“Need to Know” & “Bad Karma” reviews

Need to Know (X-Men Unlimited, #10)Need to Know by Mark Waid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I like doing these “linked” reviews every so often. I find we can learn a lot more through comparison and contrast than we may have been able to by simply looking at a work in a vacuum, as was the case with Of Faith and Fable and X-Force Annual #3 as well as “Claws and Webs” just yesterday. Whenever I look ahead on my reading schedule up through the X-Men mythos and see two things that could — coincidentally or not — work well thematically as a review for any reason, I tend to hold off commenting on them until I can view them together. Such is the case with the two stories we’ll be looking at today, “Need to Know” by Mark Waid from X-Men Unlimited #10, and “Bad Karma” by Kieth Giffen, represented by the 1997 Beast three-issue miniseries.

Obviously out common thread today is the title character, the original X-Man known as The Beast, Hank McCoy. While there are similarities between the two works that we will get into, tonally they couldn’t be father apart, with one taking the position of a lighthearted (if dramatic) super-hero romp, and the other being an example of perhaps the darkest story ever to come out of the X-Men franchise to this point.

Let’s deal with the darker of the two tales first. “Need to Know” is actually less about our Beast as it is about the Dark Beast which has come over as a refugee from The Age of Apocalypse along with several other characters, including X-Man, Sugar Man, and Holocaust. Dark Beast has only recently become aware of his doppleganger, and in this issue seeks to find out more information on him so that be care effectively replace him as a member of the X-Men and hide in plain sight from Mr. Sinister.

Were this penned by a different author, it’s possible that this story would have simply featured the Dark Beast investigating members of Beast’s past, like his old girlfriend and his old parish priest. Instead, the Dark Beast, once he has the information he seeks, murders each informant in sadistic and menacing fashions. It is this that elevates the story, under Waid, from being a simple by-the-number story to being possibly the most horrific thrillers in Marvel Comics.

Think about what’s happening here. A man that looks exactly like you is hunting down significant people from your past, finding out things about you so that he can replace you, and then killing them. It is a terrifying concept, possibly the ultimate expression of the “mirror duplicate” story that horror and thriller fiction has toyed with for decades.

Beyond just being horrifying for the Beast, think how horrific this must be for the Dark Beast’s victims. There is no malice behind either of them, no judgement or ill will. Neither the ex-girlfriend nor the priest take issue with the Beast’s blue, furry appearance. He has been accepted for what and who he is, and is even respected as an Avenger, a scientist, and a man. Is this what drives the Dark Beast to kill them? We do not find out, and it is best left ambiguous. What;s important is: these victims are never informed as to why they are being killed. They die believing that it is Hank McCoy, their Hank McCoy, killing them.

The ongoing theme of what the Dark Beast discovers is where the story gets its title from. Each flashback explores the Beast’s curiosity, the need to understand how things work and why things are the way they are. He ‘needs to know.” This is also mirrored in the Dark Beast, who also is driven by the thirst for knowledge, but destroys to get it rather than creates.

The story’s climax occurs when the Dark Beast visits Hank’s parents for information, but due to his own ties to similar people in his own fractured universe, is unable to kill them. After driving away, he still takes an axe to a random passer-by from inside his truck, stating through his internal monologue that the “cycle requires a death.” This act elevates the Dark Beast from sadist and madman to the level of a sociopath and serial killer.

The story ends with Hank being kidnapped and sealed in, brick by brick, by his doppleganger: replaced and left for dead.

The Beast, Volume 1The Beast, Volume 1 by Keith Giffen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While the Dark Beast was still an active villain after the events of Onslaught, the events of the Beast limited series “Bad Karma” do not tie into him, nor are those events referenced. In the interim between these two issues Hank has been reinstated into the X-Men and the Dark Beast has been discovered and “outed.”

Marvel had a habit of releasing X-Men mini-series’s in the ’90s, and looking back at those it offered, the trend and the reason behind it are markedly obvious as market-testing vehicles. They would give Domino her own limited series and see if it did well to test the waters as to whether or not she could sustain her own series. Repeat with the Daydreamers. Repeat with Beast. When one, like Deadpool, is found to be successful, greenlight a second limited series to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. Once the market is proven, continue with the ongoing series. Rinse and repeat.

Nowhere is this strategy more obvious than the Beast limited series by Keith Giffen… but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The fact that marketing dictates a story doesn’t always mean it has to be a bad story, it is just all the more obvious when it is. A good writer with sufficient strengths can overcome the fact that a story did not come from a place of “I need to tell this tale” and still produce a piece of entertaining, enjoyable fiction.

Such is the case here. This is much less a Beast-centric story than “Need to Know,” and in fact may as well be called an X-Men story outright. It guest-stars former New Mutants Karma and Cannonball, and the story focuses strongly on plot threads left over from over ten years ago regarding the kidnapping of Karma’s twin siblings.

I will say this: if Giffen was mandated to write an X-Men miniseries, he did it in the smartest possible way. Rather than making up his own plots and characters, he used his opportunity at the mic to clean up dangling plot threads left hanging from way back since New Mutants #6, and even manages to partially absolve Karma of the murder of her brother from her very first appearance in Marvel Team-Up #100. He also manages to use Spiral and the Body Shoppe in such a way as to facilitate the action taking place away from the main setting of the X-Mansion without having to explain why, but also uses Spiral’s abilities sparingly enough that the story does not devolve into “there are no stakes because anything can happen,” as many of the stories involving the Mojoverse characters tend to do.

The only negative to this story is that it’s not really about the Beast. It’s about Karma, but Karma isn’t nearly recognizable enough to warrant a title name. So it seems as though the story was written in such a way that any X-Man could be plugged into the role of the protagonist and it would still make sense. I don’t see any reason that Beast couldn’t be swapped out for Wolverine or Cable or Storm and have no effect on the story whatsoever.

That said: the dialog is tailored to him after he is plugged in, and he is enjoyable to read and watch. Rather than punish Giffen for this use of formula, I commend him for using formula so well! It takes real writing chops to quickly tailor a story to one’s needs like that.

As mentioned, the only similarity between the two is that in “Bad Karma” Beast does indeed again fight a doppleganger version of himself, but again, it is one that was not intended to be a reflection of the Dark Beast but one that could have been plugged in to fit whichever X-Man fit the mold.

Full marks for all involved. Sad that it didn’t lead to an ongoing series. The Beast is a whimsical companion to spend a few pages with.

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