Orson Welles as a hippo – Juan Diaz Canales talks about Blacksad #4 (part 1)
It’s taken five years, but this fall a new Blacksad book finally arrived on the continent. A comic with animals behaving like people, living in a world that looks eerily like an American crime movie set in the 50s. “We really do a casting each time we need a new character, to discuss which animals we will take to play it”, Juan Diaz Canales, the writer of the books explained in a recent interview with Stripgids’ Toon Horsten. We present a translation of that interview in two parts, with thanks to Stripgids for their kind consent and cooperation. In this first part, Canales talks about his fascination with American culture, and about casting animals for his books.
It’s probably the least obvious success story in comics of the last ten years. Two Spanish creators meet up in a Spanish animation studio (artist Juan Guarnido and writer Juan Diaz Canales), and decide to start up a comic about a black tomcat. A story that will be set in an American metropolis. All backgrounds and settings will be as realistic as possible, and the storylines will sound like American detective novels from the 1940’s and ‘50s. Their Philip Marlowe is Blacksad, and all characters are played by animals. Even though they move around and behave like human beings, they’re very clearly animals, each with their own physical and temperamental treats. The first book was an immediate hit : 300,000 copies sold.
The new book, L’enfer, le silence, changes the concept slightly : Blacksad and his sidekick Weekly leave New York and end up in the South of the United States. “Guarnido and I really needed to get Blacksad away from the Big Apple, and send him to a different environment”, Juan Diaz Canales tells us, “We needed to be able to bring a whole new atmosphere to the story. New Orleans was our first choice, because we’d always wanted to use our love for music in our comics. Music was important in previous Blacksad books as well, with songs like Strange Fruit or That Old Black Magic playing an important part in the storyline, and it felt like a good idea to go back to the birthplace of the jazz and the blues”.
TH: You have dedicated this book to famed jazz photographer William Claxton.
Diaz Canales : While working on this book, we were greatly inspired by his book, Jazz Life. It’s a massive tome, weighing in at a couple of kilos, the report of a trip that Claxton made some fifty years ago, together with writer J.E. Berendt, in search of the jazz and the blues in all their aspects. Part of the book is about New Orleans, and we really tried to make that our own. Not just for the atmosphere, but also for the background information. The lives of the musicians that Blacksad meets in New Orleans, are based on the musicians from that book. And it’s about so much more than just music : there’s a whole mythology that you can play with, drugs, voodoo, racial issues… And above all, you can use the festive side of the music, the Mardi Gras, next to its more sinister side, the drink and the drugs, the washed-up musicians…
TH: How come you are so fascinated by American culture ?
Diaz Canales : We grew up with it ! Didn’t we all ? Even though we’re Europeans, we’re all children of the invasion of American culture.
TH|: You do have a rather American way of telling stories.
Diaz Canales : Certainly. I’ve always been a great fan of American detective fiction, and particularly the books by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I also think that American movies from that time are terrific. Juanjo and I share that fascination, and while talking about it, we decided to set Blacksad to the backdrop of that 1950’s America. It was the golden age of the detective story, I think.
TH: Just like the movies of that time, your Blacksad stories always have a clear moral…
Diaz Canales : (hesitates) Yes… (short silence) I think that all stories, in the end, are very optimistic, despite all the grime and the less fortunate aspects of life. There’s always characters providing hope. It never gets really black.
TH: Like Blacksad’s reporter sidekick, Weekly.
Diaz Canales : And Blacksad himself too, in the end. He doesn’t have any respect for authority or showing off whatsoever, but he always tries to do good for the people. Even though he lives in dark surroundings, he always choses humanity. He does what he needs to do.
TH: You play a lot with the stereotypes of different kinds of animals. How do you decide which animal to use for a certain character ? Is that something you develop consciously, or does it happen by chance ?
Diaz Canales : It is very important, and we invest a lot of time in finding the right animal. You could easily call it casting a role. Sometimes you know immediately that you need a particular kind of animal for a certain character, but at other times it’s far less clear. If that’s the case, you could for example take a less obvious animal, like an ostrich, and have it play an important part. Things like that keep it interesting for us as well. You can also play on the expectations of the reader. In Artic Nation we used a polar bear, who turned out to be a paedophile – far less innocent as you’d think. Sometimes we start from the archetypal meanings of a certain kind of animal, as you’d find it in fairy tales, for example, or rather make a purely symbolic choice. Like the communist in the third book : that had to be a bear (laughs). And sometimes we just joke around. The hippopotamus in the fourth book is inspired by Orson Welles in Touch Of Evil. So there’s a thousand an one reasons why you select a certain animal for a particular part.
TH: Do you always agree immediately about your choice of animals ?
Diaz Canales : Certainly not ! The fourth book especially lead to some quite hefty discussions. When I’m writing the script, I have something in mind, more often than not. In a next step, I talk the whole thing through with Juanjo, and that’s when things can still change to a large extent. Especially when it comes to the casting of the animals, Juanjo’s input is very important because he knows a lot about the animal kingdom. He suggested changing the role of Sebastian, the musician that this story is all about. I had suggested using a very small tomcat, but he thought it was to difficult to cast a small animal like that as a drug addict. So we went looking for an alternative, which would provide more credibility. In the end we opted for a dog, a boxer.
TH: When Tibet created the first Chick Bill stories for Tintin Magazine in the early 50’s, Hergé refused to take them. “Readers will never be able to identify with a comic with animals in the leading roles. It will never work”, he said. You sold 300,000 copies of the first Blacksad book…
Diaz Canales : Naturally, we didn’t create the first animal comic that found its audience… Of course, you can never be sure why a certain comic is succesful, and another one isn’t, but I don’t think that Blacksad’s success has that much to do with the fact that we use animals, even in combination with the detective setup. In my opinion it all boils down to Juanjo’s graphical approach. He draws animals, but also keeps his panels very realistic. That was something new, and it resulted in people noticing Blacksad. Maybe that’s the reason why the series is doing so well, but you never know.
Stay tuned for the second part of this interview tomorrow, in which Diaz Canales talks about creating the Blacksad character, working for the Spanish comic market and his future projects.
(Blacksad is published in English by Dark Horse)