Blue Beetle and the Last Days of the Bronze Age

Discussions of DC Comics in the 1980s tend to focus on works like The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and Crisis on Infinite Earths. That’s fitting, because all of these were game changers for the industry, ushering in fundamental shifts in both creativity and content. These were serious works that elevated the general public’s ideas on what a comic book could be. For several years after Crisis DC revamped several series to be darker and grittier. Classic characters like Hawkman, Aquaman, and Green Arrow were given bold new directions in their respective series or miniseries. However, what gets lost in the years since that era is that not all of DC’s books followed this prevailing trend. Several continued to tell stories that fell more in line with the lighthearted, late-Bronze Age style that supposedly came to an end around 1985-86. In actuality, it would take several years for a new style of comics writing to more comprehensively take hold, and it’s in those intervening years where the series Blue Beetle, among others, carried the torch for DC’s Bronze Age approach to storytelling.

Blue Beetle ran for twenty-four issues from 1986–88 and was written by Bronze Age stalwart Len Wein and beautifully illustrated for the majority of the run by Paris Cullins. The entire series, along with Secret Origins, Vol. 2, #2 (featuring the origins of the first two Blue Beetles and gorgeous art from Gil Kane), are collected in Showcase Presents: Blue Beetle, which is where I read it. I knew about the series as a child but limited funds led to the difficult decision to skip it—my allowance money only went so far at the comics shop. I enjoyed Beetle and his BFF Booster Gold over in Justice League International during those years, so his solo series was one I’ve long wanted to check out. While I would have preferred to read the run in color (the Showcase collections are printed in black and white), back issues are hard to find and the Showcase volumes are priced to move. The series is fast paced and fun, so devouring the phone-book sized 600-page tome is easy to do.

Len Wein’s Bronze Age credentials are legendary: he co-created Wolverine and Swamp Thing, relaunched the modern-day X-Men in the momentous Giant Size X-Men #1, and wrote just about every major character at DC and many more over at Marvel. He’s mostly considered a good to middling writer of comics, not one who will push the envelope or expand a character’s horizons exponentially, like a Grant Morrison, for example. His writing style can be described as “meat and potatoes,” but to be fair this was typical of superhero comics in that era. So Wein brought a decidedly standard late-Bronze Age approach to Blue Beetle: heavy on the action while also keeping things light with an abundance of humor, and working in some mystery and intrigue along the way. The results were often exceedingly fun and entertaining, if not as memorable or lasting as stronger Bronze Age works like Chris Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men. For two years, Blue Beetle was an action-packed blast of classic superhero storytelling, which is no small feat. It’s a myth that it’s harder or somehow more important to write more serious stories—pulling off a balance between light and dark can be just as difficult. Wein’s Blue Beetle accomplished this more often than not over the course of the series.

There were several tropes in comics during that era that were usually adhered to by writers and editors, including the omniscient narrator (popularized and elevated to new heights by Claremont), self-deprecating and genial heroes, and a cast of supporting characters to provide our heroes with plenty of drama in their personal lives. There were several series in those final years of the Bronze Age that epitomized this approach to superhero comics, including Blue Devil and The Fury of Firestorm. In fact, this particular style of superhero comics at DC can be traced back to the unexpected success of The Fury of Firestorm. Firestorm had been a casualty of the 1978 DC Implosion when the company’s financial troubles resulted in the sudden cancellation of more than two-dozen series at once. The character returned in his second solo series in 1982, written once more by his co-creator Gerry Conway. This time Conway had time to develop the character beyond the meager handful of issues he’d been granted before the Implosion. He brought a Marvel style of storytelling with him to DC when he jumped companies, and Firestorm was the most “Marvel” of DC’s line at that point. In the series, Firestorm was trying to balance his great power with his responsibilities to family, friends, and work, all while living in the big city. Sound familiar? The character clearly shared a lot in common with Spider-Man (whom Conway famously wrote). This Spider-Man influence would also occur with Blue Beetle, coincidentally a character that legendary Spidey co-creator Steve Ditko had worked on in the 1960s at Charlton Comics. Ted Kord’s Blue Beetle shared a similarly sleek and stylish costume—not to mention a bug-related moniker—with Peter Parker’s Spider-Man. Under Wein’s pen, Ted was a slightly older version of Peter in many ways, while also containing elements of several other classic characters (he was not only a genius-level inventor but also of course a millionaire, as so many older Golden Age heroes were). Ted and Peter shared a sense of adventure and social justice, along with a propensity for spouting witty banter while fighting a variety of nefarious and colorful villains.

Using the successful template established by Conway with Firestorm and several other writers on similarly new or b-level characters in the years prior to Crisis, Wein went to work on Blue Beetle. The character, along with most of Charlton’s other “Action Heroes,” had been acquired by DC not long before Crisis. After the characters were introduced into the DC Universe during Crisis, some like Beetle and Captain Atom segued into headlining their own solo series. While Beetle was not a new crime fighter, it was established that he’d come out of retirement at the start of his new series. Unlike early Spidey stories, there wasn’t a need to show the hero adjusting to his new life, but instead allowed us to see a hero returning to the fight after realizing he was still needed. This was a convincing way to integrate him into the new DC Universe. From there, Wein leaned heavily into the Spidey style by quickly building Ted’s supporting cast, one filled with wise-cracking friends and employees. Also, despite the mayhem and violence of the superhero’s life, Wein kept it all fairly light and funny. DC had long been the uncool older brother in the Marvel-DC relationship, but by the 1980s they had begun to poach talent from Marvel and, with certain characters like Firestorm, Blue Devil, and Blue Beetle, even occasionally outperformed Marvel at their own game.

Late-Bronze Age comics have been relegated to the dustbin of history over the years, which is unfortunate because they were often a highly entertaining subset of the superhero genre during an important time in the industry’s history. These comics provided readers with an abundance of swashbuckling adventure and an alternative to the media-hyped ultra-violent “grim and gritty” era that began to dominate at the start of the Modern Age of comics. In the case of Blue Beetle’s antics, in nearly every issue he toggled between wild and death-defying punch ‘em ups with kooky villains like Firefist (“The Incendiary Man!”), the Madmen, and the Muse while protecting his home turf of Chicago, and also the daily drama involved with running KORD Industries. His supporting cast became an important part of the series. Influenced by the success of Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men, comics of the mid- to late-Bronze Age began weaving together intricate tapestries of both plot and character development that could sometimes take years to play out fully. This was the age before decompression was the norm, so the approach was quite different then: not being constrained by writing for the trade, as writers now can be, Bronze Age scribes had room to stretch long-form stories out over the course of their tenures on books at a more leisurely pace. These long-simmering subplots often fluctuated wildly between riveting and perfunctory, depending on the particular subplot and writer. During that era, writers could also take the time to work in a good deal of character moments between the hero and his supporting cast. Wein used this approach on Blue Beetle, as he had earlier in his career. A recent read of his late 1970s/early 1980s run on Batman reminded me of how prototypical of the Bronze Age Wein’s style was. It wasn’t as thoughtful or engaging as Claremont’s style, but it still offered high entertainment value. With Batman Wein employed the usual staples of the era, especially lingering subplots and a cast of important recurring characters in Bruce Wayne’s life, including Lucius Fox, Selina Kyle, and Alfred Pennyworth. Similar to how he emphasized Bruce’s work at the Wayne Foundation, with Blue Beetle Wein focused on KORD Industries. Two of Ted’s top research scientists formed the core of his supporting cast: Jeremiah Duncan and Melody Case. Melody served as the funny and sexy (this is comics, after all) love interest, teasing and flirting up a storm with Ted. She was in many ways typical of the girlfriend character at that time: smart, beautiful, sassy, and modern (the 1980s version of modern, that is), but also in need of saving by our hero from time to time. The kind of girl young readers might crush on, or want to be like, or a little of both. Between the usually frazzled and always eccentric Jeremiah, who was clearly hiding something serious from Ted, and the adorably sarcastic and good-natured Melody, Wein infused drama and laughs in equal measure into Ted’s civilian life.

Blue Beetle’s gadgets and motivations also placed him squarely in the pre-Crisis mold of superhero stories. As an inventor and research scientist, Ted was as well-equipped in his war on crime as any hero before or since. His most popular gadgets included his BB gun that blinded opponents with blasts of light, an airship nicknamed “Bug” that was stocked with high-tech equipment, and a mask that could only be removed when Ted used a chip in his glove to unlock it. Batman always had the coolest toys, but Blue Beetle gave the Dark Knight a run for his money. He even had his own secret subterranean lair called the Beetle’s Nest. Ted fought crime out of a need to uphold justice—another very traditional superhero trope. The death of the original Blue Beetle, Dan Garrett, inspired Ted to take up the mantle and become a hero, another classic element from superhero comics. In all of these ways, Blue Beetle was representative of comics from not only the late-Bronze Age, but also the previous Silver and Golden Ages as well.

I would be remiss if I didn’t spend some time heaping praise on Paris Cullins for this art on Blue Beetle. The black and white format of the Showcase volume allows the reader to see how wonderful a cartoonist Cullins is. Working in the midst of his “Blue Period”—he’d just finished a several-year stint drawing Blue Devil—Cullins’s art here is kinetic, packed with panels of dynamic action sequences and characters with big, expressive eyes and terrifically expressive faces. The series is a wonderful showcase (pardon the pun) for Cullins’s art. His style is a perfect fit for Wein’s storytelling: he excels equally at both the sillier and the serious moments. With all of the previously mentioned aspects that linked Blue Beetle to the Bronze Age, Cullins was the right artistic choice to bring this world to life. His art expressed a strong flair for whimsy while never skimping on making Beetle’s superheroics look truly super and heroic. He was a callback to artists of an earlier era at a time when that style was no longer the dominant one. Contemporaries and next-generation artists like Mike Parobeck, Mike Wieringo, Ty Templeton, Chris Samnee, Erica Henderson, and Evan “Doc” Shaner have proved that a clean and quirky cartooning style will always be in favor with at least a portion of fandom. There’s a realism to Cullins’s work, but not in the way that, say, Neal Adams brought realism to comics art. Cullins does strong work with his figures’ anatomy and their movements, but he adds flares and flourishes that can make his work look like animated stills. He utilizes exaggerated facial expressions on his characters, along with agile and acrobatic action poses during Beetle’s action scenes. Simply put, Cullins does what a comic book artist should do: he tells a wonderfully entertaining and eminently readable story through his visuals.

Blue Beetle, thirty years from its initial release, remains an eminently entertaining read. It also provides a window into a particular period in comics, at a time when things were changing rabidly while also staying very much the same. Blue Beetle was one of several DC series from the years immediately preceding and following Crisis that focused primarily on entertaining their audiences with not only action and adventure but also myriad subplots and supporting characters galore. It’s easy to look back on that era and only remember the game changers, but it would be a mistake to overlook some of the hidden gems that continued to tell classic superhero stories. DC deserves praise for the high number of thought-provoking and seminal works they published at that time, but they also deserve credit for keeping a segment of their list firmly rooted in the things that worked well for them up to that point—namely good old fashioned superheroics. Current series like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat show that writers continue to tell these types of superhero stories and that readers continue to enjoy them.

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Michael Campochiaro works in academic publishing and spends any free time he can find reading and drawing. You can read more of Michael's musings at his blog, Words Seem Out Of Place.

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