Thursday, October 08, 2015

Countdown to Halloween: Jack Kirby's Monsters! Night Eight: The Beetle Who Said He Was Bigger Than Jesus*

Hey hey we're the Beetles
And people say we beetle around

Whoops, wrong pop group.

Cover of Tales to Astonish #39 (January 1963), script by Stan Lee, pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Dick Ayers, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Artie Simek

For all the Fin Fang Fooms and Xemnus and Rombii that manage to survive the Monster Age and move into the Marvel Age, brushing shoulders with Thor, Wolverine, and Chipmunk Hunk, there's dozens of monsters who just couldn't cut the mustard to make it into the big 616. Alas, poor Lt. Broccoli, Roller Ghoster, and Ting Tong. You just weren't good enough to eventually face off against the Hulk, the She-Hulk, or Teen Hulk.

And then there's this schlemiel.

Splash page from "The Vengeance of the Scarlet Beetle!" in Tales to Astonish #39 (January 1963), plot by Stan Lee, script by Larry Lieber, pencils by Jack Kirby, inks by Dick Ayers, colors by Stan Goldberg, letters by Artie Simek

Ant-Man! The hero so important Stan Lee passed him off to his brother to write. Ant-Man! The only one of the monster mags-turned-superhero anthology headliners who didn't get his own series in the late sixties. Ant-Man! He has the powers of the ants! The same ants, in fact, who alert him to danger when they're not busy appearing in Raid commercials. Dangers like...this! Yep, Batman had a Bat-Signal. Ant-Man has bugs.

This scarlet beetle is aptly named The Crimson Cootie! Naw, I'm just kiddin' ya. He's called the Scarlet Beetle. And since his plans were so contingent upon growing to enormous size using Ant-Man's patented Pym Particle gas, it's a pretty good thing Ant-Man is the one who stumbled across the Scarlet Beetle in the first place. Good thing he didn't run into, say, Giant Man first. Oh wait, that would have worked too. Okay, good thing he wasn't facing the Wasp. Darn it! I guess the S.B. woulda gotten big any way.

And so the Scarlet Beetle unleashes his inhuman (well, literally) army upon the word! Termites tear down the telecommunications systems! World leaders are poisoned by itsy-bitsy spiders! And…uh…bugs carry away crates of dynamite right behind the back of Beetle Bailey. And with that name, he's the one G.I. who might have been sympathetic to their cause! Also: the Scarlet Beetle breaks into your local newscast.

I'd like to think, however, that in the Marvel Universe, they're always prepared for just such a television station interruption.

Natch, the ants remain faithful and obedient to their human master, the Ant-Man! (Which is kind of creepy on the natural scale if you think about it.) He orders them to fetch DDT to use against the Scarlet Beetle's men insects. Whoa, Hank, that's hardcore. I kind of thought there were some sort of Geneva Antvention rules about the use of a chemical weapon so deadly it will wipe out both sides. Eh, what does he care? He's Ant-Man!

An Ant-Man story that has a climatic battle among giant-sized toys? That'll never be realistic! Incidentally, I like how the Scarlet Beetle has put Hank Pym's belt around himself. Why does a beetle wear a belt? To hold up his ants.

Around about this time Captain America or Iron Man or Daredevil would have been dragging this insect irritant down to the police station, or, failing that, put them up for the weekend in the local Roach-tel California. ("Bugs check in, but they can never leave.) What does Ant-Man do? He puts the Beetle in a balloon. Y'know, just for fun I like to imagine that it's Michael Douglas doing all this crazy stuff. Hey, two-time Academy Award-winner Michael Douglas...put a big beetle inside a balloon! Haw!

And then he just lets him go. Good work, Dr. Pym. No wonder the last two frames are about how the public thinks you're completely useless.

The Scarlet Beetle next appears in 1972's Iron Man #44, but thanks to the magic of chronological ret-continuity implant, his next historical appearance in the Marvel Universe is in 1996's Untold Tales of Spider-Man, where a freshly-bitten Peter Parker squares off against our favorite red roach. Thanks, Kurt Busiek, for helping us laugh at Scarlet Beetle, again!

Panels from Untold Tales of Spider-Man #12 (August 1996), script by Kurt Busiek, pencils by Pat Olliffe, inks by Al Vey and Pam Eklund, colors by Steve Mattsson, letters by Richard Starkings

Now, a quick jump back to '72, where the Scarlet Beetle returns, feistier than ever, once again setting the insect world against the human world. Also, apparently, he's a mutant. Ah, that finally explains all the issues of Wolverine and the X-Men where Scarlet Beetle is hanging around in the back of the classroom scribbling "S.B.+O.M." in his Mead® Square Deal® Black Marble Composition Book. Sadly, all of the other mutants used to laugh and call him names.

Panels from "Armageddon On Avenue A" in Iron Man #44 (January 1972), script by Roy Thomas, pencils by Ross Andru, inks by Mike Esposito, letters by Jean Izzo

Wow, if that guy thinks this is the end of the world, wait until Earth-1610 crashes into the planet. Kinda puts a few bugs into perspective, doesn't it? And proving you can't teach an old bug new tricks, Scarlet here tries to take over the world using the exact same trick he used in his first appearance: stealing the Pym gas. I like to think that he actually just missed the dramatic look and stylish lines of that snazzy belt, though.

Scarlet Beetle is defeated the way all good insect villains usually go out: trodden under the sole of the shoe of a guy who was trying to burn down his own business for the insurance money. Man, what a cliche! If we've seen that story ending once we've seen it a milltimes!

So there ya go. the Scarlet Beetle: dead. Until he wasn't anymore. (gestures dramatically) Comics!

Panels from West Coast Avengers #34 (July 1988), script by Steve Englehart, layouts by Al Milgrom, finishes by Mike Machlan, colors by Paul Becton, letters by Janice Chiang

And did I mention this time there's a whole hive of Scarlet Beetles, and they're working for a Communist dictator? Because that's what you do when you seize ultimate and total control of a country: bring in the giant red bugs. Incidentally, if you ever wondered what Vision's weakness is, it appears to be fighting insects. Ah, that explains all the times that Scarlet Witch would tie him down to the ground and pour honey all over his body! Um, I think. Possibly not.

Oh, wait. He can just use his super-forehead power beam on them. So, pretty much like every other enemy Vision fights, huh? He renders them irrelevant! Also: dead.

But, as the career of Ringo has taught us anything, it's that you can't keep a good beetle down. When he next returns, it's to beetle-devil the new Ant-Man, Scott Lang, by forming a super-villain team of his own, starring Bug-Punisher! Insectiron Man! Wolveroach! (©1981 Dave Sim) And many other Steve Ditko-pencilled background figures. Meet the all-new, all-different Mighty Antvengers! Unless this splash panel is some kind of crazy nightmare. Which, in fact, it is. The events in this panel do not occur in this comic book, folks!

Splash page from "Amazing Fantasy" in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #24 (1990), script by Tony Isabella, pencils and inks by Steve Ditko, colors by Bob Sharen, letters by Rick Parker

Cool, it's a Kirby monster drawn by Steve Ditko! You don't get that too often. Steve's taken such care to preserve the Kirbyosity of the original appearance that he's homaged the first two panels of Kirby's story (top) in his own style (bottom).

Oh, the Beetle's back and you're gonna be in trouble / Hey-la-day-la, the Beetle's back! Incidentally, he's still claiming to be a mutant. You know, Beetly, you can insist and argue all you want that you're a mutant and it's still not gonna increase your sales. Look at what happened when Cloak and Dagger were being promoted as being mutants. Their book still got cancelled! Plus, it's an insult to all true mutants. I think what I'm saying here is be what you are, not what you aren't.

Whew! It was just a dream.

Or…was it?

Yes. It was.

So, let's see how carefully you've been paying attention. Later, when She-Hulk is attacked by giant robotic insects, who do you think is behind it?

Panels from The Sensational She-Hulk #60 (February 1994), script by Scott Benson and Len Kaminski, pencils by Pat Olliffe, inks by Steve Montano, colors by Glynis Oliver, letters by Brad Joyce

Could the villain be the Locust? Black Tarantula? The Human Fly? Could it be Swarm, the Nazi Made of Bees? Nope, sorry! Those are all terrible guesses. It's the Scarlet Beetle.

And then She-Hulk kills him by swatting him with a newspaper.

We haven't seen exoskeleton or setae or the Red Beetle since then, even though he threatened to have his own four-issue miniseries during Secret Wars entitled Scarlet Fever. But the actual only sighting, if'n you can call it that, is a transcript of his disastrous local-cable debut, interviewed by Defenders supporting cast member Dollar Bill! Warning: may read like fan fiction.

Text page from Marvel Monsters: From the Files of Ulysses Bloodstone and the Monster Hunters one-shot (November 2005)

And so, as Bob Dylan famously sang

That's the story of the Scarlet Beetle
Got pinned in a book by a collector's needle

*To be fair, the Scarlet Beetle only claimed he was taller than Jesus.

1 comment:

SallyP said...

I've never even heard of the Scarlet Beetle! But man, he's got some style at least, I'll say that for him. Monologues like nobody's business.