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When Friends Are Few: Mutated by alien technology, young Jaime Reyes becomes a profound statement about portraying race and ethnicity in the comics industry.
cover art

Blue Beetle #6

(DC; US: Apr 2012)

It’s that last panel that kills me. Not because of that scene of a very minor, very personal devastation that Jaime Reyes, now fully the Blue Beetle, leaves in his wake as he flies off. Not because the uneasy alliance between Jaime and the Khaji-Da (the artificially intelligent Blue Beetle armor) seems to have grown easier and easier, leaving me (and most readers) uncertain as to which of them is really making the greater compromise. Not because a device from Jaime’s own Blue Beetle (a device intended to heal) has turned Jaime’s closest friend into a Terminator-style death-bot. But because the “Next Issue” caption is so completely explosive that I literally shudder. This might be the end of a magical book.


Stylized in print that mimics the book’s logo are seven simple words, “Next: Blue Beetle hits the Big Apple!”. Just for a moment, I allow the irony to settle in. At the opening of this issue, “Homewrecker” was nothing more than a title. And now, by the end, I am actually confronted with the idea that the home I have made for myself these last six months, here in the pages of Blue Beetle, might itself be permanently wrecked.


New York is everything, and I would dearly love to see Jaime walk the streets of Brooklyn, of Manhattan, of the Bronx (but why not Queens, I wonder). I would love to see him grow from kid-unfortunate-enough-to-get-saddled-with-superpowers into an honest-to-goodness superhero. But the reason I would love to see this evolution is because of Tony Bedard’s masterful crafting of the story of Jaime Reyes, age 16, from El Paso, Texas. The story that played out over these last six months’ worth of comics pages.


“Homewrecker” is the concluding chapter of the Blue Beetle’s second storyarc (following on from “Gorilla Warfare” and “Heartless”). It’s in these pages that Jaime begins to put his own stamp onto both the Beetle armor, and the chaos surrounding it. We’ve seen Jaime confront Silverback, the assassin sent by the (as yet) unseen Parisian crime bosses The Brain and M’sieur Mallah. We’ve seen Jaime talk the Khaji-Da down from killing schoolyard bullies, and in the process decimating a good part of his High School. We’ve seen Jaime get distracted momentarily and the Khaji-Da reassert control to attempt killing Paco, Jaime’s closest friend. We’ve seen Jaime regain control and invoke medical assistance for the dying Paco. We’ve seen Jaime confront Doña Cardenas and counter her occult-based powers.


But all through this, and arguably more importantly, we’ve seen Jaime in the kind of story we’d secretly hoped we would—a Jaime as part of a vibrant, fictive El Paso that spotlights rather than shies away from ethnic color.


It began in “Metamorphosis”, the three-part storyarc that introduced Jaime and his inner- and extended-social milieux. Son of a lower-middle class family, Jaime attends the same school as Brenda del Vecchio who is herself just on the cusp of her Quinceañera. Paco, though a gang member and high school dropout, is the third of their Three Musketeers. The social gap between the Reyes’ modest home, and Brenda’s aunt, Doña Cardenas’, lavish compound is stark, and illustrated with great effect by series regular artist, Ig Guara.


The ease with which Tony makes the cultural currents of El Paso accessible to you, if you yourself are unfamiliar with the trans-border culture in zones like Texas or Southern California, is simply spellbinding. Jaime doesn’t realize it quite yet, but he’s fallen in love with Brenda. But unfortunately for the Three Musketeers, so has Paco. It’s these kinds of personal, and highly recognizable stories that animate, and make accessible, the unfamiliar landscape of Hispanic culture in the El Paso, if indeed this cultural landscape is unfamiliar to you.


The story of Jaime (and of Brenda and of Paco, of Brenda’s Tia Amparo) is so vivid, so engrossing that when the next leap of storytelling is made, you’re still completely hooked. This isn’t the El Paso of our world, but a strange, science-fictional El Paso. There are secret hideouts of Hispanic supervillains, hired easily by Brenda’s aunt. Tia Amparo herself (Doña Cardenas, to her employees) is more than just a shrewd, über-successful businesswoman—she has mastered occult powers that (we guess) can be traced back to the original preternatural energies that disabled the Beetle when it first fell to earth.


It is this secret, vivid world that is threatened by Jaime’s flight to New York. This world of El Paso, where Jaime’s ethnicity isn’t simply an identity marker, but a bona fide, lived-in reality that structures the story of the Blue Beetle in deep and captivating ways. Just like Guy Ritchie was able to find the inner wildness in Sherlock Holmes in the recent films starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, Tony Bedard unlocks the secret magic of a border-town, and a boy’s struggle to manhood and, y’know, superpowers.


This is more than some other recent books have done in merely changing the ethnicity of longstanding heroes. Internet buzz (not so long back now that it’s escaped popular memory), around Donald Glover becoming the next on-screen Spider-Man certainly comes to mind. Had Marvel/Disney made that decision, committed to the African-American star of Community (why is that show on hiatus?), would his race have been foregrounded into Spidey story? Or would it have just been interesting, anecdotal, but let’s get back to the business of beating up Doc Ock?


The real story here with Tony and Ig’s Blue Beetle, the one I fear losing when I think about this impending trip to New York, is the story of El Paso itself. The idea of place that is deeply, profoundly and vividly animated. Place as a signature for strange cross-currents of culture and identity. Tony’s themes evocatively realize this whole, crafted world of the borderland culture and a boy’s struggles within it.


Jaime’s in-caption debates between his own inner monologue and Khaji-Da’s “thoughts” in his brain is a crucial example of this foregrounding of ethnicity into the mode of storytelling. It recalls for us, each time we read it, that being Hispanic within El Paso is very much being a minority. That being that minority means being imbricated in a constant inner dialogue between what on the one hand seems natural, and on the other, seems alien. Because it takes a true master to turn a trifling story about a bug-shaped armor, into a deep relatable drama about ethnicity and identity.


Tony really knew what he was doing when he named that opening arc “Metamorphosis”. Not only does he recall the similarly-titled famous story about a young man transformed into a beetle, but he recalls its author Frank Kafka. And more than the irresolvable sexual tension, the pure human dread, the suffering, the suffering of Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”, there is the struggle of the author himself. A marginalized Jewish Czech living in Prague, writing in German. A man twice-colonized, working as a banker, by night writing the literature that will set the cultural agenda for the next hundred years.


It was the figure of Kafka himself, that inspired the investigations of philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psycho-analyst Félix Guattari, and prompted the book, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature. It is in their third chapter, “What is a Minor Literature” that the pair are perhaps at their most moving.


“We might as well say”, they write, “that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called established literature. Even he who has the misfortune of being born in the country of a great literature must write in its language…


“There has been much discussion of the questions ‘What is a marginal literature?’ and ‘What is a popular literature, a proletarian literature?’ The criteria are obviously difficult to establish if one doesn’t start with a more objective concept—that of minor literature. Only the possibility of setting up a minor practice of a major language from within allows one to define popular literature, marginal literature and so on. Only in this way can literature become a collective machine of expression and really be able to treat and develop its contents. Kafka declares that a minor literature is much more able to work over its material”.


And what better way to illustrate this, than through a young boy fighting against an alien armor, all the while making it his own. The coming-through-adolescence story that is a popular genre in so many superhero stories, is also a way into the secret circuits of ethnicity.


I will of course pick up a copy of issue #7. By now I trust Tony, and trust him to take me to the places he wants to go with this character, with this book. Three bucks seems a very small price to pay for the pure mastery we see in such a book as this.

Rating:

AB-, ENTJ, PhD: shathley Q is deeply moved by the emotional connection we build with our perpetual fictions, and hopes to answer for that somehow, somehow. He holds a Doctorate in Literary and Cultural Theory. His writings have appeared in Joss Whedon: the Complete Companion and Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, as well as regularly on PopMatters. Like a kid in a china shop, he microblogs as @uuizardry on Twitter. Or hit him up directly on shathleyq@popmatters.com.


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