Friday, February 28, 2014

Black Superheroes: Bumblebee

Not the most intimidating of codenames, but still...
Name: Karen Beecher

First Appearance: Teen Titans #45 (1976)

History: Karen Beecher was a scientist and inventor who had a fairly normal life, at least until she began dating Mal Duncan, a member of the Teen Titans who had gone through several codenames. Worrying that Mal was being overlooked by the rest of the team Beecher concocted a scheme to make him look good. She created a bumblebee themed high tech suit and attacked the team in an effort to prove how valuable Duncan was to the team. Her scheme was effective and she managed to escape Scot-free but soon afterwards she confessed the ruse to Mal. Realizing that her intellect and ingenuity would make her a valuable ally the Titans recruited her on the spot. Under the name Bumblebee Karen continued working with the group before eventually joining Doom Patrol.

Beta Says: Bumblebee is yet another example of a character that was “awesome on paper” but never lived up to her potential. Think about: Karen was a scientist, an inventor while also being a black woman. The black woman was the smart one. That is so rare in superhero teams. You might want to accuse DC of simply ripping off the Wasp. Truthfully aside from both being insect themed heroines who could fly I’d say there wasn’t that much connecting them. Bumblebee was as a scientist and had no superhuman powers; her costume was a power suit of her own design. She did not change in size, which was the Wasps’ main gimmick. Um, well DC altered her so she’s stuck in a small form. Thanks for nothing, guys.

 More on Bumblebee after the jump.

[Cue "Flight of the Bumblebee"]
I can’t say I’m super happy about the circumstances of her joining the Titan either, the idea of trying to make her boyfriend look good. It’s funny because her boyfriend Mal goes through a bunch of different identities and none of them are as interesting as Bumblebee being a super smart inventor. Hell, most of the Titans in their history aren’t as interesting as that. It’s a shame that the character wasn’t invited to The New Teen Titans re-launch as that would have secured her place in DC lore. She’s not too bad off I suppose; she has showed up bit in the Teen Titans cartoon and the Young Justice cartoon and while she wasn’t a major character in either her stock is higher than the average black hero because of this.

As I mentioned earlier that I feel that DC dropped the ball on the character. At some point she and Mal retire from crime-fighting (getting married at some point) and then only make sporadic appearances for a long while afterwards, presumably because then current DC writers couldn’t think of anything to do with them (which is terribly annoying). Eventually there was a story where a bunch of heroes including Bumblebee was in space and they were hit by a Zeta Beam (which, as I understand it, is a teleportation ray used by the character Adam Strange) that caused her to permanently shrink to six inches tall while her mass was somehow shifted to Hawkgirl to make her giant size. So this was someone’s genius idea to make Karen more interesting: “make her as similar to the Wasp as possible”. There was likely always some concern about the similarities between the two but now that she’s tiny Bumblebee stops being that potentially cool genius inventor with all the cool self-made gadgets and instead become a rip-off of a character that wasn’t all that interesting to begin with. Also I think I read that her wings and sonic blasts are her superpowers now, not part of a suit, which would make her near identical to the Wasp but I can’t seem to find explicit confirmation on that. If true then what the shit, dude? She doesn’t need to be the goddamn Wasp!

Bumblebee pining over Ant-Man. Wait...
And to make it worse as far as I know that never reversed it. For the rest of her publication history being tiny was her defining trait. It ruined her relationship with Mal, it forced her to live in a dollhouse, and it caused her health problems but no cure was found. Meanwhile Hawkgirl was only a giant for a short time before she was cured. Apparently it’s easier to shrink someone than to make them larger? I have no idea why that is. All I know is that Bumblebee was a missed opportunity to have an empowered black woman in a role we don’t see enough black women in comics: as the smart guy.

Eventually Karen and Mal joined Doom Patrol, a superhero team with a tremendous amount of baggage both in universe and behind the scenes. Originally guest starring in Teen Titans this version of Doom Patrol did have an ongoing series but it was relatively short lived and I totally didn’t read it and they eventually disband. Since then we haven’t seen a heck of a lot of Bumblebee in the comics. I do not believe she’s appeared in the New 52 at all. If DC does to bring her back they need to utilize the clean slate aspect of the new continuity to bring the character back to basics. Look at her skill set circa 1976 and build on that. Don’t try to make her DC’s equivalent of the Wasp; the Wasp isn’t even all that great (except her incarnation in Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but that’s neither here nor there). And make sure she’s not so connected to man. Her whole character was built around being Mal Duncan’s girlfriend but it’s the 21st Century now so she needs to stand on her own and be interesting on her own. De-age her (which DC did across the board in Great Reboot of 2011, so no problem there) and have her be the brains of a Teen Titan squad that is populated with heavy hitters. Have her stand shoulder to shoulder with Superboy, Wonder Girl and Robin Red Robin while being a valuable asset long enough and she’ll start being viewed as being on their level. It has been doing wonders for Cyborg in the Justice League. Bumblebee should be awesome and the only reason she isn’t is because writers haven’t done enough with her.

Kind of a skimpy high tech suit but whatever
For more on Bumblebee click here.

Well that’s it for Black Superhero month this year. I think I did a pretty good job with having an even number of women and men this year, even though I was super worried about it in. I was saying I was going to make up for it in March back in the intro but I think it went well enough that I don’t need to make amends. So I’ll sit on my idea for now. In any event thanks for reading my annual trip through the archives of black superhero history. Hopefully we’ll be doing this again next year.

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