Francesco Francavilla is one incredibly talented artist. Looking at virtually anything he's done will tell you this. And a good number of his projects also illustrate how talented he is at drawing pulpy comics (the least of which would be his website, the appropriately titled Pulp Sunday). He's proven this all to be true a long time ago. However, with Black Beetle: No Way Out #1, Francavilla has also demonstrated that he is a pretty skilled pulp writer.
The opening to the book is a tad cliché, but I feel like a certain amount of tried and true story beats are necessary for anything to really be considered within the pulp genre. And while that beginning may be pretty familiar to anyone who's read a story that's even tangentially related to the crime genre, things really get going with a literal bang with this book's first double-page splash. Black Beetle is an excellent example of the perfect melding of word and image that you can get with a talented writer-artist, as Francavilla's storytelling is super dynamic. The words and pages flow into one another, resulting in a story that reads incredibly well. There's an awful lot going on here and much of it happens pretty quickly, but it remains tight and clear, which is a testament to the work that's gone into the book.
Unsurprisingly, the book is gorgeous. It has that ersatz past look that Francavilla's works so often do, and it works perfectly here, as Black Beetle's Colt City is that weird mixture between realistic 1930s and odd science fiction elements that seemed all too common in the original pulp books. You get traditional gangsters mixed with personal helicopters. Two-bit hoodlums mixed with masked vigilantes. And it all works quite well. Francavilla shows it all off on some really fun and novel page layouts that play with expectations and paneling in sometimes unexpected ways.
Verdict - Buy It. Francavilla has introduced a new superhero character who plays with the tropes of the genre while mixing in those of noir stories that are of such importance to the creator. There's a lot to recommend this book, including the strange and enigmatic villain who seems to be at the centre of everything for reasons that are yet to be explained but appears incredibly intriguing. We'll be incredibly fortunate if the remaining three issues of this mini can maintain the same level of quality that is found in this opener. Black Beetle is clearly a labour of love, and the results are a story that is incredibly enjoyable to read.
I don't really need to tell you that Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples are doing amazing things in Saga, but I'm going to do so nonetheless, just in case you're not up to speed on this for some reason.
Brian K. Vaughan has written so many terrific things that listing them all off isn't worth mine or your time, but I will emphasize that he wrote both Ex Machina and Y: the Last Man, which were phenomenal books in their own right. And he wrote them pretty much simultaneously. Anyways, the first arc of Saga gave the impression that this series could be just as good, if not better, than those books, and in these most recent issues have proven that latter impression to be true. I know that there's a bit of bias on my part with this being the first Vaughan series that I've read from the start, but this book is so good that it's not even fair.
In a sense, the story comes entirely out of the love between Marko and Alana, as seemingly everyone wants to find those two for one reason or another, but what's made it so special is that all those people looking for our star crossed lovers have their own lives and difficulties that they've been working through at the same time. There are no flat characters in Saga; everyone has their own stuff going on that has a direct impact on the narrative. This issue focuses in on The Will's hangups, which following Gwendolyn's appearance takes us in a completely unexpected direction. This is the great benefit of having rounded characters: you can throw them together and the story you get out of that makes perfect sense. We don't even really get to see Marko Alana here, and that's perfectly fine, because both The Will and Gwendolyn are more than interesting enough to sustain the issue.
These two characters are also a welcome focus because they give Staples the chance to show off some of her action muscles, laying down some wicked fight scenes. She's long ago proven herself to be able to manage the witty conversations that Vaughan is so well known for (and we do get some of that here), but this series hasn't yet given her a wealth of opportunities to lay down some violence. We get that here, and it's just as gorgeous as everything else she does. Seriously, her art is so stupidly good that it makes the entire book that much better. I'm always happy to remember that there are no ads in Saga, meaning that Staples art has room to breath and look pretty, which is does from start to finish in this issue.
Verdict - Must Read. Guys, Saga is amazing. You should know this already, but I'll happily continue talking about it just in case you've somehow missed out on the joy that is this book. Don't feel bad if that's you, because it simply means that you get to experience Saga for the first time, something that I'm jealous of you for.
I've long lauded Demon Knights as one of the few books that could not have existed without the reboot that was DC's New 52, a fact that I was happier to claim due to it also being one of the more enjoyable titles in DC's ongoing library. Paul Cornell, Diogenes Neves, and Oclair Albert's respective works added up to a unique little ensemble book that was equal parts superheroics and high fantasy that often held some of the better moments in any week it was published. And while I continued to enjoy the book, it's pacing was somewhat on the slow side and Neves and Albert's departure from the title made it a little harder every month to keep justifying picking it up. Bernard Chang remains the series' regular artist, but Cornell has departed for Marvel, providing the opportunity to Robert Venditti to join Chang on the title to see what the two can do with this team of misfits.
Demon Knights #16, then, is something of a soft reboot, as the title jumps ahead 30 years from the conclusion of last month's issue, enabling Venditti and Chang to immediately establish a new status quo while still remaining true to the work that's come before them on the title. It's a clever choice, and while the initial setup is one of the oldest narrative devices in the book, Venditti makes good use of the event to demonstrate his ability to take on the characters' voices while adding his own touches to them.
Skipping ahead 30 years does leave quite a bit of story to catch up on, and while Venditti does a nice job of hinting at some of the changes that characters like Horsewoman, Shining Knights, and Exoristos have undergone in the time in between, this leap ahead does result in some lengthy moments of exposition that are more heavy handed than would be desirable. However, there are some twists thrown in towards the end of the issue that creates interest while also substantively building on pre-existing character relationships. It manages to make perfect sense considering the histories of the characters involved while also coming out of left field. For that contribution alone I'm tempted to pick up another issue to see what will happen.
Just as Venditti puts his own mark on these characters, Chang has slowly been winning me over as the main artist for Demon Knights. I was definitely annoyed at Oclair and Albert's initial absence from this title when it looked like it was only going to be for an issue or two, but since the reigns have been handed over to Chang, he's managed to found a way to build on the work those two artists did while bringing his own style to the book's pages. Every issue seems to find him more confident in his abilities, as he routinely busts out a new fantastic beast or item to wow readers with, which has been a welcome addition.
Verdict - Check It. With so many straight superhero books on comic book shelves, it remains nice to have something slightly different coming out from DC. I like that Venditti and Chang have managed to maintain links to the work of the creators who've come before them on the title, but I also wonder if they're staying a little too close to that origin. I like Demon Knights, but it has been running the risk of becoming stagnate. Hopefully these two gentlemen can inject some real change as they ease their way into the book.