1987 And All That: Blue Beetle #8-19

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

Blue Beetle #8-19 (DC) by Len Wein, Joey Cavalieri (#12), R.J.M. Lofficer (#14-15, 17-19), Paris Cullins (#8-9, 11-14, 17-18), Chuck Patton (#10), Ross Andru (#15-16, 19), Dell Barras (#8-15), Danny Bulanadi (#16-17, 19), Carl Gafford (#8), Gene D'Angelo (#9-19), John Costanza, Karen Berger (#8-13), Denny O'Neil (#14-19)

To be a superhero requires a certain amount of optimism. It's not just about having power, but also about believing that you can use that power to make an actual difference. It's about picking the good side in the never-ending good-vs.-evil conflict that rages within and around us all, and convincing yourself and the world that you're contributing something, that you're genuinely helping your side win in the short- and/or long-term. I suppose this requires some level of ego/arrogance, too, and probably more than a little delusion. The titular star of Blue Beetle certainly possesses both of those traits, but it is the aforementioned optimism that shines through most brightly with that character and the series as a whole. Ted Kord earnestly, enthusiastically does good for it's own sake, and seems to find that it is it's own reward, too. His life is full of other rewards— money, status, romance, an entire corporation to run—but his superheroics are what take precedence and usurp most of his time, because that's what most interests and satisfies him. It even, at times, gets in the way of his other obligations, but ultimately Kord chooses over and over to put his Blue Beetle activities first since he thinks of them as the most important, valuable work he does.

Part of Kord prioritizing his superhero time above all else is that he feels honor-bound to do so, having taken up the cause and moniker of the Blue Beetle after promising his dying predecessor, Dan Garrett, that he would carry on in Garrett's absence. Yet to think Kord's sole motivation (or even his primary motivation) is a sense of responsibility to his deceased friend would be to misunderstand him. Perhaps he never would've donned blue spandex or created a bug-shaped ship to fly around in if it weren't for Garrett, but there's no denying that Kord has a natural altruism, a trust in people, and a desire to see the good in everyone. Those instincts are what really drive Kord as the Blue Beetle, informing all of his decisions (as well as his sense of humor) on the job. He does his best to avoid violence, he battles evils big and small, and he makes every effort to understand his enemies' points of view. Kord doesn't just want to knock out the bad guys and call it a day; he wants to figure out why they're so bad and, if possible, help them turn things around. He never gives up on anyone, even after they try to kill him.

Indeed, a running theme throughout this year's worth of Blue Beetle issues is sympathetic villains, or at any rate villains about whom the audience is given some insight. The entirety of Blue Beetle #8 is from the perspective of a down-on-his-luck ex-con named Ed Buckley, who's trying to go straight to support his family, but finds supervillain henchman work to be the only available gig. We first meet Buckley without knowing his background, and see him as a loving husband and father with his heart set on the job interview he has later that day (it's also his birthday, just for that extra kick). That's our introduction to the character: he's devoted to his family, and is just looking for some means to provide for them honestly. On his way to the interview, he's offered a job as a henchman for the Calculator, but rejects it initially, having promised himself he would leave that life behind for good. Unfortunately but predictably, he's turned down at the interview, though we do learn then that he's going out for a position at Kord Omniversal Research and Development, Inc., the company Ted Kord is in charge of when he's not Blue Beetle-ing around. Currently, Kord, Inc. is overstaffed, so there's just no room for Buckley, and he leaves despondent after literally begging to be given a job. Still desperate for a way to support his family, Buckley reluctantly agrees to work for the Calculator, the only apparent viable option he has. This of course leads to a confrontation with Blue Beetle, during which Buckley gets to prove how sincerely he wants to break free from his old patterns by saving Beetle's life from the Calculator. He also (surprise, surprise) gets the job at Kord, Inc. in the end. It's a story about redemption, but more than that, it's about how even truly good-hearted people can get involved with and do bad things, but that doesn't undo their goodness. Just because someone is your enemy today doesn't mean he's a villain in the big picture.

That's an idea that pops up a lot throughout these issues. There are bad guys (including a resurrected Dan Garrett at one point) who are only bad because they're being mind-controlled by even worse forces. There's an issue about a man who becomes thief and then a serial killer in a misguided attempt to cure his own leukemia. Kord discovers that one of his employees, Angela Revere, is the niece of the supervillain Chronos the Time-Thief, and that she's been secretly helping Chronos for quite a while by stealing equipment from Kord, Inc. Rather than fire Angela or lump her in with her malevolent uncle, Kord empathizes with her struggle of doing the right thing versus helping her family, and forgives her completely for her role in the wrong-doing right away. One bad decision does not a bad person make, and Kord wants to tap into everyone's reasons for their evil actions and shine a light on them, rather than merely win a bunch of fights.

Kord's positivity is not unwavering. Both he and the comic are realistic about how awful and dangerous life can be, especially for a superhero. He loses his close friend and advisor Curt Calhoun, first to an accident in a lab at Kord, Inc., and then immediately afterwards to the supervillain Mento, who uses the accident as an opportunity to take over Calhoun's mind. There's no denying the tragedy of that situation, which is exacerbated by the fact that, after a few issues of fighting, Mento teleports himself, Calhoun, and the rest of his mental prisoners away to some unknown location where Kord cannot follow. And it's not even entirely for his own sake that Kord is disturbed by these events; he's also concerned with what to tell Calhoun's family, and with Calhoun himself, now the unwilling servant of a criminal lunatic. Kord recognizes openly and out loud more than once how dismal the whole thing is, and how unfair, so he lets it affect him deeply as it happens. But he doesn't allow it to define or overwhelm him, because he still has other responsibilities, other good to do, and no one loss is going to get in the way of his future victories.

That's the most prominent, personal example present here, but throughout these stories Kord is mature and intelligent enough to see the bad as well as the good. He's forced to admit to himself that he cannot solve all the problems of Chicago's homeless population, his company is bombarded with explosives, he watches Dan Garrett die in his arms twice, and so on and so forth forever. There's never a true end to the negativity, but Kord doesn't let it beat him, believing even in his lowest moments that good can prevail, that his efforts as the Blue Beetle are in fact improving the state of things overall. By-and-large he's right, and we see him make a difference in the lives of many, so Blue Beetle as a book has an underlying spirit of positivity that matches its main character's attitude.

Len Wein writes these issues—with a scripting assist by Joey Cavalieri on one issue, as well as special thanks given to R.J.M. Lofficer on five, see above—and he does a pretty great job of steadily maintaining the atmosphere of realistic optimism. Kord is an upbeat guy living in a world he sees as hopeful and essentially good, yet he acknowledges and deals with its darker, more depressing aspects every day. Even when his life is on the line, Kord never lets go of his positive outlook, cracking wise in the middle of combat and asking his opponents to explain themselves in the hopes of finding common ground or a peaceful resolution. He's an inspiring protagonist without ever becoming overly sappy or hamfisted with his message of optimism. I don't even know if it qualifies as a message, per se; Kord isn't actively interested in making others see the world like he does, and neither is Blue Beetle as a comic, necessarily. It's not preaching so much as it's offering to the readers a star who can keep his head up no matter how grim things become. That's a fun kind of character to root for, and Wein knows just how to play him.

The two most frequent pencilers on Blue Beetle are Paris Cullins and Ross Andru, typically inked by Dell Barras and Danny Bulanadi, respectively, with the colors done primarily by Gene D'Angelo. The art is generally reliable, clear, and clean, with Cullins doing slightly better work on the big, sprawling actions scenes, and Andru delivering a stronger Beetle, more athletic and thus a little less goofy-looking. What both artists do very well, and the thing their work most clearly shares in this series, is finding a similar balance between the lighthearted and severe elements of these stories that Wein's scripts possess. In the art, however, the scales are tipped slightly in the opposite direction, so that the visuals look more serious than playful, while the writing has it the other way around. I don't know how much of that was intentional, and how much was simply an organic byproduct of Cullins' and Andru's respective styles, but it makes the artwork snuggly fit the writing in a somewhat unexpected manner, and further cements the comic's tone of consistent but tempered optimism.

Not everybody goes for the fun, funny, glass-half-full superhero story. There are those fans who hunger only for grit, gore, violence, and brutality. People like a villain they can fully despise, a clean-cut scenario of light against dark, pure good battling pure evil with no punches pulled on either side. Certainly those stories have their merits, but I tend to prefer it if my costumed vigilantes have a touch of the ridiculous in them, and if they actually seem to enjoy what they do. The whole notion of dressing up, using a fake name, and fighting crime outside of the law is inherently a little absurd, so I always like it when the personalities of the people participating in that lifestyle incorporate some of that absurdity. It's also nice when the bad guys are a bit more nuanced, when you can see their side even as you hope for their defeat. All of that is well on hand in Blue Beetle, and it's been a long time since I've come across a comic that so well-utilizes the combination of good spirits and groundedness on display in this book. Its narratives are simple, and there's nothing in either the writing or art that blows the top off the medium, but there's a heart to the title that I really admire, an even-handed approach to looking on the bright side that makes the lead character and the entire series hum.

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