Blue Beetle #3 © 1967 Charlton Comics. COVER ART BY STEVE DITKO.
The Blue Beetle was the second superhero to have his own comic, and went on to more changes and publishers (six in all) than almost any other character in comics history. He also spanned the quality spectrum from excellent to absolutely awful. In 1939, Victor Fox was an accountant at DC Comics who had noticed with envy the profits coming in from the company's new Superman character. Moving to a different floor in the same building, he set up his own company, Fox Comics, and hired the Will Eisner/Jerry Iger creative shop to provide the story and artwork for his new venture. Unfortunately, their first character, Wonder Man, was immediately hit by a lawsuit from DC, and so they quickly dreamed up a new hero, the Blue Beetle. In his first appearance (drawn by Charles Nicholas in Mystery Men Comics #1), the Beetle was little more than a Green Hornet clone, but he was soon given a blue chain mail costume with a mask and hood topped off with antennae; the latter sadly disappeared by his fourth strip.
In his civilian identity, the Beetle was rookie cop Dan Garret, whose athletic prowess made him a powerful hero as soon as he donned his costume—though the gun he toted in the early days was probably more useful. As far as superpowers go, he really had none, although he often projected his beetle insignia on dark walls. Soon enough, he was given a girlfriend, reporter Joan Mason, and a special vitamin mixture (2X) that beefed up his muscles. The Blue Beetle briefly had his own radio show and newspaper strip, but the poor overall quality of Fox's product led the company to close shop in 1942. A few months later, the Beetle was back on the stands, this time published by Fox's printers, Holyoke, who (historians believe) took over the character in lieu of debts. The Holyoke years saw the character gain a sidekick called Spunky but, if anything, the strip got even worse. By 1944, Victor Fox had come back into publishing and took over the comic again for a series of catastrophically awful strips in which the Beetle could suddenly fly, and also mysteriously acquired the Beetlemobile and the Beetleboat.
One of the hottest comics of the postwar years was the ultraviolent Crime Does Not Pay, and in 1946 Fox decided to get a piece of that action. This new direction concentrated more on the Blue Beetle's shapely girlfriend and featured a series of so-called
true crime stories, which were little more than an excuse for acres of flesh and gallons of blood. Story titles such as
The Vanishing Nude, and
House of a Thousand Corpses tell it all. By the end of the decade, Fox had left comics forever, but the Beetle was soon picked up by bargain-basement publisher Charlton, who brought out a few nondescript issues in 1955. Somehow, I.W. Comics got their hands on some old artwork and, in 1964, released it in two issues inexplicably retitled The Human Fly. That same year (are you following this?), Charlton was back again with a ten-issue run of staggeringly silly strips in which the beefed-up hero appeared to resemble the Pillsbury Doughboy.
Then something strange happened: The Blue Beetle finally starred in some good stories—very good stories, in fact. Soon after leaving his astonishingly successful Spider-Man comic, artist Steve Ditko moved over to Charlton and completely revamped the Beetle. Ditko's hero was now scientist Ted Kord and he had a stylish new costume, his own designer flying vehicle (in the shape of a beetle, of course) and genuinely exciting, well-drawn stories. Inexplicably, despite action scenes that rivalled Spider-Man at its best, the public simply wasn't interested, and the comic was canceled after barely a year.
A generation later, the few fans who bought Ditko's issues were creating comics of their own, and the first of many revivals saw print in 1981 in the semi-pro Charlton Bullseye. A few years later, another fan publication, Americomics, pitted the two Blue Beetles against each other in pitched battle, before things came full circle and DC Comics, the impetus for the Beetle's creation in the first place, bought the rights to the character. For much of the 1980s, he starred in amiable yarns in his own comic and enjoyed great success in one of several incarnations of the Justice League. In true 1980s fashion, it seems that Kord used his scientific expertise to become a millionaire and appeared to have settled down to a life of leisure. However, a 2003 miniseries—the wittily titled Formally Known as the Justice League—brought him out of retirement so yet another generation of fans can enjoy his adventures again.