Blue Beetle Companion
by Christopher Irving
When the Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, was shot in the head and killed in the kickoff to DC Comics’ big summer “crossover event” Infinite Crisis in 2005, editors and sundry other head honchos were surprised by the ferocity of response from longtime fans and readers. Though they were at pains to stress that Beetle went out like a hero (indeed he did) and a new Blue Beetle was in the works to hopefully sate the fans (and indeed he was), the onetime Charlton Comics’ mainstay and Justice League International linchpin is still sorely missed by fans and the somewhat ignominious end did not sit well. Even if Kord never does return to the four-color pages (since when does dead equal dead in comics?), the fine people of Twomorrows have done what DC thus far hasn’t bothered to and given him a sendoff/memorial in style with their latest release, The Blue Beetle Companion, a volume that’s sure to please longtime fans and teach newcomers/young’uns a thing or two about the bwa-hah-hah guy’s legacy that they never knew.
Actually, it turns out there’s a whole lot more to the saga and history of the Blue Beetle mantle, a twisting tale that involves a host of different costumes, secret identities, publishers, formats, writers, artists and even a warship over a period of about sixty years. Yep, I have to doff my cap to Companion author and Comic Book Artist associate editor Christopher Irving. The kid really put in his work on this one, wearing the hats of historian, enthusiast, interviewer and yes even investigative journalist with singular focus and intent. You think you know the Blue Beetle? Fanboy, you have no idea.
To properly begin the convoluted ballad of the Blue Beetle, Irving takes us back to the beginning… actually the beginnings of the comics industry as we know it, and the singular figure of Victor Fox, head of Fox Publishing. A hustler in every sense of the word, Fox was busily trying to beat Detective Comics and their “Superman” at their own game, and make some money out of what he saw as a publishing niche ripe with potential. To that end, he commissioned his own line of “mystery men,” one being a Green Hornet “homage” named the Blue Beetle, a chain-mail clad avenger of crime who was a flatfoot beat cop by day, created by one “Charles Nicholas.” But even that part of the story is not straightforward, as the Charles Nicholas moniker was a composite alias Fox forced writers and artists to use with many of “his” characters. The parentage of the Blue Beetle has been traced back to a host of disparate creators including Jerry Iger, Will Eisner, and Chuck Cuidera, among others. Though the origins of Blue Beetle were dubious and the character often suffered from bad storytelling and worse art during his Fox incarnation — often gaining and losing various superpowers seemingly at the drop of a hat — still Victor tried out a number of very innovative advertising cross promotional gambits on his flagship character including a radio show, a daily and Sunday comic strip (done by Jack Kirby!), a fan club, cola tie-ins and toys (often beating his competitors to the punch, although with less success). The story of Blue Beetle at Fox seems to be a case of reach exceeding grasp, and hampered by poor quality and business woes post-Wertham, the Blue Beetle made his last appearance in 1948 — a nearly ten year run in various titles. But though this was the end of Fox, Blue Beetle would soon return.
The Charlton Publishing Company would soon purchase the rights to the Blue Beetle, and so Officer Dan Garret was back on the case as soon as 1954. However, it became clear that in this “Silver Age” of comics, the “Golden Age” Blue Beetle was a man out of time. So the decision was made by editor Dick Giordano and Spider-Man creator (and fresh from Marvel exile) Steve Ditko to retool the Blue Beetle concept. Ditko did just that in spades — the new Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, was sheared/shorn of all superhuman and mystical aspects (indeed, the Blue Beetle’s scarab was buried literally under tons of rock in his first adventure), and made to rely on his wits, technological know-how and acrobatic strength — an everyman superhero, who owed more than a little to the Ditko-Lee characterization of another misfit bug-themed hero. Bizarrely, Ditko’s run only lasted for about five issues, before the title folded and Ditko went off to DC to create Hawk and Dove and explore his own, unkinder, ungentler take on superheroics via Ayn Rand’s objectivisim with Mr. A. So 1968, R.I.P. Blue Beetle? Nope.
Purportedly as a gift to Dick Giordano, DC Comics brass purchased the rights to the classic Charlton stable of heroes (Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Question, et al) and the Blue Beetle got a new lease on life, ironically enough in light of what was to come, in the first issue of DC’s then-big crossover event, Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985. He was duly launched into his own title, which lasted for a respectable 24 issues before being cancelled. The Beetle found himself in limbo again, until… Enter Keith Giffen. Yep, Giffen cast Blue Beetle as one of the central characters in his lighthearted reimagining of the Justice League, Justice League International. And it was a runaway hit, largely due to the comic interplay between Blue Beetle and fellow comic foil, Booster Gold. Aside from that, two highly-regarded JLI sequel miniseries and a short run in the Birds of Prey series, that was it for the Blue Beetle. That is, until the gunshot heard ’round the world.
Irving grills the creators responsible for Kord’s death and speaks to the creative team about their intentions for the new Blue Beetle, with intriguing design notes by artist Cully Hammer. The book ends with an illuminating roundup of alternate reality version of the Blue Beetle by such luminaries as Alex Ross, and didja know that Watchmen‘s Night Owl was based on the Blue Beetle? The visual extras, a Twomorrows mainstay, making a book as heavily illustrated as it is informative — after all this is comics, a visual medium — are even better than usual. Concept drawings, classic covers, sketches, creator photographs, unused art, and full pages of original art rub shoulders with a sequence of strips from Kirby’s newspaper Blue Beetle, a full Golden Age story and a radio script from the Blue Beetle program.
It’s interesting to see that even as this book was presumably birthed as a memorial for Ted Kord, Blue Beetle companion almost ends up making the forceful case that Blue Beetle is more than one man, and more an iconic symbol or mantle that can be, and should, adapted to the needs of the time. And let the criminals of that time beware.