02 January 2010

There, I Fixed It: Blue Beetle, #1

This is a panel from the first issue of the latest Blue Beetle comic book, published from 2006 to 2009. It’s introducing Jaime, the teenager who becomes the third and more extraterrestrial Blue Beetle, and his friends Brenda and Paco. Friendship is a major theme in this magazine, making the interplay of these three characters especially important—as well as a major source of comic relief.

At the Savage Critics, Abhay Khosla just completed a long, discursive, occasionally scatological essay about why the long story arc of Blue Beetle, #1-25, didn’t work at all, except at the end when he had to admit that it worked just fine.

I think Khozia’s overall judgment is wrong: those issues, collected in four slim paperback volumes, are the most entertaining and satisfying superhero coming-of-age story that DC Comics published in the last five years. (Robin and Teen Titans have struggled and languished.) One of the issues Khosla singles out for criticism contains the most surprising and incisive scene in the series. And even when it’s positive, the critique misses the point of the last volume’s “magic words.”

But on many details Khosla is correct. The creators struggle to cross superheroics with working-class life along the US-Mexico border and not fall into clichés and stereotypes. (Yet the company deserves credit for trying to expand its cast of Latino American heroes beyond El Dragón from The Super Dictionary.)

The Blue Beetle series undoubtedly shows all the drawbacks of deadline-driven, mass-market comics storytelling. For example, the panels that follow the one above look like this:
They provoked this entertaining rant from Abhay:

Everything about these three panels is wrong.

First, it turns a comedy scene into an afterschool special.

Second, we’ve known the main character for all of two pages at this point, and the first thing they’re telling us about him is that he doesn’t care if his friend is getting physically abused by her father. “Oh, your dad savagely beats you? Does he molest you too? That's nice. Well, I’m going to just stand over here and pop my collar and quote The Game lyrics to the sidewalk.” Let’s read about that guy every month. Look at him—“my father beats me”—and he’s rolling his eyes!
Yes, that’s what the second panel looks like, but everything else in the issue and everything shown about Jaime in his earlier appearance in the more widely read Infinite Crisis indicates that he’s a Good Guy. Maybe he’s not a Save the Planet Guy—but that’s the question behind this series.

In that context, it’s obvious that Cully Hammer drew Jaime’s eye-rolling as a response to his friends’ bickering, not to Brenda’s remark. And it would have taken only a little tweaking by the editor (usually the person in charge of placing word balloons) to make the conversation and the characters’ reactions flow right. So now we’ve got that out of the way. Go read the first four volumes of Blue Beetle, okay?

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