Comics/Graphic Novels

Off the Page: The BLUE BEETLE Radio Serial

“The Blue Beetle! Sweeping down upon the underworld to smash gangland comes the friend of the unfortunate, enemy of criminals! Mysterious, all-powerful character, a problem to the police, but a crusader for law. In reality Dan Garret, a rookie patrolman, loved by everyone but suspected by none of being…the Blue Beetle! As the Blue Beetle, he hides behind a strange mask and a suit of impenetrable blue chain armor, flexible as silk but stronger than steel!”

The Blue Beetle is not exactly a household name. I say this as someone who keeps a Blue Beetle action figure on my desk at work, much to the bafflement of my coworkers. All three heroes who’ve taken the name have been steady C-listers at best, so what is a Blue Beetle radio show doing in this column?

Blame Victor Fox. An ambitious wheeler and dealer straight out of central casting, Fox got wind of how much money could be made from comics and decided he wanted a slice of the pie. He formed the Fox Features Syndicate and immediately started cranking out anything that might sell. His very first comic, Wonder Man #1 (by no less a personage than Will Eisner), got him sued by DC for shamelessly copying Superman, so he moved on to shamelessly copying Green Hornet, or at least strongly evoking him.

You maybe could go wrong, though. Sorry, Dan.

You maybe could go wrong, though. Sorry, Dan.

Blue Beetle was Fox’s biggest success and really the only significant Fox creation. An early pioneer of synergy, Fox pushed his star hero and the accompanying brand wherever he could. There was a Fox soda, Kooba Cola, which was advertised but never produced, and a Blue Beetle Day at the 1940 World’s Fair. There was even a short-lived newspaper strip drawn by none other than Jack Kirby – who Fox used to holler, “I’m the King of Comics!” at, in a wonderful bit of historical irony – though only one newspaper ever carried the dailies (the Sundays fared slightly better).

And there was the radio show. This wasn’t a behemoth of programming like Superman or Green Hornet; it ran for less than a year, with 48 episodes in tidy little two-part storylines. But it’s worth remembering that a radio show then was like scoring a TV show now – usually reserved for the big guns, with the occasional also-ran popping up and then quickly fizzling out if the execution wasn’t absolutely stellar. Basically, Blue Beetle was the Birds of Prey of the radio.

Starring Frank Jovejoy for the first 13 episodes, then an uncredited actor, the show was about as accurate to the comics as could be expected, given that the comics were wildly inconsistent. The Blue Beetle is Dan Garret, a “rookie patrolman” who dons a suit of impenetrable blue chainmail to fight crime. Rounding out the cast is Joan Mason, a tough-as-nails reporter in the Lois Lane mold; Mike Mannigan, Dan’s bumbling Irish partner who’s forever trying to arrest the Blue Beetle; and Dr. Franz, the local pharmacist who supplies Dan with his armor, as well as a series of helpful gadgets.

Frank Lovejoy, who voiced the Blue Beetle for the first part of the show's brief run.

Frank Lovejoy, who voiced the Blue Beetle for the first part of the show’s brief run.

So how’s the show? Well, it’s…it’s not good. The actors are mediocre, every plot is basically identical, and the incredibly repetitive dialogue often sounds like a parody of another, better show, which, well, it basically was. (Every episode: “It’s the Blue Beetle!” “Yes, and he’s going to nip!” Please stop saying that, Dan, Britt Reid is laughing at you.) It’s sluggishly paced and relies heavily on deus ex machina – every episode Dr. Franz just happens to provide Dan with exactly the gadget he’ll need to save the day/the girl/himself. (These gadgets – a “midget camera,” a “midget recording device,” a long-distance radio, and so on – basically add up to a smartphone. There’s also a “magic ray” that appears to do nothing except make a really annoying whirring sound. I picture it looking like this.)

It’s also profoundly racist. As I’ve mentioned before, The Adventures of Superman could veer into that territory at times, along with basically every other element of pop culture from the 1930s and 40s, but Blue Beetle really leans into that curve. Pretty much every episode has an ethnic stereotype as either the criminal mastermind or his assorted henchmen, and the very white actors mangle their way through all sorts of broken “Chinese,” “Mexican,” “Italian” accents and more. The episode where the Blue Beetle goes undercover in Chinatown by donning yellowface is particularly repugnant. We can only be grateful that the show didn’t last through the outbreak of the war, when the racist propaganda would’ve really kicked in.

The show’s tiny saving grace is actually the female characters. Every single one of them, from “demon reporter” Joan Mason to the occasional kidnapped commissioner’s daughter or heiress, is tough as nails, quick with a quip, and true as steel. Sure, it’s basically the same stock character over and over, but after The Adventures of Superman, where women who aren’t Lois tend to dissolve into hysterics at the slightest sign of trouble, it’s refreshing to hear random secretaries fearlessly thwarting racketeers and, like, piloting seaplanes and stuff.

The moral of Blue Beetle might be that quality will out, or that one Green Hornet is enough – but there’s also something to be said for the danger of a swing and a miss. See, the radio show is, in a way, specifically why Blue Beetle’s such an obscure character – because as I hope this column is showing, the world at large learns about superheroes not from the comics, but from movies and TV, and the broadcast rights to Blue Beetle were tied up in this short-lived show well into the 21st century. It’s why Ted Kord, Dan’s better-known successor, never appeared on Justice League Unlimited alongside his bestest buddy Booster Gold; in fact, the Blue Beetle disappeared from multimedia properties from 1940 to 2008, when Jaime Reyes (Ted’s successor) showed up on Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Actually, the Blue Beetle name might now have the most cultural cache it’s had since 1940, at least among kids, since Jaime was a featured player on Young Justice as well. That Blue Beetle action figure on my desk? It’s a Happy Meal toy of Jaime. Victor Fox would be proud.

I’m not saying that without those rights issues Blue Beetle would’ve been the hottest TV show of the late 80s. He’s still a C-lister; that’s part of his charm, especially the Ted Kord iteration. But I think it’s fascinating that a marketing juggernaut that pushed this really rather derivative character so hard there were not one but two U.S. naval vessels nicknamed “the Blue Beetle” during World War II could wind up inadvertently causing the character to disappear from the public eye for nearly 70 years.

If you’d like to listen to this weird quirk of 1940, all of the episodes are available to stream or download at the good ol’ Internet Archive.