Why elves? Why mecha? Why Trekkers? Why Browncoats? Why mystery men? Why rocket men? Why invisible men? Why pulp? Why vampires, why werewolves, why creatures from the Black Lagoon? Why space opera, why slipstream, why sci-fi? Why splatterpunk, why steampunk, why cyberpunk, why mundane SF? Why Max Headroom? Why Mad Max? Why Sam & Max? Why Samwise Gamgee? Why cons? Why cosplay? Why LARP, why TMBG, why TARDIS? Why Felicia Day? Why Freddie, why Jason, why Eli Roth? Why kaiju, why Aeris, why 42? Why IDW, why BOOM!, why Oni? Why Marvel? Why DC?
Uchhhhh, why me...
Why do nerdy things work? I've got questions and no answers; you've apparently got free time. You're reading the Savage Critics blog, and welcome to the 5th and final part of our examination of the now long-cancelled DC Comics comic-book series BLUE BEETLE. Starring your all-star BLUE BEETLE creative team: John Rogers, Keith Giffen, Cully Hamner, Rafael Albuquerque, Guy Major, Phil Balsman & co., Rachel Gluckstern, and Joan Hilty!
The final arc of the John Rogers era of BLUE BEETLE will be spoiled! Oh fuck! Ohfuckohfuckohfuck! Run! Hide! SPOILER WARNING!
Over the course of the previous four essays (1234), we discussed the failures of the first 21 issues of the BLUE BEETLE series, a new comic book starring a brand new superhero launching out of a now distant crossover event entitled INFINITE CRISIS. As this series of essays comes finally to a conclusion, we will now discuss the final four issues of what we've been calling the "John Rogers era" of BLUE BEETLE-- the part I actually liked, the part that made me want to write this series of essays to begin with.
The plot: around issue #13, Blue Beetle had learned that an alien invasion of Earth was underway. So, the plot of the finale is that Blue Beetle, family & friends fight off the alien invasion. Good guys win; bad guys lose.
And ... well, that's it, really. That's all there is to it.
Usually, I just care about the art. I read BLUE BEETLE because I wanted to see Rafael Albuquerque’s work. I've read well-written issues of NEW AVENGERS (I thought two issues ago was particularly well balanced) and there have been issues I haven't been into (I didn't understand the end of the new one...?), but: Stuart Immonen, everybody. If Batwoman and her lame dad got shot in the head in the next issue, and vultures made love to the exit wounds, I wouldn't care in the slightest. I'd be a little turned-on, actually. But, until that happens: holy shit, J.H. Williams III. I made it all the way to the end of INCOGNITO-- partially because of Jess Nevins; mostly, Sean Phillips.
But those last four issues of BLUE BEETLE... suddenly, it worked. Whatever that thing is, where you start to care what happens next, where the “funny” parts are funny, where the big “let’s all cheer” moments make you want to cheer? That happened for me. I re-read those issues before writing this essay, and it worked again.
A Digression on “Why Do Nerds Exist" --------------------------- OR "Curtis Armstrong, Your Life's Work is Incomplete":
As part of my extensive research for this essay, I googled "Why do nerds exist?" I felt like that was where I needed to go to explain the fact I enjoyed BLUE BEETLE comics—to an existential meaning-of-life type level.
I thought it was interesting that despite the million blogs about Ewoks and Snorks and … shit, I don’t know what all people are into on the internet, the #1 response at the time of this essay was a thread on a weightlifting message board that's apparently a popular place to discuss how best to use anabolic steroids: "Over 8,294,865 posts of underground intelligence, and 214,998 members, make this the busiest and most controversial community on the Net."
There's a recurring thing to DC books-- taking part in The Great Argument with DC fans. Well: "Great Argument" is maybe too kind a term. It's not really an argument so much as a lecture, after all. DC books all tend to lecture that "The Way You Like Comics is Wrong" when no better theme presents itself. You are Wrong to have liked Image Comics.
Taunts always seem to be the mark of a "significant" DC series.
Sure enough, BLUE BEETLE: Blue Beetle's family is saved at the last minute by a superhero "calvary": Guy Gardner, Fire, and Ice. Ice hadn’t appeared in this series previously. The climax of the comic-- the "And The Audience Goes Wild" moment: Blue Beetle is willing to give his life to save planet Earth, but is saved in the final seconds by Booster Gold. Booster Gold also hadn’t appeared in this series before.
So, you will agree that these characters show up not because they are needed to tell a coherent story, but for the Lecture. What do they signify? These third-party superheros were the best friends of the previous incarnation of Blue Beetle. The comic concludes with the following monologue: "As for me? I’m the third Blue Beetle. And I know there will be a fourth. And a fith. On and on. Some better, some worse. But the story, the name, the hero? That’ll go on forever. Past me. Past us all. And I think that’s kind of cool.”
The finale of BLUE BEETLE is a persuasive essay for fans, written in invisible ink for the hardcore, whose point is this: "You are wrong about Blue Beetle. Some of you may complain that we got rid of the old Blue Beetle but change is inherent to this character. You are wrong because the characters who should care the most-- the previous incarnation's closest friends-- accept this character as being the true Blue Beetle. And so, you should accept him, too."
I think why I’m okay with BLUE BEETLE's lecture is that at least a message I’m sympathetic towards—a message celebrating new characters, celebrating DC’s legacy heroes (obviously, the best feature of the DC universe)—without feeling like… I don’t know, like I was being yelled at for no reason, by angry hacks. A lecture about accepting change seems contrary to the status quo at DC right now: DC seems to be in a mode of ever appeasing its most vocal fans' whims-- "You want Barry back? You want Hal back? You want jewelry? We'll give you jewelry! Jewelry and wine and roses. You want me to come with you and your mom to go see IT'S COMPLICATED? I'll fix your mom's answering machine, and we'll make a day of it. Yeah, no, I don't like any of my friends either. Just please don't ever leave me."
I like that BLUE BEETLE's lecture, a lecture about transience, is inherently a DC lecture. The DC universe's very foundation has now become its complete lack of foundation. The Marvel universe makes a certain amount of sense: it has a geography that can be mapped, an atlas. The "DC Universe" is chaos, distant successes drowning in decades of confusion. "Superman is an electric blue superhero who works for a TV station on multiple earths-- wait, make that a single New Earth-- wait, make that 52 earths-- wait, wait, just make me into a woman, I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body."
(Why am I workshopping my DC impression in this one??? "Here's my impression of what it'd be like... if Jack Nicholson was an editor at DC." Cue: hilarity).
Also: I think the BLUE BEETLE finale at least delivers its lecture in such a way that the finale can enjoyed even if you don’t pick up on what it’s about. Aliens, explosions, one-liners, action, etc. I don’t think that was as true of any of the DC series I mentioned above—I understood the themes of INFINITE CRISIS and FINAL CRISIS, but god help us all if I was ever asked to explain the plots of either to you. God help me if I was asked to remember the plots of either. Which one had autoerotic asphyxiation in it? That one was my favorite.
Is it "good", comics written in secret code for the No-Outsiders Club? Well: no. It's not. But I'd be lying to say that it's written in a language I don't sometimes understand; I'd be lying if I said that there isn't a weird, dopey pleasure to it when it's well done. If honesty is what's required here, this time around, I kind of dug it. If honesty isn't what's required here, I am competent at lovemaking.
A Digression on "Superhero Decadence" --------------------------- OR "The Broad who Wrote the Article is a Psychotic Coont":
How about shocking twists? How about unexpected violence? How about girls getting murdered so that a hero can rise? BLUE BEETLE lacks all of those things.
The last thing I wrote for this blog was about a comic whose content maybe raised an eyebrow, from a certain perspective; this piece is about an comic whose content falls within a toothless "all-ages" designation a certain type of fan on the internet is given to proclaim should be the whole of the genre. I'm praising the latter more than the former, and it occurs to me this might be mistaken as some kind of "political statement", a prescriptive "this is what we need more of" piece divorced from market realities, sales figures, numerically-measurable audience preferences.
Yeah, no: that's not really what I'm trying to say.
Of course, can I imagine having enjoyed the finale of BLUE BEETLE if it had been stuffed with what Malcolm Tucker would describe as "an awful lot of what we would call violent sexual imagery?" No. Me personally, not really. But I didn't enjoy the vast majority of how this creative team handled "Blue Beetle's adventures through the DC universe". The idea I'm going to enjoy it if DC raised the bar on it and asked the same team to create "Blue Beetle's gritty psychosexual action-drama"... well: of course not. (Which is not to diminish the good taste and discernment of the BLUE BEETLE creative team for not going to that place, as there is evidence to suggest that many retailers, the DC audience and DC editorial would all have been supportive if they had. You know: good for them).
What always strikes me about the term "superhero decadence", and why I ultimately have to reject it, is how kind an explanation it is to the creators, how generous, benevolent. Doesn't it inherently say "it's not you, why this comic sucks-- it's something inherent to the genre?"
So, yeah, no: I don't think it's the genre; I think it's them.
Here's my favorite part of the finale. Blue Beetle is trapped and surrounded by homicidal aliens as the penultimate issue draws to a close. How will he get out of this dilemma? He shouts Magic Words. Rogers doesn't just have him shout magic words at random-- the magic words were carefully planted in earlier issues; the magic words are explained, buttressed. But, still: magic words. I mean that in a good way.
Khaji Da. Shazam. Avengers Assemble. It's Clobbering Time. The Green Lantern oath. Lab accidents. Masks that just cover the eyes. Power rings. A walking stick that turns broken men into gods. A sanctum sanctorum in Greenwich Village. Trophy rooms. Mystery islands. Negative zones. Phantom zones. Microverses. All the savage lands that time forgot. And signal watches-- oh, those are my all-time favorite, the signal watches.
Part of the pleasure of any kind of fantasy is obviously its transformative quality. Blah is turned into blah-blah. The ordinary is invested with meaning. And people like to leave it there: "it's a game of what-if." But: why? Why play that game? To what end? I'm more prepared at this point to survive a zombie apocalypse than to cope with aging, taxes, retirement, etc. Isn't constant war-gaming of the never-going-to-happen inherently at the expense of thinking about the definitely-will happen? But it’s not just magic words, in isolation. BLUE BEETLE reminded me how DC combines the most ridiculous fantasies with these straight-laced nards; how much I liked that. Marvel characters are hippies, dopers; what Mamma Carlson would refer to as dungarees. The DC characters are ludicrous children’s fantasies grafted onto squares, fuddy-duddies, buzz-cuts. Total nards-- it's great. There’s a moment in the last issue where Guy Gardner appears—it was the first time in such a long while that I was really happy reading about DC characters. The entire book wasn’t “Here is why Guy Gardner is important; he’s like Jesus; is your blankey comfy?” ala Grant Morrison's All Star Guy Gardner. It was nice and simple: I like Guy Gardner; Guy Gardner's promising me violence; violence is my favoritest!
They're accountants with magic rings and fairy dust wands; I like that. The DC characters never seemed broke to me, but DC has certainly been very busy trying to fix them anyways.
A Digression on "Why Do Nerdy Things Work?" --------------------------- OR "A Creep In The Deep Or Will Success Spoil Boris Badenov?"
But: let’s step back—who cares why BLUE BEETLE works? Lots of things “work”. Why even write about it at all?
I don’t know—after reading the finale, I had this twinge of "Oh great, you're not a dork about enough nerdy shit-- you needed one more thing?" It was a special moment.
Looking back, the list of nerdy crap that I have been a dorky spazz-wad for is very, very long-- but why does that stuff work on me? What does all that dopey shit have in common? Is there a grand unified field theory of dorkism that can explain why certain ideas, images, idiocies, why they're capable of burrowing under the skins of sloppy nerds such as myself? And can that theory explain why that material consumes not just my attention, but more and more attention globally at a time when attention is such a precious commodity?
Why do nerdy things work? In addition to everything else: Why alien invasions? Why superheroes? Why BLUE BEETLE? I don't like most of the obvious explanations. "Nerdy things let ordinary people fantasize about being the hero." First of all, blech, that's condescending. Secondly, also untrue: zombie movies aren't fun because you fantasize about being a hero; they're fun because you fantasize about what you'd do if your neighbors wanted to eat your brains. Or there's themes: "Nerdy things work because they create an alternate and heightened context in which to examine relevant themes from a fresh perspective." Obvious example: your Buffy's of the world, create a fantasy universe where high school is a battle between good and evil, and let us see its themes of growing into an adult from a different angle.
This isn't a bad theory but I'm pretty dismissive of it anyways because of the horrible results it leads to. Comics about how "the X-Men are a metaphor"? Batman comics about the effect of his parent's death on his psyche, or some shit? That's my least favorite stuff. I underwent five teeth-grinding hours of James Cameron's liberal white guilt so I could watch robots fight dinosaurs for a half-hour. Not the other way around. I don't know that watching robots fight dinosaurs gave me a fresh perspective on anything; I don't think I asked it to.
Also, if my recent experience is any indication, comic fans: by and large, not so psyched about metaphors. People love to say the X-Men are metaphors for nice things, things that flatter them, but if you say that an X-Men comic works as a metaphor for something that doesn't conform to their sensitivities? Fans not going to throw a pep rally for you, it turns out.
BLUE BEETLE doesn't really support any of the foregoing hypotheses. For me, the crucial thing about BLUE BEETLE is that the first 21 issues didn't do anything for me, that I hated them, but that the last last 4 succeeded-- succeeded regardless of my having hated what preceded them, succeeded despite those previous 21 issues.
None of the above can explain that to me.
And as time passes-- more than a year and a half has passed since this series of essays started, longer since most of BLUE BEETLE's ardent fans have read the series. If you read it, what do you remember of it? Comic fans so often get accused of trying to recreate the past, but what do any of us really remember of the comics we grew up on? For me, the bad of BLUE BEETLE dropped away a long time ago; what's left? Just fragments, smoke really, just of the good parts, just of the best parts. Not even memories; just... a half-memory of a feeling. That's what fans are trying to recreate? Does any of the above explain that? Does anything? You could try to fashion an argument out of "escapism", of course. When something "works", I get to take a vacation from my incessant internal monologue of worries, anticipations, whatever. But nerdy things hardly have a monopoly on that. I spent five horrible hours with myself sitting through AVATAR; I took a vacation from myself watching THE HURT LOCKER. I found escape equally in STAR TREK, and in A SERIOUS MAN-- escapism alone isn't enough of an answer.
Maybe this question, maybe the answer is unknowable, inherently unknowable. According to the Wikipedia page on Cool (Aesthetic), which I consult before getting dressed every morning, there is the dilemma of "Cool as Elusive Essence," that what is "cool" is a real but unknowable property, something that exists but can only be sought after, something that can only be observed but ceases to exist upon observation. Bruce Lee: "Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot." Carl Weathers: "There's still plenty of meat on that bone. Now you take this home, throw it in a pot, add some broth, a potato. Baby, you've got a stew going."
Maybe this would be easier if we could all meditate on BLUE BEETLE until our chakras were good and we could get our third eye to open up. Maybe this would all be easier if we were Carl Weathers.
Some of the pleasure of the finale is watching the math being done. "That story set up this, this story set up that, etc." An earlier story about Blue Beetle investigating his origins set-up the magic words. An earlier story about Guy Gardner set-up his appearance in the finale. There's a panel early on where they jam all their math in, so you don't miss it ... The sentiment is dull, the dialogue is nothing special, the Spectre story referenced therein was a skippable inventory issue, but... I just get this little buzz from seeing the math. It's a signal. It signals that this is the story that the BLUE BEETLE team had been working towards the entire run, from the outset.
Which: is not a small thing for me. I don’t like the finale because it's an important story in the arc of Blue Beetle; I could give a fuck; that character is a douche. It's that it's the first arc where I felt like something was at stake for the creators. The early issues have a desparation to them; the finale is the only place where I felt like they had a chip on their shoulders. Something to prove. Some energy to share.
98% of a magic act, the magician makes my skin crawl. That is one creepy fucking profession; magicians? Creepy people. But that bit at the end where they go "Is this your card?" I love that bit because underneath that, there's always that little energy from the magician of "Fuck you, suckers.” Love that part.
A Digression on "DC Comics in the 00’s" --------------------------- OR "The Hobgoblin of Small Minds"
DC Executive Editor Dan Didio, February 2006, Promoting Infinite Crisis: Didio explained that one of their more knowledgeable writers had been hired to "build a bible of all the characters for the other writers" to use. "Consistency in characters is what we're shooting for."
Dan Didio, February 2006, Promoting the Launch of 52 and Brave New World: “One of the things that is going to be accomplished in 52 and in the year that the story will be told, is that it reestablishes the tonality and the vision of the DC Universe, and what Brave New World does is it gives a sense of that new direction also, but in smaller bites."
Dan Didio, March 2007, Promoting the Conclusion of 52 and the Launch of Countdown: The next question led to DiDio talking about how while Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's Batman was coming out at the same time as Ed Brubaker and Cameron Stewart's Catwoman, he saw a need for more consistency and cohesion in the DC Universe since those books were so different.
Dan Didio, March 2008, Promoting Final Crisis: "My hope is that [after Final Crisis] what we’ll see is a very exciting direction and tonality for our universe, and more importantly a very clear interpretation of who our characters are and what they represent, so that people who’ve jumped on board with Final Crisis have a real idea of the style and tone of the DCU."
Dan Didio, December 2009, Promoting Blackest Night: "It's one of the things I've wanted to do ever since I got here, and it never seemed right. But now it seems right. One of the things we're looking at, post-'Blackest Night,' is a very locked down sense of the rules and sensibilities and interpretations of our characters, and we don't plan to be reworking them as sporadically as we've done in the past."
"But now it seems right"...
*** I guess what strikes me the most about the finale is how Booster Gold had never appeared in the series until that final, climactic moment. As I alluded to above, Booster Gold and Blue Beetle had been the “buddy team” of the DC Universe for years. But in this series, Booster Gold is only mentioned briefly in the first issue-- he names the title character, but is then missing from his life. Anytime anyone said "Blue Beetle" he was there, his ghost-- just not actually around.
Like some deadbeat dad, only giving his approval at last once Blue Beetle has fully entered the World of Men, DC Universe style. The finale ends with Blue Beetle being made whole, with the absence at the heart of that character being filled.
There is that theory, of course-- that nerdy things work because we are in some way, all broken, with our own... holes that need filling (eeew!).
The finale of BLUE BEETLE ends with an image I'm always a sucker for-- a hero surrounded by his family, the one he was born with, the one he obtained through his adventures. Oh man, I always love that type of imagery. I don't think too much about why that is.
Do racist child molestors exclusively rape kids of their same race, or do they exclusively rape kids of other races? I would guess it'd be one or the other, but: which? Maybe that’s why the only people wondering why nerds exist are steroid cases: there are answers but we wouldn't want to do what it takes to find out what those are. Not unless we were all seriously roid-raging.
On the other hand: aaah, fuck that theory. Maybe there's something wrong with the rest of you. Or probably. Or ... okay, near certainly, there's something wrong with the rest of you, but: not me, buddy, not me. I don't like Doctor Who or The Master because I'm some kind of tragedy case, ‘cause this shit's a Lifetime movie. I like them because the Master is basically the best villain ever. Basically. And sometimes a guy has to take a break from living it to the limit, people. So, yeah, I don't actually think I need Blue Beetle's fucking pity...? Well: I don't think I need Blue Beetle's fucking pity YET. Cue: heroin.
LONG WAY DOWN (ONE LAST THING):
And it's the end of the decade. What one might very reasonably argue has been the greatest decade in comics history.
This year, there were books I liked; books I loved. There was ASTERIOS POLYP; there was GOGO MONSTER. I read Tezuka; I read Tardi; I revisited STRANGE DAYS; I reread Feiffer (again). I read manga and minicomics; I read art comics and webcomics; I bought art books. I liked the first issues of UNDERGROUND, DAYTRIPPER and FORGETLESS. I thought that comic the AVIATRIX was hilarious. I liked a couple superhero stories-- I liked Kelly Link's short story "Secret Identity;" I liked that UMBRELLA ACADEMY sequel some. I related to that new issue of PHONOGRAM, which would be wildly embarrassing if it weren’t so obviously the case. People I know released some well-received comics into the world; I made some comics, even.
I wasn't very happy in 2009 anyways.
Apparently, I’m not completely alone: Messrs. Tim Callahan ("something's missing"), Chad Nevett ("I think people are just tired... I can't really defend things."), David Brothers ("I’m bored to death"), Dr. Geoff Klock("It's diminishing returns... it is time to stop showing up on Wednesdays..."), Alan David Doane ("I have to admit that I have not been reading a lot of comic books lately"), and well... me in my last essay, according to some of you ("I'm pretty sure whoever wrote this comic is the Green River Killer, guys. I've been spending time in the crime lab, and I think I just cracked this mother wide open.").
Steven Grant tried writing about this a year ago: "Dreariness. 2008 was one dreary year for comics." Internet kind of yelled at him; you know: internet. Internet is welcome to yell at me, too. I don’t dispute that I’ve read great books this year. I have a very long list of books I want to write more about; should have written more about. I don’t dispute that this decade has been unbelievable in terms of how much has changed, how much has improved. There are many, many great books I still haven't read yet.
But something bummed me out anyways. 2009 was a colossal fucking bummer, for my comic nerdery at least.
Setting aside art comics and foreign reprint material, where my complaints are comparatively few, where the bulk of my pleasure has been this year... what can we say? It’d be an obvious mistake to read too much into nebulous complaints, but the sentiment that struck me the most was from Dr. Klock: "Marvel needs to find a writer for Chris Bachalo and DC needs one for JH Williams. Someone NEW. Or someone from another medium."
A new wave of comic creators to come and sweep out all that's wrong in mainstream comics? Creators from different mediums? That happened already. That was the story of the aughts in mainstream comics. That is what we just lived through. (BLUE BEETLE is arguably an instantiation of those very trends).
And what do mainstream comics look like in the aftermath?
Mainstream comics in 2009, from the viewpoint of a 1999 mainstream comic fan, is almost unrecognizable. Except for gimmick crossovers. Except for gimmick "events". Except for gimmick covers. Except for late books. Except for “scheduling mishaps”. Except for excuses.
Except for everything that is shoddy and shabby and refuses to die.
But I'm a big fan of the comics your favorite mainstream creators used to make… (Stage directions to assist you in reading this sentence: sighing while shrugging while doing that move with hands that suggests masturbation of the male genitalia, preferably with both hands held slightly above eye level so as to suggest an altogether unwholesome scenario for no real reason other than my own perverse amusement; filling your belly button with dip and then dipping baby carrots into your belly-dip; divulging things you shouldn't on the internet; regretting).
Is it just we've all gotten too old, too jaded? That's the answer others are settling on, but I don't think that's it for me. I'm the target audience for movies about robots; Transformers 2 was partially my fault. I played a video game this year because it had the Ghostbusters in it. Besides MAD MEN and the fucking amazing 3rd season of THE THICK OF IT (holy shit!), my favorite TV show right now is LOST. I am a giant nerd, and my nerdy enthusiasms are still all the way to 11. I don't think it's me; fuck, I wish it were me; why can't it be me??
I have my theories, none very good, and I could go around and around in circles on this, but we've digressed enough already and I can't promise we'd end up anywhere interesting. Why do nerdy things work? Why do they stop working? Maybe only Bruce Lee and Carl Weathers know for sure.
Anyways: who could have guessed what this decade would be like 10 years ago? Who could have guessed what a roller coaster it'd be? I didn’t like 21 issues of BLUE BEETLE; but those last 4 issues were pretty good. So, there's at least reason to hope.