A review a day: <i>Blacksad</i>

Hey, it's anthropomorphic animals! This must be a cute book, right?

Ha! That's just a set-up, as Blacksad is a noir tale, and a truly excellent one at that. That the characters are animals shouldn't put you off at all. And I'm sure everyone can deal with the fact that they're animals, right? I mean, we read comics, right? So: Blacksad is written by Juan Díaz Canales and drawn by Juanjo Guarnido, with coloring by Studio Cutie.

It's one o' them there European comics, so it's been available for a while, but the latest iteration is published by Dark Horse in a fancy-pants hardcover edition that costs $29.99. Look for it at fine booksellers everywhere!

This hardcover contains the three albums that have been released so far (another one is due this year in Europe, unless it's already out), each telling a complete story about John Blacksad, our feline private investigator. Canales sets this during the 1950s, so one story deals with racial injustice while the third is about nuclear secrets and Russian spies (the first story is about a murdered actress with whom Blacksad had a relationship). In each story, Blacksad uses his fists as much as his brain, and it's nice how Canales balances the two sides of our main character - he's a smart guy who knows how to handle himself in a brawl. As we go through the book, Canales peels away layers of Blacksad - in the third story, we learn a great deal about his past and where he came from and why he's so well educated. Like most noir detectives, his moral compass points toward justice no matter the cost, and this may ruin lives or his chance for happiness, but he can't deviate from it. And, also like most noir detectives, he's often sentimental. While this makes him sound like a stereotype, as usual with stock characters, what the writers do with them is all that counts, and Canales does a nice job making Blacksad an extremely interesting character even as he's doing things we expect.

Much like Blacksad himself, the plots are somewhat stock-in-trade. The second story, "Arctic Nation," is a bit odd because we don't think of animals as being "white"- or "black"-skinned - why should a polar bear or a ferret be racially prejudiced against a cat, for instance?

I know that racism isn't rational, but because Canales presents these characters as animals, it's difficult for him to present them as one "race" discriminating against another one - the polar bear police chief has as much in common with his fox lieutenant as he does with Blacksad. But maybe that's the point - the distinctions are completely arbitrary, so why not base it on fur color? And it's not too hard to figure out that maybe, just maybe, some of the racists don't believe in separation of the "races" as much as they claim, especially if there's a hot babe involved. The final story is also a standard "Commies in our midst" story, with some nice twists - the way the Russian agent is smuggling secrets out of the country is clever, while the crux of the album is Blacksad's childhood and his relationship with his mentor, who has secrets of his own. And, of course, there's a dame who wants to run away with our hero. If you know anything about noir, you'll know that's not going to happen (but I won't say any more about why).

No, the reason this is a such a good comic is because of the way Canales presents the characters and because of Guarnido's art, which is superb. I have no idea if Canales or Guarnido came up with the species of animals to be used, but it's genius, really. On the first page, we meet Smirnov the cop, who's naturally a German shepherd. Throughout the book, though, the creators give us the perfect animal for the situation.

The gorilla boxer gone to seed, the walrus movie producer, the lizard henchman, the deer teacher, the various racists (a pig, a snowy owl), the drunken old pilot crow, the President of the United States eagle, the lion general, the various "black power" characters (a stallion, a bull), a wealthy tycoon turtle, a smiling huckster Dalmatian, a cranky monkey Holocaust survivor, and Weekly the weasel, a reporter who has a tenuous friendship with Blacksad. No one ever comments on what kind of animals they are (although Canales sprinkles a few animal-related jokes into the book), but they each fit their role wonderfully. It's amazing how well the creators integrate them into the story, and it adds a nice subtextual layer to Canales' story.

Guarnido is magnificent with everything else art-wise, too. The backgrounds are amazing, as Blacksad moves through New York and Las Vegas of the 1950s and Guarnido really gives us a sense that it's 60 years ago. He nails the fashion, the style, the advertisements, the buildings, the cars, and the attitudes of that era. As Canales is showing us different social strata, Guarnido is backing him up, as the middle class in this book dress well while the people on the fringes (who recite "Howl" and smoke pot) let their style go a bit. All the little details make this a sumptuous comic, one that you can just look at for several minutes and not worry about reading. The coloring is wonderful, too - we get beautiful dusk-touched scenes and chilly wintry ones, and the gun-metal gray of New York contrasts well with the glitz of Vegas and the small-town seediness in the second story.

Guarnido's excellent detailed work combined with the stunning colors help add to the realism and often make us forget that, say, John Blacksad is a cat. He's just a tough P. I. trying to get through life.

Despite the familiarity of the actual plots, this is a tremendous comic. As always, it's the way these tales are told that makes them special, and Blacksad is a compelling character, as are most of the others in this book. Even if you're not a fan of noir, the art alone is worth checking out, because Guarnido does such a brilliant job on it. I don't know if Canales and Guarnido are planning many more volumes (beyond the one that's planned for this year), but I would love to read more about Blacksad and his world. It's quite a fascinating place.

Tomorrow: War! What is it good for?

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