comics, comics criticism, dc comics, rearview mirror, writing

Blue Beetle: Community Hero

With this week’s release of the newest Blue Beetle series, featuring the most exciting character find of 2006, Jaime Reyes, it seemed like a good time to look back on Jaime’s original series and earliest days as a hero.

First introduced within the pages of the event crossover Infinite Crisis, Jaime is credited as a creation of Keith Giffen, John Rogers, and Cully Hamner, the creative team that launched Jaime’s series just a few short months after his debut. It’s a testament to the strong work on the character, starting with Hamner’s striking design, this third iteration of the Blue Beetle has existed largely unchanged in the 16 years since he first appeared.

Comics have been looking for the next Spider-Man for 60 years. Marvel had a few successes that never quite stuck, until; perhaps Ms. Marvel and the second Spider-Man, Miles Morales. DC has had an even tougher time making a version that fits into their world of larger-than-life heroes, despite the historical presence of teen hero sidekicks. Milestone’s Static had a long lasting appeal thanks to a groundbreaking animated series, even his endurance has been tested due to rights issues with Milestone. It can be argued whether his separation from the DCU proper is a benefit or hindrance to the character in the long run.

The closest DC Comics proper has gotten to capturing that youthful energy is Jaime Reyes, the third Blue Beetle. Although his publication history has been spotty since the cancellation of his nearly 40 issue original series, DC has tried on multiple occasions to make Jaime a fixture of their line. He was a significant supporting figure in two animated series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and Young Justice,though his footprint has been notably smaller since the initial push the company put behind him following his debut.

Many Spider-Man impersonators have failed because they fail to grasp what made Spidey such a landmark series. It wasn’t just his youth– It was that he provided a new storytelling perspective. That teen perspective brought a fresh spin on superhero stories, where the challenges of adolescence were given equal weight to saving the world. Titles that have come after that simply tried to replicate the exact formula never had staying power.

The most significant teen heroes to come after have hit because they provided similarly fresh perspectives. Static took that formula and provided the black teen experience. Ms. Marvel lifted up the experience and challenges of Muslim communities in the 21st century.  They connected with an audience with a bold and clear voice and mission 

Blue Beetle succeeds for the same reasons. Jaime is not simply a Peter Parker clone. He lives in Texas, not far from the Mexican border. He is not a science genius. He coasts along, putting in his minimal effort to survive high school without raising too much attention.

It is, obviously, questionable how well Giffen and Rogers, two white men, capture the experience of being Latino in Texas and America. Perhaps the lack of authentic voice with the lived experience has been the missing piece in making Blue Beetle ever fully break through in a lasting way. It is encouraging that Graduation Day sees someone of Latino descent writing the character for the first time (and is even being published concurrently  in Spanish). As another white man, I am not equipped to speak to how authentic their perspective is. Certainly, Giffen and Rogers take great pains to honor Jaime’s origins and unique perspective.

The first arc of the series flashes back to the days immediately following Jaime discovering the Scarab that grants him his powers and to one year later, when he returns from the events of Infinite Crisis. The split story manages to establish the world Jaime has left behind while simultaneously illustrating how the emergence of his powers throws everything into chaos. As the book goes on for its first year and a half, Jaime discovers the truth of the Scarab, the potential of his power, and the crushing weight of responsibility and aging.

Though Jaime’s origin has been slightly revamped a few times already thanks to DC continuity shenanigans, the core elements of Jaime’s world are remarkably consistent and that is because the original series’ themes are so excellently developed and intertwined with the character.

Paramount among those themes is the importance of family and community. These ideas are threaded through every element of the story. From Jaime’s friend Paco’s involvement with the “Not-A-Gang” group of metahumans known as The Posse, Brenda’s abusive relationship with her father and complex machinations of her semi-villainous aunt, La Dama, to the Reyes family, community and its complexities play an important role. 

It’s worth noting that, although it’s never mentioned overtly and is not a major element of his character, Jaime is clearly at least culturally Catholic, as many Latino communities in the Southern United States are. Having spent time in a largely Latino Catholic church, the fundamental importance of that community of faith to the culture of a town cannot be overstated. The Church is a central place of community gathering. 

The centrality of a  larger community is evidenced time and again throughout the run.

It’s that sense of community obligation that spurs Jaime into heroism. It is not any tragic inciting incident. We see in the first issues where that drive for service comes from. Immediately, Giffen establishes Jaime’s parents as hard working and compassionate. Jaime begs his dad to let him spend time after school working in their family autoshop, where Mr. Reyes spends long hours. But his father refuses. He works hard so that Jaime doesn’t have to, so that he can be a kid as long as possible and have a better future. His mother is a nurse, and our first introduction to Jaime is him taking care of his younger sister as both parents are away at work.  

In the first issue, Jaime’s father is complaining about one of his employees, Luis, and about how unreliable he is. He admits that if it wasn’t for Luis’ wife and daughter and how they rely on Luis’ job at the shop, he would have let  Luis go already. When Jaime disappears for a year and returns, he discovers his father was shot protecting Luis after someone came to collect on a debt that the man owed him. 

This familial duty and compassion directly impact how Jaime approaches his new superpowers. 

Almost immediately, Blue Beetle becomes an icon to the people of El Paso and the surrounding area, particularly its immigrant community. As Paco explains, Blue Beetle is important to the community. “We don’t get many heroes down here. Don’t underestimate how much that matters.”

Jaime is bolstered by his friends and family. He doesn’t hesitate to share his secret with them. It never even crosses his mind. He wants to be honest and open. It is that vulnerability, that compassion and love for his family that compels him to protect the people of El Paso as best he can. 

One of the most emotional moments of the run comes when Jaime remembers the events that caused him to be lost in space. After the events of Infinite Crisis, he is left in the wreckage of a space satellite when his Scarab teleports him away from the Green Lantern. He begs for the heroes to save him, but no one can see or hear him.

When the memories come flooding back, he screams out in the present-day, surrounded by his family, “Don’t let me die alone!” Jaime’s greatest fear is not just death, but total isolation. 

The enemies Jaime faces represent a threat to the larger community of El Paso and its people, or are in some way broken and isolated from their own. 

La Dama, Brenda’s aunt and the criminal queen of the El Paso underworld, collects young people with magical talent and isolates them from their families and friends. She manipulates her charges to believe they are safe and cared for when in reality she uses them to build her own mystical army. 

The monstrous and tortured Bottom Feeder believes he is cursed and forsaken by God. He lashes out on a deadly rampage to punish others and sees Blue Beetle as a herald of armageddon.

The Reach aliens pose as a benevolent species who seek to further the cause of humanity when in reality they plan to exploit and enslave.

The strength of a healthy community empowers us to be our true and fullest selves. La Dama’s involuntary detainment of mystical teens poises them to be weapons at her disposal. The Reach attempt to take over other humans as more fitting hosts who will do their bidding. They infect others with Scarab devices in an attempt to turn them into mindless weapons. But Blue Beetle is able to convince them to fight their programming, having already convinced his own Scarab to defy its killer instincts. Jaime’s heroic impulse to serve others is a constant battle that illustrates the strength of his will to do good for people against the Scarab’s call for vioence.

As any good coming-of-age superhero story, all of these struggles also teach Jaime something about growing up and reflect the inner turmoil  of being a teenager. As a teen, every anxiety and fear and heartbreak feels like the end-of-the-world. Those emotional stakes become literal in the world of superheroes. That becomes particularly apparent when the alien race known as The Reach come on the scene.The Reach were the original creators of the Scarab that granted Jaime his power. When they arrive on Earth they convince society that they come in peace to usher in an enlightened age of peace and prosperity. Their true aims are known only to Jaime.

Only Blue Beetle can see their tech and nobody believes his warnings. It’s a potent allegory for the teenage experience. You know your experiences are valid, that you have a voice worth hearing, but no one believes you because you are a child.

Above all, there is a sense of vibrant fun throughout the series. Jaime is in over his head at every turn. He doesn’t know how to fight. He relies on his quick wits, his begrudging mentor Peacemaker, and the alien scarab fused to his spine to get him out of trouble. 

That fun is encapsulated perfectly by the series’ premiere artist, Cully Hamner. Hamner eschews any traditional grid in favor of overlapping collage of panels. 

It makes for a dynamic use of space that gives breathing room to scenes. Even a page with 9 panels, like this one from issue 1 doesn’t use a grid. The frenetic and unpredictable layouts make us feel the pain and panic. 

Hamner’s iconic design presents a hero with a stunning silhouette and a slick and futuristic look that still manages to homage the previous versions of Blue Beetle. It is a testament to Hamner’s graphic sensibilities that no one has even attempted to make any major modifications or updates to the instantly classic look.

Rafael Albaquerque, who takes over as primary artist starting at the end of the first year, brings the same spirit with a more relaxed and fluid linework, as opposed to Hamner’s very deliberate use of space. It offers a similar level of excitement and unpredictable action. 

The series’ primary colorist, Guy Major gives the book a bright and vibrant palette that set it apart from much of the grimmer stories that came out in the “One Year Later” period. The optimism and bright-eyed view of the world is perfectly captured by Major’s sunny, blue skies and verdant backgrounds. 

Blue Beetle remains, almost 20 years later, a stellar example of the teen-superhero formula. As DC appears poised to once again make a push for Jaime Reyes as a banner character for their line across media (and they should!) they would do well to return to these original books as a guidepost on what made Jaime so instantly appealing. The foundations for an enduring and beloved character has been well laid.

You can buy Blue Beetle by Keith Giffen, John Rogers, Cully Hamner, Rafael Albuquerque, Guy Majors, and others from DC Comics in various collections, most recently Blue Beetle: Jaime Reyes Book 1, which collects the first year of stories. 

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