Maybe I've no right to claim the mantle myself, but I've always considered myself a bit (just a wee bit) of an specialist on pulp titles. Sure, I know it could just be wishful thinking, but, having spent a fair number of hours during my teen years listening to some very, very old radio programs - including `The Shadow' - and having read a fair amount of Robert E. Howard's CONAN and SOLOMON KANE and a healthy share of other elusive tales from some of the most wicked masters of the form, I consider myself solidly schooled in the shadowy exploits that certainly bare resemblance to the world of the pulps. No, not an expert, just a dyed-in-the-wool fan.
Now that THAT's out of the way, I'd like to drop a few words about THE BLACK BEETLE. Pull up a chair. Relax. And smoke `em if ya got `em. This'll take a minute.
(NOTE: the following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of character and plot. If you're the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I'd encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you're accepting of a few modest hints at `things to come,' then read on ...)
Colt City is the kind of place you don't wanna find yourself on the business end of a blazing .45, or you can kiss your unlucky stars good riddance. Crime riddles the streets, and, when the good citizens of the big city need a man they can call on for justice, all they have to do is put their lips together and cry for The Black Beetle, a costumed vigilante who's on the right side of the law. However, this night, the Beetle is in for a surprise of his own: when he shows up to take down two major players in the criminal syndicate, lo and behold the joint goes `boom' before he can lift a finger. Somebody else claimed the lives of all those thugs. It's up to the Beetle to find out why ... and FAST! Otherwise, there might not be any of `em left!
Francesco Francavilla's fast-paced yarn cuts through the small talk and sets up the world of Colt City - the Beetle, the back alleys, and the crooks - with a bang. While I can't be certain, I'd imagine this is circa late 1920's thru early 40's setting - the height of the true gangster era - and, thusly, his Beetle is outfitted with some decidedly retro `Flash Gordon' tools - double-barreled dart guns, secret eavesdropping technology, utility belts, gyro-copter suit, etc. All of it looks fabulous! Much of the associated artwork draws upon dark colors, crime-ridden settings, and seedy nightclubs.
Plus, there's a slick afterward written by editor Jim Gibbons. It's structured like a speech from one of those vintage radio programs - the ones I mentioned above that I listened to gleefully in my high school days whilst the rest of my graduating class took in sock hops and hay rides. Read it, and it becomes very clear on the era they're trying to recreate here. It's a throwback to a time when heroes took chances on the strengths of their own smarts, backed up by whatever technology they could smack together. Crime-fighters didn't take the shape of police photographers or forensic specialists. These were men - hardened by the times - and they were always up to the task to putting their mugs face-to-face with sinners. May the better man win.
And he did. He always did. That's the beauty, praise and poetry of the pulps.
Like The Shadow or the Spider, the Black Beetle is a man of mystery serving the right side of justice, not `The Law.' No doubt, he'll regularly come up against obstacles no normal man could face, and, true to colors, he'll come out ahead. Rest assured. That's how these tales work. They might be a tad predictable, but they're only so predictable as allowing the forces of good to triumph over the minions of evil. THAT's what good pulps were all about. It's territory from yesteryear so common to the format, and it's definitely a place I'll gladly return to in coming issues.
THE BLACK BEETLE: NO WAY OUT (Part 1 of 4) is published by Dark Horse Comics. The story and art are by Francesco Francavilla; with lettering by Nate Piekos of Blambot. The issue bears a cover price of $3.99, and, in the opinion of this pulp aficionado, it's worth every grim penny.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. Draped in autumn colors and bold black lines, THE BLACK BEETLE: NO WAY OUT (Part 1 of 4) is a new fascination drawn from the fertile mind of Francesco Francavilla courtesy of Dark Horse Comics. If you know anything about pulp heroes, then you're in good company. Pick this one up today - even as a blind buy - and I guarantee you'll be impressed ... once you pick your jaw back up off the floor. It's a slam-bang, swashbuckling adventure from start-to-finish the way they used to make `em, and it'll hopefully be discovered by a brand-new generation of readers demanding that all of the pulps come back in similar style.
In the interest of fairness, I'm pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Dark Horse Comics provided me with an advance digital copy of THE BLACK BEETLE: NO WAY OUT (Part 1 of 4) for the expressed purposes of completing this review.
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