The Black Beetle books never seemed to really find an audience at our shop, which was a little confounding considering Francavilla's amazing art and the fun of its sheer pulpiness. Originally appearing on Francavilla's website Pulp Sunday, BB eventually found its way to the third incarnation of Dark Horse Presents. Using that as a springboard Dark Horse then went ahead and reprinted and continued Francavilla's online story No Way Out, remastering the pages he had already published and then finishing the arc. This gives you the DHP material (Night Shift) as well as No Way Out, along with plenty of extras such as sketches and design pages.
The Night Shift introduces Black Beetle as he battle it out with a group of helicopter back-pack wearing Nazis that are searching for a lost relic of unknown power. It's quick, action packed, and paced in short increments due to it being serialized in three issues of Dark Horse Presents. Which works out nicely because that pacing makes it feel like short segments in a radio drama.
No Way Out is paced as a normal four issue mini-series and follows the Black Beetle as he investigates a series of mysterious murders revolving around different crime bosses.
Besides being a showcase for Francavilla's artwork, these are also his love letter to the genre of pulp mysterymen. The essence of the storytelling is oozing with an appreciation for characters such as the Shadow, Black Bat, and so on. It embraces a lot of the tropes and pacing of old pulps wholeheartedly, and doesn't waste any time getting to the mystery and action. This includes pretty much skipping past any characterization, which would normally be a negative but considering what Francavilla is going for it works out. The Black Beetle isn't even given a secret identity, he just does what he does and we just move from one scene to the next without worrying about his motives.
It has a singlemindedness and drive that I can certainly appreciate, but it does leave it open to some weaknesses. For the example, the core villain of No Way Out is another masked man named Labyrinto. He has a fantastic yet simple design which works thematically with the story on a lot of levels. The downer is that the revelation of his identity is underwhelming to say the least. He's just sort of a guy that connects just fine to the plot, and that's fine, but it's such a missed opportunity. A villain whose entire theme is misdirection and being trapped can have a lot of long-term Keyser Söze potential. Instead he just sort of decided on the gimmick because....he was...trapped in a hedge maze as a child.....and his dad was mean to him about it....
Definitely feeling some Patton Oswalt energy with that one. If we don't know the Black Beetle's identity, we didn't need to know Labyrinto's sad sack story.
In the end though that's a minor nitpick, because we're here more for the entire pulp package. And a big part of that package is Francavilla's incredible artwork and his use of colors and shadows. He's consistently playing around with his layouts, creating a lot of really engaging compositions that just infuse the entire book with a lot of tone, atmosphere, and character.
You get 152 pages for $19.99, which includes nineteen pages of bonus material, so not a bad package. Plus it's Dark Horse, so the quality of the HC is top notch and it's nicely designed.
If you're in the mood for some straight up pulpy action suspense then I would highly recommend giving it a shot. Plus if you like it you also get to catch up with the second volume, Kara Bocek, which is also in a nice hardcover format. However, I think the most recent installment, Necrologue, is in some sort of limbo state at the moment. In the meantime though you can still check out the eleventy bajillion variants and other projects Francavilla's been working on since.