Monday, 14 October 2013

The Black Beetle in No Way Out by Francesco Francavilla Review

Set in the 1940s, a vigilante wearing an insect-like helmet and calling himself the Black Beetle is taking on organised crime and Nazis. 

That’s pretty much it, and if I don’t seem that interested in the plot, it’s because I’m not. I feel like I’ve read this story at least half a dozen times in the last year or so. Black Beetle is superhero-ish (as in dresses the part but doesn’t have superpowers) noir in the vein of Mike Mignola’s last Lobster Johnson book, the Marvel Noir line, Green Hornet, Masks, The Shadow, and Darwyn Cooke’s DC New Frontier. It’s a look at the early half of the 20th century and a loving homage to the pulp stories of this era. 

The brilliant Francesco Francavilla, the artist best known for the James Gordon Jr. story in Batman: The Black Mirror, writes and draws the book, and his art is as amazing as ever. He captures the look and feel of the time and flavour of the kind of stories he fell in love with perfectly. I also really liked the way he laid out the explanation scene at the end of the mystery. As Black Beetle is explaining the whole mystery, the panels are displayed as interlocking jigsaw pieces. 

But the character designs are somewhat unoriginal. Black Beetle looks like he could’ve been a character from Watchmen, his costume is too derivative, and his demeanour is too much like Lobster Johnson’s, ie. competent but cold. Colt City is like every other New York City comic book facsimile with nothing particularly different to set it apart. I liked the bad guy Labyrinto’s design but felt his origin story to be completely hackneyed – though maybe that’s the idea, given the kind of story this is supposed to be? 

I like that we never find out Black Beetle’s true identity but the lack of background to the character makes him that much harder to care about. At the end of the book I couldn’t tell you his characteristics, just that he’s the hero who has a beetle helmet, a gun and knows how to handle himself in a fight. Like the story, he’s all too forgettable. 

All of which is to say it’s not a bad book. The art is really beautiful and many pages are elegantly stylised and wonderfully laid out. Francavilla is a hugely talented artist and one of those names I keep an eye out for when looking at comics credits. He’s also a decent writer and Black Beetle is easy to follow and told in an understandable way; it’s just not a very interesting story. That’s maybe because I’m not that crazy about noir superhero stories because they’re all kind of similar, and crime fiction in general is very hit-or-miss with me, but Black Beetle, both as a character and a story, didn’t grab me.

The Black Beetle Volume 1: No Way Out

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