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Blue Beetle #26

Posted: Monday, May 5, 2008
By: Jon Judy

Jai Nitz
Mike Norton & Trevor Scott
DC Comics
“El Escarabajo”

So Blue Beetle just finished up two years of (usually) terrific comics, and now before a new creative team takes over, the team of Nitz and Norton have the unenviable task of filling in, just biding time before their successors take on the unenviable task of following that great two-year run full-time.

Speaking of unenviable tasks, I have one of my own: Reviewing this book, one that should have been very good at least, but ended up mediocre at best.

A story first: Have you ever heard of Pete Gray? Gray was a one-armed baseball player who made it to the majors during the WWII years when talent was depleted and owners were desperate for gimmicks and attractions. But Gray was no gimmick – he was a competent ballplayer who did well enough until pitchers figured out how to handle him. His career was short, but that doesn’t minimize his talent or his achievements.

Nitz and Norton reminded me of Gray as I read this issue. They set out to tell a story with a challenging qualification – most of the readers would be unable to read the dialogue – and they managed to get a solid base hit even if they didn’t get extra bases.

This was, I learned upon seeing the cover, the “Special: Spanish Language Issue!” of Blue Beetle, something that makes sense from one perspective – Jamie is Latino, something that has always been a prominent thread in the fabric of the book. It only makes sense that at times Jamie’s ethnicity would take center stage for an issue or two.

On the other hand, from another perspective an all-Spanish issue makes little sense. I think it’s a safe bet that most Blue Beetle readers don’t know Spanish, so is it wise to ask them to spend $2.99 on a book they won’t understand?

Of course you don’t get to work for DC without bringing some skills to the table, so I assumed Nitz and Norton would attempt a tour-de-force – a comic book that remained faithful to the protagonist’s heritage while not alienating most of the audience. If they could pull it off, it would be a neat trick. It would lend an air of authenticity to the ongoing adventures of Jamie Reyes, but it would require superb comics storytelling on their part: For this story to work, the visual half of this comic book would have to be flawless.

It wasn’t flawless.

Kudos to Nitz and Norton for giving it the old college try, for putting together what is a perfectly good comic book even to a reader who can’t understand the dialogue, but with just a couple of adjustments it could have been a truly terrific piece of comic art.

Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.

Problem number one comes when Jamie’s grandmother reveals that she knows he is the Blue Beetle. Amazingly, without the help of the English script in the back, I would not have known that “El Escarabajo Azul” meant “Blue Beetle”. Hey, don’t judge me – I’m a monolingual, stupid Caucasian; I don’t need you judging me on top of that.

Anyway, without understanding that, I missed out on the emotional center of the story and I was confused as all hell by the ending, where Jamie takes his grandmother for a fly. Um…I don’t mean he mistook her for being an insect, I mean he went flying with her like Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder in Superman: The Motion Picture. Only, you know, minus the sexual undertones. Look, let’s just move on.

So how might Nitz and Norton – OK, most of the burden falls to Norton, as he is the artist – how might they have conveyed that information? Hey, what’s wrong with resorting to some old school visual “cheats”? How about borrowing a page from Ditko’s book, appropriate in a comic about Blue Beetle – by drawing Jamie so that he appeared as half Jamie, half Beetle, a la Peter Parker in all those great Lee-Ditko Amazing Spider-Man stories? Or in panel one of page seven, when his grandmother asks him what it is like to be Blue Beetle, Norton could have depicted the scene from a distance – rather than as a close up on her – and showed a figurative Blue Beetle towering over her, as Jamie’s body language clearly revealed his shock. Corny? Old school? Perhaps, but 1) your comic book I called Blue Beetle – the ship has sailed on being corny; 2) what’s wrong with old school? And; 3) at least I would have had a chance at guessing what was going on. Isn’t clarity of communication with your readers more important than avoiding corniness? As it is, the only visual clue we get as to what has happened here is Jamie’s reaction in panel two of that page, and at best it conveys mild confusion or irritation, not the shock you would expect from someone whose grandmother has just casually revealed she knows his greatest secret.

From there the minor visual communication problems continue. Check out the next-to-the-last panel on page eight – would you have ever guessed that was Traci in her astral form? I didn’t, which really made the transition to the next panel confusing.

Then there is the manner in which Jamie defeated the Parasite. Based on the visuals, the best I could determine was that he somehow absorbed the latter’s powers rather than the other way around, but apparently, based on the also unclear script included in the back of the book, Jamie separated himself from the scarab and turned the bug loose on the supervillain. That’s not strictly a visual problem – even the translated dialogue doesn’t make that clear – but Norton might have more clearly communicated that if we had seen a normal Jamie and a Beetle-creature in the same panel as the Parasite.

Finally, some English captions to explain the action would have been helpful. Yeah, yeah, suggesting such steps in 2008, when every comic book is trying so hard to be a movie, may be heretical, but at least I could have followed the fight scene. What’s more important, imitating a movie or telling a story your readers can follow? I’d wager most Spanish speakers would have trouble following the action here, too.

Why can everyone acknowledge the brilliance of the comics' forefathers while lauding people who don’t emulate them? Will Eisner would have used captions here. Harvey Kurtzman would have used captions here. Stan Lee would have used captions here. Jack Kirby would have used captions here. Nitz should have used captions here.

But, hey, what do I know? I only know how sick and tired I am of listening to people at cons heap praise on the flavor-of-the-month in one breath, while acknowledging that they have never read The Spirit in the next breath. True story that one, by the way. And how many comics fans nowadays actually know who Harvey Kurtzman was? Or have read any of his seminal works even if they do know the name?

But those are just fans – they don’t have to be educated if they don’t want to be. But as I said before, you don’t get to work for DC without having some skills, and Nitz and Norton should have been able to devise some very simple ways to make their story easier to follow, even to the Spanish-impaired.

Ironically, this issue ends with a thanks for Sergio Argones – one assumes he helped them ensure their Spanish dialogue was genuine. Instead, he should have given them some tips on how to communicate visually. Argones is a masterful storyteller whose inability to speak English didn’t keep him from communicating with his readers when he first hit Bill Gaines up for work. Nitz and Norton would have done well to brush up on his seminal-marginal Mad work, not to mention his old Western and horror comics.

This was by no means a bad comic book, and considering the challenge the creators had in front of them, they did well. They hit a single with one hand tied behind their backs. Not bad.

But they could have hit a homerun.



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