The Black Beetle: No Way Out
The Black Beetle #0 (“Night Shift”), #1-4 (“No Way Out)
Writer - Francesco Francavilla
Artist - Francesco Francavilla
Colorist - Francesco Francavilla
Editor - Jim Gibbons
Creator - Francesco Francavilla
Pulp-noir fiction has a special place in my heart, and it’s fairly easy to trace my footsteps back to where those warm and fuzzies were cultivated. I am the last of the cassette tape era, wielder of the pencil-in-cassette-spoke tricks and reluctant owner of the dreaded Teddy Ruxpin. One Christmas I had received all of recordings from the serialized Superman and The Shadow radio shows, and every waking moment I would try and emulate the voices of Bud Collyer and Orson Welles. (Sidenote: because of this time, I now know how to wrap a bath towel to make it seem like a cloak and face mask. And yes, I still do this during every bath time.)
It was a pleasant surprise to see Francavilla’s name in the Eisner awards nominations, since I am a fan of his work on Captain America and Hawkeye, along with his cover work on Flash Gordon. Even more pleasant was the fact that he had channeled his appreciation for pulp and noir comics in The Black Beetle, a webcomic that his fans had voted into existence with a 40’s mindset alongside some light science fiction. What is reviewed below is the first collected volume of The Black Beetle, this arc referred to as “No Way Out”.
Level of Artwork and Craft
Every panel in this anthology is filled to the brim with noir goodness. Whether the Black Beetle is paying The Fort a visit, or he’s in disguise in the middle of the Coco Club, readers bask in the warm and inviting neon-glow that permeates the entire story. There is never a sense of direct sunlight in the story; this adds to its Greatest Generation-esque tone that its drawing inspiration from, always adding an air of whimsy and mystery for a time period that is looked upon so fondly. Its use of minimalist color schemes always gives the reader the sense that The Shadow will be sauntering around the corner instead of Dick Tracy, while the covers are begging to be framed and hung in tribute to World War II era fiction.
Story Pacing, Movement, and Cohesion
Gibbons did an excellent job in the technical sense; there were no grammatical errors or plot discrepancies that I experienced. When it came to the issue of plot movement though, it was interesting to note the ease that simplistic solutions arose. This is in no way a critique of Gibbons’s editing, but a comment on Francavilla's storytelling. Items used to solve problems were conveniently placed throughout the story, while the use of a first-person narratives in this instance left little to the readers’ imaginations. A glaring example of this is the discovery of the ring and matchbook when the Black Beetle revisited the scene of the crime: little exposition or detective work was present in the scene, and it felt like he luckily stumbled upon vital information instead of working towards a solution. Because of instances like this, pacing made the text feel more like a movie or film, instead of a story that required active reading.
As I've stated before in my articles and on the podcast, I am an absolute fanboy for pulp-noir characters. This being said, I enjoyed the design of the Black Beetle, but he did lack some of the heroic traits that make a pulp-noir character fun and engaging. For the entire text, I never felt that the Black Beetle was in any tangible danger; indestructibility can be an interesting character trait, but only if the storyteller addresses and utilizes that trait for a purpose. Also, I felt that the Black Beetle could never make a wrong choice; accompanied with a sense of cockiness, the character was less and less believable as the story progressed. Every lead that he followed was the exact correct choice, to the point where he figures out the true identity of the antagonist off-panel. The combination of invulnerability and infallibility may leave an ingenuine taste in the reader’s mouth if there is no strategic point to the matter. This definitely captures the air of a pulp-noir story, but does not necessarily make the story compelling itself.
Depth of Theme and Thematic Reach
This is one of the most action movie-esque graphic novels that I have ever read. Because of this, I was afforded the ability to turn off my brain and enjoy the adventures of the Black Beetle in a way that I enjoy something like The Predator or RoboCop. There are a plethora of positives about this fact, but what is missing from this adrenaline-fueled ride is something that inevitably stays with the reader to want to follow the Black Beetle in the future. Theme is sorely missing in this particular anthology, in a setting that is perfect for questioning moral quandaries and conflicts. In my cursory reading alone, I noticed that Francavilla could have capitalized on the ideas of corruption, the similarities between modern and ancient times, and the qualities needed to be considered a hero; instead, I received surface-level accounts of feelings and interests with an amazingly reminiscent backdrop. I hope that the universe is expanded in future story arcs though, since I truly believe that Francavilla has something worth reading and experiencing.
Utilization of the Sequential Art Medium
Visually, almost everything used in the text connoted a sense of passion and reverence for the medium. The brilliance of the colors utilized would definitely have been drowned out using motion, while intangible ideas that were portrayed using CGI could have been seen as hokey and unnecessary.The portrayal of music was the perfect example of this ideal. The use of panel break space and different lettering fonts transforms the reader into a more active audience; this would have only been heard in a film, and not felt in a way that has the reader interact with the combination of pictures and words. The use of shadows and negative space benefitted from the medium as well, hiding and obscuring plot points in a way that doesn’t draw the reader’s eyes, but will on subsequent readings once the true antagonists are revealed. It lends the text a sense of “re-readability”; it doesn’t contain the nuances that Kindt’s Mind MGMT has on every page, but seriously, what other comic book does?
The Black Beetle: No Way Out is a prime example of the difference between an “appreciation” work and a piece that is considered a “love letter”. Francavilla employs all the necessary attributes for his work to be considered part of its genre, but other than that the piece feels like straight-laced storytelling in a given atmosphere. The opposite of this would be Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier; covering all of the necessary tropes while relaying deep thematic ideals that connect to both time periods (in this case, the 50’s and modern-era), Cooke combines two distinct periods together in a way that is relatable.
There is no denying that this piece was fun to read, but I feel like this can be attributed by my biases for the genre itself. In sum, this is a great action piece, that will most likely lead to some enjoyable and interesting moments, but this particular collection is going to need time and practice to gain its footing in the comics world. An Eisner award nomination, and maybe even the winning of the award, will definitely help both the exposure and the quality of the piece, and I am excited to what is to come.