Tuesday, August 31, 2010

I recently learned something new: Beast Boy was originally totally awesome

Here's a brief history of the DC Comics character Beast Boy: Introduced in a 1965 issue of Doom Patrol by writer Arnold Drake and artist Bob Brown, the green-skinned teenager with the ability to transform into any animal joined the ranks of "The World's Strangest Heroes." He survived the cancellation of the title (and the deaths of the rest of team), and in 1980 he changed his name to Changeling and became part of the cast of Marv Wolfman and George Perez's New Teen Titans, one of the decade's bigger hits and more influential books.

During the soap operatic run of the book, and various iterations of Titans comics that followed, Beast Boy/Changeling had the sort of biography typical of post-Silver Age superheroes.

While on the Titans, he became a wise-cracking, comedy-relief character, only his bravado masked his insecurities about being lame, green and less awesome than Robin and the cooler Titans. He became tight with Cyborg, whined a lot, had a rather ill-fated attraction to Terra, the teenager who would betray the Titans team in one of their more famous storylines.

After the run peaked, Changeling grew a mullet, became an evil villain, went off in to outer space, returned to earth to help start a new iteration of the Titans (1999's Titans), changed his name back to Beast Boy, left the team to have his own miniseries (2000's Beast Boy), founded a new Titans team that only appeared once in a single special (Titans West, in Titans Secret Files and Origins #2), joined another new version of the Titans (2003's Teen Titans), left to join a new version of the Doom Patrol that didn't have its own book, joined another new version of the Titans (2008's Titans), and then left that Titans team to re-join the Teen Titans team that he'd left to join the Doom Patrol.

By the time I had started reading comics, the glory days of the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans were ending, Changeling looked like this, and, from his appearances during crossovers and in the back issues I'd find in fifty-cent bins, I gathered that he was basically a lame character design with a visually interesting superpower who told corny jokes, moped about being green and was secretly in love with Cyborg.

I certainly didn't see any indication that, when he was first introduced in the pages of Doom Patrol, Beast Boy was totally awesome.

I owe this discovery to Showcase Presents: The Doom Patrol Vol. 1, which reprints the six issues of My Greatest Adventure, the title the DP first appeared in, and the first seventeen issues of The Doom Patrol. These include the first three comics to feature Beast Boy.*

The issues Beast Boy appear in are split into two stories apiece, and he's featured in one of each of the stories in each issue. What's his deal? Basically, he breaks into the DP's headquarters to kick their asses, tell them all off and then get them to make him a member.

It's maybe not the most effective way to join a team, but it does sound a little like the sort of plan a teenager might come up with, and it's certainly a lot more fun to read than one of those try-out issues you see on a semi-regular basis in DC super-team comics these days.

I like the tossed-off, cavalier, casual approach that Drake and Brown (and, in the second and third appearances, Bruno Premiani) take to introducing the character. There's something, at the risk of sounding corny myself, precious about the first appearance of a new superhero in old comics. At that early point, the throwing-stuff-at-the-wall-and-waiting-to-see-if-it-sticks stage, of many long-lived superhero's histories, there's a sort of danger about the characters. The creators have no idea if the character is going to appear a second, third, 33rd or 333rd time, let alone if they'll be starring in movie serials or TV cartoons and selling sticker, toys and t shirts. Nor do they really care. It's simply a matter of trying something new and seeing what happens (This happens a few times in this volume; not only in the introduction of the original Doom Patrol, but about halfway through the book the character Mento is introduced, tested for a while, and then forgotten for the next few hundred pages).

Anyway, the plan with Beast Boy seems to have been to introduce an asshole teenager to the team. As I said, his plan for getting on the team is to break into DP HQ. On his first attempt he trashes a room, a mess that Robotman reacts to by declaring, "H-H-Holy Hannah! What hit this joint--a Beatles fan convention?" Brown lovingly renders the trashed room, including little details like a spare Robot Man head on the mantle, with an axe in it, and a framed portrait of Rita "Elasti-Girl" Farr on the back wall, tilted and a mustache drawn on its face.

Beast Boy comes back the next night, and the trio use their fantastic powers to capture him. Here's the first panel in which he actually appears: Then he turns into a lion, mauls Robotman while calling him an overgrown jukebox and an "Alumni-numb skull," turns into a kangaroo to make a fool of Negative Man and call him an old man and turns into a fish to elude Elasti-Girl, with a "hang up your crutches, Grandma!" When they finally pin him down, he calls the bearded Professor Caulder Santa Claus.

Since he's a "freak" like them, the DP let him tag along on a mission, protecting some jewels from some high tech jewel thieves, and then send him on his way, with a box at the end cajoling readers to write National Periodicals and let them know if they want to see more Beast Boy.

In the next issue, he walks into headquarters, makes fun of the Doom Patrolers, then fights Robotman for a page before storming out. This time we learn the extremely complicated origin of Beast Boy, and the Doom Patrol come to him, when his amazing (and scientifically suspect) superpowers are used as the fuel for a mad scientist's plan to resurrect dinosaurs to help him pull off bank heists.

And in the next issue, Beast Boy learns his legal guardian has taken out a hit on him, so he goes to the Doom Patrol to demand their help, and fights Robotman for another page. Before they can look into his story about his foster father trying to off him, the Chief sends them all off to fight Kranus, The Emperor of Robots, a giant robot with a crown and scepter whose "every part...can live and kill--separately!"

When they do investigate Beast Boy's claims about a hit being put on him, they don't find any evidence to support his claim, and basically tell him to fuck off. (Negative Man's actual words are, "Now get off our backs and stay off," but that's 1966, Comics Code Authority-approved way of saying, "Fuck off, kid").

So that's what Beast Boy was like at the beginning, apparently—an annoying, know-it-all, disrespectful a-hole teenager whom the Doom Patrol hated on sight and tried to avoid.

Another awesome thing about the original Beast Boy appearances, beyond the fact that he acted like an all-ages version of one of James Kochalka's SuperF*ckers characters, was the way his transformations were portrayed. From at least Perez on—and perhaps much earlier—Beast Boy's animal transformations tended to look like realistically rendered animals, only green. But Brown and Premiani draw each animal he transforms into with elements of his human appearance—they all have either his hair cut, or his nose and eyes, or, in a few cases, his whole head. He turns into animals, but never more than, like, 95% animal. He always retains enough of himself to look like himself.

I liked this a lot better, perhaps in large part because it was different than the way his transformations are usually portrayed in comics. That is, although this is the original, 45-year-old way of illustrating Beast Boy turning into animals, it seemed fresher, because it's so different from the way these acts have been illustrated over the course of the last 30 years.


Finally, the second Beast Boy appearance features a scene with an exploding dinosaur: As awesome as a scene of superheroes throwing high explosives into a dinosaurs mouth and blowing it up from the inside is, it's worth noting that, like so many awesome things in comics, Jack Kirby did it first.


*I should perhaps note that I'm talking about the comic book version of Beast Boy. It was apparent from the very first episode of 2003 cartoon series Teen Titans that that Beast Boy was awesome. He was wonderfully designed (I love the little snaggle tooth), wonderfully voiced and was now an honest-to-God vegetarian cartoon superhero.


tomorrowboy 2.6 said...

Yeah, I loved the cartoon Beast Boy too. Go vegetarians!

googum said...

"Mento is introduced, tested for a while, and then forgotten for the next few hundred pages."

Because Mento sucks, and I hate him.

Lady Timedramon said...

Want to see how awesome Beast Boy is?

Check out www.garfieldlogan.com

Unfortunately the events over the last couple of years have pretty much depressed me too much to update. I read summaries and get too upset at the character assassination he's had to endure since the end of 52.

Earlofthercs said...

I think a lot of people work under the assumption (in real life as well as in writing) that `kids' only act angry because they're lonely/misunderstood/emotionally vulnerable... and so a lot of characters that start out as aggressive turn mopey when a different writer tries to `develop' their character.