The first act of BLUE BEETLE winds to an end between issues #7 and #12. I: CREATIVE CHANGES
BLUE BEETLE loses co-writer Keith Giffen after issue #10, leaving screenwriter John Rogers as the book’s sole “pilot”. Artist Cully Hamner leaves the book the same month, ably replaced by Raphael Albuquerque.
Perhaps the most confusing thing about this comic is the fact DC leaves Albuquerque on BLUE BEETLE, rather than promote him to a “higher profile” assignment. Does Marvel transition their stronger artists significantly more often? It seems that way to me but maybe that’s because I pay more attention to Marvel. Anyways, maybe he stays on BLUE BEETLE by choice. I have no idea.
II: THE WORLD TOUR
Two or three boring and inconsequential “adventures” go by, not worth summarizing. A variety of flashbacks answer various minor questions, like “Why does the Peacemaker know Blue Beetle’s scarab came from outer space aliens?” and “What happened to Blue Beetle during the INFINITE CRISIS, eight months earlier?” and “Who would be the wife if Blue Beetle married Captain Atom?”
There are pleasant moments. If you enjoy the wisecracking, you might enjoy a brief appearance by Green Arrow & Whatshername: Two issues involve a completely pointless team-up between Blue Beetle and NEW GODS characters. DC’s grandest, most epic, most… well, most KIRBY characters once again reduced to rote, supporting cameos in a C-List character’s book. If you like the NEW GODS, it's annoying seeing those characters treated in such a slapdash way; if you don't, then it's probably annoying to see them at all. So: ellipsis followed by a question mark, yes ...? Then again, Luke Cage once fought Doctor Doom over a couple hundred bucks, and that's a fact everybody (myself included) is pretty happy with so perhaps I'm overreacting.
That’s all part of the World Tour for BLUE BEETLE.
The World Tour’s my pet name for a set of issues that are mostly an excuse to introduce a new hero to some aspect of the DC Universe, rather than tell a story necessitated by the premise or the characters. For BLUE BEETLE, the World Tour includes (i) the time Blue Beetle meets the New Gods, (ii) the time Blue Beetle hangs out with Green Lantern, (iii) the time Blue Beetle meets the Batman, (iv) the time Blue Beetle meets Superman, (v) the time Blue Beetle meets the Teen Titans, (vi) the time Blue Beetle met the Spectre, and (vii) the time Woody Harrelson taught Blue Beetle to retain his ching.
Outcomes vary: for example, the Green Lantern issue felt reasonably necessary to the story. But I personally dislike World Tour issues. It’s time spent away from the supporting cast or from creating a unique point of view for the book itself. And worse, it encourages short-hand characterization of “I’m not like Superman because I ______” or “That may work for you, Green Lantern, but I prefer to ______” or “I can feel you in my _____, Batman; your _____ feels like its tearing me apart; please don’t ______ in my ______ or I’ll become pregnant with your Bat-________.” (Oh, Hentai-Batman, you’re my favorite).
I have an impatience to me. I want to find out what happens next. And a World Tour issue only very rarely says what happens next; it’s typically a distraction away from whatever mysteries or conflicts power a particular book. They're digressions; anecdotes. Look: I hate to brag, but one time, I saw the actor who played Carlton from the Fresh Prince, standing around at JFK Airport. That happened. That’s something that actually happened, for me. I can dine out on that for years to come. But when I write my memoir, (OH SHIT: I'M OLD; Random House: 2012), that’s not going to be a chapter in there. It’ll just be an endnote, somewhere in Chapter 2: “I’ve seen some awesome things; I don’t deserve this shit.” And then “ENDNOTE: One of the awesome things was that I once saw Carlton from the Fresh Prince near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” Poetic license! New York Times bestsellers list ahoy!
There are good things that can be said about a World Tour, but for BLUE BEETLE, during the book’s second act, it ultimately becomes a near-fatal distraction to more pressing elements in the book.
I re-read the DC comic book STARMAN the other day. It had been my absolute favorite comic for the first twelve issues. But by issue #36, I had quit the book, angry, just ... ANGRY, cursing its name.
I’d always wondered if I’d made a mistake, if I'd over-reacted, if I was being silly, so I went and read it beginning to end. Turns out? I got lucky. While the first 18 or so issues hold up beautifully, just beautifully, past that, the book goes into a horrifying nosedive. Story arcs drag on indefinitely; the book’s best feature—- its love of DC history—- becomes an anchor around its neck. The book ends and ends and ends—- it has more endings than some bullshit LORD OF THE RINGS film. Each resolution to one of the book’s mysteries is less satisfying than the next. And Tony Harris’s departure blows open a hole that never gets filled despite some admirable efforts by other artists.
The first 18 issues are such terrific work, though, so exactly and totally what I look for from a mainstream comic, that I’d happily recommend the recent STARMAN OMNIBUS. The main character is both universal and specific; the writer doesn’t pretend only superheroics matter, but is eager to share opinions about art and music, culture; the book is enriched by comics history; the setting, the supporting cast-— here is a world that feels lived in and alive; the DC Universe becomes a fictional world worth visiting.
Re-reading it, I realized I’d been unknowingly and unfairly comparing later books like BLUE BEETLE to that early run. Jack Knight had a personality; where’s Blue Beetle’s personality? Starman reflected its author’s passion for old movies; what passion does Blue Beetle reflect? Et cetera. How much can be done with a mainstream comic!
But… but: STARMAN was another book fond of the World Tour, to its detriment. The book’s unquestionable low point is a 5000 issue-long tour of the DCU’s outer space. And it’s another book oblivious to posterity. A significant chunk of the book relies upon Neron.
You know: Neron.
Neron was the lead villain in UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED, a freakishly awful DC crossover from the 90’s. He’s made minor appearances since but the minutae of the Underworld Unleashed crossover play a notable role in STARMAN. Much like BLUE BEETLE, STARMAN’s creators were eager to incorporate DCU storylines into its plot.
Is a disregard for posterity a bad thing? I’m honestly not sure. Orson Welles once said “It is just as vulgar to work for the sake of posterity as to work for the sake of money.” On the other hand, after saying that, he promptly ate a live cow, drank a tanker trunk of whiskey, tried to sell some green beans, and performed the voice of Unicron in TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE before vomiting all over one of Peter Bogdanovich’s trophy blondes. So, who knows? IV: PREJUDICES
Blue Beetle acquires a “mentor” figure in Peacemaker, a minor DC hero notable for fighting evil with a bucket on his head. They at least updated him. By taking off the bucket. Which was a good start. Bucket.
So: we have a screenwriter writing a story about a Mentor Figure tutoring the Chosen One on his Hero’s Journey.
Look, I’m prejudiced. With a few exceptions, when a comic book writer is a fancy-pants Hollywood screenwriter, I just go in prejudiced. Is it as bad a flare-up for my prejudices as, say, when a wannabe comic tries to look like bad manga? No, not even close—- but I have a good sized chip on my shoulder. I have this irrational thing of...
“You’re not worthy of serious attention. This would be a nice place if it weren’t for you tourists. Fucking tourists!”
How crazy is that?? How many screenwriters do I know that are huge comic fans? How are they “tourists?” It’s completely nuts.
There are these screenwriters who sold a movie version of their Oni comic in April 2008; the comic comes out in an unspecified date in 2009. And I read that story, and I know and remember the name of their comic so I can specifically not buy it when it comes out. I’m THAT prejudiced! Why? Maybe they’re good and decent people who love comics more than any of us.
Why am I the petty and angry guy on the Internet? Is it resentment? Is it pettiness? Maybe it's all those things. Maybe I'm a bad person. I don't know exactly what it is.
I think for some fans, Senor Fancypants makes their delusional fantasies that they’ll somehow magically wind up writing IRON MAN that much more improbable. But I honestly don’t think that’s what it is for me. I really, truly don’t.
Marvel editors have argued in the past, something like “These guys really know story structure more than someone who just read comics.” But that ignores every single successful mainstream creator in comics right now, the majority of whom came from independent comics, smaller venues, clawed their way up. People for whom comics weren’t Plan B.
But: does that matter? Well, no, in the abstract, logically speaking: no.
Or I guess I always have the suspicion of … like when you hear someone go “I’m going to come at science fiction fresh because I’m not a sci-fi nerd. So, my story’s going to be about a spaceship where the computer in charge of the spaceship—get this—it goes insane.” I trust a native to know what’s tiresome and know what’s surprising and entertaining. But: again, that’s based on the faulty assumption that these guys aren’t fans themselves, so...
So: how crazy does this all sound? Hello, crazy. I know this prejudice is crazy; if it weren’t crazy, I wouldn’t call it a “prejudice.” I just know I have it and I should be honest about it. I think it’s important to have some degree of self-knowledge. For example, I know, I am absolutely certain, about myself that if I were ever a puppeteer, if I ever worked with puppets, I’d build my puppet with a puppet penis, but then I’d put pants on my puppet, right? Like, human pants, that would always be on my puppet, so no one watching would guess that my puppet had a penis. That way, if they ever fired me, I’d be able to pull down my puppet’s pants and scream “Eat this, Jim Henson!” I know that about myself, and I think it’s important to have that self-knowledge.
Anyways, it’s not like BLUE BEETLE should be congratulated for its clichés either. Watching some screenwriter fill out a Syd Field crossword puzzle is the opposite of entertainment. 34 across: “hero finds companions” (That’d be issue #9). 14 down: “mentor figure/guide died / gets injured and can’t accompany hero on final mission” (There’s issue #20). 18 across: Thing that erupts from my butt, four letters. Nor is the fact that each of these events is handled in a completely perfunctory way-- that the companions (a hacker duo, ala Mr. Ram Ridley from the Mark Gruenwald CAPTAIN AMERICA run) end up being insignificant to the story; that the mentor is "taken off the board" in some dull crossover with the SINESTRO WAR-- to the book's credit, no.