Keith Giffen, John Rogers, Cully Hamner, et. al.
Blue Beetle: Shellshocked
DC Comics
Color, 144 pages
ISBN: 1-4012-0965-3

This latest iteration of Blue Beetle is a riff on the old Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, complete with reluctant high-school protagonist. Since Ditko was involved with the creation of Blue Beetle as well, this borrowing seems appropriate. Moreover, the writing team tweaks the tropes enough to keep things interesting. Jaime (our hero) is a more level-headed, and less despised figure than Peter Parker was. His relationship with his family is more stable, too, and we’re treated to a delightfully natural “coming-out” scene in which Blue Beetle somewhat shame-facedly reveals his secret identity to his parents. At first his Mom is upset; then she takes him to the hospital for X-rays.

The series is full of such nice touches. As you’d expect from a Keith Giffen project, the story-telling is well-paced and the dialogue sparkles. The border barrio setting isn’t entirely convincing, but it’s a nice change from the usual Anglo, big city super-hero world nonetheless. And I also appreciate the creative teams’ refusal to indulge in either good-evil Manicheanism or the ruthless “realism” typical among major titles. Instead, most everyone in Blue Beetle has complex and understandable motivations. The main villain, La Dama, for example, is both a crime lord and Jaime’s friend’s aunt. She’s involved in various shady plots (such as baby-kidnapping), but she loves her niece, and she’d just as soon negotiate with Jaime as attack him.

In fact, nobody in the series seems especially interested in fighting — and as a result the super-battles are peculiarly unmotivated. Almost every clash is the result of misunderstandings, perhaps most preposterously in a cameo by a group of Ents (yes, from Tolkein) who unaccountably believe that Blue Beetle has “wronged the green.” Unfortunately, these half-hearted set-pieces suck up a lot of space. Jaime’s parents are absent from most of the last part of the book, for example, even though they are much more compelling (to me and I believe to the creators) than the obligatory super-heroics.

The real weak point, though, is the art, which is standard-issue mainstream fare — that is, dreadful. Hamner’s drawing is mediocre, his design of the Blue Beetle armor is butt ugly, and his layouts are boring when they’re not an utter mess. To make matters worse, the computer coloring somehow manages to be both garish and muddy. Overall, the visuals have to be endured rather than enjoyed, which makes this a hard comic to recommend, despite the writing’s pleasures.

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This review originally ran in the Comics Journal.