Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Golden Age Blue Beetle

When it comes to superheroes from the Golden Age of comic books, I think The Blue Beetle might be one of the most interesting. It is not because the character was particularly original or even interesting in and of himself. He wasn't. It was not because his stories were particularly well written or the artwork particularly well drawn. They weren't. It's not because he was a character with a modicum of popularity, although he did enjoy a bit of popularity in his heyday. Rather it is for two reasons that I find the Golden Age Blue Beetle interesting. The first reason is that despite being a fairly unimaginative creation, The Blue Beetle proved fairly successful. The second is that, even as far as Golden Age characters go, he has one of the most convoluted histories of any of them.

The Blue Beetle first appeared in Mystery Men Comics #1, August 1939, published by Fox Features Syndicate. Fox Features Syndicate was a company founded by Victor Fox, one of the shadiest characters in the history of comic books. Indicted of mail fraud in the late Twenties, Fox prompted the first plagiarism suit in the history of the medium. For his first comic book he hired the Eisner and Iger Studio, instructing writer and artist Will Eisner to more or less plagiarise Superman. Eisner was reluctant to do so, but Jerry Iger thought Fox was offering too much money to pass up. Wonder Comics, May 1939 debuted featuring a character called "Wonder Man." The end result was that Detective Comics Inc. (one of the companies that would form the basis for D.C. Comics) promptly sued Fox for plagiarism. Detective Comics Inc. won the suit and that was the end of Wonder Man. Sued for plagiarism, Fox had to get more comic books on the stands quick. Even after the lawsuit, however, Fox's characters would never be particularly original.

The Golden Age Blue Beetle is such a case in point. The character was a blatant ripoff of the radio show hero The Green Hornet, down to his name. The Blue Beetle was police officer Dan Garret. Apparently dissatisfied with the legal system, he also fought crime as The Blue Beetle. With a bulletproof costume (it was supposed to look like chain mail, although it rarely did in the series' artwork) provided by kindly scientist Dr. Franz, The Blue Beetle would leave a small beetle-shaped token as his calling card. He would also frighten criminals with a flashlight which would cast a beetle shaped image. Like The Green Hornet, The Blue Beetle drove a bulletproof car. Unlike The Green Hornet, The Blue Beetle did not use anything as harmless as a gas gun. In his early days The Blue Beetle carried a revolver at his side, and he had no compunction about using it.

Given that The Blue Beetle was obviously a very derivative character, it is surprising that he would be successful. It is even more surprising given the fact that in his first appearance in Mystery Men Comics #1 he was not treated as a major character. Not only did The Blue Beetle not appear on the cover (that honour went to The Green Mask), but his first adventure appeared towards the back of Mystery Men Comics #1 and was only four pages long. It would appear that The Blue Beetle was simply meant to be a back up feature.

Despite all of this The Blue Beetle would prove to be popular. He would receive his own self titled magazine, The Blue Beetle, dated winter 1939-1940. He was only the second comic book character to get his own title (the first was Superman). With Mystery Men Comics #7, February 1940, he took over the cover of that title from The Green Mask.

In fact, The Blue Beetle was popular enough that he would receive his own newspaper comic strip starting on January 8, 1940. The Blue Beetle newspaper strip is notable primarily because it features some of the earliest work of Jack Kirby, before his partnership with Joe Simon even began. Indeed,The Blue Beetle was the first superhero strip on which Jack Kirby worked. Kirby handled everything on the strip, from the inking to the scripting. This could well be the reason that the newspaper strip would be superior, at least for a time, to any work regarding The Blue Beetle which appeared in Fox's comic books. Unfortunately, Jack Kirby would leave the strip after the March 9, 1940 instalment. The Blue Beetle newspaper strip would not prove to be a success. It ground to a halt in November 1940.

Both the Blue Beetle comic books and the Blue Beetle comic strip which ran in newspapers would see a dramatic change in 1940. This change would occur first in the newspaper comic strip. In the March 18, 1940 instalment Dan Garret first takes a pill developed by Dr. Franz called Vitamin 2-X. The drug gave Garret, and hence The Blue Beetle, superhuman strength, greater speed, a greater capacity for healing, and heightened senses. Vitamin 2-X would first appear in the comic books with Blue Beetle #5, November 1940.

Vitamin 2-X would play a role in the syndicated Blue Beetle radio show from the beginning. The radio show made its debut on May 15, 1940. The radio show consisted of 13 minute long episodes, airing twice a week. Stories were generally two parters, so that The Blue Beetle's adventures were simpler than many adventure programmes of the day. The first thirteen episodes featured star of radio and movies Frank Lovejoy as the voice of Dan Garret/The Blue Beetle. Afterwards an uncredited actor provided the voice. The Blue Beetle radio show was relatively short lived. It ended its run in September 1940.

The Blue Beetle might have found himself featured in yet another medium had things unfolded differently. Victor Fox had planned a four page Sunday supplement featuring comic strips not unlike Busy Arnold's famous "Spirit section." Initially featuring Dr. Fung, The Golden Knight, The Green Mask, Patty O'Day, Rex Dexter of Mars, Spark Stevens, Tex Maxon, and Yarko the Great, it was supposed to roll out on December 3, 1939. It never did. A second attempt at such a Sunday supplement, this one featuring The Blue Beetle, was set to come out on May 12, 1940. It never materialised either. Fox's Weekly Comic Magazine was never published.

In 1940 The Blue Beetle was popular enough that he played a role in the New York World's Fair. On July 4, 1940 a "Superman Day" was held at the World's Fair, climaxed by the appearance of actor Ray Middleton as Superman. Not to be outdone, The Fox Features Syndicate hosted a "Blue Beetle Day" at the World's Fair on August 7, 1940.

Nineteen forty appears to have been the peak of The Blue Beetle's popularity. Both his newspaper comic strip and radio show began and ended in that year. And for The Blue Beetle there would be no more radio shows and no movie serials. Worse yet for The Blue Beetle, things would not always run smoothly in the comic books either. In 1942 Victor Fox was forced to take bankruptcy. Holyoke Publishing, a comic book company founded in 1940 and based out of Holyoke, Massachusetts, then obtained the rights to Fox's characters. Beginning issue #12, June 1942 and lasting until issue #30, February 1944, The Blue Beetle would be published by Holyoke.

While at Holyoke drastic changes would be made to The Blue Beetle. As of Blue Beetle #14, September 1942, Dan Garret was no longer a police officer, but a Secret Service agent. He also picked up a kid sidekick. It was in Blue Beetle #15, October 1942, that he was joined by Sparkington J. Northrup, more simply known as "Sparky." Sparky wore a simplified version of The Blue Beetle's uniform. Sparky appeared regularly for a few issues before disappearing. By the time he did reappear The Blue Beetle was in Europe fighting Nazis. Curiously, Sparky had by then abandoned his costume and fought alongside The Blue Beetle in street clothes. With issue #30, February 1944, Sparky would be gone for good.

It would be in 1944 that Victor Fox left his voluntary bankruptcy. He apparently engaged in a struggle over ownership of The Blue Beetle and his other characters with Holyoke Publishing. A lawsuit was filed by Fox Features Syndicate against Holyoke. Regardless, Fox Features Syndicate returned to publishing The Blue Beetle with issue 31, June 1944.

In the years since The Blue Beetle had peaked in popularity in 1940, the character had not fared well. With Fox's bankruptcy, The Blue Beetle would not appear in a comic book for four months. After Fox regained ownership of the character, there would be another four months before The Blue Beetle would see publication. Even after Fox had regained The Blue Beetle, the character would sometimes be published irregularly. There were sometime gaps up to seven months between issues of The Blue Beetle.

Over the years The Blue Beetle also started showing an amazing lack of continuity. While at Holyoke Vitamin 2-X had apparently been forgotten, as it ceased to be mentioned in the series. Once Fox regained possession of The Blue Beetle, his powers began to vary wildly. At times the character might possess no powers at all; even the fact that his costume was bulletproof might be forgotten. Other times in addition to his super strength, The Blue Beetle might be able to fly, change shape, or even grow or shrink at will. Originally a Green Hornet imitator and later a more generic superhero, The Blue Beetle started to ripoff Batman. He obtained a Beetlemobile, a plane called the Beetlebird, and a Beetleboat. The Blue Beetle's adventures became more fantastic, with the character facing everything from dinosaurs to his police partner grown to enormous size. In some respects, however, The Blue Beetle resembled the original character to the degree that Dan Garret was a cop once more and he was no longer operating abroad.

Eventually The Blue Beetle would shift back towards more realistic adventures as Fox Features Syndicate joined the trend towards true crime comic books in the late Forties. Around the time of Blue Beetle #53, January 1948, The Blue Beetle simply became a narrator of true crime stories, such tales as those of Legs Diamond and Carlo Barone.

As the Forties came to a close, Victor Fox once more found himself in debt. There was a gap of over two years between The Blue Beetle #58, April 1948 and The Blue Beetle #59, June 1950. With The Blue Beetle #60, August 1950, Fox published his last issue featuring the hero. On July 15, 1950 Victor Fox filed for bankruptcy. Fox Features Syndicate was never able to recover from bankruptcy. Victor Fox himself filed for personal bankruptcy on May 29, 1952.

This would not be the end of the Golden Age Blue Beetle. The character was purchased by Charlton Comics, who published reprints of the character in Space Adventures issues 13 and 14 (October 1954 and December/January 1954/1955 respectively). For four issues in 1955 (#18, February to #21, August) Charlton published its own Blue Beetle title, again featuring reprints. That would be the last to be seen of the Golden Age Blue Beetle.

Charlton would revive the Blue Beetle with Blue Beetle volume 3, #1, June 1964. This version would essentially wear the same costume and even possess a similar name, but it was unclear whether he was meant to be the same as the Golden Age character or not. This time out The Blue Beetle was archaeologist Dan Garrett, who found a mystical scarab in Egypt which gave him superstrength, flight, heightened senses and so on. This new version of The Blue Beetle only lasted a few bi-monthly issues, until March 1966.

It was in November 1966 that yet another version of The Blue Beetle appeared as a back up feature in Charlton Comics' Captain Atom. This Blue Beetle was the creation of the legendary Steve Ditko. This Blue Beetle was millionaire, inventor, and electronics genius Ted Kord. Among his accoutrements was an advanced personal aircraft called The Bug, the BB gun (a gun which can emit a blinding light or a powerful blast of air), and various other gadgets. The new Blue Beetle would eventually receive his own title, which would only last five issues as Charlton's superhero line collapsed. Regardless, he would develop a cult following and would see some success after DC Comics obtained Charlton's characters in 1983. Sadly, this Blue Beetle would be killed off in the DC Comics mini-series Infinite Crisis.

DC Comics would then create its own Blue Beetle. Teenager Jaime Reyes obtained the scarab once owned by Dan Garrett and passed onto Ted Kord. As The Blue Beetle Jaime possessed nearly invincible armour which can shape itself into anything from cannons to blades to wings for flight. First appearing in Infinite Crisis, this Blue Beetle received his own title cover dated March 2006. The series ended with Blue Beetle #36, February 2009.

It is difficult to explain how The Blue Beetle proved popular enough that the name would persist in comic books for nearly seventy years. The Golden Age Blue Beetle was not a particularly original character. His adventures were neither well drawn nor well written. In fact, in The Great Comic Book Heroes Jules Feiffer referred to Fox Features Syndicate as "...the Monogram Studios of the industry." As far as The Blue Beetle goes, it could be the case that he became popular simply because he was one of the very first superheroes. The Blue Beetle first appeared in Mystery Men Comics #1, August 1939. This means that he appeared only two months after Batman debuted in Detective Comics and several months before such classic Golden Age characters as The Flash, Hawkman, The Human Torch, and The Sub-Mariner. In fact, his newspaper strip debuted well before such great characters as The Green Lantern or Captain America even appeared.

Having become popular due to the sheer fact that he was one of the few superheroes around in late 1939, The Blue Beetle was able to expand into newspaper syndication and radio with little fear of competition. Exposed to a much larger audience than many superheroes of the time through the newspaper comic strip and the radio show, The Blue Beetle achieved name recognition that only a few Golden Age superheroes would enjoy. This allowed The Blue Beetle to survive through the Forties, even though his art and stories were often subpar. Sadly, the Golden Age Blue Beetle saw more success than his more original, better written, and better drawn successor, the Silver Age Blue Beetle (Ted Kord). It is perhaps a simple example that, at least in comic books, it is often being there first that counts.


J. Marquis said...

I remember reading the Charlton comics back in the Sixties.

Mercurie said...

I was actually a big fan of The Blue Beetle Steve Dikto created for Charlton. Never could figure out why he never took off.

Geek Gazette said...

When I was a kid I got an old Charlton comic featuring Blue Beetle at a yard sale. I was instantly fond of the character and began looking for more appearances. Not long after that the character appeared in Crisis on Infinite Earths, Legends and his own series, all of which I had to have. I've been a Beetle fan since then and the character is with out a doubt my all time favorite, long before he gained popularity in the JLI. The same thing goes for Booster Gold. I was reading and enjoying both of them before Giffen's Justice League ever appeared.
I don't have any of the Golden Age comics (except in digital form) but I do have the radio shows and I listen to and enjoy them regularly. I only wish the character had been treated with a little more respect my DC while he was still alive.The only reason I started collecting Project Superpowers was because of their use of a Blue Beetle homage character.