While the pairing of writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock made “Batman: The Black Mirror” something that was certainly worth a look, the collection’s other artist was an unknown quality. I liked Jock well enough that the thought of having an unknown named Francesco Francavilla handle the in-between chapters didn’t sound all that appealing. My assumption here turned out to be verrrrry wrong and discovering Francavilla’s stylish and moody artwork wound up being one of the main pleasures I got from the book. The artist has since gone on to do various other projects for DC and Marvel, and now we get to see his chops as a writer in the pulp pastiche “The Black Beetle.” Though they can be charitably described as “lacking,” Francavilla gives us his most stunning art yet in this collection.
“The Black Beetle” is a callback to the old pulp heroes like The Shadow, Doc Savage, and even Conan and Tarzan if you’re willing to be generous. The title character is a vigilante working in the 1940’s with a beetle motif in his outfit and generally comes across like a version of Batman who is willing to kill the bad guys who get in his way or leave them to their fates. This first volume contains the three-part serial “Night Shift” that ran in “Dark Horse Presents” and introduced us to the character as he tries to stop a trio of armed, helipack-sporting Nazis from recovering a powerful supernatural artifact. As for the main story, “No Way Out,” the Beetle prepares to take out two of Colt City’s most powerful crimelords only for them to be blown up before he can make his move. Investigating the explosion leads him to a web of deceit spun by the man in the maze outfit known only as Labyrinto.
Before I get into discussing its literary merits, I just want to say that this volume of “The Black Beetle” features some of the most impressive art I’ve seen all year. Francavilla has shown a predilection towards noir in his work and he dives headlong into it here as every scene is bathed in thick black shadows with the available light bathing everything in unnatural colors. I know it’s just Francavilla handling the colors, but he always picks the right ones to give each scene a distinctive look.
Though the man doesn’t go in for photorealistic detail, he knows how to frame each panel for maximum dramatic effect and arrange the action on page so that it’s always easy to follow. You can see this in the many two-page spreads throughout the collection, all of which are fantastic. Sometimes Francavilla just finds a visually appealing way to convey lots of information, such as when we get a brief visual history of the two crimelords he’s about to take out. Other times, we get a stunning piece of action such as when he bursts out of a sarcophagus to take out a Nazi or finds himself at the mercy of a swarm of rats. We even get a couple of back-to-back spreads and it never feels gratuitous. Francavilla keeps bringing new things to each sequence and everything winds up feeling like the work of a man in total control of his medium.
Too bad we can’t say the same about the writing. For all of the visual flair on display here, Francavilla doesn’t really display more than basic competency in his storytelling abilities. Yes, he pulls off an impressive pastiche of pulp elements, but he doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The stories themselves are fairly straightforward with the “Who is Labyrinto?” mystery coming off as anticlimactic thanks to the character’s “Bond-villain” worthy speech at the climax. Though the Beetle himself may be a capable fighter with a cool outfit and some neat gadgets, he remains a blank cipher throughout the story. We know no more about him at the end of the story than we do at the beginning with his crimefighting raison d’etre appearing to be no more than that’s what pulp heroes like him do. This might’ve been forgivable if Francavilla had given him some crackling dialogue, yet most of the words on the page come off as standard tough-guy-sounding exposition on the page.
There are several pages of extras at the end of this volume which spotlight the origins of the character, the creator’s artistic process and some snazzy promotional items for the series. We’re also told that “The Black Beetle” will be returning in a new mini-series called “Necrologue” in the near future. It’ll have more of a horror bent which fits its creepy-sounding title. I’m not sure if I’ll be coming along right away, though. Impressive as Francavilla’s art was, the storytelling let me down. It is only his first major work as a writer so there’s a chance he could get better with time. If I see that happen, it’ll be because I picked up the next volume at Comic-Con or another such convention.