As I started to read the Blue Beetle stories from this period, I marvelled at the huge differences between the original character and the current one, but as I got to the tales from 42-44, I began to think lack of consistency may be the hallmark of the character.
Blue Beetle 1 gives an origin for the character. We learn that Dan Garret was born December 6, 1916 (so very rare to have a specific birthdate for a superhero), to a poor family. His mother died in a flu epidemic. Dan earned a scholarship to university, and excelled there both in academics and athletics. His father, a policeman, was killed in the line of duty shortly before Dan graduated, which lead him to join the force, hoping to catch his father’s killer. We also learn that Mannigan was his father’s partner before becoming Dan’s. There is no clear reason why Dan adopts the Blue Beetle guise.
The costume is inconsistently portrayed throughout the run. Sometimes he has blue gloves and a blue belt, sometimes white, sometimes yellow. The belt buckle has a symbol of a beetle on it, or a “BB”, or nothing at all. There is a blue beetle on his cowl, just above his forehead, or a yellow one, or none at all. The costume is sometimes textured, sometimes smooth. Dan wears it under his police uniform, or he reverses his uniform to become the costume.
It is described a few times as armour, called “chain mail” in Blue Beetle 26, and in Blue Beetle 29 it is further stated that it was built out of a 400 year old suit of armour, and that on occasion it can emit death rays, though that never happens.
In Blue Beetle 3, with no set-up, we discover that Dan has been taking a Vitamin 2X potion made by Professor Franz. Professor Franz is later shown working at a drugstore, which seems odd for a professor. This potion does not give Dan actual powers – we never see Beetle lifting cars or jumping over buildings – but does seem to increase his endurance and stamina. Still, when the expanded costume information is given in issue 29, and Beetle’s powers and abilities detailed, the Vitamin 2X potion, which had figured in so many early tales, is not mentioned at all.
In Mystery Men 10, a very early Jack Kirby story, Dan devises a flashlight that shines a beetle symbol on a wall. Though we never again see this flashlight, the beetle symbol continues to appear throughout the run. At first, always on walls, and when Dan is in a position to be shining the light on it, but eventually the beetle can be very small, and apparently floating between bad guys, and often appears in locations where Dan could not possibly be shining a light, but with no other explanation.
For the first two years, this series plods along. I wondered how it became so successful that Blue Beetle got not only his own series spun out of his strip in Mystery Men, but also the lead spot in the Big 3 anthology. I began to think that perhaps this series appealed to readers who dared to dream small. Unlike the multi-powered Superman or multi-weaponed Batman, Blue Beetle’s stories are all fairly close to reality. As a policeman on the beat, he learns about crimes, and then dons the costume to deal with the bad guys. He faces killers and counterfeiters, smugglers and kidnappers, but no world conquerors or crazed madmen at this time.
Blue Beetle 17 introduces Joan Mason, a reporter for the Bulletin newspaper, who becomes his close friend, possibly girlfriend, although Blue Beetle 30 would have the only appearance of a woman named Tina, identified as Dan’s girlfriend. Perhaps he is cheating on Joan. I know I would have gotten tired of her yelling “Blue Beetle! Look out!” in every story. Issue 22 informs us that Joan works for a paper called The Clarion, but adds that it is the leading newspaper in the city, so I like to think she moved up in the world, rather than view this as a continuity error.
The villains begin to get more dramatic come 1942, Leo Sugar invents a drug that makes people combust into flames in Blue Beetle 10, Willie the Weasel finds a bottle with a giant blue genie that he sends to destroy the city in Blue Beetle 21. The Countess Belladonna makes two appearances, in Mystery Men 28 and 29, first as a thief, and then seeking to kill Beetle in revenge, while disguised as a man. The Condor tries to sabotage the fleet, and then smuggles guns to foreign agents, in his two appearances, in Big 3 issues 5 and 6.
A text page in Blue Beetle 14, September 42, introduces Sparkington J. Northrup, an American orphan adopted by a British lord, who appears in the following issue, unmasking Blue Beetle, and then becoming his sidekick, Sparky. As Sparky, he wears a matching costume, though with shorts and his blond hair flowing free. Sparky spends his days hanging at the police station with Dan, and is always called Sparky, in costume or not, but somehow this does not help either Mannigan or Joan figure out Dan is the Blue Beetle.
As if Sparky was not a bad enough addition to the strip, an amateur magician whose tricks cause chaos in introduced in issue 16, Dascomb Dinsmore. The story ends asking the readers to write in if they want to see more of him. Not only did Dascomb never return, but Sparky vanished after another issue as well. Maybe Dascomb’s magic made them both disappear.
With Blue Beetle 22 we learn that Dan has been walking his beat in Centre City, though in the next issue its Central City. No matter, by issue 29 its New York City. As well, in 22, he resigns from the force and joins Army Intelligence, undergoes training and is sent behind enemy lines as a spy, managing to beat up Hitler and rip his moustache off in his first adventure.
From 22 – 29 there are two Blue Beetle stories in each issue of his comic, and one has him behind enemy lines as a spy while the other has him back in Centre/Central/New York City with Mannigan and Joan, dealing with police matters. Even though this makes for cringe-worthy continuity, I excuse these as a compromise, and assume that one set of stories are taking place before the other set.
But even that gets stretched in Blue Beetle 31, in which he is no longer a spy, but in one story is back walking a beat, and in the other is an FBI agent stationed in Washington DC. Dan has also developed (on his own apparently, Professor Franz not having appeared in over a year) a black light device that makes him invisible. His gloves are now red, matching the shorts he has taken to wearing over his tights.
As bewildering, and tedious, as the series became, I admit I am curious to read his stories in the Late Golden Age, if only see what other changes the character undergoes.
Blue Beetle: Mystery Men 6 – 31 (Jan 40 – Feb 42)
Blue Beetle 1 – 32 (Winter 40 – July 44)
Big 3 1 – 7 (Fall 40 – Spring 42)