Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Series Spotlight: Blue Beetle

Blue Beetle, art by Ig Guara, Ruy José, and Pete Pantazis (from #2)
While DC Comics’ company-wide revamp has garnered quite a share of controversy, from its problematic-to-rage-inducing depiction of female characters to still thinking that having Rob Liefeld draw comics is a valid idea, some good has come from the New 52. A group of heroes of color have been given a new opportunity to have their own books, including the late Dwayne McDuffie’s black teen hero Static and a fan-favorite Chicano with alien power-armor, Jaime Reyes, the third Blue Beetle.

Jaime originally debuted in 2006, during DC’s Infinite Crisis event. From there he was thrust into his own monthly series, critically-acclaimed for its depiction of a minority teen hero with strong family ties and a well-developed supporting cast (even tying the character to previous incarnations of the Beetle). Unfortunately, the Blue Beetle’s warm reception did not translate into consistent sales, and the series was canceled after thirty-six issues. Despite the loss of his solo comic, our blue hero found himself in the pages of Teen Titans and with a prominent role in the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold, turning to the caped crusader for guidance as a new hero. But now Jaime has a new shot at being in the spotlight, graduating once more from secondary character to headliner.

Written by Tony Bedard, penciled by Ig Guarra, and inked by Ruy José (not Ryu José), the first two issues of Blue Beetle retell Jaime Reyes’s chance encounter with the Scarab, the alien artifact that transforms him into a flight-capable champion with more built-in weapons than a suit of Iron Man armor. It is obvious from the beginning that this is a full reboot of Jaime’s short history, offering new readers a chance to jump in without any concerns of continuity. Unlike in his previous series, the origins of the Scarab are not presented as a mystery to both Jaime and the reader. Because the Scarab has already been revealed as a malfunctioning tool of The Reach, a galactic imperial hive-mind, in both the Blue Beetle’s first comic series and the Brave and the Bold television series, the new comic opens with a prologue depicting its horrifying power and how it arrives on Earth. From there, the issues introduce Jaime and his supporting cast in El Paso before he gets caught up in a conflict between two super-powered gangs and ends up attached to the titular Blue Beetle.

It can be frustrating when only twenty-two pages of a comic are published a month and the writer takes his time telling the story; however, in the case of Blue Beetle, I can appreciate Bedard and Guarra’s attention to detail as they slow down to develop Jaime’s interpersonal relationships. While the action is dynamic and has strong impact with Guarra’s art, Jaime’s characterization and family/social life are what keep me interested. As the story is set in El Paso with many Hispanic and mixed-ethnicity characters, Spanglish commonly occurs in the dialogue. This can seem like an overused gimmick after the first few pages, but the tenth page of issue #1 features a conversation between Jaime and his parents that totally sold me on the idea. As a young Cuban-American, reading those first two panels, in which the interjection of Spanish phrases into English sentences felt natural, was the first time I had seen that aspect of my life reflected on the page of a comic.

Ig Guara’s art is tightly drawn without trying to look photorealistic. He carries the action well with a lot of dynamism, coupled with well-composed backgrounds that even at their simplest do a good job of conveying a strong sense of space. While his varied choices of camera angles help make they dialogue-heavy scenes just as visually interesting, sometimes this makes them appear unnecessarily dramatic. Also, the violence in the action scenes is surprisingly graphic for a “Teen” rated comic (although it’s not disturbingly gory). His character designs are cute and expressive, featuring a good variety of body types. The main cast actually looks like a bunch of developing teenagers, which is a quality a lot of mainstream comic artists can neglect. I have no gripes against Ruy José’s inking, though it appears much stronger in the second issue. [Note: This may be because he was replaced by J. P. Mayer partway through the second issue, but the art credits are not clear.] Pete Pantazis’s colors are bright and full of compliments, though I feel he relies on gradients and textures too much for the book’s clean and bold-lined art style. For me, the big artistic disappointment comes in the form of the covers. They’re very generic and hardly reflect the content (or great art) of the interior pages; Jaime doesn’t even look like a teenager! It’ll be very unfortunate if these poor covers will dissuade new readers from picking Blue Beetle off the shelf.

The creative team behind Blue Beetle isn’t afraid to deal with Hispanic characters, ideas, and issues in a clear and sincere way. These aren’t white characters with tan skin living in a redecorated New England suburb passing off for Texas, and neither are they racist caricatures (although Paco and Amparo Cardenas come off as rather archetypical so far). While far more light-hearted than DC’s seminal  police procedural Gotham Central, Blue Beetle looks like it will treat Latin American subjects as maturely as Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker did with the character of Renee Montoya (a strong female, Hispanic, and lesbian character whose return to comics I’m eagerly awaiting). I still wish I got a bit more narrative bang for my monthly $2.99 price of admission, but I can’t wait for the 16th to pick up the next issue.

Eric Alexander Arroyo is a hot-blooded junior who wears a fedora, digs giant robots, and obsesses over flowing scarves. He's spent his life wandering Florida and Las Vegas, and hopes to find an apartment in the bowels of a volcano. Although he's training to be a cartoonist, he'd rather be a crime-fighting cyborg when he grows up.


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