Blue Beetle: Shellshocked (Vol: 8)
by Keith Giffen and John Rogers
Art by Cully Hammer
I was actually a little sad when I got this graphic novel because when I opened it up, I saw it used to belong to a public library. I'll admit to a fair amount of book greed but it's never a happy event when a public library collection is made less. Admittedly ending up in my library is better than what happens to a lot of books that are rejected from public libraries. They end up shredded and burnt. So on the balance I suppose I can call this a good deed (but seriously support your local library, you won't know you need it, ‘til it's gone).
Anyways, about the Blue Beetle, this is a hero that has been through a lot of changes. I'm going to provide some history here before I get on the review because I think it's kinda necessary. Keep in mind this isn't an exhaustive look. Blue Beetle was originally created by Fox Comics waayyyyy back in 1939, back then the source of his power was originally a special vitamin but this was dropped in favor of him getting his powers from a mystic scarab from Egypt. Dan Garret, rookie policeman, was the secret identity of the first beetle. He would have a set of powers that were defined as whatever the writers wanted him to have at the time, and he would star in comics, newspaper, and radio before the character was retired in the 1950s when Fox Comics went out of business and sold the rights to Charlton Comics.
Charlton Comics chose to re-image the Blue Beetle as Ted Kord, a student of Garret's who took on the responsibility of the Blue Beetle when Garret was killed fighting a supervillain but who did not have the powers of the scarab. The creator of Ted Kord was Steve Ditko and he tended to prefer writing about men without superpowers at the time. Ted Kord appeared as a back feature to Captain Atom in 1966 and got his own comic in 1967. Charlton Comics was bought out by DC comics in the 1980s who brought over the characters in the Crisis on Infinite Earths event in 1985. While he did get a solo series that managed to run for 2 years, his character didn't really take off for many people until he joined the Justice League and met Booster Gold. The two of them would prove to be grade A comedy material and even today remains a favored duo among the fans who remember that era. I do encourage y'all to check out those comics as the series is something of a semi-forgotten gem, under all the 80s cheese. Of course, in this world, nothing good and fun can last so after finding the scarab again but before figuring out how to unleash it's power, he's murdered. I'm not going to go into by who or how because y'all don't want this to be a 3 page rant with enough curses to peel paint. Instead let's get to something awesome that came out of that crap. Jamie Reyes.
Jamie Reyes first shows up in Infinite Crisis 5 in 2006. His solo series would start up 2 months later and would have to write around this event while creating an origin for the character and expanding(and in some ways retconning) the Blue Beetle mythos. These were actually the first Blue Beetle comics I ever read, so for me in a lot ways Jamie is the Blue Beetle and always will be. Jamie Reyes is a Mexican-American from El Paso, his mother works at a hospital and his father runs a car garage. They both clearly love their children and are struggling to ensure they have the best life possible, which was a part of the comic I honestly liked. They were fairly strict but it was because they didn't want their kids ending up on drugs or in a gang which were real worries in their neighborhoods. Jamie comes across as a good kid who wants to do the right thing and protect his family and friends but is, like a lot of us, often frustrated by the sheer amount of gray in the world and how often his role models and authority figures prove to have clay feet. I'm in my mid 30s and I can still relate to that and I'm sure a lot of y'all could too. Beyond his family Jamie has his friends Paco (a burly somewhat smart mouthed fellow Hispanic kid) and Brenda, a red haired, very smart, very talented girl with a terrible home life. I have to admit Rogers and Giffen show how talented they are when they make this clear in a single page, where Paco and Brenda get into a fight. Paco yells she's lucky boys don't hit girls and she yells back Father's do. It's a quick, efficient exchange that establishes the supporting characters while making you desperately wonder why DC comics has no Child Protective Services! The character work in this novel is pretty great, giving you a firm grounding on who all of these characters are and how they relate to Jamie and giving you a sense of who he is as well.
Unfortunately, there's a lot that isn't great. Due to having to work around Infinite Crisis the plot of the book suffers greatly. I'm also annoyed by the decisions of the writers to abandon linear storytelling in favor for jumping around all over the place time wise. You have to read the book 2 or 3 times to figure out the chronology of events as they are presented out of order with little to no identification. This is a problem because some of these events are separated by about a year. That's not a good thing and makes for confusing readers when they have to guess at the sequences of events. Additionally there's the sin of too many of other characters showing up in Jamie's story. For example, you open the book with Jamie trying to fend off Guy Gardner, aka the Green Lateran who got an even rawer deal than Kyle somehow. Guy doesn't really contribute to this novel beyond that, basically just having a fight and flying off at the end of it. You have The Stranger pop up and pop out with no explanation for who or what this guy is (I knew but I've been dealing with comics for over a decade now, if this had been my first experience I would have given up in confusion) and you have another character (no names to avoid spoilers) bopping around but he doesn't interact with the cast until the last panel! This makes for a very crowded and confusing experience and it's not a good way to launch a character.
Now this is just my opinion but in an origin story you need to give a character space to breath and time to find his or her footing on their own. Unless it's a team character of course but then just apply that to the team at large. I'm not against comic book characters having relationships with characters from other titles don't get me wrong but you need to give them the space to be their own characters so they don't get defined by their relationships to other more established characters. Additionally, their origin story should be able to stand on it's own and demanding that I hunt down an entirely different series just so this story makes sense is at best dirty pool. This should be Jamie's story, instead it feels like a small piece of a bigger story without any clear links. The character work is great and I enjoyed it but the plotting and the storytelling is rough at best and all over the place at worst. Combined, this makes for the mirror opposite of last week review, where the plot was well done but the character work scant and thin. I like Jamie Reyes so I would love to give his first graphic novel a good grade but... It's not to be. Blue Beetle: Shellshocked gets a C-. Better luck next time.
I think I need to go back and read a novel. Next week, the Jennifer Morgue by Charles Stross. Keep reading!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen