In 2005, DC Comics was in the middle of a reboot of sorts. The company has a somewhat notorious reputation for reboots and relaunches, but it’s a fairly common practice in today’s modern comic book climate.
Character histories become bloated with years worth of backstory and continuity, often creating the impression that jumping into a particular title is too daunting or complicated for new readers. Relaunching a bunch of titles with a new series of “First Issues!” creates a peace of mind; the reader can just start there and not worry about the old stuff if they don’t want to.
One of the things that used to be great about DC Comics is their large staple of what’s frequently referred to as “legacy characters.” This is something they have sadly gone away from in recent years, but the idea of a legacy character goes like this: at some point you have a hero, let’s say he goes by the name “The Blue Beetle.” One day, this Blue Beetle guy, let’s call him Dan Garrett, dies. However, he has a protégé of sorts who is with him at the moment of his death. That protégé’s name is Ted Kord. As Dan is dying, Ted promises his mentor he will carry on the legacy of the Blue Beetle, no matter what.
So Ted goes out, sews himself a costume, (also, doesn’t it piss you off how easily comic book characters can sew together these lavish costumes? I can’t even buy pants that fit), and carries on the name of The Blue Beetle in his own way. Thus, a legacy character is born.
I am absolutely in love with the idea of this. You see this playout with some of the big guns; there’s been multiple Flashes, multiple Green Arrows, Multiple Green Lanterns, etc.
One the hand, you create all kinds of narrative possibilities for the new hero. Former villains coming out of the woodwork to take revenge, the new character wondering if they can live up to the former hero’s “legacy”, the idea that the general public of this fictional world might not even know the difference between the old hero and the new one; it’s classic, cheesy, comic book stuff, and DC comics used to be full of it.
There are other added bonuses though! Aside from the wealth of narrative possibilities, it gives you the chance to diversify your character line-up a little bit. Suddenly, a world that was once loaded with super powered white dudes with one syllable first names, (Hal, Clark, Jay, Ted, etc), can start to be a little more representative of the world we actually live in.
You can play around with character power sets and histories, adding new levels of depth and nuance to the previous character’s adventures, retconning their origins or motivations in a way that might change or amplify a reader’s understanding of them, and I think most importantly, legacy characters help foster the illusion that this is a world that’s been lived in. This place existed before we came along, and it’s going to exist after; this is just the window we are looking at now. It helps lend a sense of something larger at stake to the overall universe. The best way to enjoy superhero comics is to remember that nothing is permanent, ever. The trick, is make it so the reader doesn’t notice or even care.
Sadly, there are some characters who will never get legacy treatment, at least not for any notable length of time. Superman and Batman are the two most noteworthy examples who have been replaced or gone missing at various points in their respective careers, only to magically show back up a year or two later, usually to coincide with a major film release of sorts.
It makes sense from a marketing standpoint. If Joe New Reader walks into the comic book shop and picks up a Batman book, he’s probably going to expect to be reading about Bruce Wayne, not this Jean-Paul Valley guy. Wait, why is Jim Gordon Batman?! I’m so confused! The hell with this!
You get the idea.
But one thing that’s super fun about DC comics is their inexhaustible supply of C-List characters—characters that are undoubtedly someone’s favorite, but are unlikely to be recognized by the general public, meaning pretty anything goes with them. It might just be because DC has long thrived off of the Big Three, and though the success of Arrow and The Flash on the CW has helped bolster their ranks a little bit, I don’t think they are anywhere near Marvel in terms of broad character recognition.
One of my all-time favorite examples of a legacy character is from 10 years ago, when Ted Kord, the second Blue Beetle, (there have been three) was killed off as part of Infinite Crisis, (one of those reboot events that I mentioned earlier), and replaced a by Hispanic teenager named Jaime (pronounced HA-EE-MEH) Reyes.
Jaime was noticeably different in almost every possible way from the previous two incarnations. He was young. The Scarab that gave Dan Garrett chainmail and a generic power-set, and Ted Kord nothing, gave Jaime some kind of weird armor—and fused itself to his spine. It was entirely forced on him, and what I think is the biggest difference, aside from the power-set, is that he didn’t try to hide his identity from his family. The supporting cast of the book itself is great, but a teenager’s interaction with his family, Jaime’s in particular, as part of his superhero life isn’t something we often see, unless there’s a severe level of tragedy associated with it. It was refreshing, like many aspects of the title, which I won’t spoil here.
The costume design itself is excellent. It’s completely unique to the character, a wild departure from what we know and love, with a little throwback to the Ted Kord costume on the chest. It’s subtle and loud all at the same time.
The series, simply titled Blue Beetle, was co-written by Keith Giffen and John Rogers, with art initially by Cully Hamner and later Rafael Albuquerque, only lasted about 36 issues. Rogers later took over by himself around issue #10, but the first 25 is really where the magic is.
It has this slow burn of mystery to it, much of which was eventually adapted and altered for the Gone Too Soon television series Young Justice, so I imagine for some, the mystery of the Scarab and its origins won’t be a surprise, but the way everything ties full circle into the Blue Beetle mythos is so rewarding.
There’s also a good sense of humor to it and fun little Easter eggs. For example, the Scarab that bonded to Jaime’s spine that only he can hear,(Ozmodiar?) speaks to him in a seemingly undecipherable language, which you can actually translate! It’s a fun little sense of detail, and it’s nice to see that thought was given to what the Scarab was actually saying, when it easily could have just been a throwaway.
It’s also funny.
I remember working in a comic book store when it first launched, and I immediately adored it. It might be due to a certain level of bias, as the Blue Beetle has always been one of my favorite characters, but it drove me bonkers how often some of the customers would shit on it, without even giving it a chance, ‘cause, nerds, I guess.
This is just smattering of the kind of things I would overhear or be told when recommending the book to customers or whoever.
“It’s not MY Blue Beetle”
“Eh, looks like a Hispanic Spider-Man.”
“Why is he in El Paso? What the fuck?”
“Well, his name looks like Jay-me, so that’s what I’m going to call him.”
And so on.
While there was a bit of Nerd-Stubborness associated with some of these comments, there was also this gross low-key racism hovering around it, as if a teenager who was anything but a white kid from Queens couldn’t be a Bug-Related Superhero, or learning his name was really fucking hard.
Given the reaction from some when Miles Morales debuted some 5 years later, I can’t say I was surprised. It was disappointing, and I applaud DC for at least trying to make the Jaime Reyes version of this character as central as he could have been. He had multiple television show incarnations, (much of which were informed by this book) toys, merchandise; it seemed like Jaime was everywhere, and while I couldn’t be happier, some people, well, weren’t
The biggest annoyance, (aside from the racism, which is a level beyond annoyance and goes into pure disgust) from the detractors though, was the idea that this kid was an imposter, that because he wasn’t Ted Kord, he didn’t matter. This book was definitely canceled before its time, and like a lot of Super Hero titles that die early, it was a matter of low sales because people refused to give it a chance, not low quality, and that’s a fucking bummer.
Ted Kord is a great character, but if you look at anything past 1992 in DC Comics, he was largely irrelevant. The character’s biggest claim to fame, aside from his stint in the Justice League International came in the Countdown to Infinite Crisis One-Shot, where he was shot in the head, and given a gruesome and seemingly pointless goodbye, which served to create something new. In this sense, a character who hadn’t been featured in his own book in well over 20 years, now became a symbol for something else.
In the new Blue Beetle, Ted Kord became a kind of martyr.
This book didn’t just explore Jaime Reyes and the history of the Blue Beetle, it paid a level of respect to Ted Kord that most DC characters or books never bothered to, or even thought to. The idea that him being “replaced” when he was languishing in obscurity, being an insult, is stupid, and this book treated the character of Ted Kord better than anyone had in years. And I love how it’s presented, because if this was first your comic book, you as the reader know as much as Jaime does, and that’s all you really need to know. It revels in its isolation.
In Jaime’s world, in El Paso, Texas a place largely ignored by the In-Universe super powered community because it wasn’t one of the “big” cities, you had this little pocket of adventure, exploring what it meant to take on the name of someone this kid had barely heard it. It felt quieter, outside of the chaos, and I appreciate that. El Paso very much became a part of the book’s identity, much in the way Gotham is a part of any Batman book.
There was even an issue almost entirely in Spanish that shows one of Jaime’s family reunions. English is only spoken in the issue when it’s for the benefit of characters that don’t happen to know Spanish, otherwise Jaime and his family speak Spanish. This is a far cry from the DC Comics of today that referenced “translated from Pakistanian” recently.
Other heroes and cross over events from the DC Universe pop up in the book, which always seemed a little forced by Editorial, but thankfully never felt intrusive. The writers did a good job of working these in naturally, and at the end of the day, it was still about Jaime and his adventure.
I can’t recommend those 1st 25 issues enough. The final 11 of the book aren’t bad, but they lack the same sense of cohesion that the first big arc did, mostly due to frequent changes in creative teams and languishing sales.
Also, the series turned 10 years old this month! What better way to celebrate than by reading, or re-reading it?! Happy Birthday, Jaime!
As part of DC Rebirth, it looks like we will be getting a series with both Ted and Jaime. On paper, it seems like the best of both worlds, but who knows? At least it’s being manned by Keith Giffen. That seems like a good sign.
If not, at least those old stories aren’t going anywhere.
Poey Gordon is a freelance writer living in the Bay Area.
Follow him on Twitter at ThePoey for more about comics, Gilligan’s Island 2K1 fan fiction, or decades old Simpson’s quotes. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org