|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.
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).