Originally published in France and written and illustrated by two Spaniards, Blacksad follows a grimy, smoke-ringed 1950's private investigator, John Blacksad. All the familiar noir mainstays are here: a troubled, elusive P.I., tragic femme fatales, complex-to-the-point-of-collapsing plots, questionable cops on the make, chatty informants, easy-to-hate villains, and that certain dirty but appealing style. The only difference is that Blacksad’s world is populated entirely by walking, talking animals. I never saw this one coming: anthropomorphized noir.
While I’m a fan of crime comics like Criminal, 100 Bullets, and a few of the Vertigo Crime books (I’m embarrassingly behind on my Queen & Country), I’d never heard of Blacksad. Publisher Dark Horse notes that the series is “internationally acclaimed,” and it’s easy to see why: the book is breathtaking. This magazine-formatted hardcover collects three stories, all originally published in France, and one, "Red Soul," is collected here in English for the first time. The attention to detail makes it very easy to wander from the plot or text. When we are given glimpses into Blacksad’s office or apartment, entire panels are devoted solely to the items in the room. We see papers and books haphazardly stacked, a few strays near the waste basket but not committed as trash just yet; bulletin boards that have long since lost any updated Post-Its and are now static fixtures, receding into the background. Blacksad’s desk looks a lot like mine: all to-do lists, staplers, and miscellany crowding what should be the work area. He sits on the only free-space of his desk--the corner. He broods just outside the blinds.
The first story, “Somewhere within the Shadows,” opens with Blacksad, a black cat with muddy green eyes, slinking about a crime scene as a German shepherd cop gives him a hard time. Naturally, Blacksad knew the murder victim, who is splayed lifeless on the bed--a former film starlet (“…The remains of a beautiful dream.”)--and no matter how he is cautioned from going any deeper into the cause of her death, it’s never in question that the whiskered detective will make this case a personal one.
Writer Juan Díaz Canales keeps close to genre staples--Blacksad falls for dangerous women and takes quite a few beatings while dishing them out--but there are great moments of crisp drama, especially in Blacksad’s internal dialogue boxes. At one point, he is trailed by a hired goon--a lizard--who pulls a knife. “I don’t believe a detective exists who likes to see his trenchcoat ruined.”
What follows next is a well-choreographed fight scene, culminating in a head-butt (“And I knew a few dirty tricks…learned in the gutters.”) that deflates the lizard’s snout. As Blacksad hauls the bruised assailant to his feet, he internally quips: “Now, Pretty Face, answer me.” Which one of these creatures is cold-blooded?English translators Anthya Flores and Patricia Rivera retain the thick and brisk menace as well as the softer moments, but the big news is artist Juanjo Guarnido. The research that must have gone into creating and rendering the cast of characters is exhausting. Foxes, ferrets, grizzly and polar bears, deer, rabbits, roosters, Bengal tigers, Dalmations, owls, crows, turtles--each character has his or her own effortlessly expressed personality mixed with the instincts of the animal they possess. These are human emotions as seen through the animal kingdom, but set in the very human 1950s. It shouldn’t work--or, rather, it should be much more difficult to take seriously, but Guarnido’s confidence and skill take command of every panel. Cobblestones are individually detailed while entire cities stretch above them and behind windows when scenes take place indoors. When characters flirt, their eyes fill in the blanks left by sparse, playful dialogue. Guarnido’s ability to convey a spectrum of emotions via facial and body language puts to shame the often dead-eyed superheroes at the top of the charts. 184 pages is not nearly enough of his work.
My favorite stories were the first--an excellent introduction to the main character and his world--and “Red Soul,” which finds Blacksad in the middle of a red scare. It’s big on plot and characters, and the female lead, Alma, is refreshingly not so much fatale as she is her own person. The middle chapter, “Arctic Nation,” takes a heavy-handed approach to racial tension. The results are none too subtle, but it’s full of twists, sex, violence, and--of course--that lavish artwork.