It was perhaps inevitable that we'd end up living in the age of the self-aware superhero. There's more filmed entertainment devoted to adaptations of superhero comics now than ever before. And, since any significant pop cultural moment is followed first by imitators and then by reactionary stories that seek to comment on the moment, superhero stories that are about comic book characters coming to grips with their very comic book worlds were bound to come along. The good news is that, so far, a lot of those self-aware superhero stories are excellent.
Ever since Deadpool proved to executives and audiences that comedy-laden, fourth-wall-breaking, even downright vulgar superhero metafiction could work on a grand scale right now, we've been getting more and more stories that seek to comment on superhero trends while also telling superhero stories of their own. DC Universe's Doom Patrol and Harley Quinn are similarly self-aware in a rather comedic way, while at the same time seeking to say something deeper about trauma, recovery, friendship, and self-worth. Both play their version of the self-aware game very, very well. The vernacular of superheroes and supervillains is so clear in the public consciousness right now that you can deconstruct the tropes of these stories in real time without ever having to slow down to explain too much. The result, when done right, is both laugh-out-loud funny (Harley Quinn) and often staggeringly poignant (Doom Patrol).
Basically, it's a great time for self-aware superhero stories that subvert comic book narratives while also delivering the action goods, and if you're as excited about that as I am, I've got the perfect character for you. He definitely deserves a bigger spotlight among fans of Doom Patrol and Deadpool-type stories, and he fits into the current trend so perfectly.
It's DC Comics' own Blue Devil.
OK, so he's not the most well-known character to emerge from DC Comics in the 1980s, and despite a few cartoon appearances and a guest-starring role on Swamp Thing (where the edgier version of the character got a chance to shine), most modern superhero fans might not recognize Blue Devil. I'll even admit that I barely knew anything about him until a few weeks ago, when I started reading his 1984 debut series on a whim because I have both a DC Universe subscription and a lot of trouble sleeping. Trust me, though, if you love funny stories about self-aware superheroes, the time has come to re-embrace Blue Devil, because his earliest 1980s comic book adventures feel like they fit right in here in 2020.
Created by Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn, and Paris Cullins, Blue Devil's self-titled series launched in the summer of 1984, and wasted no time leaping into a somewhat wacky premise. The titular character is Dan Cassidy, a movie stuntman and special effects wizard who's performing as "Blue Devil" in an animatronic suit of his own design for a movie starring the character. Dan's having a nice time just playing a demon, but when an actual real-life demon (because, comics) emerges on a location shoot and zaps Dan with magical energy, he suddenly finds himself stuck in a costume that's somehow become an organic part of his body. Whether he likes it or not, he now has to walk through life looking like a fantasy character with blue skin, horns, and some thematically appropriate facial hair.
Right away, the self-aware superhero commentary is apparent here, because Dan's origin story is rooted in the idea that he only ever meant to pretend to be a comic character. He built a lifelike super-suit in the name of make-believe, and perhaps to get a little attention both professionally and personally, but there was never an overt sense of heroism in his motivation. He's just a guy who exists in the DC Comics Universe — you know, a world where Superman could fly by overhead at any moment — and happens to be really good at special effects. Now, after one issue, he's a living, breathing special effect with enhanced strength, a healing factor, and a pitchfork that can make him fly.
Even after his transformation, Dan spends much of his 31-issue ongoing solo series insisting that he isn't a real superhero, and doesn't want to be. In many issues, he's just trying to get by to his regular life as a stuntman and special effects guru. He tries to keep making movies as Blue Devil because he still sees himself as a super-powered guy in the entertainment business, not a superhero who entertains. That juxtaposition, in particular, fascinates me in 2020, at a time when more and more superhero universes are emerging on our screens all the time and the comic book universes we've had for decades just keep trucking along. Think of Steve Rogers in Captain America: The First Avenger, humiliated because he's forced to go on a war bonds tour and put on a show rather than actually do the fighting. Dan Cassidy is a guy who actually wants to just put on a show, because after all, there are already plenty of heroes in his world. And, of course, his desire to keep making Blue Devil movies adds the layer of the Superhero as Corporate Product to this whole metaphorical stew, which is always fertile ground, as series like The Boys has very recently reminded us.
As for why Dan can't simply go back to the showbiz life, his friends point out to him frequently that his exposure to magic and subsequent transformation have made him into a "weirdness magnet," in the same way that certain Batman writers always like to talk about how Batman's very existence prompts the emergence of people like The Riddler. Of course, because Blue Devil was a comedy book, "weirdness magnet" often put an emphasis on the "weird." At various points in Blue Devil Dan has to fight just about everything: demonic forces, a group of bored members of The Flash's rogues gallery who are looking for someone to fight, invading aliens, a superhero engineered by a competing movie producer to outshine him — the list goes on. At one point he's attacked by an action figure version of himself, and at another his ties to the magical side of the DC Universe set in motion a team-up with Zatanna, The Phantom Stranger, Etrigan the Demon, The Creeper, Man-Bat, and Madame Xanadu. Yes, that's all in one story, and yes, it is wild.
So you've got the inherent meta-commentary potential of creating a superhero who was just a guy playing a superhero first, and then you add in the "weirdness magnet" angle to ensure that no matter how hard he tries, Dan can't really escape the superhero life. The original Blue Devil series is, first and foremost, a comedy book, but the inherent thematic weight of that idea makes an impact even when the story is at its absolute silliest. The idea that living in a superhero universe means that you can just look out your window at any moment and see something absolutely insane is a well-trafficked one in comic book stories, as is the idea that choosing to put on a costume brings with it certain implications about the way the wider world sees you. In Blue Devil, Dan struggles to find the great responsibility that comes with his great power, because he only ever meant to pretend, and he doesn't see a place for himself in a superhero landscape where, you know, the Justice League is wandering around. It just doesn't add up for him, and so the constant weirdness creeping into his life often feels like a nuisance he'd just rather be rid of, something that can be both played for laughs and milked for a lot of meaning as metaphorical traumas and issues he'd just rather not work on.
But of course, these superhero commentaries full of self-aware characters cracking wise about the comic book world they live in don't really work if they don't also get to be heroes once in a while. Blue Devil's weirdness is what hooks you, but if you stay with the series for the entire ride, you'll also find something deeper. Because, for all his impatience with the life he didn't ask for, Dan eventually does learn what it means to be a hero. He eventually learns to, if not master, then at least deal with all the issues in his life, from doing double duty as a movie star and a superhero to simply juggling all the weirdness his very existence throws at him. In that way, at its core, Blue Devil becomes a book about how, sometimes, heroism is just getting out of bed every day and doing the best you can, whether you're making a movie or fighting a demon. That's the kind of self-aware superhero narrative we can all get behind, whether it's 1984 or 2020, and even if you can't, you still get to read about a guy with powder-blue skin and horns fighting demons and arguing with Firestorm.