First, this Dark Horse Black Beetle character is not to be mistaken for the Black Beetle villain from DC comics, though they look sort of similar. This Black Beetle is the creation of Italian writer/artist Francesco Francavilla, and takes place in a fictional 1941 New York (“Colt City”). I don’t know the legalities, though Francavilla had been putting out issues of Black Beetle on his own before Dark Horse picked it up.
The story, and the look, of the series is a mash-up homage to mid-20th century American pop culture, from pulp detective novels to early comics like, of course, Batman, though also a little Dick Tracy. Plus Nazis. And the Mafia. And a little supernatural archeology. And jazz. All interestingly filtered through the eyes (and mind) of an obvious fan from another country.
Francavilla has done art for some Big Two street-level characters, like Batman and Black Panther (when he comes to Hell’s Kitchen) as well as a lot of coloring gigs for Dynamite’s Green Hornet series, and I can’t help but think his work as a (normally unsung) colorist has helped him immensely with Black Beetle, because the art’s color is vital, making the world of Colt City, both indoors and out in the streets, moody and sinister. This will sound weird, but, I love the orange. Yes, there’s the blacks and the reds, but the oranges are where the shadows are lit up, whether by streetlamp, or gunfire.
Like the characters Francavilla has worked on for others, the Black Beetle (whose real name and identity we never learn) is a normal man who happens to know some martial arts and be smart enough to invent some cool gadgets. As do his some of his opponents, including Nazis, who have, not jetpacks, but helipacks, giving the series a touch of steampunk style. The Nazis are after an ancient Egyptian relic that may have ancient magic powers, so the Black Beetle may get into fighting superpowered villains as the series goes on.
Francavilla does a great job of introducing future story threads in current Black Beetle adventures without interrupting any action. The dialogue and description sounds believable, mostly, which is almost astounding since Francavilla is writing in English, a foreign language to him (I kept going back and checking for some kind of translation credit, but there is none, except for thanks to a Lisa Francavilla for “editorial and production assistance.”) He’s helped by the fact that he’s playing with the ‘40s detective genre, the language of which didn’t sound natural even back then, and the story is immersed in old detective novel-isms, like Black Beetle’s alter-ego calling women “darling.”
Sometimes though, there are some odd, seemingly old-fashioned, Italian-isms that happen, like the hero kissing a woman’s hand when meeting her, or a villain calling someone his “cumpa” (slang for friend), though the Black Beetle is immersed in the world of the Mafia, and WWII Nazis. But there are some bigger slips that do take me out of the story, like when the Black Beetle is talking with a nightclub singer, Ava Sheridan (a stand in for Josephine Baker) and his thought-caption says, “Darn, she’s beautiful!” A native speaker just would not write that.
The main problem (I personally have) with Black Beetle is he just comes off as way too confident, to the point of cocky, with lines like “I’m just full of surprises, aren’t I?” Which, since this happens in captions, as his thoughts (as in, not even joking with his opponents a la Spiderman), makes him sound a little arrogant. A little humility, or even ingratiating humor, might make him a more sympathetic character.
He never seems to doubt that he can win a fight, and he doesn’t. And if he gets in too much trouble, he just pulls out an up-to-that-point unrevealed gadget that will get him out of it. At least with James Bond we get Q showing him/us the gadget at the beginning of the story. That feels a cop out, and takes away from my being able to suspend my disbelief, but you could argue that it’s a limitation of the character, and the genre: that’s what comic book characters like Batman and Dick Tracy did back then. Plus they and the pulp detectives were that confident. Still, it reminded me too much of the old Batman TV series, to the point where I was expecting the Black Beetle to mention his “Beetle Utility Belt.”
The biggest distraction for me is that the term “black beetle” is a euphemism/term for cockroach. Which, so, does Francavilla, as an Italian, know this? (And does Geoff Johns, a native English speaker, who created DC’s Black Beetle?) Because it’s never mentioned, or even hinted at in a wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind of way. And it’s not like The Black Beetle is presented as a caricature of, say, Batman, though he’s certainly a nod to the Caped Crusader—he’s smart, and serious, and the story is certainly straight-up serious. And yet, the brown costume? Kinda does look like a cockroach.
I guess the character that the Black Beetle reminds me of most is Nite Owl from Watchmen, who is the same type of character (as in a heavy nod to Batman) but more interesting than the Black Beetle because of his humanness (i.e. his flaws, of which the Black Beetle seems to have none). But Nite Owl might feel limited too, if he were just on his own. He has the advantage of other characters as foils, including of course, Rorshach. I wonder if the Black Beetle character might not benefit from having some fellow crimefighters in Colt City. Still, getting compared to Alan Moore is high praise, and Francavilla’s art (again, including the coloring!) is great. Maybe the most interesting aspect of The Black Beetle is seeing how a non-American perceives, and revisions, classic American pulp culture.