It looks as though the upcoming BLUE BEETLE film has managed to survive the budget slashings at the now-tumultuous Warner Brothers/Discovery Studio, so it looks like we’ll be seeing the Jaime Reyes version of Blue Beetle making its way to the big screen in some form. Personally, I’ve always been a huge Beetle fan, but primarily of Jaime’s predecessor, one 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.
Ditko had left Marvel in 1966, although to this day no one still knows precisely his reasons. The commonly held belief was that the point of contention was the decision by writer-editor Stan Lee to reveal Spidey’s enemy the Green Goblin as Norman Osborn, the father of Spider-Man’s best friend. As the story goes, Ditko felt crime in general is anonymous, and to reveal the Goblin as someone Peter already knew went against Ditko’s intentions, and the very point he was trying to make. Ditko has in fact denied that this was the reason for his departure from both the series and the publisher (although it’s easy to understand why people believed this for so long, as the very first issue after Ditko’s departure reveals the Goblin as Norman Osborn). More likely, it was an increasing frustration with Ditko’s lack of control over his work, as well as a lack of credit, as Ditko was reportedly doing most of the plotting on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, with Lee still receiving full credit as writer. Whatever the reason, by sixty-six Ditko was gone, baby, gone, and Charlton was only too happy to give him a new home.
In an earlier, pre-Marvel stint at Charlton, Ditko had (with writer Joe Gill) created the character Captain Atom for them, and when he returned to the publisher in ’66, he returned to the character as well. More relevant to our discussion, a completely reconceptualized Blue Beetle also made its debut as a backup feature in the series, appearing in CAPTAIN ATOM #83 – 86. The character was quickly deemed popular enough to warrant its own magazine, leading to the premiere of BLUE BEETLE #1 in June 1967.
An interesting note, if you’ll take a look at the cover. Nowhere is it remotely evident that it was the series’ first issue. Back in these pre-collector-mentality days, a “#1” on the cover was actually thought to be a detriment, as it supposedly indicated that a series was new and hadn’t withstood the test of time. In fact, it wouldn’t be until the third issue of BLUE BEETLE that a “No.3” would be seen on the cover. This wasn’t unique to Charlton, either; when the Flash was revived in 1959, his new series didn’t start with a new #1, but instead picked up the numbering of the earlier Golden Age series with #105. How things have changed, eh?
Anyway, the first issue of BLUE BEETLE drops the reader right into the middle of the action, as the new Blue Beetle fends off an attack from The Squids, a gang of masked, suction-cupped, wall-climbing jewel thieves. It’s immediately obvious that this is a Ditko production, as the Beetle fends off the thugs with a manic, acrobatic fighting style that’s reminiscent of a certain Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.
In fact, a peek at the credits reveals that Ditko both penciled and inked the book, with the script credited to a “D.C. Glanzman.” Who’s D.C. Glanzman? Well, from what I can find, (and from studying the work itself), it’s pretty obvious that Glanzman is, well, Steve Ditko. While Glanzman was a real fellow (the brother of famed military-comics great Sam Glanzman) who worked at Charlton at the time, Dick Giordano (then serving as Charlton’s managing Editor) has reportedly stated that Glanzman allowed Ditko to use his name as a sobriquet. As with so much about Ditko, his motivations are unclear. It’s been stated that Ditko felt that since often comics artists weren’t respected as writers, he felt it needed to be credited to someone else to give the work legitimacy. Regardless, it’s pretty clear to the careful reader, especially as the series progresses, that this is from top to bottom a Steve Ditko production.
Readers were in short order introduced to the Beetle’s primary weapon and form of transportation, the Bug, a giant beetle-shaped airship that the Blue Beetle could remotely control with a wrist communicator, and quickly ascend to and descend from with the help of a handhold that would lower down from the Bug’s head.
After The Squids manage to escape, we’re introduced to the Beetle’s alter ego, scientist Ted Kord, as well as his lab assistant Tracey, and Hub City police detective Fisher, who’s convinced Kord is involved in the disappearance of archaeologist Dan Garrett (that’s right, the first Blue Beetle), last seen with Kord on an expedition to Pago Island.
Both the reader and Tracey are kept in the dark about Kord’s secret, setting up the classic superhero obstacle to romance for Ted and Tracey.
The Beetle goes back out in search of The Squids, using the Bug’s high-tech antennae to try to track them down. When The Squids attack a luxury yacht (secretly owned by the leader of The Squids, a child of privilege who’s already squandered his inheritance and has turned to crime to regain his fortune), Blue Beetle is on the scene, engaging them both hand-to-hand and eventually by using the Bug to keep the yacht from going anywhere with The Squids onboard.
After a final round of fisticuffs with the head Squid, the Blue Beetle is off to his next adventure.
All of the Blue Beetle’s secrets would be revealed in the following issue, BLUE BEETLE #2 (August 1967), “The End Is a Beginning!”, again by Steve Ditko.
Here the Beetle spies a light moving about on the aforementioned mysterious Pago Island (which is apparently only a couple of miles offshore), and lowers the Bug to investigate. There he finds Tracey, who’s searching the island in the hopes of finding proof that Ted is innocent in the matter of Dan Garrett’s disappearance. And here’s where it gets surprising. Ted is confronted by the woman he loves, who’s risking her own life to try and clear his name, and what does he do?
He tells her the truth.
Imagine that. None of this “protect my secret identity” garbage. Just the truth, and a little trust. Such a small thing to seem innovative in a superhero comic, but it most definitely is, and it gives the character a dimension we haven’t seen before. Ted then tells Tracey the full story of how he became the Beetle.
Months earlier, Ted had been working with his Uncle Jarvis, an equally brilliant scientist, helping him through certain roadblocks he’d come to in his work.
When Jarvis’s lab unexpectedly explodes, Ted’s uncle is presumed dead, but in the wreckage, Ted finds a box containing a map of Pago Island and a reel of film which shows exactly what Ted had unknowingly been helping Jarvis create: an unstoppable super-strong android. Alarmed, Ted turns to his friend from college, archeologist Dan Garrett, hoping Dan would be able to help him locate Jarvis on Pago Island. Dan agrees, and the two quickly make the trip to Pago, where they’re met by an army of Jarvis’ androids.
Jarvis, it turned out, had been funded by foreign powers, but had faked his own death to allow him to secretly create an army of invincible androids, in order to eventually conquer the world himself. When Jarvis orders his androids to crush Ted and Dan, Dan Garrett has had enough, and to Ted’s shock, transforms into the Blue Beetle!
The Beetle succeeds in at least holding off the androids in order to let him and Ted try to find an escape route, until Jarvis triggers an overload blast through all the androids, in the hopes of killing the Beetle. The devastating blast mortally wounds Dan Garrett, with the unexpected feedback killing Jarvis as well.
With his final breath, Dan asks Ted to keep his secret, and carry on the legacy of the Blue Beetle, a promise Ted is obligated to accept. Before Ted can retrieve Dan’s body, a sudden cave-in forever separates them.
Returning to Hub City, Ted considers how to go about keeping his promise to Dan Garrett, without the benefit of Garrett’s scarab-induced superpowers. Using components left over from his father’s experiments, Ted creates the Bug and embarks on a crash physical training program, and the new Blue Beetle is born.
Just as Ted finishes telling Tracey his story, two of the androids unexpectedly attack once more. He quickly zips Tracey up to the Bug via the handhold, then engages the androids in a desperate battle for survival.
Finally, Ted uses his acrobatic skills to maneuver the androids down into a crevice, then uses the Bug to seal them off from the surface.
And surprisingly, Tracey lives to tell about it (usually when a girlfriend discovers a hero’s secret identity, you might as well put a target on her forehead), and resolves to assist Ted in his career as the Beetle however she can.
Issue #3, “The Madmen,” once again by Ditko, introduces a bit more of Blue Beetle’s mythology, including new villains and a closer look at some of his crimefighting gear.
Here the Blue Beetle faces off against The Madmen, a psychedelic gang of goateed bank robbers, who make off with the Beetle’s gun, which up to this point we’ve never seen him use.
The Madmen (who are classic Ditko characters in their design) are puzzled by the gun, which they can’t get to work, but decide to use it in their crime spree, and cause a panic with it – since no one knows what the Blue Beetle’s gun does, everyone’s afraid of it, in the process besmirching the Beetle’s good name. While the Beetle continues to track down the Madmen, the sudden reappearance of Dan Garrett has both he and Tracey and detective Fisher wondering what’s going on. In the climactic battle with the Madmen, Blue Beetle recovers his gun and reveals its secret: it’s a high-powered flash gun, allowing him to momentarily blind his enemies.
As for why it wouldn’t fire, there’s a secret fingertip control that has to make contact with the pistol in order for it to fire.
A similar function prevents anyone from unmasking Beetle, as only the same fingertip control can unlock the chinstrap of the mask. This issue’s prolonged fight sequence between Beetle and the Madmen is Ditko at his best, with a tied-up Beetle managing to outfight and win out over numerous opponents.
In issue #4, “The Men of the Mask,” Ditko pits Blue Beetle against a cult of masked killers, while he pursues the returned Dan Garrett, who’s gone back out on another archaeological expedition.
As it turned out, it wasn’t the real Dan Garrett at all, just a crooked associate of his who was posing as Garrett in order to profit from his reputation. While the stuff with Beetle facing off against the Mask cultists is all right, the real fun here are in the cutaways back to Hub City, as Tracey tries to convince police detective Fisher that Ted Kord has never left town, thanks to some technological assistance from Ted.
Despite her limited screen time, Tracey comes across as a very appealing character, and I was surprised upon reading these that DC never incorporated her into their later BLUE BEETLE revival.
The final issue of Ditko’s BLUE BEETLE run is probably the most similar to Ditko’s later, more personal work, and stands as an example of the kinds of issues he would later be drawn towards exploring.
In BLUE BEETLE #5 (November 1968), “Blue Beetle Faces the Destroyer of Heroes,” Ted Kord and Tracey take in an art exhibit, at which art critic Boris Ebar raves over an anonymous sculpture of a featureless, heartless man, called “Our Man,” claiming that it reveals “the true spirit of man…nondescript… inevitably weak…unable to solve the illusion we call existence.” Ted and Stacey prefer more classical inspirational art that shows what man can achieve, as does another attendee at the gallery, visiting television commentator Vic Sage:
The art Ted admires, a classical statue entitled “The Unconquered,” enrages a bunch of hippie, beatnik types at the art gallery, including one fellow who’s so incensed by its unforgiving example of human perfection and heroism that he dresses up like the other statue, “Our Man,” and resolves to return and destroy the statue. The Blue Beetle suspects there might be trouble, and intercepts “Our Man’ on his way to the museum.
Later, when “Our Man” tries to destroy a statue in the park, Beetle intervenes, only to be attacked by a nearby group of hippie-types (so identified by their scraggly beards and overuse of the word “man”), who interfere with both Beetle and the police, allowing “Our Man” to get away.
Soon Hub City is divided, between those who agree with the average imperfectionism and failure to aspire of “Our Man,” and those who still believe in heroism and the value of achievement.
It’s clear that Ditko is interjecting his own frustrations with the then-burgeoning counterculture movement, but doing so in a way that’s still entertaining and thought-provoking.
In response, Ted Kord and Vic Sage assemble an exhibit of inspirational, heroic art, which naturally lures “Our Man” into another attack. Sage and the Beetle prevent “Our Man” from destroying the exhibit, and the Beetle and “Our Man” have a terrific Ditko-style fistfight, during which “Our Man” struggles with his own inadequacy:
Meanwhile Vic Sage stops some damn dirty hippie from taking potshots at the Beetle with a stolen revolver. That Sage is quite a guy, isn’t he? What’s his deal? Well, that’ll have to be a Question for another column…
In the end, Sage and Ted Kord have the last word:
By the end of that year, Charlton cancelled their entire superhero line, and that was it for the Beetle, other than the occasional reprint. The Blue Beetle wouldn’t be seen again until some 17 years later, in of all places, DC Comics’ CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #1 (April 1985). Turns out that DC had sometime earlier purchased the Charlton stable of superhero characters, which the world discovered with the publication of that issue and its introduction of the Ted Kord Blue Beetle as a resident of the heretofore unseen parallel world Earth-4, which was declared to be the home of all the Charlton characters.
Beetle played a pretty large role in the first couple issues of the series, as one of the Monitor’s hand-picked champions in the first battle with the Anti-Monitor’s shadow creatures.
A funny oops moment about that: It’s mentioned in the series that the Beetle is chosen because the Monitor believed that the mystical beetle scarab he got from his predecessor, the first Beetle Dan Garrett, would allow him to destroy the shadow creatures. Unfortunately, it appeared that CRISIS writer Marv Wolfman wasn’t all that familiar with the Beetle character, since Ted Kord never received the scarab from Dan Garrett, which was what necessitated his version of the Beetle identity in the first place.
Beetle had a couple more appearances in CRISIS, most notably in a moment where he stands as the representative of his world in a sort of parallel-Earths powwow.
Following the CRISIS, Blue Beetle got a big promotional push from DC, first receiving a spot in the company’s new monthly SECRET ORIGINS anthology series, which was retelling the origins of its newly revised characters on a monthly basis.
SECRET ORIGINS #2 (May 1986), “Echoes of Future Past!”, written by Len Wein and drawn by the legendary Gil Kane, retold the origins of both the Dan Garrett and Ted Kord Blue Beetles, in both cases sticking very closely to their Charlton originals. The SECRET ORIGINS appearance led directly into the Beetle’s new monthly DC series, the logically named BLUE BEETLE, which premiered in June 1986, written by Len Wein and drawn by Paris Cullins.
The new series began strongly enough, and introduced a mess of enemies for Beetle, including Firefist the Incendiary Man, the Muse and Overthrow (a villainous jai alai player, believe it or not), as well as reintroducing the Madmen and bringing in established DC villains like the Calculator and Chronos.
Moreover, efforts were made to firmly establish Beetle as a mainstay of the newly revised DC Universe, which featured roles in the summer crossover series LEGENDS, and more important, membership in the brand-new JUSTICE LEAGUE series.
However, as Beetle took on more of a starring role in the new Giffen/DeMatteis JUSTICE LEAGUE (and later JUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL), his solo series began to wane, partly because his character seemed more dynamic (although certainly less serious) in JUSTICE LEAGUE, but mostly because his solo book just wasn’t very good. I mean, it wasn’t horrible, it was just kinda … meh. After only 24 issues, Beetle’s solo series hit the skids, cancelled as of issue #24. Still Beetle remained front and center in the DCU as a member of the Justice League through the next eight years, sticking around through various team groupings and incarnations, before finally getting the boot just before Grant Morrison revitalized the JLA series in 1997.
All the Charlton heroes were dusted off and united for a new team book entitled L.A.W. (Living Assault Weapons) in 1999, but the series was about as bad as that title sounds, and the team was quickly forgotten.
In the years that followed, Beetle was used in a supporting role in the series BIRDS OF PREY, with then-writer Chuck Dixon using Ted Kord as an associate and would-be suitor to former Batgirl-turned-Oracle Barbara Gordon. Most recently, Beetle was featured in a starring role once more in the two JLI reunion miniseries from Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire, FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE and I CAN”T BELIEVE IT’S NOT THE JUSTICE LEAGUE (featured in the pages of JLA CLASSIFIED). After an ignominious death in the horribly conceived COUNTDOWN TO INFINITE CRISIS, Ted Kord returned to life years later after DC decided that continuity no longer matters, and these days occasionally can be seen bopping around in the backgrounds of various DC books, which is kind of all you can ask for in these days when DC seems to only publish Batman comics alongside an occasional Superman or Flash offering. Either way, he’s back, and that makes me happy.