I love it when a quality comic comes along as a complete surprise to me and I’m able to pick it up and have an enjoyable read with no knowledge or preconceptions of what I find inside. I’m pleased to say that Eisner winning artist Franceso Francavilla has completely taken me by surprise me with The Black Beetle #0; a comic which shows there’s a lot of fun to be had in a simple story told well. Every page is gorgeous to look at and it’s perfectly paced for what it’s trying to do. Reading this review voids your chances of experiencing the comic in that same surprising way I did but rest assured that you’ll still find plenty to enjoy if you choose to buy it for yourself.
The Black Beetle is Francavilla’s nostalgic homage to pre-WW2 pulp era classics like The Spider or The Shadow, complete with propeller-pack wearing nazis, strong hints of mysterious supernatural forces at work, gun-toting action and affectingly atmospheric artwork. Issue #0 consists of a 24 page standalone story entitled “The Night Shift”, originally serialized as three parts in the monthly anthology Dark Horse Presents, and acts as a prelude to a new four part Black Beetle miniseries “No Way Out” starting in January. Since this is Black Beetle’s debut comic hardly anything can be known about the character beyond his bug-eyed costume and his talent for adventuring, yet this issue does inform us of what to expect from the character’s future adventures. Essentially “The Night Shift” follows a very basic plot: a group of bad guys try to steal a mystical artifact, murdering every possible witness along the way, there’s a damsel in distress and Black Beetle arrives on the scene to save the day. You’ve probably seen countless stories follow that pattern before but the true value of The Black Beetle is not to be found in the comic’s events in and of themselves but instead comes from how those events are presented to us.
Francavilla’s slick artwork is what makes this issue stand out from the pack, creating a tense, moody atmosphere that feels both contemporary and true to the old-school pulp adventure genre through the use of heavy black inks and a deliberately limited color palette. The entire issue feels like it’s been lifted from the pre-WW2 era yet drawn to the standards of today's comics, with clean lines, fine detailing and judicious use of cross-shading. Francavilla’s use of color is very stylized, with high contrast flashes of red or orange against the muted purples and blues that dominate most pages. These coloring techniques really come into their own in the combat scenes, with gunfire lighting up the otherwise darkened pages. There’s one particularly stunning sequence early on where Francavilla depicts a researcher hiding from nazis in the dusk-lit museum using only three or four colors and from that point on I was completely immersed in the story.
Some readers might notice the stylistic and thematic similarities between The Black Beetle and Mike Mignola’s Lobster Johnson comics but Francavilla’s work here feels less a lot more serious and straight-faced than Mignola’s Hellboy/BPRD spinoff. Still, fans of the Lobster Johnson stories should feel right at home in the world of the Black Beetle - just as fans of Francavilla’s work are likely to enjoy other pulp comics.
Francavilla is sparing with dialogue and captions in The Black Beetle #0, meaning that it makes for relatively short read but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the experience in the slightest. The story and artwork flows seamlessly together, a beneficial effect of having a single creative mind at work, and the plot is masterfully paced with no dull moments to be found. The plot is pretty thin but Fracavilla’s obvious and unrepentant delight in the trappings of the 1930’s pulp adventure genre is infectious and I encourage you to try it out for yourself.
The strength of Francavilla’s artwork alone should be enough to sell this comic, cloaking a straightforward action romp in a gorgeous pulp aesthetic and making each a page a genuine delight. If you enjoy gritty retro-styled costumed capers or are simply looking for an easily digestible yet highly cathartic diversion from your usual comics then look no further, Francavilla’s expertly crafted Black Beetle #0 is an ideal choice for you.
Writer/Artist: Francesco Francavilla
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Release Date: 12/19/12