Thursday, April 19, 2012

Whither a Beast Solo Series?

I was going to do this as a Should Have Been, but I think I was already pushing the qualifications of that label with Guy Gardner, and I don’t want to be the guy who needs to sub-categorize every single post, so let’s go this way instead.

Earlier this week I finished up the first collected edition of New Defenders, something I had to read on pure curiosity if nothing else. The stories by J.M. DeMatteis were pretty good in a quirky/clever way, and the art was solid as well, but certainly the draw was seeing an all-time weirdo line-up including Gargoyle, Moondragon, Cloud, Valkyrie, Over-Mind and in-between-X-gigs Angel and Iceman sharing page time.

It’s intriguing to imagine how a book like this would go down nowadays, with no real A-listers and a kinda funky dynamic as far as the team. There’s no real POV character to speak of; the most likable character—Gargoyle—is an old man in a demon’s body, the female leads range from aloof in Valkyrie to obnoxious in Moondragon, and the X-Men alums are an odd fit.

However, there was a sort of stealth franchise character hidden amongst the group, and more often than not he’s what holds them together plotwise and possibly commercially as well. Given the title of this post, I’m sure you know I’m talking about Beast.

I call Beast a “stealth franchise character” (I just coined that) because he’s never had a headlining solo gig—the point of these musings—but he’s pretty close to universally beloved as far as comic book standbys go. From the minute he joined the Avengers, X-Men fans wanted him back, and ever since that happened, Avengers fans have clamored for his return. His pairing with Wonder Man, two journeymen players in the Marvel Universe if there ever was, is fondly remembered and similarly requested often.

Right now we’re getting the best of both worlds as Jason Aaron and Rick Remender are both having a lot of fun with him and getting appropriate mileage in Wolverine & The X-Men and Secret Avengers respectively. Aaron plays him as the absent-minded professor who gets lost in his work while still being able to scrap with Sabretooth while Remender has him as the furry angel on Hawkeye’s shoulder who also clowns around with Captain Britain and Venom.

You’ll rarely find a comics fan who will speak ill of Beast (maybe get passionate about whether he should look like a blue monkey or blue cat, but that’s another discussion); people seem pleased whenever he shows up and he’s been a crowd pleaser everywhere from the 90’s cartoon to “X-Men: First Class.”

So why, outside of a limited series now and again, has he never gotten to be a leading man?

I would actually say a lot of the things that make Beast an ideal component for any team book are probably why he’s never gotten the call up to a solo series.

Beast is a humorous character, and that’s been part of his DNA since his very early days. He’s a showman who masks or discards the alienation caused his physical oddities—at first, big appendages, later, blue fur—by drawing attention to himself through gags and self-deprecation. However, this plays best when he’s in a crowd of similarly over-the-top characters, the likes of whom inhabit the Avengers or X-Men. Whereas most civilians even in the Marvel Universe would flee in terror at the site of a hairy monster with an unruly cowlick doing a softshoe routine or bouncing off walls, Captain America or Wolverine can chuckle at it with dignity while Ms. Marvel and Kitty Pryde can roll their eyes at their adorably outspoken friend.

As comic book readers, we enjoy and have affection for Beast, well, because we’re comic book readers; we flip the page expecting weirdness and are also not under any delusions that we’re reading anything but fiction (well, most of us). Our attitudes are reflected in the Avengers and the X-Men, as somebody like Beast fits comfortably into their world so they can appreciate his good qualities rather than cringe at his teeth and claws.

While another big part of Beast’s character arc is that scratch the surface of his brilliance and bombasity and he’s still an outcase, that’s not a story we’d like to see played out all the time. It’s a trope worth busting out at appropriate intervals because it’s powerful (I still cringe when I think about how Cassandra Nova taunted Beast with his inhumanity in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men), but ultimately we want to see Hank McCoy triumph over bigotry and celebrate in the welcoming arms of his extraordinary friends.

A Beast solo series would almost inevitably have to place him in the “real world,” where the entire cast isn’t super heroes and their allies, so you’re going to get more “hates and fears him” stories than maybe you’d like; it upsets the balance of the character. The two easiest avenues to resolve any arc would be to have him gain acceptance among society—which isn’t that believable and kills the tension—or have him as usual seek comfort with his buddies, in which case when does it just become a team book anyway?

Surely there are other avenues, however, and I challenge skilled writers to find them.

Another hallmark of Beast is his way-above-average intelligence and the way he chooses to deploy it. Unlike the average comic book science smarty who either hides behind his intellect, holds it back, or becomes lost in it (I’m looking at Hank Pym, Peter Parker and Reed Richards, respectively), Hank flaunts it, specifically his ginormous vocabulary. Again, since the very first issues of X-Men, a running gag has been the brutish—and later truly bestial—Beast tossing out words you’d generally only find in a spelling bee either to irk and baffle his teammates or because that’s just what he does when he gets excited.

It’s worth noting from my recollection that Beast doesn’t get a lot of thought balloons or narration bubbles, he does most of his thinking out loud. I’d reckon that’s because either consciously or subconsciously most writers get that Hank’s particular brand of language is more entertaining when we get to see others react to it.

Again, this presents a hurdle for Beast the minute he steps outside the confines of the team environment. Does Hank think in the same way (and with the same vocabulary) as he speaks? Does it lose its charm when its not making Iceman or Hawkeye feel dumb? As readers, would we even understand what he’s saying? You don’t want to strip away this quintessential aspect of the character, but at the same time, when Beast’s speech patterns become the primary narrative of a story rather than witty interludes, does it lose its appeal?

Ultimately, that’s the dilemma I think blocking Beast from moving out of the team setting and into his own adventures: the degree to which a writer may have to smooth out his quirks in order to make him a palatable central figure and at what point he stops being him as a result. Do you really want to read about an everyman Hank McCoy who speaks like a normal guy and who’s accepted by a mundane supporting cast? I don’t think I do.

But as I noted a few paragraphs back, all of these “challenges” are in reality opportunities for the qualified writer. There’s not doubt Beast is an absolutely awesome character, and just because I have my reasons why I could see a solo series starring him floundering, doesn’t mean I don’t want to be proven wrong by the literaly hundreds (if not more) of people capable of doing so. In fact, I’d say that I’m writing this at all is an invitation to show me how wrong I am.

Heck, it’s not so long ago I thought we’d never see a believable and endearing romance for Beast outside of the tired “normal human who sees his inner beauty” junk with the likes of Trish Tilby that never went anywhere significant, but then Joss Whedon introduced Abigail Brand, Kieron Gillen refined their relationship, and now they’re among my favorite couples in comicdom.

I appreciate getting to read about Beast period, and there are some high quality stories featuring him coming out more than once a month at the moment, but he’s rich enough that that should be the ground level rather than the ceiling.