Review by C.J. Bunce
Nailing down what is best about Francesco Francavilla’s comic book craft is a bit difficult. His five-part, creator-owned series The Black Beetle, Volume 1: No Way Out is now available in a lavish, exquisitely designed hardcover edition, and it is his best work to date, which says a lot considering he won his Eisner for his great 2012 cover art on Black Panther, Lone Ranger, Lone Ranger/Zorro, Dark Shadows, Warlord of Mars, and Archie Meets Kiss, AND his current Afterlife with Archie artwork may ultimately even rival his Black Beetle.
Written by Francavilla, The Black Beetle, Volume 1: No Way Out isn’t an elaborate story. It’s a straightforward adventure you’d expect from a classic 1940s film noir-inspired, pulp comic character. But Francavilla’s ability to create his own dark superhero that would fit well in the licensed world of the Dynamite Comics pantheon is the achievement of this mini-series in graphic novel form. The Italian creator has a good grasp on the mobster world of the 1940s, Nazis as the popular pulp villain, and even his location of the fictional Colt City located in a believable northeast United States culture. His dialogue is also appropriate to the good guy masked hero whose identity remains a secret, distancing Black Beetle from the obvious attempts to compare him to Batman or the Shadow. He’s a guy you could see played by mild-mannered George Reeve or Clayton Moore, and his conversational style of speaking directly to the reader in a film noir voice-over endears the hero to the reader from page one.
Francavilla’s storytelling might be secondary to his pencil, ink, and color work–he often does his own lettering, too, although not on this series. But just like when Alex Ross puts out his rare completely envisioned story and art book, it’s a treat for the eyes to have this single end-to-end work as the vision of one creator. The hardcover edition of The Black Beetle, Volume 1: No Way Out includes a trove of design concepts and cover art, and Francavilla even lets us in on one trade secret why his action sequences play so well–he hired a stunt choreographer from Hollywood to design a scene for him to adapt to paper. And then there is his color choice. Orange, black, yellow, blue, and rarely purple–these colors set up a world of retro film mystique found in poster art and lobby card design of film’s golden era.
Finally, Francavilla is a superb showman. He knows how to market, to sell, his work, a skill his peers rarely even attempt. It seems like as much, if not more, work went into lobby cards, posters, and book design as The Black Beetle series itself, showing the writer/artist must love his character and this world he has created simply because he has spent so much effort with these extras. These elements, especially the stylish lobby cards, add to the fun of his series, and leave you wanting more–more superheroes, more femme fatales, more cars, more villains like his very interesting Labyrinto.
The sequel to The Black Beetle, Volume 1: No Way Out is The Black Beetle, Volume 2: Necrologue, which is expected to be in print in single issues this year. For fans of the classic masked pulp heroes of the Dynamite Comics properties, get The Black Beetle, Volume 1: No Way Out, published by Dark Horse Comics, now at your local comic book store or Amazon.com.