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

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. 

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

The Little Bird Has Found His Song – Robin by Chuck Dixon and Tom Lyle

Looking back on the books you loved as a kid can sometimes be a harrowing journey. Sometimes, you are pleasantly surprised to see that the work is as well-made and powerful a story as you remember it to be.

Initially created by Marv Wolfman and Pat Broderick, heavily developed by Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle, and with a costume design by Neal Adams, Tim Drake is the third character to take the identity of Robin. 

But nearly everything that made Tim Drake such an indelible addition to Batman’s world was fleshed out in Tim’s first solo title. The 5-issue miniseries sees the new Robin on a globe-hopping adventure that challenges his detective skills and forces him to face up against the hard truths about fighting injustice–and growing up. 

Written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Tom Lyle with inks by Bob Smith and colors from the master of Batman colors, Adrienne Roy, Robin is a compelling parable about stepping into adulthood, draped in the intrigue of global conspiracy and action. There’s no question that Dixon himself is a troublesome figure to reckon with, but many of his harmful personal politics are absent in his work on Robin. Using the world travel as a trial-by-fire , Dixon not only cements Tim Drake as his own character outside of Dick Grayson’s shadow but cements the importance of Robin as a concept. 

There is a school of thought on Batman that he is a lonewolf sociopath driven to brutality and near-madness. He operates alone in the shadows, a grim knight of justice. 

But Batman existed for only a year before Robin was first introduced. It was the introduction of Dick Grayson, the young man who Batman teaches to channel his grief, to provide mentorship and compassion for someone who shared his loss, that fully rounded Batman. He fought for a future that Robin represented, a world where children like them could be saved before the worst happened. Robin pulled Batman out of the dark and forced him to step into humanity.

After proving his chops as a detective by discovering Batman’s identity, Tim Drake spent months as backup in the Batcave as Batman kept the boy at arm’s length and off the field. He was not ready to risk another young man’s life in the field after losing Jason Todd. But Tim was driven to prove himself–not out of revenge but a sense of justice and a desire to make a difference. While not as impetuous and angry as Jason Todd, he has the naive confidence of youth. In the stories included with the miniseries in the trade paperback collection, Tim jumps into action to save Batman from the Scarecrow despite warnings to stay out of the action. But Tim cannot let Batman come to harm and risks his life to save Batman–even if it means never getting to don the costume. He respects Batman’s wishes and the legacy of his predecessors by not dressing as Robin but  Bruce rewards Tim in the end with a new costume. 

As the miniseries opens, Tim is unsure of his own worthiness despite his relentless pursuit to become Batman’s partner. “I want this so  bad,” he says, “But I can’t tell him how much it scares me.”

His fear is not for his own safety but for the legacy of Batman and Robin.

Tim’s journey in this miniseries and, indeed, much of his time as Robin and in particular Dixon’s work with the character, is about discovering himself and the world. I don’t believe for a second that Chuck Dixon ever intended Tim Drake to be anything but straight, but the character’s eventual journey of self-discovery and coming out as bisexual is a direct outgrowth of this theme. Being a teenager is a process of becoming and discovery. Tim, as Robin, becomes a vessel to explore that fundamental human experience.

When Batman suggests the new Robin train with a master martial artist in Paris, Robin is swept up in a global criminal conspiracy. But before he leaves, he holds his comatose father’s hands in his, realizing for the first time how human and frail his dad truly is. 

It is only the first lesson Tim Drake will face. 

In a misguided attempt to save a young woman he believes to be a victim, Tim learns a harsh lesson about his own biases and prejudices about women, when the mysterious Ling ends up being a leader of the gang he tried to save her from. By underestimating her he is captured and beaten, escaping only due to his quick thinking. In his final battle with King Snake, Robin is too late to save a new friend who was consumed by vengeance.

But despite these many harsh lessons, Tim also finds his own confidence and accepts his role as Robin thanks in large part to an unlikely source: the master assassin and the world’s deadliest woman, Lady Shiva. Shiva takes Robin under her wing and in one of the book’s most memorable scenes, gives Robin an important lesson in not underestimating himself.

“You are nothing. You are less than nothing. You are a child. This is how your opponents must see you. They will underestimate you because of your age and size. That is your advantage. But you must never see yourself that way. Draw them to attack. Feign weakness. Feign fear. And strike when they are close.”

Immediately after, Robin has his first real victory in the series after being consistently beaten up and put on the defensive. Using his now-signature whistling bo-staff, he momentarily distracts Shiva and lands a clean blow, knocking her down. It is brief. But he earns Shiva’s respect.

“So, the little bird has found his song,” she praises him.

Indeed, this is a book all about finding oneself. Through the harsh trials of his first solo outing, Robin discovers his worthiness to wear the cape and stands resolutely for his values against killing even as everyone around him calls for blood. There is no escaping the hard truths of the life of a crime fighter–or any life–and Tim Drake faces many of those truths for the first time. And he doesn’t look away.

Through it all, Tim defines his idea of what it means to be Robin. Just as he came to realize the harsh truth of his father’s humanity, he in the end realizes Batman’s as well. Every night is a choice to face the impossible weight and heartbreaks of life and injustice. In experiencing them first-hand, Tim realizes that there is more to being a superhero than solving puzzles. There is a human toll.

Tom Lyle’s pencils are perfection, with an added depth and moodiness courtesy of Bob Smith’s stark inks. And, of course, Adrienne Roy’s colors cast the entire story in a neon darkness of deep blues and vibrant purples that pulse with a pop-infused neo-noir life. You feel like you are right there in the seedy alleys, lit by the unsavory neon light of the worst dives in the world. There is an avant-garde use of color that is entirely unique to this era of comics, where printing technology had advanced to allow for more detail but was still limited in its palette. Roy takes full advantage, utilizing contrasting colors to accentuate the mood of a scene and pull his characters out from the background.

Lyle also does an exceptional job capturing the awkwardness of youth. Teen characters are often drawn as essentially adults but Lyle’s Robin is clearly young and inexperienced. His rounded facial features and his scrawny height provide a vivid contrast compared to his older and more experienced supporting cast and enemies. When up against the true villain of the story, King Snake, he is insignificant. Lyle’s art drives home Shiva’s words: this is a child. That youthfulness makes the heartbreak and failures all the more impactful.

His storytelling is likewise phenomenal, using full-page images sparingly to add dramatic weight and relying on wide and overlapping panels to give the book a cinematic flair long before the Bryan Hitch era of “widescreen” comics. With Smith’s assists on inks, the art is appropriately moody for the crime thriller tone.  The shadows sit heavy on the page.  Lyle also does something I’ve not seen used very often as a storytelling trick that proves incredibly effective. Throughout the series, particularly in dialogue heavy scenes but also during key moments of action, he frames his characters within a panel in a geometric shadow. It is completely nondiegetic and nonsensical if you consider it from a “cinematography” perspective but extremely effective as a storytelling tool in comics to draw the reader’s eye to the characters. 

The miniseries defines not only Tim Drake but redefines Robin and his purpose in the Batman mythos. He is not just the lighthearted sidekick, but a vessel for the reader to view Batman’s world with fresh eyes. Batman, though he is without powers, is an unattainable perfection, a dark figure cloaked in mythologizing and larger-than-life mystique. But Robin is the all-too-human entry point. Fallable, uncertain, but committed to doing the right thing even when it is hard. Dixon’s script lays it out for the reader with great care, wrapping this coming of age story in international intrigue but always keeping Tim’s emotional journey at the center while the incredible art team renders Robin with a relatable and imperfect humanity.

In the final pages, Robin asks Batman if he ever gets tired, if he ever wonders if he is making a difference.  Batman answers “It does to me. That’s all I ask.” He observes that Batman’s mission is not necessarily about saving the world, but saving himself. 

“And why am I here?” he asks himself. “I don’t know the answer to that one. I guess my education is just beginning.”

That education continues even today, as Tim continues to learn about himself, and offers readers space to discover their own human imperfections and questions through him.