Of the course of this feature, I’ve made several references to the Great Back Issue Buying Spree of the late 1990s. It was a significant event in the development of my comics fandom, yet it began due to a chance turn of events.
Sometime during the summer of 1997 or so, I was supposed to meet a chronically late friend at the Dunkin Donuts on Harvard Avenue in Allston. Tired of waiting and sick of the smell of industrial-strength coffee, I wandered into the comic shop across the street to kill some time.
My comics fandom was at a low ebb during this period, thanks to the collapse of the B&W “indie” scene and the various Chromium Age crimes against the superhero genre. My pull list down to the pair of monthly Legion titles, some manga floppies, and Sandman Mystery Theater. With little to no interest in current offerings, I turned my attention to the shop’s overstuffed quarter bins.
Mixed in with the remaindered dross of an overheated (and imminently doomed) speculators’ market was a nearly complete run of John Byrne’s long stint on Fantastic Four. While I loved the series as a kid, I had only read about a third of the stories due to a lack of cash and access to a reliable source of new releases at the time.
The combination of nostalgic curiosity and affordability got the better of me, so I dropped a tenner and left the shop with a brown paper bag full to bursting with several dozen acid-browned issues of the World’s Greatest Comics Magazine. I read through the entire stack on the long nus ride back to Woburn, and a loved the heck out of them.
Before long, I started tagging along with my younger brother during his frequent trips to the region’s biggest purveyors of back issues. At first, it was about filling the gaps of the aforementioned FF run, but I soon branched out into other areas of interest — scooping up other full runs of imperfectly collected childhood favorites, appearances by characters my younger self had been fascinated by, and interesting-looking stuff that I’d managed to pass over for various reasons.
By the time the itch subsided, the single longbox of shit I’d managed to hold onto through my high school and college years had ballooned by a dozen-fold…and yet I rarely spent more than a buck on any individual issue.
One series that I managed to acquire entirely (and piecemeal) from various quarter bins was DC’s post-Crisis relaunch-slash-introduction of the Blue Beetle. I bought the first three or four issues on the stands when they were released, but it was an early casualty of teen Andrew’s dimming interest in comics. (I wish I could blame punk rock and girls for that ebb tide of my fandom, but the blame falls entirely on D&D and videogames.)
The series was an early indicator that Crisis on Infinite Earths was not going to be the magic bullet DC had been banking in it to be. For all the hullaballoo and hype about folding a cult favorite Charlton “action hero” into the reforged DC Universe, Blue Beetle spent its short run coasting toward a foregone cancellation announcement.
Len Wein and Paris Cullins both tried to make a decent go at making the character interesting and relevant to 1980s fans, but attempting to spin ephemeral novelty into a enduringly compelling concept is a fool’s game. It also didn’t help that once you got past the “DC is incorporating the old Charlton characters” angle, the Ted Kord incarnation of the Blue Beetle was derivative as heck. He was an built on legacy formed of a vaguely familiar name (from comic strips and old time radio) and Steve Ditko’s desire to bring the thwarted Objectivist subtext from his Spider-Man run to the unmediated fore.
DC’s take on the character — as realized by Wein and Cullins’ — was eminently forgettable mash-up of Spidey, Iron Man, Batman and scores of other wisecracking, gadget-using, acrobatic, millionaire inventor costumed heroes.
As much as Blue Beetle was supposed to be a standard-bearer for DC’s post-Crisis vision, the comic reads like a mid-tier Marvel offering from a decade prior. The wordiness, the predicable plot beats, the god-awful villains…
…could have been lifted wholesale from a late 1970s issue of Spectacular Spider-Man.
After my brother and I made one of our comics-buying expeditions, we used to sit in my grandma’s living room and inspect each other’s purchases. I can still recall the afternoon my brother flipped through a small stack of Blue Beetle comics and followed it with a combination shrug-and-eyeroll gesture.
“What’s that about?” I asked.
“This has to be the most generic superhero comic I’ve ever read.”
The issue in particular that elicited his comment was Blue Beetle #7, the conclusion of the three-part “Gang War” arc (which also featured the abortive post-Crisis debut of the Question, before Denny O’Neil opted to take the character down a grittier “zen noir” path). The story was a bizarre four-color mashup of The Godfather and The Warriors, in which a off-brand theatrical Joker wannabe named “The Muse” sought to organize a motley assortment of high-concept street gangs into a force capable of toppling the Mob’s grip on Chicago’s organized crime rackets. Meanwhile, the increasingly embattled mob boss “Don Perignon” (I feel your pain, dear readers, I truly do) attempted to retain his empire and pass it to his beloved son Richie, a sullen and surly lad who wanted nothing more than to be a professional actor.
It ended with big battle royale in Wrigley Field (because if comics have taught me anything, it’s that no sports venue bothers with door locks or security details once the sun goes down) between the warring factions and the pair of costumed heroes. The Muse, having second thoughts about the chaos he had unleashed, tried to defuse the situation, only to catch a bellyful of bullets intended for Don Perignon.
The Don unmasked his unlikely (and fatally wounded) savior, only to discover…
Do I have to spell it out for you?
Okay, the Muse was Richie, the Don’s son. The entire thing was a convoluted plot to put his dad out of business so he could pursue his thespian dreams in peace.
As for all the innocent bystanders who’d been killed in the turf wars Richie stirred up? Well, I’ve known actors who’d garrotte their grandmas for a bit part in a community theater production of Barefoot in the Park, so Richie’s scheme stands out as one of the more plausible elements in this tale.
Predictable plot twists don’t necessarily have to be dealbreakers in superhero material, as it’s a genre that favors wide strokes with a broad brush. In this case, however, the (no pun intended) execution took things to an entirely familiar level of pretentious pathos.
God bless the working writer, but fucking hell that’s the type of overwrought, undercooked pseudo-profundity that you’d expect from a fourteen year old whose concept of “serious writing” was derived entirely from reading too many 1970s Marvel comics. I know this, because I once was such a creature.
“It reads like the writer reworked an old Marvel-Team Up pitch, but with Blue Beetle and the Question instead of Spidey and Daredevil.” My brother’s assessment was spot-on, and yet….
As I grow older and more jaded, I’ve come to appreciate the virtues of solidly constructed boilerplate — especially so, considering that the genre has spent the past thirty years attempting to prove its “maturity” and “relevance.” While there have been notable and enjoyable exceptions to the endless variations of grimmer-than-grimdark and self-consciously hip, it’s nice to revisit material that neither overexerts itself or feels obligated to posit itself as serious art.
Blue Beetle was fluff, but it hit all the correct notes and played an entertaining — if forgettable and familiar – tune. It didn’t pretend to me anything more than what it was intended to be — fun, disposable Bronze Age superhero fare and that’s perfectly fine by me. (Mostly.)
The only remaining question is whether this post technically qualifies as a Nobody’s Favorite or Nobody Else’s Favorite….