Monday, December 11, 2017


A mystery tale by Francesco Francavilla
Lettering by Nate Piekos of Blambot | The Black Beetle created by Francesco Francavilla

I got into this one in a weird way. At some point last year, I think around September, an artist I follow on Twitter -- I believe it was Paulo Rivera, though I could be mistaken -- retweeted a writer -- and I can't recall who it was, unfortunately -- who posted a photo of the new releases he'd picked up for the week. Among these was a graphic novel called THE BLACK BEETLE: KARA BÖCEK, a mystery tale by Franco Francavilla published by Dark Horse Comics. I thought the cover looked really cool; the Black Beetle was clearly based on old pulp heroes, and Francavilla's art style greatly appealed to me.

A little research uncovered that KARA BÖCEK was the second Black Beetle story, following from NO WAY OUT, which was available digitally from Comixology. I added it to my wishlist and figured I'd pick it up at some point down the line, but then, just a few weeks later, the New York Comic-Con took place and Comixology offered a Dark Horse 50% off coupon. Thus I picked up NO WAY OUT sooner than expected, read it within the week, and slotted it in for a post at the end of the year.

Which, as it happens, is now.

So here we go!

First, the summary: NO WAY OUT is a collection of five chapters in the saga of the Black Beetle, a masked vigilante operating in fictional Colt City in the 1940s. The initial installment is a stand-alone story tilted "Night Shift", in which the Beetle appears to thwart a Nazi black ops team's attempt to steal a mysterious artifact called the Hollow Lizard from the Colt City Natural History Museum. The Beetle rescues Doctor Antonia Howard from the Nazis, defeats them, and takes the Hollow Lizard himself for safekeeping. Along the way, Doctor Howard fills in the Hollow Lizard's history, dating back to the Middle Ages, and explains its connection to a fanatical cult called the Black Priests.

This is all very promising stuff, but Francavilla quickly sets it aside to stew as a sub-plot, devoting the next four issues to an entirely different serialized story, "No Way Out". Here, the Beetle attempts to unravel the trail behind the assassination-by-bomb of two feuding mob bosses. He ultimately finds himself up against a costumed criminal named Labyrinto, who may or may not be involved. Several cliffhangers and narrow escapes later, and our hero solves the case -- but a new threat is waiting in the wings, as the story's final scene shows one of the sinister Black Priests coming to work with Doctor Howard at the Natural History Museum.

There's a lot to like about the story, though for me it's mostly superficial. Francavilla’s artwork is positively gorgeous, capturing the dark pulp style perfectly. It's clear he put in plenty of research to capture the styles, architecture, and technology of the era. Colt City is fairly well developed and, again, suits the pulp atmosphere to a tee. I also like the Black Beetle’s design, though I must admit that to my eye, he looks more like a Gatchaman character than a shadowy avenger. Something about his mask, with the big bulbous translucent eyes, evokes visions of the Gatchaman beak helmets in my head, for whatever reason.

Anyway... I really enjoyed the initial outing, the one-chapter "Night Shift" pitting the Black Beetle against Hitler's elite Werewolf Korps, and setting up the Black Priests and Hollow Lizard plotline. But, much as I wanted to love the ensuing "No Way Out", I just didn't find it particularly engrossing. Again, the artwork and atmosphere are pitch perfect, but the story itself feels very "by the numbers", and the mystery isn't much of a mystery; rather it's more of a revelation right near the end of the story. A mystery needs clues and investigation to play out properly, and while Francavilla drops in a couple of clues, they don't really mean anything until the Black Beetle explains them in what, to me, comes across as a massive logical leap to reach his conclusion.

Plus, the Beetle is an odd duck -- he has no secret identity; we don't know who he really is when the story starts or when it ends, and for whatever reason it's hard for me to get into a character like that. I like to know the man behind the mask as much as the man wearing it. The pulp heroes who influenced the Black Beetle -- the likes of the Shadow and the Spider -- had real identities, or at least false faces they hid behind to maintain a civilian life. The Black Beetle does spend some time out of costume in this story, but he's still in disguise, using an assumed name which, his internal monologue tells us, he makes up on the spot when it becomes necessary.

But maybe I just don't get it. The final pages of this collection are filled with pull quotes from such luminaries as Gail Simone, Jim Steranko, Matt Wagner, and Warren Ellis -- not to mention a foreword from Darwyn Cooke -- all praising the series to high heaven. So maybe I’m just not smart enough to catch on; I dunno.

Nonetheless, I do want to read further adventures of the Black Beetle. Even if "No Way Out" didn’t grab me, I liked "Night Shift" and I'm invested enough in the concept behind this series -- plus, again, the artwork is beautiful. So, while this particular volume left me cold, I’ll be happy to give the Black Beetle one more chance and check on KARA BÖCEK when it eventually hits digital format.

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