Here’s another mini-review from The Comics Journal. I really like the TwoMorrows books I’ve seen; those guys do a good job. A while back I posted about the shittiness of superhero books, but I was careful to limit my comments to books about “superheroes in general.” TwoMorrows puts out books about particular superheroes, books by people who find those characters interesting and don’t mind sweating a bit to produce useful material about them.
There’s a downside, though: being fans, the TwoMorrows people are frequently a bit uncritical. The Blue Beetle Companion is my favorite book from the company because no one can really be a fan of Blue Beetle. To consider him is to automatically become a dispassionate observer. And what a history he has to observe!
Blue Beetle started as a knockoff of the Green Hornet. But a hornet is menacing, a beetle isn’t. When the Golden Age hoodlums reeled back from their hideout’s table, aghast at the sight of a beetle emblem, it was like they had been unnerved by the sign of a broom or a tea cup or a basset hound. Nobody had thought this matter through because no one had thought about anything at all involved in Blue Beetle (or “the” Blue Beetle, as he then was). Dick Giordano was present for the creation, more or less, but isn’t quite sure who gets responsibility. “It wasn’t important enough in the day to support a conversation,” he says.
Blue Beetle drifted along through the 1940s because Victor Fox wanted to publish comic books and didn’t worry much about their contents. He popped up again in the 50s, then the 60s. At least the 60s version (Ted Kord) was masterminded by Steve Ditko, so his fingers resembled a bed of kelp waving on the sea floor. But the best Ditko could do in rethinking Beetle was to make him like Batman, and pretty soon Blue Beetle had been canceled again. The poor soul had to wait another 20 years before Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis made something distinctive out of him. In the past, a superhero was always supposed to be the guy, but by the ’80s a hero could be just one of the guys, even a class clown. Blue Beetle, being so nondescript, slid right into the niche and finally acquired some life.
The Companion traces the whole dilapidated story. Christopher Irving’s syntax sometimes goes missing, but his research gets whatever goods can be got. Rich J. Fowlks does a nifty book design, and the supply of photos and reproductions is quite lavish. Blue Beetle functions here as a pop-cultural dust ball around which develops a fine coating of lint: posters for unwanted colas, photographs of forgotten actors. The book does leave unanswered the central question of why Blue Beetle keeps popping up and not the Flame or the Green Mask. The answer, I guess, is that the other heroes are something and Blue Beetle is very close to nothing: a catchy but meaningless name, a costume so standard it’s archetypal. In the end Beetle is a default character, a function of the industry’s need to generate product with a minimum of thought. No wonder he’s still around.