Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Word Balloon: Blacksad
I quickly realized this month that in order for me to reach my goal of 30 blogs in 30 days, I am going to have to double up on the columns this month. Which I think will be okay, as I can make up for not having columns the previous two months. For this column I thought we would take a look at the best comic I purchased at the San Diego Comic Con this year, Blacksad, written by Juan Díaz Canales and drawn by Juanjo Guarnido. The volume I picked up at con is published by Dark Horse Press, though the series has been in publication in Europe for several years though this is it's first major distribution stateside. I remember looking through some French versions of the book years ago and not really getting the whole sense of the book, or really understanding the vibe of teh whole thing. Maybe I should point out though that I like to pick up European graphic novels while at con, even if they happen to not be translated. I first starting doing this with books like Sky Doll (which I reviewed on here last year) and The Bouncer, as an excersise where I would try to extrapolate the story based on the drawn action. It was a helpful tool in setting storytelling and pacing notes as I write. Strangely I remember at the time not being blown away by Blacksad those years past. This year though, Blair Butler, a comic book reviewer who works on G4TV (and whose opinion on comics I greatly respect), recommended the book to me personally, along with a few other fantastic comics. I picked up the book in a beautiful hardcover at con, this time with an English language translation. What I read blew me away.
Blacksad is a crime noir story set in the 1950's, though instead of humans, the story features anthropomorphic animals. John Blacksad is an anthropomorphic cat who also happens to be a classic noir detective. Dark Horse's collection features the three current books in print (with one due out in Europe later this year) compiled into a single trade. There are three different volumes, each on playing on classic 1950's story plots. The murder of a famous actress with ties to Blacksad's past, a story about racial intolerance, and another tale depicting Russian spies and stolen nuclear secrets. The stories are a well worn path, but writer Canales sets the book up in such a way that even though Blacksad suffers from the foibles of the classic noir detective, personality traits like an unflinching code of black and white ethics, the pursuit of an idealized justice and a propensity to protect women, as well as the pursuit of the truth no matter the consequence, the book is staged in such a way to make these compelling signature traits and not character or storytelling crutches or faults.
First let's take a look at the three different tales compiled in volume 1. The first story pits Blacksad in a murder mystery where he has to find out who killed his es girlfriend. The story is very much a staple of the detective genre, the hard boiled un-compromising detective, the rich mogul, the impotent police chief, and, oh yeah, the red hot bombshell. The second arc is much more of a political statement, though still rooted in the 1950's mentality of the show. It's a tale of political corruption and racism, white animals, or pure animals, against the mixed colors of the masses. It very much draws on the political turmoil of the 50's between the white and black cultural tension lines, while drawing on a little hint of leftover Nazism and Klan mentality. The villains are white polar bears, white ferrets, albino pigs, and throughout it all, like a any good noir story, a beautiful woman caught in teh middle who's allegiances are not quite what they seem. The third arc is a straight up political thriller, Russian spies stealing political secrets with our detective stuck in the middle of a real boiler. Add in a deadly femme fatale who wants to run away with Blacksad, and you spell all the elements of a classic noir thriller in the vein of Hitchcock.
Despite the easy familiarity of these traditional plot elements, writer Canales and artist Guarnido really find success in the presentation of the material. Canales shows a real range in adapting each anthropomorphic animal into the perfect real world counterpart. Whether its the slipperiness of a lizard hitman, the innocence of a distraught schoolteacher (a doe), the German Shepard of a police chief, the sultriness of Blacksad's ex lover, a fox, or even the die hard curiosity of our detective as a cat, each character is well thought out and completely formed. he even approached the "staple" stories of the noir genre with some outside the box thinking, something that is especially well done in the third arc with the Russian spy. What sold me though was that you were immediately immersed into this world and the fact that the main characters are animals no longer matter, you are deeply ingrained to the story by that point. It really adds a layer of subtext to each character, a level of relatability or at least as a point of reference, for each character to be a summary of the image that his animal archetype represent.
To get top that level of subtext though you have to have some really great art to go along with the series. Guarnido brings just that. From characters to background, he sets the mood and tone of the series. He really captures the look of New York or Las Vegas in the 50's and 60's, from design to costuming. It all pulls the work together to give it that 50's feel. His characterization is lush and vibrant, making them appropriately sexy, or funny, or tough, as the situation needs. I remember looking at the first big splash page in the collected and being blown away by the composition and color of the piece. It was amazing.
That's not to say the book doesn't have a few hiccups. Like I said it does suffer from some of the foibles of true genre work (though I feel like it elevates itself above standard noir tales). You won't be surprised by the direction of the story, though I do feel you will find some interesting twists in the tale. the weakest of the three tales is easily the racism tale, as it never really dives into the concepts of so many different types of species are prejudiced against other types simply based on skin or fur color. I realize that the writer is trying to tell a broad scope story about the pointlessness of measuring oneself against the skin tome of another, but when using animals it would have been just as easy to use animal species to tell the same point. I have heard that this was merely another means to demonstrate the futility of of the argument, but from my point of view it really just boils down to making the story more black or white, if you will pardon the pun.
All in all Blacksad is a really great comic carrying a flavor that you will not find anywhere else on this continent. It's so tough to find good translations of quality foreign comics as many of them don't get the same exposure that super hero comics do. There are some serious creators over there working on producing long form original graphic novels and its a shame we don't get to see more. Blacksad is a top quality book that tells a fantastic story with gorgeous art. Dark Horse continues it's trend of picking unique titles that fit outside the normal mainstream of capes and cowls by adapting this great work. Check it out and if you like it hopefully Dark Horse will release volume 4 in the coming months. The deluxe hardcover edition of the comic is gorgeous and should be available at most retailers or online- Blacksad, by Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido from Dark Horse Press. You won't regret it.
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