Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

11 February 2011

Blue Beetle, v. 1: Shellshocked

Collects: Blue Beetle #1-6 (2006)

Released: December 2006 (DC)

Format: 144 pages / color / $12.99 / ISBN: 9781401209650

What is this?: Jaime Reyes deals with his new powers, the consequences of his one-year absence, and supergangs in El Paso.

The culprits: Writers Keith Giffen and John Rogers and arists Cully Hamner, Cynthia Martin, Duncan Rouleau, and Kevin J. West

Last week’s review of X-Men / SWORD: No Time to Breathe has me feeling charitable, so I’ll start my review of Blue Beetle, v. 1: Shellshocked with the positive.

Shellshocked is the beginning of the first series starring the third Blue Beetle. When this series started in 2006, there was a fair amount of controversy about replacing Ted Kord, the second Beetle, so soon after his sudden and senseless death. Happily, the new Beetle doesn’t seem like a cheap gimmick or knockoff of Kord. Jaime Reyes is a teenager who stumbles across the Blue Beetle scarab and gets armor and powers. Jaime has friends and a supportive family before he gains powers and disappears; although there is a slight adjustment period, his supporting cast adjusts relatively quickly to the new situation.

Blue Beetle, v. 1: Shellshocked coverI will give writers Keith Giffen and John Rogers credit for telling a story with a Hispanic protagonist, set far away from New York or Metropolis or Gotham — Shellshocked in that west Texas city of El Paso.55 Each member of the supporting cast has her own distinct role and personality, and the interplay between Jaime’s friends Paco and Brenda is amusing. Really, that’s the highlight of the book: Paco, Brenda, and Jaime talk, if not exactly like young friends, then certainly in the manner of teenagers, playfully insulting and testing each other without going too far. It’s also refreshing to have antagonists who don’t fall into readers’ preconceived notions of their roles; the Posse isn’t a violent gang but a mutual defense society, while La Dama is a gang lord but not a horribly unreasonable or cruel one. I’m not sure why Giffen and Rogers thought a supernatural adversary with a religious hangup would be a good idea, since religion has nothing to do with the book, but at least the monster does fit with the book’s exploration of the scarab’s magic origins.

What’s not positive is the book’s reliance on Infinite Crisis and DC continuity without being willing to explain all of it. The book begins in media res, interspersing scenes from just before Jaime’s disappearance in Infinite Crisis with those from his return one year later. Although it’s easy to keep the two straight, it seems overcomplicated to keep interspersing the two over the first two issues. But there is no footnote to tell the reader that Jaime received his powers and disappeared during the events of Infinite Crisis; if I hadn't known that already, I would have been mystified, since much of Jaime’s origin revolves around that crossover. Giffen and Rogers “cleverly” insert “one year later” into the dialogue at the end of #2, despite it not making much sense.

Rogers and Giffen continually assume the reader knows information that is not in evidence in this book. Shellshocked keeps referencing Booster Gold without explaining who he is or what his connection to the previous Beetle was. Jaime is stalked for a few issues by a mysterious man in ‘40s clothes and a cape; I’m assuming it’s the Phantom Stranger, but it’s never explained who he is or his larger role within the DC Universe. I don’t even think Jaime’s surname is used during the book (although “Reyes Gas and Service” is the name of his father’s garage). It’s frustrating to never know what should be a mystery and what the writers / editor don’t think to tell the readers. It turns out that Green Lantern Guy Gardner’s reaction to the Beetle armor was a plot point; who knew? Certainly not me. If other parts of the story had been better explained, I could have made that determination. Unfortunately, DC seems to have no inclination to explain its continuity to those who aren’t keeping up with it. Honestly, are footnotes that hard?

From there, Jaime has to figure out what his armor does and what his place in his new world is. Giffen and Rogers are more successful with latter. The ability of most of his supporting cast to come to grips with the new status quo is refreshing, freeing Jaime from dealing with the angst that is often the lot of the new superhero. I also appreciate Jaime’s research into the legacy of the Blue Beetle and his outright rejection of Oracle’s invitation into the superhero community. Jaime’s struggles with his armor are less enjoyable; although it adds some drama to the story to make his powers and his ability to call on them undependable, it makes the Beetle armor a bit too simple — by the end, the reader begins to think the armor will have the answer to whatever problem the Beetle is up against. Not quite a deus ex machina; a heros [demigod] ex machina, maybe.

The art doesn’t help matters. Cully Hamner, one of the character’s co-creators, is able to contribute art for only half the issues (#1, 2, and 4). His art is the best in the collection, although the other artists are either well chosen to mesh with his style or are consciously aping it. His work seems richer and more textured than the others, and although it’s not my favorite, it does seem to work for this book — aside from the unimaginative character design for some members of the Posse and a scene where Brenda appears to phase through a pickup.

Irritatingly, Cynthia Martin, who drew #3 and part of #6, can’t seem to get the geography of the Reyeses’ kitchen straight, complete with a table and couch that disappear and shift distractingly. Otherwise, her art is sparser than Hamner’s but in a similar vein, a good fit for a fill-in artist. Kevin J. West adds some pencils for #6, but it’s impossible to tell exactly what is his and what is Martin’s. Duncan Rouleau, the artist for #5, draws a frequently incomprehensible fight scene between the Blue Beetle and a supernatural opponent; figures who are knocked around by blows are represented by rotating them 90 degrees, although it’s often unclear what sent them flying in the first place. Characters occasionally devolve from semi-realistic to cartoon caricatures in a panel or two.

I want to like Shellshocked, as it’s clearly the kind of book the market needs more of — or at least it’s the kind of book a healthier medium would have more of. It has a new, non-white hero (not that new heroes need to be non-white, but some definitely should be). It has a young hero who acts at least somewhat like a teenager and who associates with his peers, even if school is the only teenager thing he’s done. But Shellshocked’s status as an exemplar for a brave new world of comics is shattered by the crippling reliance on DC continuity, the book’s unwillingness to explain things to the reader, and unspectacular art from four artists in six issues.

Rating: DC logo DC logo Half DC symbol (2.5 of 5)

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