Comic Publishers

November 5, 2013

Dark Horse Reviews: The Black Beetle Volume I: No Way Out

The Black Beetle Volume I CoverThe Black Beetle Volume I: No Way Out
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Story: Francesco Francavilla
Pencils: Francesco Francavilla
Inks: Francesco Francavilla
Colors: Francesco Francavilla
Letters: Nate Piekos

Francesco Francavilla’s mini-series of the first Black Beetle adventures was one of my favorite comic stories this year, and it’s great to have this wonderful hard cover that collects the first story arc of this unique pulp hero.

I first discovered Francavilla through his blog where he posted regular updates of his various art designs, and then I went back and found some of his earlier work, including one of my favorite Batman stories ever, The Black Mirror. His art style evokes a different era – it’s sort of post-war Italian pop art mixed with earlier art deco and pulp influences to create a uniquely atmospheric and electrifying combination that is perfectly suited for Francavilla’s noir hero, the Black Beetle.

The year is 1941 and the place is Colt City, a large East Coast metropolis full of mob bosses, museums, and music of the jazz persuasion. Into this mix is thrown an urban legend hero of the streets, the Black Beetle. Unlike Batman, the Black Beetle actually seems to enjoy what he’s doing, and even smiles quite often while flirting with a pretty dame at the museum or while punching out Nazi infiltrators. Also unlike that other dark-cloaked gadget-wielding crime fighter, we actually don’t know Black Beetle’s true identity, at least in this initial story. It’s an interesting approach to only have us interact and identify with the masked hero, and it’s one that really works for this type of story. Who the Black Beetle is under the mask isn’t important. What is important is the non-stop thrills and action as he figures his way out of one scrape into another, all while trying to determine the identity of the main bad guy pulling the strings. Black Beetle is clever, confident, and strong – part Bond, part Batman, all in a cool art deco 1940s setting.

The conflict in Black Beetle takes various forms. A short “prequel” of sorts at the beginning of the book features a secret Nazi corps that’s part of Himmler’s SS. Nazis can be overused in stories that take place in this era, as it’s easy to hate them, but Francavilla puts some twists on them and introduces some occult elements that take full advantage of the pulp genre. We also learn at the end of the one-shot that there are some bigger issues at play than just Nazis stealing artifacts, and that all ties in nicely to the larger four-part story arc later in the collection.

The main villain is named Labyrinto, and he’s a great match for Black Beetle, relying more on brains The Black Beetle Volume I Interiorthan brawn. The mystery throughout the whole story involves who exactly Labyrinto is and why he’s fixated on the same things that the Black Beetle is investigating. Labyrinto has depth – he’s not just a one-note evil bad guy, but instead has a real air of mystery about him and a relatively fun, if slightly predictable, back story toward the end of the book that reveals why he is the way he is.

The art, of course, is simply first-rate. I can’t say enough good things about it. The character work is absolutely top-notch, and Francavilla also really knows how to handle architecture and the various trappings of the 1940s era, such as some really cool looking vehicles, along with the Black Beetle’s gadgets, including my personal favorite, a “helicopter-backpack.” One of Francavilla’s trademarks is also his clever use of layouts and colors to convey the atmosphere and action of the story, and he continues that trend here. Many scenes are very darkly colored with just small splashes of red, such as Black Beetle’s goggles, to draw attention to specific areas of the composition.

Francavilla also knows his pop culture history very well and includes many elements that we all subconsciously associate with the 1940s, but that could easily have been skipped over in the hands of someone who doesn’t have a passion for the era. We get to see some really cool nightclubs and jazz spots, including a wonderful scene of a female jazz singer crooning a love song while guys dressed to the nines sip martinis and whiskey on the rocks and smoke cigarettes, and the whole layout is tied together by a musical scale that runs across the page with the music notes and lyrics winding between the panels.

This collection gathers issues #1-#4 of The Black Beetle: No Way Out, as well as the one-shot prequel The Black Beetle: Night Shift. I personally read all of the individual issues of the story as they came out, but it’s nice to have them collected all in one book so you can read the story as one ongoing narrative. The real treat here, though, beyond the basic story, is the extras that Dark Horse included. There’s nearly twenty pages of art, including narrated character designs, fictitious promotional art for Colt City, early layout concept designs, and dozens of Francavilla’s “lobby card” illustrations that he created to help promote the title. These look like old movie theater lobby cards from the 1930s and 1940s, and really help to establish the mood and theme of these stories.

All-in-all, I can’t recommend The Black Beetle Volume I: No Way Out highly enough. It’s one of the coolest new character creations combined with stunning art and an engaging, action-packed story that should appeal to fans of pulp noir, fun action, and excellent art.

Martin Thomas
Review copy provided by Dark Horse Comics.



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