Spectacularly Simple: “The Black Beetle”

Francesco Francavilla is an amazing artist. That’s been said many times by many people, but I’m saying it again, because he deserves every bit of praise he receives and then some. The man is a topflight talent, with impeccable page layouts, character designs, colors, and all-around visual storytelling. This is true no matter what title he’s drawing, regardless of writer or publisher or any other factor. Francavilla is a reliably spectacular artist, so it’s no surprise that when he’s also in charge of the scripts, his work is particularly detailed and impressive. The Black Beetle is a Francavilla original, a superhero character living in a pulp noir world. Because it is his own creation, and undoubtedly also because it’s a genre he’s passionate about, Francavilla’s art has never looked better than it does in this book. He pulls out all the stops, using every tool in his belt to tell as varied and engaging a story as possible. The artwork elevates a rather straightforward narrative, and the result is a final product that’s head-and-shoulders above most of the comics on the racks today.

I don’t mean to diminish Francavilla’s scripts. In fact, the writing on Black Beetle is quite good, but where the art is unique and refreshing, the story is more familiar. Rather than try to shake up or reinvent the tropes of the pulp noir genre, Francavilla wholeheartedly embraces them. He often uses clichéd lines, well-worn plot points, and archetypal characters, but never due to laziness or a lack of originality. Nor is the book mocking in its tone, though there’s definitely a certain wry sense of humor about the setting and cast, from Francavilla and his main character both. But the tried-and-true elements employed in the narrative are there as celebrations, loudly saying, See? There’s a reason why these are such a foundational part of the pulp tradition! Not just homage, then, but a reinvigoration, a breathing of new life into old things to prove that they still have merit for modern audiences.

The first of several planned Black Beetle mini-series is titled No Way Out, a four-issue mafia murder mystery. The heads of two major crime families in Colt City—the fictional metropolis that Black Beetle calls home—are killed in a massive explosion one night, along with many of their high-ranking cronies. Black Beetle is there, having planned on catching the crooks while they were all in the same place, but the bomber beats him to the punch. This all happens in the debut’s first ten pages, and by the end of that issue, Black Beetle catches a glimpse of the man responsible. He wears some sort of bizarre tan bodysuit, covered head to toe in a black maze pattern, and that outfit makes him the only character in the book aside from Black Beetle who looks like he came out of a superhero comic. Well, that and his self-assigned codename, Labyrinto, which isn’t actually said out loud until the final issue. But Labyrinto isn’t a supervillain in the strictest sense, just a regular gangster who wants to keep his identity secret, because he’s supposed to be dead. He is Jimmy Galazzo, the son Don Pasquale Galazzo, one of the two crime bosses who died in the explosion, all part of a scheme for Labyrinto to take control of the family’s criminal empire.

Jimmy’s partner is Joe Fierro, who was supposedly the second crime boss to blow up, but in actuality faked his own death. This reveal comes earlier than Labyrinto’s, but neither is an especially shocking twist. Criminals pretending to die, mafia members making risky power grabs and betraying their families, scorned sons striking back against their fathers…these are well-worn ideas, commonplace in noir stories and, truth be told, in many genres. Francavilla doesn’t necessarily telegraph that Fierro is still alive or that Labyrinto is Galazzo’s son, though he does leave plenty of breadcrumbs for the observant reader, as any good mystery writer should. The reason the reveals aren’t all that surprising is that they’ve all been seen elsewhere many times before, and Francavilla knows this full well, and even uses it his advantage. Fierro still being alive comes to light in The Black Beetle: No Way Out #3, and in the middle of the issue, too, not as a jaw-dropping cliffhanger. It’s just one more useful bit of information that Black Beetle manages to uncover along the way. Point being, while this story is a mystery, discovering the murderers’ identities isn’t truly the driving force behind it. Black Beetle’s determination, his unrelenting, borderline obsessive desire to wipe out the evil in his city, that’s what propels this book forward. Along with Francavilla’s delicious visuals, of course.

There are numerous other examples, big and small, of Francavilla utilizing classic ideas in his scripts. The last page of issue #2 has Black Beetle’s narration captions literally read, “The night is young. Show me what you got. Let’s dance.” It is a string of clichéd phrases, and runs the risk of coming across as hackneyed, but Francavilla knows exactly what he’s doing. He chooses to use all three lines deliberately, going as over-the-top with his homage as possible by design. In the following issue, Black Beetle is confronted in a dark alleyway by a group of thugs, enforcers for Fierro who “don’t like snoops.” With a cocky smile on his face, Black Beetle offers them the easy way or the hard way, and I have to imagine that Francavilla shared in his protagonist’s smirk when he wrote that scene. A brawl behind a bar between the good guy and a bunch of mobsters—how much more traditional does it get than that? And with the easy way/hard way line, Francavilla lays the pulp on even thicker, reveling in it unabashedly.

There’s a prison murder, a sultry lounge singer, a visit to the city morgue, a long-winded speech from the main villain revealing his nefarious plan, and likely several smaller bit and bobs I’m forgetting that could be found in any number of other noir works. The Black Beetle is Francavilla taking everything he adores about that genre and highlighting it brilliantly with his dazzling art. He also inserts into that reality a character with all the trappings of a superhero, but the personality of a hard-boiled detective, a hero who sits on the border between two worlds. He has no superpowers, and though he possesses a wide assortment of weapons and gadgets, they’re not particularly unrealistic or advanced. If the cape, goggles, and alias went away, Black Beetle would essentially just be another private eye, but those few small touches distinguish him dramatically from the Philip Marlowes of the world. He’s a noir detective for the superhero audience, or maybe a superhero for the noir audience. Or, perhaps the best way to think about it, he is a shining example of what those two audiences share, an examination of where their interests overlap.

It is a worthwhile endeavor, delving into two fictional traditions with rich histories and figuring out what they have in common. I would actually be interested to read a non-fiction essay by Francavilla on the subject, comparing and contrasting superhero and noir stories, discussing their pulpy pasts and potentially just-as-pulpy futures. He obviously has a lot to say about it, but of course I far prefer to have him say it while working in the comicbook medium, because then I get eighty-plus pages of vibrant, engaging, highly detailed art from him as well.

It’s hard to say what stands out most about Francavilla’s drawings. They are immensely detailed, bringing a powerful humanity to his characters, yet stylized and strange enough to fit the more fantastic, exaggerated elements of this series, too. In action scenes, he brings a cinematic eye to the page, creating a hard-hitting, fast-paced sense of motion that serves him quite well. A big part of that is his willingness, nay eagerness to break the traditional page layout. He has a mighty strong sense of the entire page as a single image, even when it’s being split into several smaller images. He places his full-page splashes and two-page spreads intelligently, and never lets the look of his panels become repetitive or uniform. There’s always a natural flow from one panel to the next, though, so even in the biggest, most bombastic fight scenes, everything is easy to follow.

But Black Beetle isn’t all that action-heavy a series. It has its violent moments, to be sure, but where Francavilla impresses even more is when Black Beetle is deep in detective mode. The expositional info dumps, subtle interrogations, clue hunts, and surveillance scenes are the places where Francavilla does his strongest work. It’s fairly easy to be exciting when there’s action going down, but Francavilla’s art is exciting even if the quietest moments. There are many reasons for this, no doubt, because like any great artwork, no single aspect is solely responsible for its greatness. I have to give an extra helping of credit to Francavilla’s coloring work, though, because at the end of the day I think that, more than anything, is what sets him so far apart from so many of his contemporaries.

For someone with such a strong sense of color, and who is able to utilize it so aptly to set a mood or establish a setting, Francavilla’s palette is surprisingly limited. He favors the primary colors, with his reds sometimes skewing orange and his blues purple. He also has a strong command of black, and it is the appropriately dominant hue in this comic since, after all, it’s a noir series. Black Beetle himself wears an all-back outfit with huge red eyes that make him stand out wherever he is. An immediately recognizable main character is never a bad thing. But it’s actually Labyrinto’s design where I most appreciate Francavilla’s color choices. Though there is a yellow-orange tint to it, Labyrinto’s costume is really more of a neutral tone, and the only regular example of such coloring in the whole of the series. It sets him apart, and makes him not quite match the world around him in a fitting way. He is the book’s primary antagonist, and, as I mentioned, the only character other than the Black Beetle to have a cape comic aesthetic. That makes him a singular entity in this series, and his appearance underlines that fact, right down to the color of his outfit.

The Black Beetle: No Way Out is not a complicated read. It is not dense or convoluted, there’s no brain-warping high concept behind it. The narrative is direct, following a logical progression beat-by-beat until the hero finds and defeats the villain, as he was always inevitably going to do. Yet it is no less rich because of its simplicity, no less satisfying or rewarding an experience for its readers. Francavilla cherry picks the best parts of the best noir tales, and smashes them into classic superhero tropes with such joy and gusto that it’s impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm. And he wraps it all in the most eye-catching of packages, the highlight of what is already an accomplished and astounding artistic career.