THE BLACK BEETLE: Volume 1 – NO WAY OUT is an artistic tour de force. Francesco Francavilla’s painterly style has never looked better. Dynamic layouts, brilliant character design, this volume encapsulates Francavilla’s genius on the drawing board. It also demonstrates that his writing ability isn’t quite of the same standard. At least, not yet.
Welcome to Colt City, 1941, located somewhere on the northeast coast of the United States. The city is crime-ridden. Gangs run the streets, aided by corrupt policemen; Nazi spies blend seamlessly with the city’s citizens, reporting back to the Fuhrer, who has armed his Werwolf Korps with futuristic weaponry. Colt City needs a hero, and they find it in The Black Beetle; a regular guy, equipped with some cool Batman-esque gadgets. We never learn his true name, nor what inspired him to take up the mantle as Colt City’s crime fighter. We don’t need to. We understand his mission, and can see, almost immediately, the powerful forces he is up against.
This edition collects the first five issues from the comic book series; a standalone story, about Hitler’s Werwolf Korps’ attempts to steal an ancient artefact from a Colt City museum; and a longer, four-issue tale about the mysterious deaths of two of the city’s most prominent crime bosses. The plots lack the inventive spark of the visuals, but Francavilla clearly understands his own strengths and focuses on the action, thereby refocusing the reader’s attention off the plot and onto the art. There’s some clunky dialogue – at one point, a character exclaims “Those were gunshots!” and “I need to hide. Quickly.” but it’s only during the quieter moments that Francavilla’s writing limitations come under the spotlight, and his evocative, pulpy illustrations more than make up for those.
THE BLACK BEETLE: Volume 1 – NO WAY OUT is a solid introduction to the character and to Colt City. Francavilla clearly has many more stories to tell in this world, and I’m looking forward to bearing witness to his maturing as a complete storyteller.