Launched in 2000, Blacksad (by writer Juan Díaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido) was a major success in France and Spain and has since become a similar success throughout the world. There have been five comic book albums in the series so far, following the adventures of private investigator, John Blacksad, an anthropomorphic cat living in the United States during the turbulent 1950s.
The series has been nominated for five Eisner Awards over the years, winning two in 2014 for A Silent Hell, the fourth album in the series.
Next month, Microids is releasing a video game starring Blacksad. Developed by Pendulo Studios, the game is called Blacksad: Under the Skin.
Juan Díaz Canales was at New York Comic-Con to promote both the 20th anniversary of Blacksad, as well as the new video game adaptation. CBR spoke to him about both (Vincent Gallopain served as translator for the interview).
CBR: First off, let me say, congratulations on the twentieth anniversary of Blacksad!
Juan Díaz Canales: Thank you.
CBR: When you look back on the launch of the series, how soon did you and Juanjo Guarnido realize that the series was going to be such a big success?
JDC: Very early, actually. The success of the series kind of dropped in right at the beginning. It was very surprising.
CBR: What was interesting about the series’ success is that you two weren’t new creators. You had already had successful careers working in animation before launching Blacksad. So it must have been a different experience than if you were, like, teenagers bursting on to the scene out of nowhere. However, it certainly had to be still a big change for you.
JDC: Yes, we had successful careers in animation, but we weren’t well known. It was more like working in the shadows.
CBR: So successful but not famous?
JDC: Animation is the work of a team, while with comics, you’re the face of the book, so the public knows who you are.
CBR: A good example, I suppose, would be Darwyn Cooke, who worked in animation for years before doing comics and then being an “overnight sensation” twenty years into his career.
JDC: Yes, he was very good in animation, but nobody knows you when you’re part of a team.
CBR: You and Juanjo knew each other before working on Blacksad, but how long ago did you first meet each other?
JDC: We met in an animation studio in Madrid in 1990.
CBR: Wow, so a decade before Blacksad debuted!
JDC: We had always discussed doing something together in comics because we were both interested in the medium and that eventually became Blacksad.
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CBR: One of the things that I find fascinating about Blacksad, in general, is the use of music in the book. When it comes to determining what music to use, where are the song choices coming from? Is it from you, from Juanjo or from the two of you together?
JDC: The use of music began progressively. We featured a blues musician in an early story and we were impressed by just how well it went along with the story, so we began to add more and more to the series. Generally, we use blues and jazz - the African-American music of the era. It provided a wonderful mood for the comic book overall. There is always a very tight link between the music and the comic book. The lyrics will often reflect what is happening in the story.
CBR: It works together very well, especially how it changes throughout the series. Sometimes it is more directly describing the action within the comic, while other times it is used ironically. I wonder, sometimes, though, whether the use of the music is coming from the story side of things or is it coming from how Juanjo visually sees a particular scene? Who says, between the two of you, “Oh, I’d like to have this song included here”?
JDC: It typically comes from the story side of things, but Juanjo knows jazz so well that he will sometimes make suggestions for songs for us to use.
CBR: One of the aspects of the video game that stands out, then, is that music is a very big part of Blacksad: Under the Skin. Music has always been a big part of the Blacksad comic, but it has also always been only on the printed page. Now, though, the music is fully integrated into the Blacksad experience with the game. That must be really interesting to experience from your side of things.
JDC: Yes, while music has always been part of the comic, actually hearing it gives it a “Wow!” factor. In the written form, the readers can always imagine how the music might sound, but when you are actively hearing the music rather than imagining it, it brings something really different. It actually takes something from it a little bit, because you lose the imagination aspect of it, but at least the game does sound exactly how we personally feel that it should sound.
CBR: Did you and Juanjo have any input in choosing of the music for the game?
JDC: We did consult on the project. We could not be there for the choosing of all of the voices or the music, but they would always check with us to get our opinions on what they chose.
CBR: Obviously, as Blacksad has gone on, you have expanded the universe in each new album. How does it feel, though, to see someone else expanding your universe for the first time?
JDC: It is a wonderful and enjoyable experience to see something that was once ours and is now everyone’s. Not just the publisher, but with the video game, it now belongs to the players, as well. It’s great. It is like our son has grown up, which was always going to happen.
CBR: Now, American popular culture is a major influencer on Blacksad . It is clearly the focus of the stories. However, when I read Blacksad, at least, it seems like it is taking the archetypal version of these stories and twisting them. Like, instead of Blacksad being like the Phillip Marlowe of Bogart’s The Big Sleep, he’s instead more like the Phillip Marlowe of Elliot Gould’s The Long Goodbye, if you’ve familiar with that film. It’s like it is a post-modern version of the archetypal versions of these classical American pop culture characters. Would that be an accurate assessment?
JDC: The good thing about using noir stories is that there are the established tropes, but you can use those tropes to tell stories that resonant with a modern audience, that have an impact on issues that people are dealing with in the present.
CBR: When a new album comes out, each one is so distinct in both the historical period it is set in and also the piece of culture that is being used as the frame of reference for that album (like jazz in A Silent Hell and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in Amarillo). Which one, though, is typically more of the influence – the historical period itself or the cultural works from that period?
JDC: It is very important for the story to relate to that specific period of time and the historical events of the era. For instance, it is important that the visuals make sense for the given period.
CBR: So, typically, the historical events “drive” the story more so than the culture of the period?
JDC: Yes. We choose specific events in history that relate to modern times so that the story can work as a commentary on issues today, like discussions about race.
CBR: The video game is set a major turning point in Blacksad’s life, following the second album, where he has met his partner, Weekly, and is still dealing with his grief over the death of his lost love, Natalia, in the first album. If you were to pick the period in the series where Blacksad is at his most “classic” state, it would probably be at this point. So did you and Juanjo help the video game creators in choosing this period to set the game? Or did they just come up with it on their own?
JDC: We had a lot of exchanges with the studio to make sure that the story being told was on par with the sort of drama that we have in the comic as well as being consistent with our chronology.
CBR: So, did they propose this time period from the start?
JDC: They came out first with a few different versions at first and they hit upon something that we did not really touch on originally, which is the world of sports. Boxing is a big part of the video game and we felt that it was great that this really brought something new to the world of Blacksad that we had not established before.
CBR: Seeing these characters animated in the video game, it strikes me as interesting that you two both have an impressive background in animation, but you have never tried to do Blacksad animation before. Why is that?
JDC: We would have loved to have done, but we know the business so well that it would have required a large, dedicated team to achieve something like that and it would have been too difficult to do that and our other comic book work.
CBR: For the first time in six years, we’re getting a new Blacksad album, right?
CBR: Is there anything that you can share about the new album? The last album, of course, went a little bit “off the road,” literally. Is this more in that vein or is this more “traditional” Blacksad?
JDC: It is going to be more traditional. Blacksad is going to go back to his roots as a private investigator in New York City. We had been doing different colors for each album, but we’re going to go back to black for this new album, returning to the film noir style of the first album.
CBR: I believe I read Juanjo mentioning that this is a two-parter. Is that true?
JDC: Yes. It is because we sometimes have a problem where we have more story than we can really get to in just 54 pages. This story is quite complicated, so we need more pages and so we expanded to two albums.
CBR: Is there anything more that you would like to say about Blacksad: Under the Skin?
JDC: We are very happy and very excited about the new video game. The fans are eager to see it and we think that they are going to enjoy it a lot.
Blacksad: Under the Skin will be available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC and Mac in November 5th, 2019. The game will be fully dubbed in English, French and Spanish and subtitled in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish and Dutch.