From Our Continental Corresponent – Blacksad collected
What do you get if you combine the best cliches of the hard-boiled detective genre with puss-in-boots ? You get Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guardino’s excellent Blacksad series, about the adventures of a private eye trying hard to stay on the straight and narrow, while all around him the sleazeballs and no-goods are trying to get their wicked ways. Except that John Blacksad is a cat, and a black one at that; he does everything a detective does : falling in love with the wrong women, getting harrassed by the law and by rich suspects’ enforcers, and in the end, he quite often fails to get paid as well.
Earlier this month, Dark Horse published the first three episodes of this series in a handsome, hardcover collected edition (what the French would call an Intégrale). This volume collects all stories that have been published so far. In the first one, Somewhere Within The Shadows, we are introduced to detective John Blacksad, who lives and operates in New York in the 1950’s, or at least a city that’s very much like the New York of the crime stories of that era. Blacksad investigates the death of Leon Kronski, a movie writer and his last known lover who disappeared. He gets arrested by the police, but Smirnov, the police commissioner, explains that because of ‘pressure upstairs’ he himself cannot investigate the matter any further. Blacksad takes matters in his own hands and follows the money all the way to the top.
The second story, Arctic Nation, further develops the theme of racism and racial segregation in Blacksad’s world, a theme that had already been hinted upon in the first story. Blacksad accepts a job from an elderly elementary school teacher who wants him to find a young bear girl who has been kidnapped, probably by the Arctic Nation, a racist political and terrorist organisation. All kinds of intrigues unravel around the case, involving social injustice, extortion and interracial love affairs. The story ends in a quite violent climax which is supposed to solve everything, but in fact only leaves a sour taste. This story also introduces Weekly, the Ebony White to Blacksad’s Spirit.
In the third and final story, Red Soul, the cold war is raging in all its ugliness. Blacksad finds himself in the middle of a web of intrigues and plots again, this time involving anti-communist movements, nuclear physicians and survivors of the Holocaust. This story turns out to be Blacksad’s Tintin et Les Picaros, as his own naive and limited view on things turns out to be insufficient to solve problems that rage on a global scale, such as the nuclear arms race or the aftermath of the second World War. He is also confronted with memories from his own youth, when one of his mentors turns out to have quite a lot to hide…
The appeal of this series is, in my opinion, twofold. To begin with, Guardino’s art is magnificent. His cityscapes are as menacing as they come, and his action scenes are as close as you can get to actually filming them. His past as an animator at Disney is apparent in his portrayal of his animal characters, whom he gives facial expressions and movements that are as lifelike as can be. One of the main problems when transposing your characters with animals, is that animals tend to vary in size more than humans do, and you need to be very careful in picking the right kind of animal, lest your art becomes farcical. In the first book, the occasional oversize mouse or frog does turn up, but later on all characters have their natural sizes, and this greatly contributes to the book’s verisimilitude. On a similar note, the age-old conundrum of the man-animals vs the animal-animals is solved by not paying too much attention to it : fish are fish, and nothing more.
The second great quality of the books is that they are not just (very well-wrought) detective stories that so happen to be played by animals. For each of the characters, the right type of animal has been carefully chosen. An older schoolteacher is a doe, and a crime boss’ bodyguards are (naturally) rhinos. But it goes further than that. Certain animal treats are exploited quite cunningly in the story : criminals are quite often lizards or amphibians since they are, well, cold-blooded. And finally, in the Blacksad’s, an innate race division exists between animals with fur (who are higher in status) and animals wihtout. Later, in Arctic Nation, this is rendered even more explicit when a white power movement is introduced that puts animals with white fur above animals with a colored fur. And Blacksad suddenly is outed as a Shaft-like black machoman.
And while I was re-reading the Blacksad books for this piece, Flemish comics blog Strip Turnhout reports that after five years, Guardino and Canales have completed a fourth album in the series. L’enfer, Le Silence will be available on September 17th, and will once more delve deeper into Blacksad’s personal history, as he is confronted with the dead body of Natalia Wilford, an actress he once spent the happiest days of his life with.
Canales & Guardino : Blacksad. Dark Horse, 2010. ISBN 978-1-59582-393-9. Instore and also available at the FPI webstore.