Blue Beetle #5, "Destroyer of Heroes!'

BLUE BEETLE #5 (listed on the indicia as Vol. 1, #5, but actually this is  at
least the third BLUE BEETLE series); November 1968; Charlton Comics; editor 
unidentified (Dick Giordano? Sal Gentile?) featuring "The Blue Beetle Faces
the  Destroyer of Heroes", pencilled and inked by Steve Ditko, scripted by the 
pseudonymous "D. C. Glanzman" (probably, at least here, a pseudonym for Ditko 
himself) and lettered by that legendary 60's Charlton craftsman, "A. 
Machine".    On the cover, Blue Beetle indeed faces his  adversary, a claylike,
lumpish figure with a hollow cutout where its heart  should be.  In the bifurcated
background, the heroic Beetle is surrounded  by heroic sculpture, sunny
artwork and soaring skyscrapers, while the Destroyer  is backed up by distorted,
cringing sculptures, chaotic modern art, and  crumbling tenement buildings.

Review by Bill Henley

By now  probably everyone knows that the career of Ted Kord as the Blue
Beetle comes to  an apparent end in the recent DC COUNTDOWN TO INFINITE CRISIS
special.  But  his career ended at least once before, in this final published
issue of his  original Charlton title.  Ted Kord's total Charlton run had
consisted of  five issues of his own title preceded by five backup features in CAPTAIN
ATOM.  This issue was a curiosity and must have been a bit of a surprise to 
diehard Charlton "action-hero" fans of 1968, since it appeared dated November
'68, almost a full year after the previous BLUE BEETLE issue dated Dec. '67,
and  after all the other Charlton hero titles (except the borderline
HERCULES) had  folded.  A month earlier, however, Charlton had issued MYSTERIOUS
SUSPENSE  #1, a one-shot featuring a book-length tale of the Question, otherwise
(as we  shall see) Ditko's backup feature to Blue Beetle.  Both that comic book 
(which was reprinted in 2000 as part of DC's Millenium Classic reprint
series)  and this one are heavy on Ditko's neo-Rand philosophy, leading me to
suspect  that Charlton got them into print mainly to keep their star contributor to
their  horror-comics line happy.  (Even more weirdly, a BLUE BEETLE #6
appeared in  a Charlton house ad before #5 came out, but the issue never actually saw
print  from Charlton, though the Blue Beetle story pitting BB against the 
semi-invisible "Specter" eventually appeared in the CHARLTON PORTFOLIO 

Anyway, this Blue Beetle finale story by Ditko presents  a distinctly ironic
contrast to the character's recent fate at DC's hands (and  indeed his whole
handling by DC) which inspired me to review this  issue.

The splash page, devoted in most comics to an action scene or  suspenseful
preview o the story, here depicts an art exhibition of modern,  avant-garde art
at a museum.  An art critic (named, we later learn, Boris  Ebar)  is regaling
an admiring crowd of hippie-looking aficionados with his  views of the
museum's star exhibit, called "Our Man"--the same figure seen on  the cover of a
lumpish brown human figure with the heart cut out.  "This  anonymous work is a
perfect example of art that reveals the true spirit of as he really
is.  Lacking the usual grotesque heroic pose....the  missing eyes....the
deliberate lack of heart....the closed hands, symbolizing  man's inability to solve
or control the illusion we call existence....Yes, this  is how we really one can improve on it....or escape it!  We can  only accept....OUR MAN!" 
Watching from the background are Ted Kord (Blue  Beetle in his civilian
identity) and girlfriend Tracey, both disgusted by the  "art" on display and the
critic's appraisal of mankind.  But a glum fellow  named Hugo also watching from
the background is more impressed; "It's  true!  That's exactly how I feel! 
Man is an incompetent nothing in a  world of mystic terrors....all without
meaning or purpose!"

Also on hand  is another heroic alter ego, Vic Sage, redheaded reporter who
is secretly The  Question.  But there's no question in his mind as to the
value, or lack of  it, of the art being touted by the nihilistic critic; "Your
views and that thing  belong on a junk heap!"  Recognizing a kindred spirit, Ted
and Tracey  accompany Vic to another section of the museum where old-fashioned
statuary and  art reflecting a heroic vision of man remain on display.  Our
good guys are  exalted by the heroic art on display, but the bohemian "Our Man"
devotees are  offended by it, and when Hugo tries to smash a statue titled
"The Unconquered",  shouting "I hate heroes!"  Ted Kord intervenes to stop him
(without  changing clothes) and when the whole group of hippie modern art lovers
threatens  him, Vic Sage and Tracy join him standing in defense of "The
Unconquered".   Most of the group flees, but Hugo remains contemplating the deep
meaning of "Our  Man"-- "Man is a helpless speck in an unknowable universe!  By
himself man  is nothing and can do nothing!"-- while Ted Kord continues to be
inspired by the  rival statue "The Unconquered"-- "It's proof that man is not
helpless!  Man  can set a goal and achieve it...but man has to motivate

Leaving the museum at last, Hugo trudges to his home, tearing up movie 
posters of attractive, heroic figures along the way.  As he arrives at his  studio,
we see that Hugo is an aspiring artist himself, producing an assortment  of
grotesque, screaming, cringing figures.  But Hugo becomes convinced that  it is
not enough to produce his own works; "Someone should destroy all that  heroic
evil!  Then the works of true art like my sculptures will allow man  to know
and experience his true nature!"  While beginning a new project,  Hugo
convinces himself that he means only well to suffering humanity; "Once rid  of his
heroic symbols, no man will ever feel less worthy of others...for there  will be
nothing to look up to....and no man will have to struggle endlessly and 
uselessly to try to achieve the unattainable!  He will find true happiness  and
peace within himself!!" 

Some time later, costumed as the Blue  Beetle, Ted Kord sets out on one more
night of a self-imposed mission-- to guard  the art museum, specifically "The
Unconquered" and the other items of heroic  art, as since the "run-in" at the
museum he fears there may be attempts at  sabotage.  As he lurks on the museum
roof and watches through a skylight,  BB muses, "I may have convinced myself
of trouble just so I ould keep seeing  'The Unconquered'!"  But trouble is
really there, in the bizarre form of an  animated version of the "Our Man"
statue.  Sighting the Blue Beetle in  costume, "Our Man" is even more outraged than
he is by mere heroic art; "He  dares to set himself up as a god!  He's trying
to be a be better  than everyone else!"  Despite his philosophy of
helplessness and failure,  "Our Man" isn't too bad in a fight-- his
armor-plated costume protects him  against Blue Beetle's punches, and he manages to punch
BB over the side of the  building and kick free his grip on the ledge.  As BB
falls to his apparent  doom, "Our Man" withdraws, convinced he has saved the
world from a dangerous  would-be hero.  But actually BB catches a convenient
flagpole and swings  back to the roof.  Finding "Our Man" gone, BB
electronically summons the  "Bug" and sets off to find his adversary; "I want to know
who's inside that  walking distortion of a man!" 

Stalking a nearby park, "Our Man"  comes across another hated item of heroic
art-- a statue of a frontiersman  holding a rifle, "one of the city's heroes".
He determines to destroy the  statue, and as he attacks he is cheered on by
the hippies infesting the park;  "Go, man, go!  Smash it, man!  Down with
phoney traditions!   WE'LL MAKE OUR OWN RULES!  We don't need any past!  It's here
and now,  man!"  As the rioting rebels threaten passersby and challenge cops,
Blue  Beetle arrives on the scene and takes on "Our Man" anew, but the hippie
mob,  chanting, "BEAT IT, BUG!" gets in his way and prevents him and the
police from  capturing "Our Man".

The next night, art critic Ebar appears on TV to  defend both the original
"Our Man" statue and its live imitator.  "Heroes  are outdated!  An insult to
the average man!", Ebar insists, as he proposes  replacing the wrecked
frontiersman statue with "one that doesn't  signify a  self-glorifying act".  TV
newsman Vic Sage is urged to give Ebar and "Our  Man" favorable coverage on his
newscast, but he contemptuously refuses.   "Our Man"'s crusade becomes a bone of
contention among both young and old, as  hippies form a movement in support of
"Our Man' but more traditional teens  reject it, while older people also split
between those who are tired of pressure  to achieve and do their best and
those who champion the need for achievement and  the work ethic; "The doctors
that treat you and your family...the people that  make your your
cars....anyone whose action affects the lives of  others shouldn't try to do
their best...why bother, huh!"  In another  locale, one man comments "I dig a guy
that makes know he's  human!" while another notes an
inconsistency; "That's why you're always  complaining about stupid sales clerks,
idiotic drivers and dumb  politicians?"  And two kids making up their own comic-book
type hero  disagree on the nature of the hero; "You'll be a super hero with
no legs but  I'll give you super powers so you won't miss them and everyone
will still feel  sorry for you1"  "That's stupid!  Why wreck me if you can give
me  powers!" 

Ted Kord gets the idea of backing a counter-exhibit of  heroic art, and Vic
Sage gladly agrees to host and promote it, despite  objections from his station
managers and sponsors.  When posters promoting  the "Exhibit of Man" start to
appear, the hippies complain "It's  un-American!  Ours should be the only
(exhibit)!  Let's picket  it1"  and "Our Man" prepares to apply his own special
brand of art  criticism.  Not that he regards himself as a hero for doing so;
consistent  with his beliefs, he still considers himself a helpless creature
who is  "unworthy of being chosen for such a tast, but how can a mere man
question the  mystic forces that move him!"  As "Our Man' shows up on the scene, Vic
Sage  takes him on with flying fists (without bothering to don the faceless
mask of  The Question) and holds him off until Blue Beetle, who has been
lurking in the  background can arrive.  Still protected by his armor, "Our Man"
gives BB a  several-page fight, though he is puzzled why the hated hero doesn't
fold at the  first sign of adversity.  As BB keeps on fighting even as "Our Man"
has  exhausted himself, "Our Man" concludes that Blue Beetle must have
invincible  supernatural powers (he has the wrong guy, that was the previous
Charlton  BB).  "The forces that once guided me have now deserted me....I have proven
unworthy of them!  This is my punishment!  I never had a chance  against
him!  I never had a chance for anything!"  As BB lifts "Our  Man" over his head,
the creature begs for mercy, and BB laughs, "Well, it does  talk!  I was
beginning to think you didn't have anything to say because you  didn't have any
brains.  Come to think of it...I'm right!"  But then  the hippie mob that has
been cheering on "Our Man" decides to take a hand, and  one of them seizes a gun
from a guard and tries to shoot the Beetle.  The  shots miss and the gunman is
disarmed by Vic Sage, but in the confusion "Our Man  "escapes..  BB and the
hippies both search for "Our Man", but all they find  are the pieces of his
costume.  "So he got away..." BB muses, "but I don't  think anyone will ever see
him again!"  It seems he is right, for though  the hippies idolize the broken
pieces of the "Our Man" suit, Hugo, who was of  course the man inside the
suit, has concluded that "We can achieve  nothing!  We are doomed to failure
before we try!"  Meanwhile, Vic  Sage laughs off the angry Boris Ebar, who is
trying to get him thrown off TV,  and Ted Kord muses that he was kept going during
the tough fight by the example  of "The Unconquered" statue; "I was fighting
for everything it stood for....for  the best in a man whatever it is!  Our Man
could only have won if i gave up  on what that statue meant to me!"  And
somewhere, a young boy persists in  his studies despite the scorn and cynicism of
his companions; "You got to be a  genius or like the Blue Beetle to solve those
problems!  Give up1   You'll pass anyway!"  "No!  If I give up I'll never
know that can be  done and I know I can do them!  I know it!"

Following a one page  text story titled "Prisoner 222" (no lettercol in this
last Charlton BB issue)  and a house ad for HERCULES ("A Startling View From
the Gods!") and SPACE  ADVENTURES ("Pushing High in the Endless Sky to
Unsuspected Destiny!') we have  the Question backup for this issue, also plotted and
drawn by Ditko and scripted  by "Glanzman".  It's clear where Ditko's head was
at at this point, for  this story also deals with the theme of heroic vs.
demeaning art.  Boris  Ebar reappears and gifts Syd Star, the sneering manager of
Vic Sage's employer,  the World Wide Broadcasting Co., with a painting that
Ebar figures Star will  admire; a modern art rendering of a helpless, crouching
figure about to be  stomped by a giant foot, with an empty soup can
(symbolizing Andy Warhol's  real-life Campbell soup "art") in the foreground. 
Contrasted with this is  a painting Vic Sage has given his girlfriend Nora, a scene of
a ragged but  heroic-looking construction worker standing amidst pinnacles of
rock.  When  Nora shows Boris Ebar the heroic painting, he recoils in rage,
noting that he  has already denounced the picture as "childish, lacking in
esthetics, an insult  to man" and suggesting that Vic Sage has acquired the picture
for Nora solely to  insult and torment him, Ebar.  Sage contemptuously
dismisses the charge;  'You flatter yourself!  I don't buy anything to please or
displease you or  anyone else!  I decide things for myself!"  But even back at
his home,  Ebar is haunted by the memory of the heroic painting, which brings to
his mind  thoughts he doesn't want to face.  He goes so far as to hire a
couple of  thugs to invade Nora's apartment and destroy the painting. 
Fortunately,  Vic Sage has just left, and as the goons break into the apartment and push
Nora  aside, Vic dons his faceless mask and releases his special gas to change
the  color of his hair and clothes to reappear as The Question.  He beats up
on  the two thugs, forcing them to flee, and then catches up to one of them.  
Holding the thug in his grip, the Question intimidates him by releasing a
cloud  of his color-changing gas.  The gas is harmless, but the thug doesn't know
that, and the frightened thug reveals enough for Sage to deduce that Boris
Ebar  hired him and his crony to vandalize the heroic painting.  Shortly 
afterward, Sage visits his friend and confidant Professor Rodor and arranges to 
acquire a new gadget designed to expose Ebar's criminality.  Thinking his 
hirelings have succeeded in destroying the painting, Ebar sits in his apartment 
and gloats over Vic Sage's discomfiture, but then is decidedly discomforted 
himself when he starts seeing visions of the heroic figure from the painting on 
his own apartment walls.  Thinking the painting is haunting him, he begs it 
to stop accusing him of weakness and failure.  Actually, of course, the  images
from the painting are being beamed into his apartment by the Question's  new
device.  Driven over the edge of madness, Ebar unsheaths a sword cane  and
sets off to destroy the original painting himself.  The Question tries  to pursue
him but is momentarily distracted by passersby chasing the mysterious 
faceless figure, and the delay in changing back to Sage allows Ebar to get a 
headstart.  The maddened Ebar shows up at Nora's apartment and demands to  be
allowed to destroy the painting, but Nora refuses.  The two thugs also  reappear,
wanting to earn the money Ebar promised them, but the Question knocks  them
unconscious and then changes back to Vic Sage for the final confrontation  with
Ebar.  Inside Nora's apartment, Sage finds Ebar, still demanding the 
destruction of the painting but oddly unwilling or unable to destroy it  himself. 
Confronted by the smiling face of man the builder and achiever,  Ebar collapses in
psychosis; "Stop  Stop staring!  Stop accusing  me!  I didn't want to betray
you!  I tried to be like you!  You  expect too much of me!  I'm only human! 
Why won't you let me lie to  myself1  Why do you keep making me see what I let
myself become!"   Ebar finally nerves himself to slash the picture with his
sword cane, but Sage  stops him, and he collapses on the floor, muttering, "It's
not my  fault....forgive me!"  As the police arrive to haul the two thugs off
to  jail and Ebar, presumably, off to the insane asylum, Syd Star frets about
Vic  Sage plotting against him, but Vic's mind is not either on his station
rival or  his recent harrowing experence; "That's it, Nora!  The rest of the
evening  is ours!"

After this issue (and a few appearances under the AC Comics  banner and in
the aforementioned CHARLTON PORTFOLIO) Ted Kord/Blue Beetle  passed, along with
the other 60's Charlton "action-heroes", into the hands of DC  Comics.  There,
he had a seriously handled but rather uninspiring solo  series scripted by
Len Wein and drawn by Paris Cullins and others (I've never  heard if Ditko was
offered the chance to be involved).  Then the Beetle  wound up in Keith
Giffen's seriocomic version of the Justice League and became  such a character as
"Our Man" might have appreciated, a half-competent costumed  crimefighter who was
the butt of jokes.  The recent "Countdown" special  tried to give him a
heroic sendoff, but was only partly successful, since the  story kept referring
back to his undistinguished career as a DC Universe hero  who got no respect from
the other "real" heroes.  In the end, the Beetle is  defeated and apparently
destroyed, his heroism consisting only in a refusal to  surrender.  Fan
speculation has it that Ted Kord may miraculously survive  and reappear in another
heroic guise, but it's not altogether clear why anyone  would care if this
version of Ted comes back.

DC was distinctly unkind to  all of the three main heroes Steve Ditko created
for 1960's Charlton.  Blue  Beetle became part of a clown act. Captain Atom--
who as done by Ditko proudly  served his country both in costume and in
military uniform-- became a resentful  government agent who hates and despises the
agency he serves and whose backstory  is exposed as a lie.  And the Question,
stalwart in his certainty of  Randian Objectivist truth, becomes a
self-doubting hero whose personal  philosophy is closer to Zen mysticism.  Now Denny
O'Neil and Denys Cowan's  Question series had merit in its own right-- and I know
there are others who  like Giffen's JL and Cary Bates' Captain Atom, though
neither is my cup of tea--  but still I "question" whether DC was justifed in
taking all of Ditko's  creations and twisting them so drastically from their
original  intent.

But these stories exalting the heroic and uplifting in art over  the
grotesque and despairing present a certain irony even in comparison with the  body of
Ditko's own work. Certainly Ditko could produce heroic images when he  wanted
to, most notably in the famous SPIDER-MAN #33 sequence in which  Spider-Man
lifts the giant device to escape and save Aunt May (a version of  which scene,
in somewhat different context, was reproduced in the film  SPIDER-MAN 2).  But
considering that he spent so much of his career both  before and after the
1960's grinding out horror comics, Ditko probably spent  more time producing
images of the grotesque and fearful than of the upstanding  and heroic-- and
arguably was better at the former than the latter.   (Ditko's heroic figures do
tend to look somewhat alike-- it's hard to tell apart  his Peter Parker, Ted
Kord, and Len Brown in the Dynamo stories he drew for  THUNDER AGENTS).  In his
Dr. Strange stories for Marvel, Ditko showed a  genius for creating the kind of
chaotic, abstract extra-dimensional scenes he  refers to contemptuously in
these stories denouncing "modern art".  And  while Ditko co-created one of the
greatest comic book super-heroes of all time,  Spider-Man, Spidey was of course
the virtual prototype of the "fallible, human  hero with problems" Ditko
explicitly rejects in some dialogue in this BB  story.  (And of course, arguably,
Ditko was and is quite wrongheaded in his  view here that only a flawless and
inhumanly perfect figure such as his Vic Sage  or Mr. A can represent
heroism.... a fallible but still brave, determined and  moral figure like Peter
Parker/Spider-Man can still uphold the idea of heroism  while making it more
accessible and believable.) 

Nonetheless, I  share Ditko's view that depicting suffering, failure,and
ugliness for its own  sake, and as the only possibility open to humanity, is not
the highest goal to  which art, whether the high art of paintings and
sculptures or the humble comic  book, should achieve.....