Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Comics Page #12: Blue Beetle: Shellshocked

The new BLUE BEETLE series is the kind of comic that's fun and clever and offbeat, and thus not being read by anyone. Though the tastes of the public are forever inscrutable, comics readers seem at this point to be deliberately steering away from anything that might be described as "fun". (It doesn't help that sales charts are based on retailer orders, not actual sales, so the most hyped titles are always on top.) In this case, I share some of the blame; though I was a huge fan of Ted Kord as the Blue Beetle, without that character the title didn't mean much of anything. If you pick up a given issue of THE FLASH, whoever's in the role of the Flash, you can bet it will be a story that involves him running very fast; grab a random GREEN LANTERN and you can bet that rings and glowing green energy will be involved. The Blue Beetle has no such consistent hook, and so I saw no reason to pick up the series based on the name and what little information there was, and to be sure, some resentment over it not being Ted Kord played a role. Eventually, though, I got word that this was a weird and wacky kind of superhero book, the kind I would like, and so I got started on it with issue #11. I enjoyed it and picked up the first trade to catch up. BLUE BEETLE: SHELLSHOCKED collects the first 6 issues of the series, telling the bizarre, confusing, and compelling story of young Jaime Reyes, a normal kid from El Paso who one day finds an ancient artifact which embeds itself in his spine.

The artifact is the Scarab, the one common thread linking all the Beetles; it gave Dan Garret, the original Beetle, his powers, and though Ted Kord never had any superhuman abilities (he was a gadget hero), he kept the blue statue thingy around anyway, and when he died, the Scarab went hunting for a new master. In this trade, the exact nature of the Scarab is still unclear, but it creates for Jaime a suit of strange blue armor that itself can manifest all sorts of weapons and doo-dads, in a way that's similar to Green Lantern's ring. But since Jaime is new to the game and since the Scarab speaks to him in some kind of crazy moon language, it's an awkward partnership. In the meantime, Jaime has to deal with his strained relationships with his family and friends, said straining being the fact that, while fighting a giant evil satellite in the INFINITE CRISIS event, he was somehow away from home for an entire year without realizing.

You'll note that my plot summary is a bit patchier than usual. It's been a while since I read through the trade, which doesn't help, but the book's plotting is pretty loopy, often jumping back and forth to before and after Jaime's disappearance. The distinction between the two time periods isn't always clear, mainly because the revelation that it's One Year Later was meant as a surprise. The opening arc, such as it is, has the Beetle caught between the interests of a superpowered street gang and a woman collecting mystic metahumans off the street, and things get messy very quickly. But it's an entertaining kind of messy, I'll give them that.

Giffen and Rogers have a strong grip on the characters from fairly early on; Jaime's family is written believably, and his scenes with friends Paco and Brenda are full of snappy patter (Rogers is credited as one of the screenwriters for CATWOMAN, but we won't hold that against him.) It really feels like the writers had a solid grip on the book's supporting cast before they started writing, and the series finds its proper vibe pretty early on. This is aided by a very modern art approach, with Cully Hamner doing art duties for three of the six issues, the rest filled out by Cynthia Martin, Duncan Rouleau, Phil Moy, Kevin West, and Jack Purcell. It's a jarring style, reminiscent of manga but with a harder southwest American edge, and it won't please those comic fans who insist on photorealism. But then, I never understood those people. The art contributes to the book's unusual atmosphere, and is often just plain good design (I've got to say I like the new costume.)

It's a nice little collection, and an excellent starting point for a series that needs more exposure. The Blue Beetle is apparently going to play a major role in DC's upcoming COUNTDOWN event, and though I generally don't like big crossover events, anything that helps boost the sales of good comics is something I can live with. The new BLUE BEETLE series is, in a word, funky; though it doesn't really reach outside the boundaries of the superhero genre, it presents the old tropes in a way that makes them seem fresh and unusual.

I patiently await the inevitable return of Ted Kord from the comic book afterlife, where people walk in and out like it's a cocktail party that lasts for eternity. (At least that's how I like to envision it.) But the new kid? He can stay.

Grade: B+

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