Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Characters I Want to Write: THE BEETLE!

I've been meaning to put down a post on one of my favorite characters, Abner Jenkins, the bombastic Beetle!

Now this character has been around for a long time, since 1964 in fact, which is a looooong time ago, folks. He's had different iterations since then, as Jenkins has upgraded his Beetle armor over the years. He's gone from loser thug to just loser-joke to giving up the criminal life to become part of a superhero team called the Thunderbolts, under his new identity as Mach IV (at this point; I guess he will continue to become Mach V, Mach VI, and so on as long as anybody interested in another version of Jenkins' character's look.)

The Beetle is a pro heist-man kind of character, who carries out robberies with planned precision. He's fought a bunch of Marvel Comics' superhero types, usually on the receiving end of a trouncing by Daredevil or Spider-Man or Iron Man, or whatever new character might need some instant street cred. The Beetle deserves better...hell, he was at Reed and Sue Richards' chaotic wedding in 1965! He's a definitive part of the Marvel U.

(Origin sequence for the original version of the Beetle!)

This gives me a chance to bemoan one series Abner Jenkins starred in, from the early 1990s sometime around the time I was damn near crying when my beloved Houston Oilers blew the biggest lead in NFL Playoff history against the Buffalo Bills...man, I need to let that go. The series was called THE DEADLY FOES OF SPIDER-MAN, and it was a four issue mini-series written by Danny Fingeroth, with pencils by Kerry Gammill and old pro Al Milgrom.

This series is pretty damn frustrating, with good stuff submarined by overwriting, and then the retarded ending, at least in character assassination. The premise is that the Beetle leads a heist team made up of Spider-Villains working for the Kingpin of Crime. Jenkins owes the Kingpin for his new Beetle armor. The Rhino, Boomerang, Speed Demon and Hydro-Man make up the heist "string." The Beetle gets to pulling off those jobs, and doing a good job of it, even taking out Spider-Man with his team. As the story progresses, Boomerang is captured and Jenkins and the others think he might turn over on them. The Beetle is torn about either springing Boomerang, killing him, or setting him up for a long prison term. This is when I thought Jenkins was written well...Fingeroth touches on the idea of Jenkins being a professional criminal...as such, Jenkins knows something has to be done to prevent his team from getting apprehended. But there's also an unspoken loyalty, the idea that Boomerang has an integrity that won't allow him to turn State's Evidence. Fingeroth's story goes friggin' nuts, though, and the Beetle seems hardcore but screws up enough that one-half of the team, including Rhino, Boomerang and a chick using the Ringer's ring-weapons take on Hydro-Man, Speed Demon and the Beetle in a revenge melee.

Now, up until this time, the Beetle was played fairly straight as a professional, albeit one with a heart. Suddenly in the last act he turns into a complete snieveling coward; he spends most of the melee crying not to be killed by the Ringer chick. Spider-Man saves Jenkins from his fate as a corpus, but not from being a whining coward. This is the all-time low for Jenkins, at least that I've read. Fingeroth bunged up a neat SUICIDE SQUAD/SECRET SIX type dynamic by making Jenkins interesting and then deciding that, yes, villains really do blink their eyes. That gets a big double middle finger from me to Fingeroth.

So, as is usually the case, a character no matter what their "level" can be awesome (see Gail Simone's Catman over the last half-decade, for instance) if written well. They can also become a joke, if not. The Rhino and Boomerang and the Beetle certainly had their share. At least Speed Demon recently got to be part of the NEW THUNDERBOLTS, assuring him of a high point in his fictional existence.

The Beetle as we understood him is still "a joke." Even when Jenkins donned the old Beetle armor again in recent years, for a couple of issues of THUNDERBOLTS, he was pretty much mocked for it.

The problem is, ever since Jenkins became "Mach I" in THUNDERBOLTS, he's been a rehabilitated criminal trying to do the right thing. Which is fine, but I'm not crazy about "Mach I" or whatever since Marvel already has Iron Man and half a dozen knock-offs related to Stark Industries besides. In another case of a character being "deuniqued" by the shills, Abner dumped the Beetle moniker, color scheme, and theme for a basic generalized armor look that frankly isn't very exciting.

Personally, as much as I like Abner Jenkins, I'd give a stab at having the Beetle become someone else. Not a new character necessarily, but someone recognizably non-superpowered. And someone with a Parker mentality, the mentality of the hardcore heister. A man with his own moral code who you don't want to mess with or get in the way of, but not a psycho or whatever passes for "criminal" in most comics. Just because someone is a "bad guy" doesn't mean they can't be respected. The reader will follow the character of the Beetle because, frankly, he's riveting. He's not going to fold under pressure. He's a man using an armor who will do whatever he has to to pull off the "job."

The primary thing about the Beetle is the thematic motif, the Beetle. There's a surprising number of beetle/insectoid characters out there, but this Beetle uses the basic natural characteristics of the beetle to augment his skills. He's tough, he's strong, he's fearless, and in a lot of ways, the Beetle is necessary.


Well...if nothing else, the Beetle should be a fierce individual. He's not going to fall in line with some stupid crapfest Event cooked up by the comics companies. He might take advantage of the chaos and confusion, but he won't be a joiner. In fact, "joining" means being made vulnerable to superheroes or other villains or the Authorities, and a "real" professional like the Beetle who's whole modus operendi is stealth and efficiency won't take that chance. I could see this Beetle killing anyone who tried to "subvert" his individuality. This Beetle, in particular, is no joke.

You have been warned, by the Beetle!

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