The Blue Beetle is one of the longest running character-concepts in the world of comic books. The character was initially conceived in 1939 as a take-off of the Green Hornet, but the approach swiftly changed to better suit the needs of a burgeoning marketplace. The Beetle got a regulation super hero costume and even a flight of powers. The concept was retooled again and again, mirroring whatever trend the publishers thought might be taking off. Sometimes, he was a non-powered Batman type of hero, others, he had all the powers associated with Superman, and more, And everything in-between. By the 1970s, the character had run his course–or so it appeared, until DC Comics bought the rights to the Beetle and his fellow Action Heroes from the defunct Charlton, and placed him into the newly-unified DC Universe. But what we’re about to cover comes before all of that.
For Silver Age readers, the best-remembered incarnation of the Blue Beetle is almost certainly the one inaugurated by Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko in the back pages of his CAPTAIN ATOM series. This new Beetle was Ted Kord, a non-powered scientific adventurer who was driven to adopt the identity of the Blue Beetle after having played an unwitting role in the death of the previous Blue Beetle Dan Garret. Kord plied his trade using scientific gimmickry, including a massive flying Beetle craft of his own design, The character was successful and was spun off into his own self-titled series before too long. But eventually, the super hero fad ran its course and Charlton decided to get out of the “Action Hero” business for the time being. That decision was made late enough in the game that there was an entire additional issue of BLUE BEETLE ready for publication, #6, which remained on the shelf.
This was the state of things until 1974, when a group of fans who had been publishing their own fanzine (the haughtily-named CONTEMPORARY PICTORIAL LITERATURE) decided to devote a double-issue to the Charlton Action Heroes. This effort was led by Bob Layton, later a talented inker and writer but at this point the publisher of CPL, Duffy Vohland, one of the great undersung figures in comics who got a job later on at Marvel and opened the door for a lot of young talent, and Roger Stern, who would go on to become an editor and writer but was then simply a contributor. They made contact with the staff at Charlton and became aware of this lost issue of Steve Ditko’s BLUE BEETLE (as well as a number of other unpublished stories.) The CPL Gang, as they were known, negotiated permission to print the unpublished tale as the centerpiece of their Charlton tribute issue. So it was that CONTEMPORARY PICTORIAL LITERATURE #9 and #10 (a “special double issue”) ran the story in its entirety.
As the 1960s went on, Steve Ditko became more and more greatly influenced by the tenants of Randianism, as espoused chiefly by Ayn Rand. Ditko believed whole-heartedly in the philosophy, and given the tremendous freedom that Charlton gave its creators (in exchange for paying the crappiest rates in the industry), many of Ditko’s stories were heavily influenced by these teachings. The final published issue of BLUE BEETLE, #5, is a stylistic departure from the four previous ones. Those earlier stories were super hero action adventure stories, not that much different from the Spider-Man adventures that Ditko had been producing prior to leaving Marvel. But the fifth issue is steeped in philosophical underpinnings, as the Beetle contends with an opponent who takes on the appearance of a statue dedicated to the proposition that there are no heroes, that all men are flawed and thus heroism is impossible. The Beetle is able to stop Our Man’s destruction of works of art, but the dialogue and interactions contain little of the fun of the series up to that point. Instead, it’s a philosophical argument between the combatants as to the nature of herois, as seen through the specific lens of A is A.
It’s difficult to imagine that this new take on the Blue Beetle would have proven to be popular, even if the series hadn’t been ended due to other market forces. But it was definitely trying for something new and personal, and so on that level the approach is a successful one. The sixth issue’s unpublished story continues in this vein. On the surface, it’s about a guy who steals a rig that will make him functionally invisible. But it’s really about how Ted Kord is blamed for the theft and persecuted in the court of popular opinion despite his innocence, thanks to circumstantial evidence and the public reacting with their emotions rather than their intellect. it isn’t quite as all-in philosophically as the fifth issue was, but it’s a lot more didactic and stiff than the earlier issues of the series had been.
One of the things that’s fascinating about this is the fact that, in essence, Ditko’s BLUE BEETLE was set up as almost a successor series to his Spider-Man. You can see the influence of Ditko’s new leanings just a little bit in the final AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issues he plotted and illustrated (though scripter Stan Lee does his best to obfuscate them through the copy.) In a way, it’s possible to read the Ditko BLUE BEETLE as a bit of a continuation of Ditko’s Spider-Man–Ted Kord is a scientific hero, the kind of person that you can easily see Peter Parker maturing into. (Famed British television personality Jonathan Ross actually redrew his copies of the Ditko Blue Beetle stories into Spider-Man adventures when he was just a reader.) Certainly, though, this would have been a very different and likely a much less mainstream version of the wall-crawler than what Lee and replacement artist John Romita were now delivering. It’s a bit of a peek into an alternate world.
The script on this story is attributed to D.C. Glanzman, which was a pseudonym for Ditko himself. Why he chose to disguise his involvement with the writing while still taking a credit for the artwork is a bit of a mystery. (Apparently, D.C. Glanzman was the brother of longtime artist Sam Glanzman, who did some writing work for Charlton briefly. When Ditko didn’t want to be credited with teh script, editor Dick Giordano asked Glanzman if he’d agree to let himself be credited for it, and he did. However, Glanzman himself didn’t script this story.)
Kord’s girlfriend Tracey goes to town here, spitting out huge tracts of text that are less dialogue and more an essay. it’s a wonder that the balloons don’t fall down and crush her flat.
The relationship between Charlton and the CPL Gang proved fruitful enough, and the Charlton staff was impressed enough with their efforts in putting this issue together, that the trio were hired to put together Charlton’s own house fanzine, its equivalent to FOOM or AMAZING WORLD OF DC COMICS. This fanzine, CHARLTON BULLSEYE, ran for five issues and printed a variety of unprinted and new stories starring the Charlton Action Heroes.