13 Ill-Advised Attempts to Create Comic Book Characters Based on Bees
Why is it, he wondered one day, that bees just can’t get any respect in the comics? Wasps, hornets, beetles — they all get reasonably respectable
characters named after them; why not bees? How is it that sticking “spider” in
front of “man” leads to a billion-dollar film and lunchbox franchise, while doing the same thing with “bee” gives you…well, this? Produced at the height of Bat-mania in the ’60s by a publisher eager to hop on the bandwagon, Harvey’s Bee-Man started out his fictional life as Barry E. Eames (get it?), an ethically challenged scientist who hijacked an unmanned Martian probe by re-jiggering its return coordinates. Readers never learned what he planned to do with the probe and its meteorite payload, as the rock split open when he found it and — “THE BEES… SAVE ME FROM THE GIANT BEES!” After a quick trip to Mars and a striped costume to complement the several liters of Giant Martian Bee Venom (accept no substitutes!) now sloshing through his veins, Eames embarked on a new career as Bee-Man, advance scout for alien benefactors hellbent on conquering Earth. But it’s all good, because he’s soon cured of his turncoat tendencies and rejoins Team Earth, working as a super-agent for the F-Bee-I (seriously!). Oh, and did we mention his need to suck back several gallons of honey a day to keep up his “bee-strength”? An easy contender for the worst superhero concept ever conceived, Bee-Man didn’t outlive the two-issue title (Double-Dare Adventures) in which he starred, and he’s remembered today only by comic fans with a taste for the un-bee-lievable. (Sorry.)
2. The Red Bee
Speaking of unbelievable. The Red Bee debuted during that crazy Golden Age period when just about any fool idea for a superhero was thrown out there, as long as the character adhered to a certain template. Studly alliterative name (Rick Raleigh)? Check. A day job that put him in the middle of the crimefighting action (assistant district attorney)? Check. Generic urban stomping grounds (Superior City)? Check. Red-and-yellow striped tights, red tank top and pink see-through chiffon sleeves? Check. Wait, what? Added to the sartorial insanity was his choice of weapon against the mobsters and Nazis of the world: a trained bee named Michael who flew out of a secret compartment in the Red Bee’s belt. He was also, if my online sources can be trusted, a “superb fighter” because you’d have to be with a gimmick like that. Hey, kids already loved the Green Hornet and the Blue Beetle, so who’s to say this couldn’t have worked, too? I don’t recall if they ever printed an origin story explaining how he came to choose his unconventional motif and weaponry (“Thank you, Father. I shall become… a bee”), but his status as one of the oddest Golden Age heroes in DC’s stable has helped him land a few jobs over the years, including his inevitable death scene in a 1984 issue of The All-Star Squadron and an oddly moving appearance in 1994’s Starman series.
The only thing crazier than a Golden Age hero using trained bees to fight crime? How about two Golden Age heroes using trained bees to fight crime? Right from the start, though, there was some confusion about whether Vince Harley, a.k.a. Yellowjacket, used bees and/or yellowjackets (which are members of the wasp family and often confused for bees) to foil criminals. One suspects the writers hardly cared. A crime fiction writer in search of inspiration, Harley was home tending to his bees (as red-blooded bachelors were apt to do in those days) when a mystery literally lands on his doorstep in the form of a beautiful woman on the run. When some mobsters arrive in search of her, they decide to silence Harley by letting his own bees (well, they refer to them as yellowjackets, so who knows?) sting him to death while he is unconscious on the floor. Maybe their gang had a contest that month for the Most Creative and/or Statistically Improbable Hit. At any rate, the woman emerged from hiding to discover the insects left Harley alone because “he is one of those rare people that bees don’t sting.” Inspired by his ordeal, Vince puts on a yellow-and-black costume that just happened to be hanging in his closet (for, ahem, special occasions), and vows to bring the world’s laziest mobsters to justice. He first appeared in Yellowjacket Comics #1 (09/44) and lasted two years in his own title, gaining the power somewhere along the way to mentally command swarms of bees and/or yellowjackets, depending on who was writing the story. Which was a damned convenient power to pick up, when you think about it.
Hoo boy. Okay, first thing you’ve got to understand is Superboy’s neighbor, the nosy Lana Lang, once got a ring from a grateful alien that allowed her to turn into giant insects. Got that? Good. Now, “The Strange Insect Lives of Lana Lang!” (Superboy #127, 03/66) begins with Superboy giving Lana and her professor father a lift to Africa to find a lost pyramid. Their jungle guide is a young lad named Kim, who gets an arrow through his lungs when a few unfriendly natives ambush their expedition. Knowing a lawsuit when he sees it, Professor Lang hurries the boy over to the nearby “jungle bio-lab” of his good friend, Dr. Pelham, who just happens to have an experimental bee serum lying around and what the hell, it’s not as if anyone is going to come looking for the kid if anything goes wrong. The operation is a success, in that Kim is no longer on death’s door, but the serum also transforms him into a bee/human hybrid with a penchant for honey and self-loathing, in no particular order. “I-I’m just a freak now!” he says as he comes to terms with his new form. After a few misunderstandings with Lana, who flies after him as Insect Queen to help him come to terms with what he’s going through, Bee-Boy goes on a suicide run by trying to sting the invulnerable Superboy (knowing full well that bees die after stinging), but the Boy of Steel convinces him to, like, chill out, dude, and just sit back and wait for me to whip up an antidote that will turn you human again. So Bee-Boy happily goes back to his giant beehive and promises to give Lana a “buzz” the next time he’s near a phone, solely because Superboy swore to return his human form. That was in 1966. Bee-Boy’s probably still there, waiting in his giant beehive for some magic elixir that will never come. Guess Superboy forgot all about that little promise as soon as he was back to Smallville and finding new ways to mess with Lana’s mind. Nice going, Super-Jerk.
5. Swarm (Comics)
Quoth the Wikipedia: “A former Nazi sympathizer, his most notable physical feature is that his entire body is composed of bees.” Yes, that would certainly help him stand out down in the grocery checkout line. Fritz von Meyer was just your average Nazi scientist on the run when he discovered a hive of mutated bees in the jungles of South America. Not particularly keen on his attempts to study them, the bees devoured von Meyer and somehow absorbed his consciousness into their collective form. And of course absorbing a Nazi means the bees end up acting all world-conquery, using his/their ability to mentally command other bees to sting humans into submission… except when humans douse their costumes in Raid, like the one time Spider-Man did that. Or that time one of the Runaways kids used his electrical powers to fry the bees. Or that time Venom dispersed the bees by, er, eating von Meyer’s bones whilst inside a giant version of Swarm. Or the time someone threw water on the bees and crushed Swarm’s skeleton while the bees flopped around, waterlogged, on the ground. Let’s face it — while it’s hard to top the retro super-villain charm of “super-villain Nazi made of bees,” there are more ways to defeat this guy than reasons why that Jerry Seinfeld bee movie sucked.
6. Swarm (Animation)
Nazi beekeeper devoured by mutant bugs? Totally could happen. Radioactive
space rock that turns bees into giants and humans into bee-people slaves? Now that’s just ridiculous. Swarm made his/their animated debut in a 1981 episode of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, but the concept was so far removed from the classic Nazi/mutant bee template that it may as well have been a whole different character. After a meteorite lands in a farmer’s field not far from New York City, its energy irradiates a nearby beehive, and the bees form a humanoid shape with the power to turn humans into mindless drones with its eye-blasts. Yes, Spider-man, Firestar and Iceman save the day. Yes, Aunt May is thrown into danger to make Parker feel extra-angsty. But my favorite part is the farmer’s reaction when Swarm first appears; after witnessing the bees form the shape of a giant humanoid, the farmer orders them off his property, and it’s only when his pitchfork sails harmlessly through Swarm’s torso that he starts to freak out. Let me repeat that: it’s only when his pitchfork sails harmlessly through Swarm’s torso that the farmer starts to freak out. I’m pretty sure “seeing a flying bee-man with big glowy eyes” would be my cue to run screaming for my mommy; maybe farm folks are just bred tougher.
Secret societies out to take over the world are a dime a dozen in the comic
books, and it can be hard to tell them apart if you just go by their mission statements. The 100? The Committee? Skull? Hydra? Kobra? Cobra? A.I.M.? At least H.I.V.E. — or Hierarchy of International Vengeance and Extermination, if you will — tried to differentiate itself, style-wise, by committing whole hog (or whole bee, if you will) to the “hive” motif, from its hexagonal approach to interior design to the designation of a “H.I.V.E. mistress” to serve as its “queen.” H.I.V.E.’s objectives and mission statement were as generic as they come — world domination through terrorism and political manipulation, yadda yadda yadda, a plan not unfamiliar to anyone following Rupert Murdoch’s career — and it was never explicitly made clear how, for example, their scheme to poison the world’s oceans would lead to untold riches and power. Years after the Teen Titans took down the first H.I.V.E., a second one led by a mysterious new H.I.V.E. Mistress started recruiting young men and women for the sole purpose of eliminating all super-powered beings on Earth; readers later learned this new Mistress had a very personal reason for wanting all superhumans eliminated. Granted, this was a step up from the usual “and then we shall ruuuuuuule the world” motives of other secret societies, but the second H.I.V.E. lost major cool points by (a) employing henchmen and helicopters that really, really took the whole bee thing way too seriously and (b) employing a young man named Damien Darhk as its second-in-command. “Damien Darhk,” people. Boy, the writers must’ve cracked open the bubbly after spending a whole four seconds coming up with that eeeeevil-sounding moniker, huh?
8. The Bee (I)
It’s Bulletman and Bulletgirl versus the venomous villainy of… THE BEE! From Fawcett’s Master Comics #29, 1942. From the good folks at the Grand Comics Database: “The Flying Detectives come face to face with a villain who uses concentrated bee venom as a murder weapon, and who is revealed to be a greedy chauffeur who wants to marry his pretty and wealthy female boss.” I think that was a storyline on one season of Downton Abbey, wasn’t it? The poor victim seen here is a formerly distraught man rescued from suicide by Honey Glover, the “richest girl in the world” who makes a habit of “giving deserving men a second chance.” Except someone with designs on her money objects to her giving it away to other men, so of course he has no choice but to dress up as a giant bee and “sting” them to death. Oh, and at one point Bulletgirl is tied up in a death trap involving a hive of angry bees. Because, you know, when you call yourself The Bee you’ve got to stay on brand. And why does this dastardly fellow go through the whole charade of dressing up like a bee? We never find out, though Bulletman reveals at the end the man’s name is Henry Hives. As someone with Brown as a last name, I’m not sure I like this “last name = your villain motif” business. Does that mean I have to dress up like a football player from Cleveland?
9. The Bee (II)
Brace yourself for the bombastic badness of… THE BEE! From Archie’s Reggie and Me #20, 1966. So as you might have already guessed, there’s a very good reason why Archie and Reggie are putting on superhero tights for a comic printed in 1966. With the Silver Age in high gear and the debut of ABC-TV’s “Batman” in January 1966, the entire country went superhero-crazy in the mid-1960s. This was great news for the comic publishers who were already in the superhero business, and Archie executives didn’t want to miss out. Sure, they were already updating their own Golden Age superheroes for the masses in books like The Mighty Crusaders, but you can hardly expect their marquee characters to sit on the superhero sidelines. Archie first appeared as Pureheart the Powerful in 1965’s Life With Archie #42, battling the villainous Ice Cube; soon after, Reggie (Evilheart), Jughead (Captain Hero) and Betty (Super-Teen) would get their own superhero alter egos for tongue-in-cheek adventures. True to form, Reggie’s Evilheart — who first appeared in 1966’s Life With Archie #48 — is not quite the heroic type, mainly using his powers to make himself look good at Pureheart’s expense. I have a vague memory of reading this story in a 1981 Archie digest that collected a lot of the Riverdale gang’s superhero stories together, and oh how I wish I still had it. Ah well — I’m sure the kids at the hospital where I donated all my old Archie digests enjoyed them as much as I did.
10. Bee-29 the Bombardier
An obvious wordplay on the B-29 bombers that flew during the Second World War, Bee-29 tells the story of a “fresh and pretty small” bee who teaches the residents of Beeland the importance of doing their share to help the nation’s war effort. When news of this heroic beehive’s record honey output reaches none other than Adolf Hitler — and call the man insane, but he knew the strategic importance of honey to a war effort — calls in Professor Beest to stop them. Beest’s “final solution” for this obvious threat to the Axis powers is a bee-eating bird named Hermann, but Bee-29 heroically saves the hive by tricking the bird into diving into a nearby lake while Professor Beest is chased off by a swarm of bees. This single-issue title by Neal Publishers was cover-dated February 1945, so it’s not entirely implausible that a copy of this book made it to the German high command where, shaken by the news that even America’s bees were mobilizing against them, the Führer and his flunkies decided surrender was their only option. And yes, it sounds slightly insane that a beehive full of industrious bees would merit anyone’s attention, but thinking logically isn’t how we win wars, soldier! Now drop and give me 50!
Let’s end with a bee character that, while not exactly an A-list hero, at least doesn’t totally embarrass the Hymenoptera order with her existence. No relation to the Transformer that was turned into a Camaro by evil, evil men, Bumblebee first appeared in an issue of the Teen Titans comic back when the team was lame — no, I mean really lame. How lame? Karen Beecher donned her costume and attacked the Teen Titans solely because she wanted to prove the team didn’t give a hoot about her boyfriend, Mal Duncan, who used his magical horn (stop laughing!) to fight evil alongside the Titans. She was unmasked and embarrassed to admit she was wrong about the Titans, but no time for apologies or questions about where she got her fancy toys because it’s time to give Mal his new costume and go catch the Rocket-Rollers skateboarding gang! Bumblebee was redeemed by the Teen Titans animated series in the early 2000s, where she was recast as a size-changing, stinger-packing double agent with attitude who infiltrated H.I.V.E. (which in the series was recast as a training academy for young super-villains) and ended up leading the Titans East team. Since then, she’s been kicking around the DC universe in books where she’s joined the Titans and the Doom Patrol, gotten herself stuck at six inches in height, and ended up shoved inside a super-villain’s pocket as a “souvenir” after one battle. I’m guessing she would also see her time on the Teen Titans cartoon as the high point of her career.