Night falls and stars shine brightly in the sky. Those brave enough to look up see something different. Something more… sinister. Monuments to human ingenuity. Pillars erected to extend our hubris further into the heavens. The city is full of demigods, all of them looking down, averting the gaze of the lowly and fearful. But they didn’t count on someone staring back, challenging them. Threatening their very existence by daring to stand for something stronger than mortar and brick, rebar and steel. Justice. They didn’t count on me.
Okay, I’m no Dashiell Hammett but you get the idea. If you were to trace the lineage of superhero comics, you’d find that the family tree begins with the pulp magazines of the 1930s. Though the popular trades featured a wide variety of genres from well-known authors, certain characters began to emerge that would spawn the Golden Age of Comics. More than anything, the crime genre became immensely popular. Whether it was the jaded private detective, the inner workings of the mob, or the masters of disguise and intrigue, the noir style of storytelling made its mark on our culture and its influence continues to this day. Without the pulps, we definitely wouldn’t have Batman, but even modern comic book creators like Frank Miller and Darwyn Cooke were heavily influenced by this particular genre in works like Sin City, Justice League: The New Frontier, and the Richard Stark Parker adaptations. Which is why Francesco Francavilla’s The Black Beetle “No Way Out” #1 fits right in.
Though Francavilla introduced us to the titular hero in the #0 issue “Night Shift,” it’s largely a standalone story that isn’t necessary before reading this first issue, though it does set up some fantastical elements that may be introduced later on. Plus, it’s a good read! The plot of “No Way Out” is fairly straightforward, at least for now. The Black Beetle has finally gathered the information he needs to go after the heads of Colt City’s two crime families. But just as our hero is about to make his own bust, someone else beats him to the punch, blowing the bosses and most of their people to kingdom come. Finding only one connected and living member of the mafia left, Costantino Pasquale, the Black Beetle, tracks him down to Colt City’s proto-Alcatraz, where the young man turned himself in willingly in the wake of the explosion. While interrogating Costantino, the clearly frightened man is taken down by an unknown assailant who leaves Black Beetle to take the blame.
From beginning to end, Francavilla wants the book to live and breathe like the pulps of yesterday while cleverly bookending the issue like a radio serial. The first shot of “No Way Out” is of a Zenith radio, implying that this story could easily be a performance conveyed by actors as the family sits and listens around the voice box. And yet the dialogue and narration are minimal. Francavilla delivers only as much information as he wants you to know, keeping Black Beetle’s exposition as short as possible. This isn’t a hero who needs to wax poetic on the rooftops. He’s just a “regular joe” doing a job. Though he’s not without a sense of humor when the situation calls for it. Maybe it’s all the old movies I used to watch with my mother and grandfather, but I can’t quite get Humphrey Bogart’s voice out of my head as I read the very frank narration.
Francavilla, however, is a bigger fan of show-don’t-tell, since the book also proclaims to be written and directed by the writer/artist, instantly putting us in a cinematic mind frame. But that’s putting it lightly. Every inch of this book is filled but never feels cluttered. Francavilla knows exactly how to direct the reader and does so by making every page a new experience. There are no standard panels, no limits to how the story is presented. It’s a visual wonderland emphasized by heavy inks and a select color palette of orange, blue, purple, and yellow. A striking page shows Black Beetle hanging onto the prison wall on the outside with three panels on the inside of the prison showing Costantino’s fear-filled reaction to the man he presumes is there to kill him. It’s a gorgeous layout and shows what a master of his craft can do with visual storytelling.
Final Thoughts: It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, Schweetheart. If you haven’t already picked it up, do it now or regret it for the rest of your life. (Yup, too much Bogart in my repertoire)