Discussing pulp-noir media is often a difficult proposition. Film and literary critics alike seem to only agree that the genre itself is only defined by its elusiveness. A conglomeration of styles, themes, tropes, and character archetypes, pulp-noir is at once an incredibly important cultural cache and incredibly hard to pin down—even if we all know it when we see it. While Black Beetle: No Way Out is certainly a pulp-noir comic—because, well, I’ve seen it and I know what it is—it is imbued with the elusiveness of the genre.
I suppose I should define what I mean by “elusiveness.” What I mean is that Black Beetle’s components are internally coherent, adding up to an aesthetically pleasing whole, but upon closer inspection the elements are stitched together in a patchwork of pulp-noir bits. It has the grainy art style (but that is complicated); it is set in the 40’s or 50’s (maybe); its hero is a hardboiled detective and/or vigilante (sorta), etcetera.
This simultaneously coherent and patchwork style produces an uncanny tension for the reader. Most notably elusive is the Francesco Francavilla’s art. Black Beetle is a beautifully illustrated comic that plays with light and long shadows. The dark purples and heavy, solid shadows set the noir tone, but the bright reds and flashes of oranges leave longer lasting impressions of violence. Just as important as his color palette choices, Francavilla juxtaposes classic, pulp-comic cross-hatching and more modern, bright splashes of color. These styles and color choices don’t clash, but they do allude to different things.
In a similar fashion, Francavilla’s writing stitches together several different styles. The eponymous hero narrates most of this issue in a classic film noir fashion reminiscent of Dick Tracey or Sin City. Black Beetle, treats us to lines right out of a hardboiled detective novel, like “Its my chance to take out two big fat birds with one stone,” and “Don’t be fooled by his pretty face and fancy suit.” Nevertheless, our hardboiled detective’s language occasionally dips into a different set of colloquialisms, which ultimately belong to a different sort of character. Black Beetle drops his g’s and uses phrases like “This will require some extra work, I reckon,” indicating a distinctly Southern American tongue. Again these different styles of speech don’t clash, but they don’t quite mesh either.
Ultimately, Black Beetle’s elusiveness is part of its charm. We’ve come to expect certain things from our caped crusaders; they don’t use guns, they carry a plethora of gadgets, they’re smart, and they are uniquely human among our superheroes. In this issue, Black Beetle meets all those expectations, but with his own twists. There is a gorgeously rendered scene before Black Beetle attempts to enter the bar where his two big fat birds, mob leaders of rival gangs, are meeting. Black Beetle loads up his two double-barreled dart guns with tranquilizers labeled phenyl cyclohexyl piperidine. I had to look it up, but phenyl cyclohexyl piperidine is another name for PCP. To my surprise, PCP was used a surgical anesthetic in the 40’s and 50’s. Small and historically accurate (by degrees) details like this one give Black Beetle a rich character and immense depth.
Small details, like the PCP darts, leave us with an impression of who our hero might be and yet more importantly questions as to who is. It would be easy to make comparisons between Black Beetle and Detective Comics age Batman, but Black Beetle remains unique. While we know little of his origins, Black Beetle’s language is strangely upbeat for a hardboiled detective and he doesn’t quite inveigh against Colt City’s criminal underworld as much as the genre would suggest. He seems like a reluctant hero with perhaps a dramatic, but not traumatic, origin story.
The pulp-noir genre has taught us to read between the panels for signs of our heroes’ fragile sanity, to imbue their every action with psychological weight. Black Beetle attempts that feat without the force of its character’s history. We wonder about the Black Beetle reasons for becoming a vigilante when he is foiled by an explosion and begins to brutally hunt down the bomber. Is he a champion of justice in an unjust world or bent on vengeance? Can we trust him to be the hero we want him to be?
Francesco Francavilla answers these question by appealing to our sense of the elusive features of pulp-noir. At one point, Black Beetle is helped by a young boy. To the boy’s query “Are you from space, mister?” Black Beetle responds “Ha! No, I’m just a regular Joe.” And that is the most alluring feature of the genre—the regular Joe standing up against criminals. Black Beetle’s patchwork of style, language, and theme evince Black Beetle’s status as a regular guy. He’s full of contradictions and juxtapositions, but he remains whole.
I’m excited to read more of Francavilla’s pulpy patchwork superhero. The art is gorgeous and exciting and the characters are intriguing and mysterious. I definitely want to know more, and I am looking forward to the rest of the mini series.