There was a time in the ‘90s when, if a fan was asked to name their top five X-Men, there was a good chance Hank McCoy would be among them. Maybe you thought Cyclops was too much of a boy scout, or Wolverine overexposed – but The Beast? Everyone seemed to like – even love – him. Not coincidentally, if you opened up a comic featuring the good doctor from this period, it’s likely you’d find him smiling – our fuzzy, blue bouncing ball brought some sunshine into the world of mutant drama.
This characterization was not new. Indeed, it can be said to be foundational to the character. Throughout his tenures with the original X-Men in the ‘60s and with the Avengers in the ‘70s, writers injected Hank with a quirky sense of humor that offset what might have otherwise been a two-dimensional character. Though his primary role in each team book was that of resident egghead, conversing in polysyllables and inventing contraptions to defeat Unus and the like, Hank could be a bit of a goofball. I’d wager that it was the absurdity of the image – of seeing a large, apelike man flip through calculus textbooks using his feet while quoting Shakespeare – that led Roy Thomas to play up Hank’s sometimes wacky humor. Future writers built on this characterization, and while Steve Englehart transformed him into a literal ‘beast’, highlighting a pathos that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had hinted at, I think the fondness fans have for Hank McCoy stems from his cheery nature. Who wouldn’t want to drunkenly sing English beat rock with Beast on the streets of New York, as he did with Wonder Man in the summer of 1980?
How things have changed. Today, if polled on their favorite of the major X-Men characters, Beast would easily rank among the lowest. In fact, I’d wager he’d take the bottom spot. It seems that even many of the people who once counted Hank among their favorites now count him among their least. I’m hard pressed to think of such a staggering reversal in popularity for any other comic book character. How did this happen? How did a character go from a fan favorite to arguably the most despised X-Men character?
We can see the roots of this shift, ironically, in what I consider to be the best X-Men run: Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. (I can hear you all now – of course I love Claremont!) Here, we saw Hank mutate yet again, and deal with issues pertaining to his self-esteem as a result of that mutation. This personal struggle was carried over into Whedon and Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men as well, where Hank continued to adjust to his new mutation while struggling to regain his confidence. In these stories, Hank’s overabundant joy was no longer one of the major identifiers of his character, and while the three other central aspects of his personality remained – his pathos, his intellect, and his ethics – the last of these began to come under increasing strain. These two comic series set the tone for much of what was to follow in the world of the X-Men. Indeed, twenty years later, writers are still reacting to Morrison’s New X-Men, using elements of that series to move the story of mutants forward. In short, all of this left its mark on The Beast.
Matters really began to deteriorate – for lovers of Hank at least – during Cyclops’s assertive actions to protect mutantkind. For over a decade, from 2005 to 2016, Scott was increasingly centered in stories of the X-Men. Even when stories weren’t about him, his decisions cast a long shadow on everything that happened in mutantdom. It brought out an edge in Cyclops that made him one of the X-Men’s most compelling characters, whether you agreed with him or not. To counterpoint Scott’s unconventional and controversial choices, some characters were used to show resistance against Cyke’s shifting and polarizing ideology (which in many ways was a balance between Xavier’s and Magneto’s perspectives). Hank McCoy was one of those characters.
Hank’s resistance to Cyclops’s pragmatic decisions was rooted in the character’s humanist outlook (if you’ll forgive the human-centric language!). Henry McCoy is a character committed to rational thinking, and it is this commitment which informs his belief that both humans and mutants will eventually come together in peace. Though this belief has come under strain in the past, enough so that it’s led Hank to despair or withdrawal, time and again he’s reaffirmed his belief in progress. Hank is, arguably, a positivist in the mold of Auguste Comte, whose motto Hank may very well share: “Love for the principle and Order for the base; Progress for the goal.”
To see an example of Hank’s humanism in action, let’s take a step back from the comics and look at one of the best versions of Hank McCoy, and also show what makes this character important in the first place: let’s look at Beast in X-Men: The Animated Series.
In the third episode of X-Men: The Animated Series, Magneto attempts to bust Beast out of jail, after he had been captured while rescuing a mutant from a government facility. Beast, however, politely refuses Magneto’s invitation. Instead, he states that he hopes to have the chance to plead his case to the court, placing his faith in human reason, which, for a humanist like Hank, must logically be the basis for human law. Things don’t go in Hank’s favor in court, but there is a nobility in Hank’s failing. It shows that he lives by his own principles, eschewing violence in favor of dialogue, and reactionary hate in favor of critical thinking, even when it costs him personally. Beast’s inclination towards nonviolence creates a strong contrast between Hank and the aggressive characters who surround him, both friend and foe. Though certainly willing to physically fight injustice and use violence when necessary, Beast has often shown himself – both in adaptations and in the comics – to live the dream Xavier espoused.
This largely unique perspective came in handy when writers were looking for natural foils for the more revolutionary Cyclops. In Kieron Gillen’s excellent run, Beast was used to show dissension among the X-Men, Beast’s own strong commitment to a particular set of values not aligning easily with Cyclops’s actions. However, because Gillen and the writers preceding him infused Cyclops with such dynamism, those characters critical of him often came off as grumbling complainers. They were used to offer different points of views, but those points of view – especially at first – rarely offered alternative responses to the dire situation mutants found themselves in, namely possible extinction. It was here that Hank became a reactive character, no longer a dynamic force himself, but merely reacting to a more interesting protagonist. It was also here that he began to invoke the ire of many readers.
Attitudes towards the character really soured when, during Brian Michael Bendis’s run, Hank brought back the original five X-Men from the past into the future, in hopes that a conversation with his younger self would jolt Cyclops away from his radicalism. Here, Hank had taken action, but the result wasn’t what he had hoped. Instead, Cyclops pressed on, and respect for Hank among the X-Men dropped. To make matters worse, when confronted by his friends regarding the ramifications of tampering with the space-time continuum, Hank became irate and left in a huff.
Since then, things have greatly deteriorated. Far from exhibiting wisdom, Hank is more often proven wrong than right. What’s worse, his ethical standing has gone from shaky to nonexistent – he has even committed war crimes. Hank McCoy is, I’m sad to say, no longer a hero. So what are we left with instead? A character often wrong, often dour, and outright criminal – an almost complete inversion from where the character was two decades ago. His pathos remains, but because of his actions he no longer elicits our sympathy. At best, we pity The Beast.
Hank currently appears in X-Force, by Benjamin Percy, Joshua Cassara, and Jan Bazaldua. It’s an excellent comic book, though I have trouble reading it because of my affection for the character. (For more on Hank in X-Force, check out this great review.) It has been argued that there’s no going back for Hank. But I disagree, simply because of the possibilities of comic book storytelling; so long as retcons and alien possession and mind control are possible, there are all manners of ways in which creators could absolve Hank, even if just partially. However, I think it should be asked whether Hank should even be redeemed in the first place. Why do so? What does he, as a hero, have to offer?
The answer lies in his name: Beast. As a kid, I vividly remember seeing the opening to the X-Men cartoon show in the 1990s. There, I met a friendly, intelligent monster. He was reading with glasses, like I did. I understood the message. Don’t judge by appearances. He may look like a “monster” but he was also intelligent and kind. Hank McCoy reminds us of this basic message. It’s simple, and it’s something that other characters like Nightcrawler and Beak do as well. I think it’d be a shame if, opening up an X-Men comic today, a teenager would meet Hank and find just another monster.
The X-Men world, because it is a serialized soap opera, is often subject to dramatic change. Things may very well dramatically change for Hank once more – he may even become a hero again. But if they don’t, if Hank is to become another cautionary tale of how the mind can’t replace the heart, I’ll still remember with fondness the simple lesson he taught me many years ago, and how he taught it with a smile.