Written by Charles Meier
The pulp sensibility has been making something of a comeback within certain spheres of comics over the past couple decades. I could go on one of my usual exhaustive rundowns of the movement, from the creators involved to the roots of the genre itself, but since I’m tired and it would involve talking about Frank Miller way more than I’d like, I believe I’ll trust you to do your own research this time. For now, suffice to say I’m damn glad it’s happening.
I can see why it’s happening, too. The American comics mainstream still seems fixated on superheroes, and the best offerings within the genre seem to head one of two ways–either a sprawling, consciousness-expanding of the meaning of it all, or a bloody, street-level romp in which a guy with a grim costume, a few gadgets and a gym membership beats unconsecrated hell out of leg-breakers. As always, there are any number of shades in between the two, but it is the latter category in which the pulp revival makes its grotty little house. Also, Door #2 seems to carry the greater mainstream appeal in these times–just look how many Batman-related books comprise the New 52 (most of the good ones, at that). Among those readers who aren’t yet ready for Grant Morrison and who think indie comics are for navel-gazing snobs, the preference seems to be toward those heroes whose abilities seem, in the abstract at least, feasible. You can’t help but think that if you started lifting weights and brushed up on your criminology, you could be the next (or, I guess, first real) Question. You won’t do any of that, of course, but it’s at least somewhat more plausible than being an alien with an allergy to green rocks, right?
It is with (I presume) all this in mind–coupled with a desire to carry on the tradition of awesome superheroes with “Beetle” in their name–that Francesco Francavilla (The Black Coat) enters the two-fisted fray. Continuing off a successful test-run in Dark Horse Presents, The Black Beetle: No Way Out is a four-part waltz through the proverbial seedy underbelly.
“Seedy” is the right word for it. The 1930s and 1940s weren’t all Art Deco and Humphrey Bogart–this was a time of economic collapse, organized crime and widespread corruption (yeah yeah, “the more things change” durr-hurr-hurr shut up). It’s clear a good portion of Colt City lies on the wrong side of the tracks, and has the crumbling waterfronts and speakeasies to prove it. Even the nifty vacuum-tube radios seem faded and worn, as if slapped together and left unvarnished. The few snatches of glitz to be seen, in the form of mob-hangout nightclubs, seem more like watchtowers than actual places, lonely sentinels holding back a few scraps of light from the encroaching rot. Up until they explode, at least. In short, the perfect milieu for someone like the Black Beetle
While perhaps a touch too similar to labelmate Lobster Johnson, the Beetle counters that character’s unaware single-mindedness with vulnerability, even a touch of levity. Apart from some vague connection to Egyptian mythology–fairly common among those characters who favor the “mystery man” end of the long-underwear spectrum–little is established about the Black Beetle as a character. Not even his face–it seems he shall remain mysterious both in-universe and out, at least for the time being. What little we do see, however, speaks volumes–rookie though he may be, Francavilla dodges the amateur trap of overwriting things. Instead, he shows a deft hand for subtlety, saying a lot while seemingly saying very little. Beetle may be cocky, but he’s far from infallible, to say nothing of invulnerable, though he is apparently capable of surviving an eighteen-story fall with only minor injuries. Intimidating though he may appear, Beetle exudes little in the way of actual menace, being plain-spoken and a touch personable. He seems content to sidestep the “superstitious, cowardly lot” approach and skip straight to beating the info he needs out of recalcitrant hoods. Whatever the protagonist is up against, it’s clearly far scarier to Colt City’s underworld than him–and, it eventually turns out, far weirder. None of this makes him ineffective, however–such a word simply does not apply to a man with his own chopper-pack, who can shoot a dart gun with perfect accuracy through glass.
If his writing is capable, Francavilla’s art is masterful. I mentioned this book’s fascination with the grungy side of the Golden Age, and Francavilla’s ragged lines and threadbare textures bring it to glorious life. The ancient tenements seem almost to be Colt City’s middle finger, upraised against the blank ink of the night sky (Francavilla deserves props for remembering you can’t see stars in the city). Cast in a sickly sodium-light hue, the city seems already obsolete by early 20th century standards, with the protagonist providing the sole flash of retro-futuristic glitz. The implication is unmistakable–whether he realizes it or not, Beetle is here to lead the way forward as much as he is here to make the streets safe for the downtrodden.
The composition is note-perfect, too–Francavilla just doesn’t do traditional nine-panel page structure, and this book is all the better for it. Each page bears a greater resemblance to a pulp cover, movie poster or mural than to an actual page, though the effect never becomes intrusive. Of course, proper use of ink is indispensable in books of this sort as well, and Francavilla disappoints in this no more than he does anywhere else. Just look to Beetle’s confrontation with a jailed mob boss near the end of the issue for proof–the heavy seems as barred in with shadow as he is with steel. So overpowering is the darkness of this setting that even a guy dressed head-to-toe in black leather stands out against it–another nice note of contrast for Beetle.
In case it’s somehow not obvious, I like this book. It’s a fine entry into the neo-pulp comic annals, perhaps the finest since Sandman Mystery Theatre. With No Way Out, Francavilla instantly propels himself into the ranks of gifted writer-artists, as well as proves Dark Horse Presents’ credentials as a test vehicle. Anyone with an interest in stories of this sort will find this a must-have, and newcomers to the genre can do almost no better than to pick this book up.