I’m just gonna go ahead and call this one right now - the Francesco Francavilla-penned, Dark Horse-published “Super-Noir” pulp serial Black Beetle is, without question or compromise, The Shit. You’ll notice that’s a capital “S” there, kids. It’s one of those titles where, after reading it, I just had to sit back and say, “THAT’S how you do it! THAT’S how you comic book!”
Interestingly enough, I was never HUGELY into pulp comics or noir stories, although I did, for a time, enjoy listening to the serialized radio stories starring The Shadow when they re-released them quite a few years back. But in terms of comics? Nah, the noir stuff wasn’t really on my radar for some reason. But the amazing work that has come out recently, like Dynamite’s The Spider and Masks (both of which included art, writing and/or some kind of input from Francavilla), Monkeybrain’s Masks and Mobsters and now seeing what Dark Horse has done with The Black Beetle, it’s all awoken in me the sort of “gravel in your belly, spit in your eye” appreciation for the noir. I have to admit, I kinda dig my comics like I do my OJ now: with extra pulp. And vodka.
Even though it’s pulpy, one of the best things about this book is its smooth simplicity. In another of today’s reviews, for John Byrne’s High Ways, I wrote that the story was simple, but simple to a fault. Alternatively, in Black Beetle, there is strength in simplicity. High Ways was like a blunt object, but this is more like a sharpened dagger - the kind that bites in quiet and leaves an open wound.
The story opens with our eponymous masked man, The Black Beetle, as he closes in on the two biggest criminal elements in his beloved but beleaguered Colt City: the families Galazzo and Fierro, run by Don Pasquale Galazzo and Joe “Faccia D’Angelo” Fierro, respectively. He is in the process of dropping mobster guardsmen like third period French with his trusty dart gun when suddenly, an explosion rocks the bar where the families were meeting, killing Beetle’s hope of a shit-hot entrance ... and probably everyone inside.
Wanting to know who sent the mobsters to hell before the devil could get his due, Black Beetle turns on his heel, and vows to discover who murdered the murderers. His trail, which takes the visual form of a tight little montage of ass-kickery, leads The Beetle to Colt City’s answer to Alcatraz, where waits a very frightened surviving member of one of the families. Just as our hero is about to pump his stool pigeon for information (and probably a few teeth), another masked vigilante pops in and ruins everyone’s day, leaving The Black Beetle in a very compromising position with Colt City’s finest.
What I like most about The Black Beetle so far is the texture of its art and storytelling; there’s no extraneous gristle here, just a fat slab of red meat. The whole thing feels and looks like worn leather and wet stone; lit by neon and swallowed in smoke. Not unlike his series’ titular protagonist, Francesco Francavilla proves to be most comfortable skulking about menacingly beneath the shadow and grime within this revitalized genre.
Speaking of the Beetle, his characterization is spot-on. This motherfucker’s got mad swagger, and shows it both in the way he’s written (“Wish me luck ... not that I need it.”) and in how he’s drawn, flashing that wry little smile before making with the sexy karate and popping off fully-loaded fool-smokers.
This is a fun, atmosphere-drenched story about masked Good against suited-and-booted Evil, providing at its conclusion an interesting hint into the next evolution of that dynamic. It may not be breaking any new ground, but it certainly shakes up the foundations enough for a lotta hotness to seep up through the cracks.
As is always the case with the Eisner Award-Winning Francavilla, the artwork here is superb. I love how everything is draped in a veneer of the Beetle’s colors: red and black; a tonal nod, surely, to the two things left on them that cross him: blood and bruising. The layouts in this book also result in all kinds of badass atypical What-The-Fuckery. You can tell that Francavilla is having a blast firing this character and story across the page like a hail of bullets, with action that rips through panels in some very exciting, form-redefining ways.
This doesn’t appear to be a continuation, at least not directly, of the previous events in Issue 0, and in fact proves to be a better jumping-on point, and in my opinion, a superior issue in general. I’m really looking forward to Issue 2 and the series as a whole, partly to see what happens next, but mostly because I just want to see more of this art and story. This book comes with a STRONG recommendation. Go get it, Bastards.
Writer/Artist/Creator: Francesco Francavilla
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: 1/16/13