Stars and garters
Blue and furry! Um … it needs a little discussion. In the 1960s, Hank McCoy began as the bruiser character of the original X-Men, soon altered to the bespectacled Big Word guy. In the early 1970s, during the cancelled doldrums of the X-Men, while they cast around looking for something to do with these characters, the Beast showed up in one of the anthology books, Amazing Adventures. Doing what? Well, Gerry Conway has his place in Marvel history, and opinions about him come from many perspectives and end in many conclusions. At the time, I perceived his career as an axe-wielding rampage through Marvel titles, leaving many characters deranged, comatose, critically ill, dead, or transmogrified for little payoff in terms of plot or theme. I think the infamous “it was just a Doombot” technique – that is, as a plot device, not just “Doom makes robots of himself” – may have been someone’s Hail Mary to recover the fellow from a Conway explosion. The Beast was lucky to survive his Conway transformation into a grey fuzzy guy with regeneration powers in AA #12, in a story which demonstrated no particular interest in him as a historical character. He fell into Englehart’s hands at that point and his fur turned black in #15. Let the record show that at this point Wolverine was merely an obscure throwaway appearance in the Hulk, who (I don’t think) showed any evidence of regeneration, whose points on the side of his head were clearly features of his mask, that he was not seen unmasked, and that he would not appropriate the Beast’s regeneration, coif, and a fair amount of the body hair until a couple of years later.
As with so many orphaned characters or plot threads, the Beast wound up in Englehart’s Avengers, with the added benefit that the author had fallen in love with him, evident in his new, wickedly-funny, barely-disguised active sex life and casual drug use, and in his complete lack of angst about being a mutant. When I got back into superhero comics in 1985 … bear in mind I’d “been away” for no more than four years, but they were very important years and felt like twenty … this was the best gift waiting for me, to see the Beast in the Avengers’ mansion for many issues. (the timing is hard to nail down … I think I remember the Cat/Hellcat sequence from before 1980, but didn’t see most of his Avengers adventures until much later)
I think I’ve also figured out why 70s Marvel is so hard to get into. The titles-crossover was so improvised, so contingent, and so chaotic that it’s literally impossible to follow the stories via collections. Writers tossed finish-it plot assignments to one another through personal cabals, subject to no oversight. You essentially have to follow the Avengers, Defenders, Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-in-One, Supervillain Team-Up, Marvel Premiere, and Marvel Spotlight, as well as sub-beta level titles like the Champions, and allegedly completely unrelated titles like about four or five monster titles, Warlock, and Killraven, simultaneously in completely chronological order of publishing.
Amazing Adventures falls right into this category. The big-name titles like FF, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, are almost completely incidental and generally poor, but with exceptional and unpredictable moments that tie into the stories or “stories” that emerged, and I do mean “emerged” in a kind of out-of-the-vat way. The Hulk is probably the only exception to the latter, in being at all readable in sequence. The net effect was literally like wading through a swamp which turns out to be magical but man is it messy.
I’m not surprising anyone by tagging the Avengers Beast as one of Marvel’s best characters, as he effectively became the 1970s Spider-Man: smart, agile, funny, irrepressibly sarcastic, and punching above his weight. Now he could be both erudite and alienated, but strangely right at home, comfortable in his skin, livin’ it up with dope and sex right there in the pages I swear. He was written smart as opposed to stupid-called-smart – this is during the 80s, too, when pompous and plodding was the superhero order of the day with very few exceptions. He was instead this shocking mix of goblin and dreamboat, human and animal, bad-ass and funnyman: pure action fun, yet with an odd undertone of unbridled violence and even odder, an overlay of self-awareness, as if he knows this whole thing is outrageous – Englehart’s dialogue and general situations for him always hit this combination precisely.
There’s also his inevitable shift from jet-black to uncompromisingly blue. He wasn’t alone in this. The four-color comics process made solid blacks labor-intensive and blue highlights often changed into blue-as-black over time, as artists and inkers don’t wnnt to mess around with filling stuff in, especially nuanced, fuzzy stuff, when they had a zillion more panels to do. (Don Thompson wrote a good article explaining the technology, “Blue is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” in The Comics Buyer’s Guide in the late 80s.) There’s quite a few years of Mary Jane switching between calling Peter “brown-eyes” and “blue-eyes” almost at random relative to what his eyes actually were in any given issue. I also remember hardcore Conan setting fans getting pissed in the letters pages because Belit, a Shemite, which is to say, Semitic, for which the best visual touchpoint is Arab, kept getting bright blue eyes like Conan’s famous peepers, about which Howard purists felt protective. I don’t remember anyone chiming in that many Levantine Arabs have blue eyes, but they might well have; those Hyborian Page letters could be very intense as there wasn’t any internet yet. It’s a good thing T’Challa was dubbed the Black Panther because a lot of the time, who’d know. For the Beast, sooner or later, sooner or later, the reference became verbal as well, as later writers simply saw a blue character and tossed it into the corresponding dialogue because why not. Now he “is” blue. I can’t say I liked that much, possibly only because I was an original reader of the “black and furry” moments, but liking it or not liking it isn’t the point.
In thinking about this, I think I got something! The key to canon, and its handmaiden continuity, is the idea that what is newly introduced changes what was previously understood to be. That’s counter-intuitive, because on the face of it, canon is about establishing what cannot be changed, but that’s not what actually happens. It creates instead a legalistic creative context for retconning, with the idea that anything in the past can be altered into a misunderstanding, a lie, or only part of the truth, in the service of whatever one is peddling now. Such stories tend to move things forward a little while revising the past a lot. Continuity is therefore not a matter of past constraint, but of justifying altering the past.
It differs profoundly from writing using past material as raw material and constraint, with its partners consistency, consequence, and comparison. That process – which I tend to think of as the default – is aggressively forward-moving, and typically doesn’t change the past although it may extensively utilize it and add to it. I run into this all the time, when I talk about some character or storyline and am “corrected” by someone referring to later-written comics which retconned them.
For example, who is Wanda’s and Pietro’s father? In the mid-1970s, the Whizzer; in the mid-1980s, Magneto. The former was written by compiling some things from past comics – the pre-Marvel Whizzer himself being most obvious, but also the in-Marvel history of the siblings from the X-Men and earlier Avengers and Fantastic Four stories. However, it didn’t change anything in the past history. Whereas the latter, to be established, had to revise the Whizzer narrative into a misunderstanding – “you ‘knew’ this, but now we ‘show’ that it was untrue” – on several levels, especially the new concept of Magneto as an anti-hero rather than nearly psychotic villain.
I grant there’s probably a grey boundary-zone between these categories in practice, and Thomas and Englehart’s stories certainly danced in it more than once, but I submit that generally, prior to 1980 or so, Marvel stories stayed in the “moving forward” category more often, but tended strongly toward the “revise the past” category after that.
Odd, isn’t it? The editorial philosophy purportedly designed to preserve the integrity (consistency) of the material actually facilitated the opposite: the logic being that if you could justify that the past material was alterable – a done deal considering that conspiracies and implanted memories are on-tap – then you could do it, and at least at the time, early in the haze of story-leaking hype, doing it seemed like good box office.
Okay, so how does this relate to the Beast again? It’s both the extensive changes Englehart made to his personality, upping or even inventing the humor and the counter-cultural stuff, and the completely logistic, almost certainly inadvertent blueness. These are both pretty radical, outweighing even the conversion to monster-furriness. But however much any of this changed the character, none of it required a revision of past events. That’s interesting to me, it helps me parse how simple accounts like “then the character changed from X to Y” can hide a wide variety of processes and reader experiences. In my head, imagine the 1960s Star Trek computer and Majel Barrett’s voice saying, “Working.”
Next: That’s “Mr. Faggot” to you