Every day this year, I will be examining the artwork on a single comic book story. Today’s artist is Francesco Francavilla, and the issue is The Black Coat: A Call to Arms #1, which was published by Ape Entertainment and is cover dated April 2006. Enjoy!
Back in 2006, I pre-ordered The Black Coat just for the premise: A spy during the American Revolution fighting weird shit. It was the “flashback” portions of Sleepy Hollow years before Ichabod Crane started ranting about artisinal marmalade and giving love advice to the OnStar lady. I didn’t know or care who Francesco Francavilla was, but after this mini-series, you can bet I knew who he was. This was his first American comics work and almost his first comics work in general, and you can already tell how good he would be. But let’s check this out before we get ahead of ourselves!
The first few examples I’m going to show are not inked by Francavilla, but by Jeremy Colwell, and I’m not sure if it’s the only time in his career Francavilla hasn’t inked himself (I could check, but I’m lazy). The change is not incredibly noticeable, as we’ll see, but Colwell seems to have a thinner line than Francavilla does, even this early in his career, so his inking seems to make things slightly more delicate, for lack of a better word. Notice the definition on the submarine in Panel 1 – the details are very precise, and Colwell’s blacks on the underbelly of the sub fade nicely as we move up the sides. The bubbles are very sharp, too, with a light shade on the bottom to again show where the light is coming from. Francavilla’s design of the sub is very nice, fitting for an 18th-century machine, but the inking makes this a beautiful panel. In the next row, we see Francavilla’s people. Later in the book they look even more like “Francavilla people,” as here their faces are a bit thinner and more detailed. Francavilla tends to be slightly more abstract with his faces, but perhaps Colwell added more hatching and spot blacks to the faces. It’s an interesting contrast. [Edit: Francavilla let me know that he inkwashed/grayscaled the early pages with ink and brush. I’d love to take a look at the original pencils and the stages it went through to get to the final product. That holds true for pretty much every page I show here, but it’s particularly true for these!]
This is a really nice splash page, as our hero gets caught sneaking aboard a pirate ship. Francavilla smartly tilts the panel so that our eyes naturally flow from the upper left to the bottom right, and he places all the significant pieces of the panel along that axis: the skulls in the corner, the first pirate, the Black Coat’s head, the rest of the pirates (including the captain, Blithe), the light source of the panel, and even some of the weapons. If we didn’t look around the page because we’re lazy, we still wouldn’t miss anything important as we move our eyes the way we’re being directed to. The Black Coat and Blithe are the focus of the page, as Francavilla makes sure the Black Coat’s eyes are linked to Blithe’s, so that we’re paused there as we move down the page. The swords and guns form a cage around the Black Coat, so that even if we could believe he’d escape the men, the weapons make it more menacing. Francavilla’s attention to detail is nice, too – the clothing is done well, and he draws nicks into the sword in the foreground to show that it’s been used a lot but hasn’t been taken good care of. Colwell’s inking is good, too – the blacks dominate the page, but he leaves part of the background white, implying smoke rising from behind the pirates. It’s not much more than an eerie effect, but it serves its purpose.
These days, Francavilla lays out a page as well as anyone, and we see a hint of it in The Black Coat. Our hero fights the pirates, and Francavilla shows it with a layout that doesn’t quite work, but it’s still something interesting. In Panel 1, he dumps a pirate into a fire as he stabs the pirate behind him. The layout leads us from left to right very well. So far, so good. The bottom four panels aren’t terrible, but they’re a bit strange. Anyone who’s read comics can easily see where Francavilla wants to go – left to right, back to the left, and back to the right. But the fact that they’re angled upward makes it a little bit of a chore. The Black Coat catches the gun that the stabbed pirate dropped, swings it around, and blasts the pirate sneaking up on him. Francavilla does a good job showing the movement of it all by using the tried-and-true multiple drawings of an arm, each in a different position, and then overlaying that with motion lines. That’s fine, but we end up crammed into the upper right corner, and the downward slope of the gutter back down to the left is at opposition with the arc of the gun arm pointing us to the panel directly below, which is the final panel we should look at. It’s not too big of a problem, but in a visual medium, the way a page is laid out is important, and this is oddly complicated. Francavilla links the gun in all four panels, so we can follow the gun in Panel 2 all the way back down to Panel 3, where the Black Coat is pointing the gun back to Panel 2, implying that they’re linked. That’s the best he can do, I suppose, and he just has to rely on our knowledge of how to read a comic. He does a nice job whirling the point of view around from Panel 3 to Panel 4, though. In Panel 3, we see the looming presence first, with the Black Coat down below, and then in Panel 4, we see the Black Coat first, looking up at the presence. That’s well done, and the angle of that final panel leads us nicely to the next page.
The fight continues, and Francavilla does a nice job with the layout. It’s more traditional, but it still allows him a big scene in the middle around which the rest of the action revolves. He leads us nicely, across the top row to where the Black Coat holds the rope, then to the third panel, where he slashes the rope. The big panel shows him rising as the mast swings across the pirates, knocking them off the ship and into the water. The final panel shows the Black Coat looking for the mysterious dude he saw on the previous page, but that dude has disappeared. It’s a nice design, as we get across the page and through quite a bit of action rather well. The central panel is obviously the most important, and Francavilla and Colwell do a good job with it. The motion lines form a cone around the Black Coat, moving him upward, into an almost holy light. There’s no real reason to keep that area white, but it does help contrast the blackness of our hero’s clothing so that we see him clearly, but it inadvertently becomes a Christ metaphor, and if there’s anything that’s clichéd in fiction, it’s a Christ metaphor! He’s rising out of smoke, too, which makes it more like someone rising out of darkness into the light. Look how Francavilla puts the sword cutting the rope in Panel 3 in perfect line with the motion lines in Panel 4, so that our eyes flow directly to the Black Coat moving upward but don’t hinder us from moving down to the pirates getting hit by the mast. The motion of the mast is the same in Panel 4 and the small Panel 5, so that in our heads, the two panels are more easily linked because we don’t have to do any mental gymnastics to get there. This is also the last example of Colwell’s inking we’ll see. The lines are still sharp, so that the characters still look crisp even though Colwell uses a lot of blacks.
The Black Coat fights the Big Bad, and we get a good action scene. It flows well from panel to panel, as the Black Coat chucks that smoke bomb at the bad guy in Panel 3 and immediately reaches in with the same hand to extract his sword, which he sweeps back to chop off the bad guy’s arm (he’s kind of like Frankenstein’s monster). In the final panel, Francavilla makes sure that the ring with the “K” on it is prominently placed so that we know it’s a clue. The way he choreographs the scene is perfectly fine.
Francavilla is inking himself here, and we can see the difference. The lines are thicker and rougher, so that the art isn’t as crisp as when Colwell was inking it but is more brutal, which fits the action, at least. The smoke on the page, for instance, looks grittier because the black arcs are less defined, while the slash of the sword is uglier because Francavilla blurs the blood spurting from the wound. We can’t really tell from this page, but when Francavilla started inking himself on Page 10 of this issue, the faces became more “Francavillan” – something we’ll see moving forward.
Francavilla drew this entire mini-series and the first issue of the next one, but by then, he was too good not to be noticed by bigger publishers, so he moved on to them. Tomorrow we’ll check out another of his early works, but one from a slightly bigger publisher. Be here to see what’s what! And spend some time in the archives – they get so lonely!