I picked Captain Atom’s relaunch via reprints to kick off this feature because it marked the start of a more or less continuous run which lasted the duration of Charlton’s “Action Heroes” Era. The Captain’s return didn’t happen in a vacuum, however. The process of molding the semblance of cohesive line around that flagship character was slow, furtive, and overlapped with the tail end of the publisher’s earlier attempt at jumping on the Silver Age superheroic gravy train.
While I didn’t want to get bogged down covering these various trial runs, I do think there’s some contextual value in spotlighting the parts that did unfold after the good Captain was dragged back into the public eye. Two of these efforts dropped in July 1965, a month after Captain Atom’s return. Because my time and my patience are limited, we’re going to focus on Blue Beetle #50 this time around (and pray I recover enough strength to deal with other half of that dud-ly duo by next Friday).
Blue Beetle was one of the earlier Golden Age costumed heroes to make his mark, debuting in Fox Comics’ Mystery Men Comics way back in 1939. The hero was a veritable mish-mash of tropes — a cop who gained superpowers through a mysterious wonder drug and slammed evil in a special bulletproof costume. The concept may have lacked a certain flair, but it was enough to snag the hero a daily comic strip and radio serial in addition to his funnybook appearances.
After the funnybook-reading public’s interest in superheroes faded and Fox’s publication schedule tapered off into oblivion, Charlton — who’d built a business model around acquiring and repackaging fallen rivals’ inventory material — acquired the rights to the Blue Beetle. Though he was the highest profile superhero in Charlton’s roster of properties, their efforts of leveraging that into anything marketable tended to fall short of the mark. The bread-and-butter of Charlton’s comics division tended towards “genre material” — horror, romance, war, et cetera — which likely made any focus on Blue Beetle a tertiary concern, at best.
This state of affairs would be disrupted by the successes Marvel and DC had in revamping the superhero formula for the Space Age. Costumed adventurers were hep again, and so Charlton once again repurposed the most vaguely familiar gun in their arsenal to take advantage of the trend. Out went Officer Dan Garret, rookie cop turned generic two-fisted mystery man. In came Doctor Dan Garrett, tough guy archeologist turned generic superhero by way of an ancient Egyptian magic scarab.
The Nu-Blue’s adventures were decidedly mediocre attempts to ape the Big Two’s formulas while not really understanding what made them tick. Marvel and (occasionally) DC grasped that readers would reward quality work and a conspiratorial sense of “value added.” Charlton’s take tended to be “whatever, dorks, we’ve already got your money,” married to an industrial (and borderline sweatshop) approach to production.
What I’m getting at here, kids, is that these mid-Sixties Blue Beetle comics are kinda lousy. So lousy, in fact, that they can’t even be salvaged through the lens of camp culture.
The most significant thing about Blue Beetle #50 was its issue number, which jumped forty-five places from the previous installment a few months prior. The explanation was simple enough. Due to the weird economic vagaries of periodical distribution and mailing, they shuttered the character’s existing series and dumped him into the retitled Uncanny Tales comic.
Leave it to Charlton, of course, to turn a weak attempt at channeling Stan the Man into a confession that they have no idea what they’re doing.
Onto the the story, and what a (crap) story it is.
The square-jawed Dr. Garrett agrees to accompany a distressed damsel to the Gulf Coast in search of her missing father, an oil tycoon who vanished after the drilling rig he was touring mysteriously collapsed.
The pair decide to pay a visit to another platform in the area, ignoring the warnings of its heavily armed roughnecks and demanding an audience with the facility’s supervisor. The vertically challenged boss man turns out to be the sinister Mr. Crabb, a magenta-skinned individual with a fondness for capes and posture-induced scoliosis.
Crabb attempts to take them prisoner. Garrett and the damsel throw themselves in the shark infested water to escape, leading to some
tense goofy moments before the dashing doctor can transform into Blue Beetle and save the lass from some hungry sharks.
As the pair catch their breath on the surface, Crabb appears behind the wheel of the only cool concept in the comic — A GIANT ROBOT SCORPION.
Despite trying his level best to stop the fiendish (and cool) construct, Beetle and the damsel are captured and taken to Crabb’s undersea base. The damsel finds out her father is still alive and being held captive. After a touching reunion where Dad explains how Crabb is siphoning off petrol from rival platforms in order to sell it to the Chinese Communists, the father-daughter duo escape from their cell, where they run into a revived Beetle during another encounter with Crabb.
After a couple more indecisive encounters with Crabb and his GIANT ROBOT SCORPION, everything explodes. Beetle hauls Dad and the damsel to the surface, ponders whether Crabb managed to escape, and blithely ignores the massive ecological catastrophe he played a major role in creating.
The World’s Worst Comics Awards described the first issue of this run as “what folks who disparage comics think comics are like.” I can tell you that situation did not change in the least by the time the sixth (or “fiftieth”) installment hit the stands.