The beauty of pulps, especially pulp comics, is the amount of leeway given for them to evoke not just an era of smooth operators and gritty realism, but also the barest sliver of fantasy. Indiana Jones is, at its most basic elements, about an intellectual action man uncovering mysterious artifacts using mostly his wits and a whip from time to time. We accept Indiana because he’s just a regular guy who happens to come across the occult occasionally…and kills a lot of Nazis because they’re so damn easy to kill!
Black Beetle: Now Way Out is no different from its pulp predecessors – in comics or film. More so than the last two issues, Francesco Francavilla immerses the reader in the culture of the pulp era by opening with our hero going out as a “civilian” to investigate the Coco Club. A jazz club and a front for the D’Angelo mob family. Francavilla lures us in with Black Beetles’ narration but ensnares us entirely with the lyrics and music of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,”which most musical lovers will recognize as one of the signature songs from Showboat. It’s a versatile number that can be bluesy or ragtime and Francavilla uses it to full effect, setting the tone and mood of the issue. The song is usually sung by a light-skinned black woman passing as white in the musical. Revealing her knowledge of the song makes others suspicious of who she really is, so to include this song in particular isn’t just to add authenticity to the pulp noir genre, it’s a clear message about the book itself.
Everyone’s “passing” in Black Beetle. Our hero is in disguise as a civilian, easily lying about where he’s from and what he does for a living without batting an eyelash. Even his name could be a lie. His investigation of the mob deaths leaves him at a disadvantage because any one of the “esteemed citizens” populating the club could be the killer. And after a chance encounter, it’s very possible that someone might be passing for dead. Ironically, the only one not passing is the black woman singing the song!
The issue continues to fuse humor and action into the pulp setting without feeling out of place. Running into a situation in which fighting is pretty much the only way out, Black Beetle, still in civilian garb, calls upon his training in martial arts to take down a group of thugs in a spectacularly rendered sequence of pages. The angular composition immediately evokes movement and action even with the onomatopoeia panels pronouncing THUD! and WHACK! included in what feels like a deliberate homage to the 1966 Batman television show. Coupled with the bold yet clashing warm and cold colors and this is one of the most engaging hand-to-hand fights I’ve seen in a while. Black Beetle never loses his cool, even if he has to let the bad guys think they’re winning at the expense of his own body. His only gripe at the end? Stupid “White Tie” ruined his mask. Some people, am I right?
Final Thoughts: The issue moves along at a brisk pace, but never loses steam. Can’t wait for the finale!