By Hilton Collins
The past 30 days haven't been bad for fans of the superhero Ted Kord from his pre-New 52 days. Thanks to stellar writing he received over the past three decades, he's become arguably the most beloved Blue Beetle (and in my opinion, the greatest), and his legacy gained strength after his death in 2005's Countdown to Infinite Crisis. He appeared in two recent DC Comics issues after a lengthy hiatus from the publisher's adventures. In November's The Multiversity: Pax Americana #1 by Grant Morrison, he had a small supporting role in a sobering Watchmen-inspired tale in an alternate universe, and he was a main character in this month's more humorous Justice League 3000 #12 by J. M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen, a time-displaced hero who landed in the future. DC rebooted Ted as a young grad student for the New 52 in Geoff Johns' in-continuity Forever Evil miniseries earlier this year, but it's too early to tell whether this new version of the character will live up to the character's reputation as a likeable genius who was full of hope, even if he didn't always carry himself with confidence.
Ted Kord became a fan-favorite character for a few big reasons, and the tremendous love for the character is why creators keep bringing him back, in one form or another.
Before I continue, I must admit… I like Jaime Reyes, the newest Blue Beetle, who debuted in the Infinite Crisis miniseries in 2006. He's an interesting person with a nice mystical / cosmic suit of armor look and power set thing going on. He's capable in fights, he's not an ass (at least not in the comics I've read), and there's really nothing about him I've noticed that would sour him in my eyes.
Jaime's the most recent person to carry the Blue Beetle title. He replaced Ted after the elder Beetle's death, a tragic, well-written departure. Jaime debuted as a teenager whom DC likely designed to be more marketable to younger audiences, and the fact that he wears armor with a blue scarab-like motif means there are all kinds of toy and action figure tie-ins companies sell with him. His creation makes sense from a business standpoint, and I can see why DC created him.
So, like I said, I like the current Blue Beetle well enough…
But sometimes, I miss Ted Kord.
I first met Ted, so to speak, in the early 90′s, which was around the time I branched out in my comic book collecting. See, years prior, the first comic books I'd read were Uncanny X-Men stories, and those hooked me on X-Men-related titles exclusively for a long time. Consequently, I was a Marvel guy because that's all I knew. Then, in about 1992, I was in a comic book shop somewhere and decided to try other books. There were TONS of comics on the shelves featuring superheroes I'd never heard of or paid attention to, but one of the issues that caught my eye was the Justice League Spectacular by DC Comics, featuring the Justice League America and the Justice League Europe. It had two covers with a different group of heroes on each: one with Superman and some other people I didn't know, and another with the Green Lantern, Flash, and some other people I didn't know either. I bought both.
Nothing was ever the same again.
These new people, the Justice League, fought these weird guys called the Royal Flush Gang, supervillains dressed like playing cards. The Leaguers argued, they had interesting personalities, some of them were down on their luck (oh, the DRAMA), and they got together again to fight the bad guys. I was intrigued, so I started buying Justice League America and Justice League Europe. At the time, Dan Jurgens wrote and drew Justice League America, and I was impressed by his action-packed adventure stories.
As issues went by, I got to know Ted better. He was a science nerd who used his brain in fights, he was unsure of himself, he cracked jokes, he fumbled a bit at times, and people underestimated him, a lot. Perhaps, subconsciously, I could identify with him on some level, since I'm a nerd myself. Ted Kord was a geek who proved his worth among all these people with bigger muscles, awesome superpowers, and more fame. And on top of that, he had a cool-looking bug plane; a unique, beetle-themed blue costume (blue is my favorite color, by the way); and seemed like an approachable and goofy person. He was my kind of superhero, and he was good enough to fight alongside the top DC superheroes.
It wasn't too long after that I started collecting Justice League back issues while I read the current stuff. I read League adventures in the Gerry Conway era and the Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis eras, and I discovered that there actually WAS a world outside of Marvel Comics, and it was a great one.
I learned that, before he joined the Justice League, Ted Kord had been a genius inventor and gifted athlete in his early days. He engineered his own bug-shaped blue aircraft and a strange pistol that emitted light. He fought crime hands-on, jumping, punching, and kicking the bad guys with a gymnast's flair. He started his own tech company, Kord Industries, and became wealthy (though he would lose most of his fortune in later DC storylines). Ted's Blue Beetle was a scientist adventurer who left his lab for danger and excitement. He accomplished all these things before he even JOINED the Justice League, so they're a part of the root of his character.
I also noticed that Ted Kord seemed to have a few things in common with Spider-Man. He had an insect-inspired motif, he was highly intelligent, and he hid insecurities behind wisecracks. He also used his athletic prowess, just like Spider-Man did, but Ted also seemed to have a bit in common with Batman. He was a rich businessman and inventor who used gadgets and weaponry, and he was athletic. Ted Kord's creator, Steve Ditko, was inspired by more famous superheroes, but Ted became his own superhero in time.
Ted grew more endearing as I dived into more Justice League back issues. I learned he had a weight problem, that he'd been even MORE underestimated in the 1980′s than he was in the 1990′s, that he hatched all of these weird get-rich-quick schemes, and that he was the butt of jokes just as often as he made them. And a lot of it was his fault. He didn't want to be treated like a clown, but he acted like one, so what did he expect? And if he didn't want to have a big belly, maybe he could've eaten better and exercised more.
The weight problem baffled me. The Blue Beetle didn't have powers, so he relied on his own body and smarts. He was often drawn in acrobatic, bug-like poses and action shots, especially in the 1990′s comics. You'd think that a man who used martial arts skills and could bend his legs over his head would know how to get rid of the spare tire around his belly. I'd just assumed Ted ate himself into a rut due to laziness and poor self-esteem. It may have been a bit hard for him to like himself when he had so many other people treating him like a joke. Yet HE was the one responsible for his immature behavior, so did the other Leaguers have a point?
I learned that, on some level, Ted Kord's shortcomings stemmed from his own faults. On the plus side, he was brilliant. He had started his own tech company and built impressive gadgets, and he was a very good hand-to-hand combatant. But he let his gifts flounder at times. He apparently never worked on his own company that much (being a superhero was cooler, anyway), which was his own choice, and he must've missed workouts to gain so much weight. And he certainly had no one to blame but himself for his juvenile antics.
But these things may have been why we liked him. How many of us comic book readers are thought of as nerds and goofballs at work or in school? And how many of us spend more time reading or playing games (be they console, computer, tabletop, or card games) when we could be playing sports or going to the gym? And how many of us are often underestimated and derided by others specifically because of who we are?
I'm not saying Ted was into D&D or WoW or anything (but who knows? Maybe he WAS); I'm just saying that he was definitely a nerd, at least on some level, and that was a big part of his character. Many of us may have, subconsciously, taken a liking to him for that reason. That may have been why I did, anyway.
Ted may have been underestimated, but he proved he was the thinking man's badass when the League needed him. Case in point, when the Justice League fought Starbreaker, a cosmic, energy-wielding despot who'd just whooped Superman's big blue rump in Justice League America #65, it was TED who figured out how to defeat him by rigging alien machinery to drain Starbreaker's energy until he was powerless. And earlier, in Justice League America #62, Ted outsmarted the Weapons Master in a game of cosmic chess–literally–to save the team from dying on a distant planet. (I could explain to you what cosmic chess has to do with saving people from death in outer space, but… you're better off just reading the issue yourself. It's kind of complicated.)
Ted proved his worth in-panel and in our hearts and minds thanks to great writing by Giffen, DeMatteis, and Jurgens. We knew it, and so did DC, which is why it sucked when the company killed Ted off in Countdown to Infinite Crisis. Here's my theory on why he was sacrificed. Ted wasn't a household name hero, so most people in the general public wouldn't have stormed DC's gates for the killing, but he was well-liked enough by enough of DC's longtime readers that his death would be sad and heartbreaking. Ted was "just right," so to speak, for a death that would be tragic enough to be moving without being catastrophic for the company, so DC made one of the most gut-wrenching decisions in comics and murdered him.
In summary, poor Ted went out like this: He discovers that someone's stealing money from his company and that whoever's behind it is a threat to the League. He tells other superheroes, but most of them dismiss his concerns, sometimes rudely (except for Wonder Woman, because she's awesome, who tells him she'll help him out if he needs it. Why he DIDN'T take her up on her offer is beyond me). Anyhow, Booster Gold, Ted's best friend, agrees to assist in the investigation, but an explosion incapacitates along the way, so Ted goes it alone.
He tracks the culprit to a secret base somewhere remote, and finds out that the thief is billionaire Maxwell Lord, the League's former financial backer and Ted's friend, or so he thought. Lord plans to destroy all superheroes because he thinks they're a threat to the world, and he defeats Ted with the help of sophisticated cyborgs. Lord offers Ted the chance to join him in the plot, but Ted refuses, so Lord shoots him in the head and kills him.
I was stunned as hell when I read it. I figured that Ted would be around forever, flitting in and out of comic book limbo to go on League adventures. But nope, he had to go, Greek tragedy style. Oddly enough, although I was sad, I wasn't really angry, and I think it's because the writing was so good. Ted went out, but he went out a hero, a SUPERHERO, dammit, and it was deep. He didn't go out crying or begging for his life, and he didn't go out a weakling. Yes, he lost, but strangely, he didn't seem helpless or pathetic. You can tell DC knew they had an awesome character because they had him go out respectably.
So here's to Ted Kord, the inimitable Blue Beetle, one of the intellectual crime fighting greats. He was brilliant without being untouchable, admirable without being unapproachable, and a non-powered superhero who remained interesting human among superhumans. Ted Kord was the hero who was your friend: someone you could identify with, and he fought the same kind of larger-than-life adversaries the other guys did who got all the glory. He was the wonderful underdog, and we're better off for having known him.
Last month was Thanksgiving, and I'm thankful that I got to know Ted Kord: The Blue Beetle who was my buddy.
Writer and videographer Hilton Collins loves sci-fi and fantasy wherever he finds it, whether it's in comic books, movies, books, short stories, TV shows, or video games. On the video side, he studies filmmaking, motion graphics, and animation; and on the writing side, he covers what he loves for Bleeding Cool and on his own blog, Imagination Unplugged (www.imaginationunplugged.com), a website about entertainment and self-help for creative professionals. He is @HiltonCollins on Twitter.