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Blue Beetle championed BIPOC coming-of-age stories in DC Comics

Before Blue Beetle broke new ground in Hollywood history, he blazed a very similar trail in DC Comics with his own unique coming-of-age story.

Cropped panel featuring Blue Beetle
Image credit: DC Comics (Cully Hamner)

DC Studios’ newest film, Blue Beetle follows Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), a Mexican-American teenager in Palmera City, as he uncovers the secrets behind a technologically-advanced, alien scarab he has bonded with. Blue Beetle also holds the distinction of being the first solo superhero film starring a Latine protagonist. But before Blue Beetle broke new ground in Hollywood history, he blazed a very similar trail in DC Comics with his own unique coming-of-age story.

The coming-of-age story has been a comics cornerstone since it was popularized in the early 1960s with Spider-Man. Unlike the Fantastic Four or DC’s superheroes like Batman, Superman, or the Justice Society, Spider-Man was a meek teenager who was burdened by his secret superhero life. In the 1990s, Milestone Comics, an imprint of DC Comics, introduced Black teenage heroes like Static and Rocket in an effort to diversify superhero comics. Later, graphic novels like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000), Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (2006), and Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) re-imagined the coming-of-age story from a variety of different intersectionalities. But as marginalized voices slowly gained more traction in the graphic novel format, mainstream, serialized superhero comics were slow to continue the momentum of Milestone Media.

Cropped panel featuring Blue Beetle
Image credit: DC Comics (Cully Hamner)

And this is precisely where Jaime Reyes’s Blue Beetle comes in. The first series featuring Jaime Reyes’ Blue Beetle by Keith Giffen, John Rogers, and Cully Hamner revolutionized the trajectory of the coming-of-age genre in DC Comics and beyond by challenging the relatability matrix that had long favored white characters like Peter Parker in superhero coming-of-age stories.

Jaime’s story begins with the title character having no idea of how his suit works, or what his powers are. From the first page of the story, Jaime is put in the same bewildered position as Peter Parker after he was bit by the radioactive spider. But beyond simply recreating an established superhero coming-of-age story, Blue Beetle places equal emphasis on both Jaime’s alien technology and his life as a Mexican-American teenager in El Paso.

At the time of Jaime’s first solo series in 2006, it was difficult to find other BIPOC adolescents in DC Comics whose narrative purpose revolved around being a normal teenager. DC didn’t have a clear Peter Parker (or more accurately, Miles Morales) analog for young fans of color.

Instead, many young characters of color in DC Comics were introduced as “living weapons” to fans. Shortly before Jaime’s time, Damian Wayne was introduced as Batman’s only biological son who had been raised in the League of Assassins. Before that, fans met Cassandra Cain’s Batgirl, whose parents never taught her how to speak, instead teaching her to communicate solely through physical violence. The beloved Teen Titans member, Cyborg, had spent the last couple of decades still wondering if he was “more man or more machine.” Cyborg was only five years away from joining the Justice League during DC’s New 52 reboot, while his former Titans teammates such as Nightwing, Starfire, Raven, and Beast Boy went through the trials of young adulthood, or remained members of the Teen Titans without him.

Cropped panel featuring Blue Beetle
Image credit: DC Comics (Cully Hamner)

With this in mind, Jaime Reyes’s debut series was groundbreaking for BIPOC coming-of-age stories because of how ill-equipped he was to be a superhero. In Blue Beetle #1 by Keith Giffen, John Rogers, Cully Hamner, Phil Balsman, and David Self, Jaime crash-lands back on Earth before the Green Lantern Guy Gardner says to him, “Hey. HEY! What are you?!” Jaime’s bewildered “Wh… huh?” response to Guy’s existential question encapsulates his role as a coming-of-age protagonist. The focus of Jaime’s story is for him to define “what” he is, as a young adult.

Issue one of the series achieves this by intercutting Jaime’s fight with Guy Gardner with scenes of him discovering the scarab with his friends, and interacting with his family. This creative choice birthed a new trend of coming-of-age comics for people of color, drawing a subtle parallel between Jaime’s ambivalence about becoming a superhero with the lack of an existing narrative framework for ordinary teenagers of color like him. In other words, it makes sense that Jaime had trouble believing that any of it was real because regular kids from El Paso simply never got to fight Green Lanterns in space in the first place.

This dynamic comes to a head when Jaime attempts to explain his fight with Guy Gardner, and how he got the scarab in the first place to his family in Blue Beetle #3. His mother doesn’t believe him, dismissing it as “a fairy tale,” underscoring how out of place Jaime’s normalcy was from the existing DC status quo, both within the world of the story and within the broader cultural context of the mid-2000s. He wasn’t a warrior trained from birth like so many of his other contemporaries. Jaime’s mother describing his account as a “fairy tale,” in a world where superpowers and aliens exist, highlights how ordinary Mexican American teenagers like Jaime were marginalized from the existence of superheroism in the first place.

Cropped panel featuring Blue Beetle
Image credit: DC Comics (Cully Hamner)

In bringing to life elements like his bilingualism, Jaime Reyes in Blue Beetle paved the way for a new generation of BIPOC teenage superheroes whose narrative power was rooted in their normalcy as well as their specific cultural backgrounds. Instead of being elite assassins, characters like Kamala Khan’s Ms. Marvel, Miles Morales’s Spider-Man, Riri Williams’ Ironheart, Jake Gomez’s Werewolf By Night, Ace West’s Kid Flash, Tai Pham’s Green Lantern, and Roundhouse from the Teen Titans underscore the universal experience of growing up. While no coming-of-age experience is identical, Jaime Reyes’s Blue Beetle makes the case for why expanding the reach of the genre can more accurately capture the spectrum of human experience.

This isn't to say that BIPOC characters should be locked into having idyllic childhoods or lives for the sake of “positive representation,” but when far-fetched violence, along the lines of familiar stereotypes, becomes the dominant narrative for young characters of color, it can eclipse milestones that make the coming-of-age genre so universal. In effect, leaving young BIPOC characters out of the coming-of-age framework advances an outdated idea that people of color’s experiences aren’t relatable, or worth learning about. Thankfully, with the Blue Beetle film making Jaime Reyes more popular than ever, there is a bright future ahead for BIPOC superheroes.


Read this iconic introduction of Blue Beetle here.

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About the Author
Jules Chin Greene avatar

Jules Chin Greene

Contributor

Jules Chin Greene is a journalist and Jack Kirby enthusiast. He has written about comics, video games, movies, and television for sites such as Nerdist, AIPT, Multiverse of Color, and Screen Rant.

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