead, we got nearly a year's worth of comics where Hank was a bumbling dolt, while his teammates gave only token attempts to discourage him from further exerting himself. While the rest of the cast was in the midst of their own typical X-Drama, Bobby "Iceman" Drake made the only overt attempts to help Hank navigate the world, such as covering for him during TV interviews. Apparently nobody bothered to take Hank to a doctor, especially not a superhuman doctor like Reed Richards or Hank Pym (the kind of people who could actually do something).

Ultimately this strangely overlooked sub-plot was resolved in the most convenient way possible, when Hank was infected for a third time-- this time by a villainess named (appropriately) Infectia, who'd been dating Bobby so she could make him her super-powered love slave. When Bobby ignored Hank's warnings over Infectia's true agenda (thinking that Hank was too stupid to know anything about anything, even though anyone not thinking exclusively with their dick could've seen that a woman named INFECTIA was bad news), Hank jumped in and took a kiss from her meant for Bobby, which wreaked havoc with his physiology, but ultimately caused him to revert to his pre-X-Factor blue form, regain all his lost intelligence, and keep all the strength he'd gained**. (Somehow).

This story occurred during the critically acclaimed run of Louise Simonson and her husband Walt Simonson, on script and art respectively. Presumably the whole physiological rigamarole was a convoluted means to make the Beast blue and furry again. Unfortunately, it fell into the trope of the temporary disability-- the impairment that only lasts an episode/issue or two so the hero can learn a lesson. And even then, it's not clear that Hank really needed to learn anything. Was losing his intellect a punishment for the sin of pride in returning to his more attractive human form? Because other than appreciating the fact that he didn't look like the Cookie Monster with a Flock of Seagulls haircut anymore, Hank never showed any arrogance over his transformation-- largely because he was barely passable as human to begin with, forced to wear special footwear to suppress his huge, prehensile feet. Was this meant to show off his heroism, proving that Hank would sacrifice anything to do the right thing? I can buy that explanation, because it is a tremendous loss-- even though superheroes risk their lives on a daily basis, lives mean less to most people than their reputations and their legacies. Especially for one of the world's sharpest minds, and one of the few mutants to enjoy public celebrity not tied into international terrorism, to be reduced to Benjy from the Sound and the Fury.

Hank inelegantly blubbering to reporter Trish Tilby, who actually started to become romantically interested in Hank here-- to the point where she was alarmed when he returned to being a hyper-intellectual blue ape. They still dated for years, until Hank further mutated into a giant blue lion in Grant Morrison's run. Being a giant cat seems an arbitrary place for her to draw the line.

It's genuinely heart-wrenching to see how hard Hank has it with such limited brain power, especially in a scenario where the villain Apocalypse tricks Hank into sending a giant spaceship crashing into New York. And it's moving to hear Hank say that he'll do whatever he can to put things right, even if he loses what little mind he has remaining. But ultimately the story ignores the intellectual disability and all the loaded implications therein, because Hank's intellectual degradation is immediate, plateaus at the level of the Savage Green Hulk, and mostly just keeps him in the background of the main storylines. The Fall of the Mutants is considered a seminal work in the X-Canon, but how many people remember it for the master plans of Apocalypse and the rebirth of Angel as the brainwashed, metal-winged Archangel? And how many remember it for Poor Dumb Hank? Besides me, of course.

*(The original X-Factor consisted of the original X-Men pretending to be a human anti-mutant agency, promising to "control" the mutant threat while secretly rescuing and training young mutants. As many noted before me, this was the stupidest fucking premise ever for an X-Book, because the anti-mutant PR did so much harm that the few mutants X-Factor helped under their cover didn't begin to make up for it. Thankfully, the Simonsons gradually did away with this premise, and by the end of this particular storyline, X-Factor outed themselves to the public-- with surprising and well-deserved public adulation for saving the city from Apocalypse.)
** (Of course, it was soon forgotten that Hank still had that boosted strength, probably because he was really damned strong already).


  1. The Simonson-Simonson run on X-Factor seems to live in fandom's collective memory on the basis of "Fall of the Mutants" - which, sadly, omits a lot of other great stories from their tenure (my favourite being the issue where Cyclops almost kills Jean, thinking she's Phoenix/Madelyne).

    Even then, "Fall of Mutants" is best remembered as Apocalypse's finest hour as a villain (it's all downhill from there) and the introduction of Death/Archangel. I love seeing just how far Simonson-Simonson were willing to push their cast into a corner - between Caliban & Angel switching sides and Beast & Iceman becoming victims of their own powers while Cyclops & Jean can barely communicate... the turning point, where Cyclops & Jean have sex, then declare they're joint leaders of X-Factor and will get the group back on track, is a pretty great moment.

    The treatment of Beast and his powers beginning with X-Factor is a sturdy example of how the desires of fandom and nostalgia make it difficult to establish a new status quo for popular characters, especially when the new status quo involves an impairment. Time and again, fans, creators and fan-creators treat impairments as though it were a subplot to fix. Every time this happens, it only encourages fans to anticipate the moment their favoured one will be "cured" (when Chuck Austen blinded Gambit, did anyone seriously think it would last?). For instance...

    Hawkeye being cured of his hearing loss by Kurt Busiek.

    Professor X being cured of his crippled legs by Chris Clarmeont, then "un-cured" by Jim Lee, then re-cured by Ed Brubaker.

    Tony Stark having heart surgery courtesy of Archie Goodwin (only to become weaker as a result); later, being crippled by Bob Layton & David Michelinie then cured soon after, only to suffer major nervous system damage via John Byrne & Len Kaminski (actually, Tony tends to be pretty good at suffering consequences for his cures).

    Tony Stark becoming poisoned by the Iron Man's armour's radiation via Kurt Busiek who promptly fixed it about two months later (good work nipping it in the bud, we were almost interested in the idea).

    Regressing the Beast to his 1960s appearance might have been nostalgia on Bob Layton's part... then again, it might've easily been done to support Layton's (baffling) concept of the founding X-Men posing as humans hunting mutants. Restoring Beast's good looks (such as they were) was largely consequence-free and rid the Beast of any lingering angst about his appearance, so he was definitely due for some personal troubles when Simonson-Simonson introduced the dumbing-down plot.

    In hindsight, we look at the plot from Pestilence's infection to Infectia's cure as a single story and presume it was the Simsonsonses intent all along to put Hank through hell so he could "earn" back his blue fur. Since there didn't seem to be a point where Hank's intelligence would hit rock bottom (which, I suppose would leave him vegetative?), obviously it had to stop at some point; personally, I would have liked to see him hit his lowest ebb in "Fall of the Mutants," but subsequently not get any dumber (or stronger); going forward with Hank coping with a learning disability could have been interesting, especially with the New Mutants and X-Terminator kids hanging around (kids certainly aren't the nicest to people with "defects"). Long-term, it could have also given Iceman some solid character growth as he'd have to be more mature to make up for all the brainpower Hank would normally provide.

    ...And if wishes were horses, we'd all be eatin' steak; I like the "Retarding Henry" plot as it is; I would have been happy to read more of it, but even if the Simonsons had kept Hank's intelligence down until the end of their run, surely by the time Jim Lee took control of the franchise he'd have been restored to smart, blue and furry.

    1. (cont.)
      Fandom's desire to see characters killed or maimed (because they want assurance the story they're reading "matters") but also resurrected and healed (because they don't want the fictional world to become unrecognizable... uh, too late) prevents serious explorations of super heroes facing impairment, not unless the character was originally designed with such an impairment. No one seriously wants to cure Daredevil's blindness or Storm's claustrophobia; Xavier is sometimes allowed to walk, but often forced back into his chair; Bucky having a cool cybernetic arm totally makes him surviving an exploding drone plane seem believable; Tony Stark's original heart injury is long gone, but writers keep searching for some new hang-up as a spiritual successor (usually settling for his alcoholism). I don't think many fans or creators seriously consider what they're doing when they impair or cure a recurring character (or when they kill/resurrect, which is another problem) and what message it might send (the world's greatest archer can't be deaf!).

  2. Thanks for commenting in such detail, MH! I appreciate the thought you put into those comics.

    The suggestions you make is exactly why I'm okay wanting more out of this story; the moments we got of Dumb Hank trying to navigate the now infinitely-complicated world just come across as hints of a truly enthralling narrative, not just a team book's B-Plot/C-Plot. The point about Iceman is especially important, because Hank got himself infected saving Bobby, but there wasn't any explicit acknowledgement of Bobby's sense of responsibility-- especially since he pretty much wrote off Hank as a burden during the whole Infectia thing. Also, Hank's interactions with the X-Terminator kids were only scarcely addressed (such as a memorable moment where Boom-Boom acts in disgust over seeing Hank in his addled state, then Rictor tells her off about how Hank got sick in the line of duty, and it could've happened to her-- except nobody would notice if Boom-Boom lost her brains).

    But yeah, the Simonsons' X-Factor was overall brilliant, especially Cyclops going completely nuts after Madelyne's apparent "death" to the point where he was literally hallucinating.