By Keith Giffen, John Rogers, Cully Hamner, Rafael Albuquerque, et al [Blue Beetle on LibraryThing]
Jaime Reyes was an ordinary kid, until a piece of advanced alien tech shaped like a scarab attached itself to his spine, giving him superpowers, and the Justice League dragged him into space to fight an evil satellite. Now he’s back in El Paso, trying to put his life back together after being missing for a year – and trying to learn how to control the scarab in his back, which wants to turn him into a killing machine. Oh, and the scarab’s creators, the Reach, have arrived on Earth, and Jaime’s the only one who knows they’re here to take over. Can the new Blue Beetle stop an alien invasion, protect his family and his city, and survive a legacy that’s already killed both his predecessors?
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit my bias here: Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle before Jaime and who Jaime spends much of the series fanboying, is not just one of my all-time favorite superheroes, but one of my all-time favorite fictional characters, full-stop. So is his best friend, Booster Gold, who makes a heroic appearance towards the end, and Guy Gardner, the Green Lantern who makes regular appearances in the book, is way up there. And Ted, Booster, and Guy all met in the pages of Justice League International, one of my very favorite comics of all time, and one which this series makes deliberate allusions to. And Supergirl, my absolute favorite superhero, makes a cameo, and I’m awfully fond of Dan Garrett, the first Blue Beetle, and…look, this comic has a lot of things I adore in it before you even get into the actual subject matter. I’m predisposed to love it.
(A side note: Ongoing superhero comics, particularly those by DC and Marvel, tend to presuppose a certain familiarity with up to 70-plus years of backstory. Blue Beetle is better than most in that regard, but there are certainly moments that are caught up in the history of the Blue Beetle legacy, or characters the previous Blue Beetle was friends with, or what was going on in the rest of the DC Universe at the time. If you pick up these books based on this review and are confused, feel free to email me; I can talk for hours on end about Blue Beetle. Just ask my long-suffering co-blogger, who after years of friendship with me can tell you where Ted Kord grew up (Chicago), his favorite book (The Brothers Karamazov), and what kind of underwear he wears (boxers).)
Blue Beetle is both hilarious and exciting, but the real strength of the book is the characters. This, of course, starts with Jaime, who is endlessly lovable. He’s certainly a teenage boy, awkward and impatient and goofy, but he’s such a good boy; he’s brave and smart and responsible and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone and he loves his parents and his friends and his little sister and he makes people better just by being around them. His dream is to become a dentist so that he can pay off his parents’ mortgage. And yet he never comes off like a too-perfect Gary Stu; he’s a believable, funny, kind of dorky, unbelievably sweet kid, in over his head but trying his best.
It’s very clear that this is in large part because of how he was raised. Jaime’s parents are fully realized characters in their own right, and wonderful. They expect obedience and respect from their son, but they also trust him – there’s a great scene where they lay down the ground rules for crimefighting at night (he doesn’t have to ask permission if there’s a natural disaster, but he does have to call). (Incidentally, the fact that Jaime’s family and friends all know his secret identity is extremely rare in comics, and very refreshing – rather than constantly lying to his loved ones, Jaime just trusts them, right away.) They believe in peace and the sacredness of human life, and talk to Jaime about forgiveness and turning the other cheek, but Bianca can back down a Green Lantern (one of the most powerful superheroes in the cosmos) like a naughty child, and Alberto will fearlessly face off against a mob boss who dares bring guns onto his property. The strength of Jaime’s upbringing is encapsulated in one wonderful panel: when a defeated supervillain asks why Jaime doesn’t just kill him, Jaime simply says “That’s not how my mother raised me.” Darn straight.
Milagro, Jaime’s much younger sister, is great, too – whiny and plucky and believable. One particularly sweet moment between her and Jaime led to me bursting into tears on the subway (which happened three times – between that and all the giggling, I must have looked like a lunatic). And Jaime’s best friends, Brenda and Paco, are pretty much everything I love wrapped up in a bow – Brenda is a smart, overachieving, determined and independent redhead who can flip a guy twice her size to the ground, and Paco is a big, lovably smug goofball who acts like an idiotic BMOC but is actually extremely smart and loyal. She fights aliens! He saves babies! Maybe they’re in love maybe? Shh, don’t tell them.
And the story! The series is brilliantly-plotted and paced; the second half of End Game had me on the edge of my seat. (It should be noted that the series continued after this for about ten more issues, but I haven’t read those yet.) The gradual development of the scarab is beautifully done, and the climatic battle, with all of Jaime’s allies coming together, is one of those moments that makes the reader want to stand up and cheer (the one crazy thing I actually did manage to avoid doing on the subway).
I also loved the art, which goes through quite a few artists but always has a modern, kinetic, urban feel that fits both Jaime’s character and his powers very well. It’s also refreshing that none of women are drawn in nonsensically skimpy outfits, or contorting their bodies into uncomfortable, “sexy” poses; though the teenage girls have a tendency to wear belly shirts, it comes off as oddly dated fashion more than creepy objectification.
Oh, and did I mention that the cast is almost entirely Hispanic and the setting within a Latino community is handled with taste, careful thought, and understanding? The characters never come off as stereotypes, the bilingual factor is handled well (one issue is almost entirely in Spanish, and it’s wonderful (don’t worry, there’s a translation in the back)), and – there’s that word again – it’s just refreshing to see a non-white hero leading a non-white cast in a story that’s about the character and not his race, since mainstream comics don’t often handle that well. (Jaime’s interracial relationship with his Asian – and incredibly competent and funny magical detective – girlfriend Traci is also well done and very cute.)
The only bad thing I can say about this series is that it was sadly canceled after 36 issues (the four books reviewed here cover the first 26 of those). (Don’t worry, Jaime’s still appearing in the sadly-dreadful Teen Titans and will be featured in the upcoming Generation Lost, and is a major player on the animated Batman: The Brave and the Bold, so the character, at least, isn’t going anywhere for a while.) Since I can’t fault the series for heartbreaking decisions made by the company, Blue Beetle gets the coveted five cupcakes, and a double thumbs-up from longtime Blue Beetle pal Booster Gold:
It doesn’t get much better than that, I tell you what.