The Blue Beetle Companion: His Many Lives from 1939 to Today
Writer: Christopher Irving
Cover artists: Cully Hamner (front) and Tom Feister (back)
Editor: John Morrow
Publisher: TwoMorrows Publishing
Price: $16.95 US
The Blue Beetle seems like an odd choice of character to have his own “biography.” At his most popular, he’s a B-list super-hero at best, and the rest of the time, one could view him as a C-lister or worse. Fortunately, this volume isn’t so much a study of the character’s history but of two businesses that published his adventures in the Golden and Silver Ages of Comics… and of the men who kept the Beetle machine ticking for decades. Irving’s history — derived not only from interviews he conducted but from other sources as well — is more comprehensive the further back one goes in time. The Blue Beetle Companion could have been a tedious read, but Irving uses the personalities of the real people behind the paper protagonist to bring drama and humor to the factoids and timelines that serve as the skeleton of this project. Ultimately, this book will appeal to a limited niche market, but that’s the bread and butter of TwoMorrows publications in the first place. With any luck, younger, newer readers who are fans of the newest incarnation of the Blue Beetle might be drawn to this volume, and if so, it will open their eyes to the wonder and weirdness of the medium, not to mention a weasel or two.
The Golden Age Blue Beetle owes his existence not necessarily to any comics writer or artist in the late 1930s, but to an ambitious but possibly shifty businessman named Victor Fox who saw the emerging genre of super-hero comics as his ticket to the big time. The men who helped to craft the ever-changing character through the years reads like a who’s who of comics pioneers and innovators: Will Eisner, Jerry Iger, Lou Fine, Robert Kanigher, Steve Ditko and so many more. Though far from a household name, the Blue Beetle is the super-hero icon that never was, forever eclipsed of more popular pop-culture players.
The design sense that’s gone into this book is sharp, and it looks so slick that the reader almost forgets that this is a black-and-white magazine rather than a glossy, color publication. The grey space of the text is broken up nicely by the various photos and comic art that’s interspersed throughout. I’m quite pleased Irving went to the trouble of finding photographs of the people involved in these comic creations, as they really take the reader into history and behind the scenes. Furthermore, the photos tend to originate from the eras being discussed. Irving also includes a lot of Golden Age art, not only from the Blue Beetle comics, but from a short-lived Blue Beetle newspaper strip.
Irving’s history is much more forthcoming, even brutally honest, about the perceived sleaziness of Victor Fox and the odd way in which comics were constructed in the 1930s and 1940s. The interview subjects are honest about personality conflicts and the nitty gritty of the comics business back in its early days, but fortunately, the narrative never allows those conflicts to come off as too harsh. I also appreciated the adoration that so many of the Charlton-era folks seem to have for Steve Ditko’s work during the character’s Silver Age. The reclusive Ditko comes off as quite a kind, intelligent and activist kind of creator. Despite the fact that Ditko’s time at Charlton was really more of a footnote in his career, given how few stories he crafted during that era, he still had a profound impact on the medium by influencing so many creators to come after him.
It’s interesting and understandable to note that the more recent the history that Irving explores, the more carefully do the creators choose their words. There’s clearly two camps at DC about how the character should have been handled — either as a straightforward super-hero with Ditko flair or as the comic relief in various Justice League comics — but the creators involved obviously avoid getting personal with their remarks. Compared to the Golden Age recollections, they’re fairly mild, so I wonder how those opinions might be expressed two or three decades from now.
Probably my biggest qualm about this book is the price. Its magazine-like size doesn’t seem to call for the bookshelf-level price tag. Then again, this is such a niche-market publication, the higher price is probably the only way to ensure that catering to such a limited audience could be cost effective. Still, I wonder if TwoMorrows wouldn’t pick up more readers if the book was in closer financial reach.
To be honest, the various incarnations of the Blue Beetle aren’t original enough to merit such treatment, but the title and cover don’t actually indicate the real heart of the subject matter. The history of the Blue Beetle is also the history of Fox Publications and Charlton Publishing, and Irving’s explanations of what made those operations tick stand out as the most interesting material in the book. Those two defunct publishers had the potential to be powerhouses in the industry but for various factors, it never came to pass. Anyone with an interest in comics history should enjoy this volume. I certainly found it to be enlightening, and Irving thankfully avoids the dry writing that can sometimes plague history writers. 7/10