You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Me personally, I’ve always been a huge Blue Beetle fan, and am still missing Mr. Ted Kord. However, Ted Kord was not the first Blue Beetle to appear in comics. In fact, the Blue Beetle goes back a lot farther than you might expect? How far, you ask? How does 1939 sound? Let’s get right to the facts, shall we?
Fox Feature Syndicate is little remembered these days as a Golden Age publisher of comics, but business was booming for them back in the 1940s, thanks mostly to an unexpected hit, one that first premiered almost as an afterthought, in a four-page story in the closing pages of MYSTERY MEN COMICS #1 (August 1939) written and drawn by Charles Wotjkowski, a.k.a. “Charles Nicholas.” The character? A Green Hornet knockoff called “The Blue Beetle.” With not much in the way of an origin, superpowers or even a motivation, the Blue Beetle just showed up and started fighting crime, and for whatever reason, the name and the character must have just clicked with the readers, because before long the Blue Beetle was far and away the star of MYSTERY MEN COMICS, earning the cover and first position in the contents within a matter of months.
At his inception, the Blue Beetle was secretly police patrolman Dan Garrett, who fought the forces of evil with nothing more than his fists, his wits and a chainmail costume which, the stories would remind, made the Beetle “almost invulnerable.”
By 1940, not only was the Blue Beetle given his own book, he was suddenly given superpowers as well. As super-powered characters like Superman, the Human Torch and Captain Marvel suddenly gained massive popularity, the folks at Fox Feature no doubt decided to juice up the Blue Beetle to keep him in line with the competition. Accordingly, the Beetle suddenly met up with a genius scientist named Dr. Franz, who helpfully supplied Dan Garrett with the mysterious Vitamin 2X, which granted him super-strength and invulnerability (which, coming on top of the chainmail, seems a little like overkill, but whatever). Dr. Franz didn’t last all that long, but the Beetle’s superpowers stayed.
The Blue Beetle’s run of popularity continued through the early forties, as the character earned not only a daily newspaper strip (drawn by none other than Jack Kirby), but also a radio show. And understand: in the pre-television days of the 1940s, a radio show was just about as big-time as you could get, the equivalent of a network TV series nowadays:
”Sweeping down upon the underworld to smash gangland, comes this mysterious all-powerful character who’s a problem to the police, but a crusader for law! In reality, Dan Garrett, a rookie patrolman loved by everyone, but suspected by none of being – the Blue Beetle! As the Blue Beetle, he hides behind a strange mask and an impenetrable suit of blue chain armor, flexible as silk, but stronger than steel!”
Airing twice a week, “The Blue Beetle” featured character actor Frank Lovejoy as Dan Garrett/Blue Beetle, and lasted for 48 episodes before falling to cancellation. The Beetle had a little more staying power in the comics. While MYSTERY MEN COMICS was cancelled in 1942, BLUE BEETLE remained in publication until 1948, surviving longer than many of its contemporaries, after the superhero craze in comics had well died down. After a brief revival in 1950, Fox Feature went out of business, and that was it for the Blue Beetle.
Or so it would seem. Several of Fox’s characters wound up being acquired by another publisher, Charlton, with the Blue Beetle being at the top of the list. After reprinting a few of the Fox Beetle stories in 1955, Charlton started over with the character in 1964, keeping the name and the costume but discarding everything else. In the character’s new premiere in BLUE BEETLE VOL.2, #1, writer Joe Gill and artist Tony Tallarico reconceived Dan Garrett as an archaeologist who makes an amazing discovery while excavating the tomb of the Egyptian ruler Kha-Ef-Re: an azure blue scarab, which he finds himself compelled to touch.
Upon grasping the scarab, Garrett has a vision, in which a mysterious pharaoh-type informs him that he’s been given a gift, that the fates have chosen him to be a champion for all mankind. By possessing the scarab and speaking the holy words “Kaji Dha!” Garrett is transformed into the Blue Beetle!
Charlton’s Beetle had a bit more going on in the superpowers department than Fox’s did, with the new and improved Beetle boasting not only super-strength, but flight, telescopic vision, and the ability to fire bursts of lightning (sometimes from his eyes, sometimes from his fingertips).
The new Blue Beetle found himself building up a rogues gallery fairly quickly, facing off in rapid succession against such sinister foes as Mr. Thunderbolt, Mentor the Magnificent, Magno-Man, the Red Knight, Mister Crabb and his Sinister Scorpion, and of course, my personal favorite, the Praying Mantis Man.
Unfortunately, Charlton’s revised Blue Beetle didn’t seem to catch on with readers, and after two five-issue stints, one in 1964 and one in 1965, the character was shelved. However, having presumably paid good money for the character, Charlton wasn’t about to let him lay fallow for too long, and as luck would have it Charlton suddenly found itself with an ace in the hole to play toward the Beetle’s success. The ace in question? None other than SPIDER-MAN co-creator Steve Ditko.
We’ll talk about him next week.