Legacy in blue

Legacy.

It’s a concept that used to be one of the pillars of the DC Universe – that a mantle of heroic action would be passed from one character to another. The Flash and Green Lantern of World War II inspired the Flash and Green Lantern of the silver age, who were then replaced by the Flash and Green Lantern of the modern age, with the promise of future heroes assuming that title as well… it was a thematic mainstay that propelled dozens of characters and hundreds of stories.

Well, like most good things in the DCU, the theme of legacy was abandoned in the DC Reboot, in which superheroes have only been around for five years, there were no heroes in WWII (there’s a wonderful sentence to contemplate) and characters operate without foundations or any kind of respect for what has gone before. Which is a goddamn shame.

But I’m not here tonight to whinge about the DC Reboot – that comes later in the month. Instead, I want to talk about one of the last, best examples of the treatment of that theme from DC, which also happens to be a fantastic, funny, smart and action-packed comic book.

And that comic is Blue Beetle.

So first, some backstory. The original Blue Beetle was a Golden Age character who bounced through a few iterations and publishers. Eventually he was bought and revamped in the 1960s by Charlton Comics as Dan Garrett, an archaeologist who discovered a magical scarab amulet that gave him superpowers (strength, flight, energy blasts, similar generic things). When that version proved unpopular, Charlton didn’t reinvent him, they replaced him – Garret died and passed the scarab on to his former student, inventor Ted Kord. Kord became the new Blue Beetle, but a very different character; he couldn’t make the scarab work, so instead fought crime with gadgets, inventions and intelligence.

Fast forward about 15 years and DC Comics bought the rights to the Charlton stable of characters, where Garrett became a minor WWII superhero and Ted Kord the modern Blue Beetle – keeping the legacy concept going, but stretching out the ages between the characters to fit DC’s timeline. During the late 80s and early 90s Kord was a major DC character and a mainstay of the Justice League, but eventually faded from the limelight to become another perennial C-list character in the background of crossovers.

And then came 2005’s mega-event Infinite Crisis, during which Kord uncovered a conspiracy and was murdered – but not before leaving Garrett’s scarab with the wizard Shazam, who then lost it in an explosion. It fell to Earth in El Paso, Texas, and was found by a teenage called Jaime Reyes, who used it to help Batman defeat… okay, look, this is all a really long story that is often not very fun, so let’s just skip the details and move onto the comic, alright?

So teenage Jaime becomes the new Blue Beetle, as the scarab responds to him by forming into a set of high-tech armour covered in bizarre weapons and manned by an semi-incomprehensible telepathic AI. People start chasing him, he gets into trouble, he tries to find out what’s going on… all of this has the potential to be a decent setup for a decent, unremarkable comic series.

Except that Jaime used Google to find out about Ted Kord.

And except that Blue Beetle was written by John Rogers, scriptwriter, producer and TV showrunner for the show Leverage (which I still haven’t seen but I hear is well worth watching). In his first comics work (he went on to write Dungeons and Dragons, which I’ve raved about before), Rogers stepped up to write like an experienced master of the form, creating a series packed with memorable, likeable characters, punchy stories and exciting revelations (none of which I’ll spoil here).

He was mentored for the first year by comics veteran Keith Giffen and accompanied by artist Cully Hamner, whose blocky, cartoony style I’ve always liked; his lines are blocky and dark but fun and open at the same time, and his design of the Beetle-armour is a terrific departure from the usual metal-and-geegaws style of super-battlesuits. After he left, new artist Rafael Albuquerque also bought a cartoony style, but one with a lighter, scratchier line, less bombastic and more expressive; it took me a little while to warm to it, but now I think Albuquerque is one of the best artists in comics, and Blue Beetle shows him constantly growing in skill.

But I’m not so much here to review Blue Beetle (here’s a review – it’s great) as to talk about the theme of legacy, which Rogers used as the spine of the series. As I said, Jaime read up on the previous Blue Beetle, trying to understand the connection to his scarab, and what he found inspired him – that Ted Kord, a man with no powers, could stand up for what was right and make a difference. Then he made contact with Dan Garrett’s granddaughter, who gave him more data on the scarab – and on Garrett’s time as a superhero, and the difference he made in the world. He realised that there is a legacy attached to the Blue Beetle, not just the scarab but the name itself, and he decided that he wanted to be part of that.

And a key element, I think, is that Jaime never meets either of the two previous Blue Beetles; they’re both dead before he finds the scarab. Nonetheless, he sees the value in what they did and what they strived for, he sees role models in them – he chooses to be part of their legacy, rather than having that legacy thrust upon him or just making his own way. And as Rogers’ overarching storyline continues, Jaime tries to embody the strength of Garrett and the intelligence of Kord, to take guidance from them while making his own way and finding his own place in the superhero community. To become something more than just a costume or a right cross, but a legend that can live on.

Rogers left the series after 24 issues (collected in the first 4 trades), having wrapped up his story. There was an attempt to keep the series going with writer Matthew Sturges, but it didn’t click – his issues weren’t terrible or anything, but they lacked the spark (and the cohesive thematic underpinnings) of Rogers’ – and the series ended after one last storyline. Blue Beetle continued to play a part in the DCU, joining the Teen Titans, hanging out with Booster Gold and appearing on The Brave and the Bold cartoon, and then the Reboot changed everything. There’s a new Blue Beetle series, but it’s heavy on the stereotypes and pointless fight scenes, light on the legacy (or any other kind of theme) and it’s all a bit sad and pointless now.

But there are four great trades (and one adequate one) of the original series, and they are a thing of joy, and they tell a great story with a great ending. And stories that end well are usually the best kind.

One of the powerful, story-generating tensions in the superhero genre is the clash between individualism and collectivism – it’s a genre where a single being can advance above all others and change the world but also seek to serve others and be part of something greater than themselves. The theme of legacy is one of the strongest ways to explore that tension and make a supers story more than just dudes in tights thumping each other. And Blue Beetle was a hell of a lot more than that.

You should read it. You should love it. It’s that good.

2 thoughts on “Legacy in blue

  1. It really _is_ that good. BB is one of the many reasons I was just aghast at the reboot. I felt like DC had finally managed to work out how to handle all of the disparate types of characters they had in a cohesive and natural way…and now we’re back to gangbangers and stereotypes.

    I find DC’s linear legacy over Marvel’s fluid identity fascinating, though. Marvel character’s seem far more likely to swap or borrow identities for short term purposes (Hank Pym is a prime example) or go through far more consistent costume changes (to the point where it becomes almost part of the character, like with Spider-Man). I see DC as being a more old school hierarchical approach, with Marvel’s being more modern and emergent-nodes-of-the-network-like, but that’s probably just me.

    1. Hey, that’s a really good take on things!

      Thinking about it, it really ties back nicely to my old transcendence-vs-immanence theory. DC has multiple individuals attempting to explore a role that is larger than any one person; Marvel has an individual exploring all aspects of their identity to fulfil multiple roles.

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