Blacksad by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarrido
In my new quest to read less superhero based comic book fare I’ve turned to the vaunted shores of Europe and picked up the recent Dark Horse English translation of Blacksad. The long and short of it are that this is an incredibly beautiful book that is superb cartooning which captures a time, place and genre almost letter perfect. The bad, is that ever since Chris Butcher saw the item in the Previews catalogue he’s placed the furries idea in my head and it tainted the experience (oh relax, I’m not pissed at him or anything). I know that this is just fiction and all, but I’m glad I never had to explain why I’m reading a book with the naked cat people having the sex.
Regardless, this is a great companion piece to the Darwyn Cooke Parker books in that it’s another thirties-forties-fifties based noir book that must be seen to be truly appreciated. The cast is made up of humanized animals where each character is reflected by the animal he is. The cold blooded killers tend to be reptiles, professors are owls, white supremacists weasels - you get the idea. It’s a conceit that is pulled off with aplomb. I kept waiting for the moment it would feel forced, and it never does. It feels like the creators took the funny talking animals genre and recast them in a gritty noir reboot that tries to engage in a realism form, like Marvels or Ex Machina.
What I found even more engaging than the characters was the rendering of the settings and backgrounds. The draftsmanship that goes into setting the stage for these comics is simply stunning. There are shades of Eisner’s New York (the universal setting not necessaryily the book) that are coloured in a muted pallet that feels aged properly, almost water coloured to give it a time appropriate production feel. The props are all note perfect as far as I can tell, which brought me into the world and simply kept me there. It’s not often that I notice the setting, but when it’s done right, it brings me into the story and here it was done so masterfully that I couldn’t look away. When something is done right, it either fades into your memory as accepted or it confidently recognizes its own beauty.
The stories are standard noir fare. Secrets are unleashed, heads are knocked together, people are stabbed and killed. Generally the horrible underbelly of humanity is cut open and spilled on the ground. There are some great ideas presented in the plots, particularly how the creators use the conceit of the anthropomorphic cast to tackle race riots in the middle volume (Arctic Nation) but I felt most of the ideas were related to the craft rather than the actual plot. I’m a story guy through and through, but I felt my enjoyment from these stories came more from appreciated the craft of the stories rather than the fairly generic noir plots. They hit all the key notes and call back to a lot of classic noir movies so it should work but it did just feel all too familiar and expected in terms of twists, turns, and Pyrich victories.
Not having a French volume to compare, I can’t really comment on the quality of the translation but I can say that on a very few occasions the dialogue actually felt translated. It was straightforward and wasn’t broken English but it felt a bit flat and more of a literal translation that lost some of the charters’ voices. It was very few and far between, and not having a copy of the original makes it hard to know if this is an issue of translation or the original writing. There were a few times, as well, where it felt the plot just jumped forward a hell of a lot. I understand the nature of the medium but sometimes those jumps were too pronounced and it felt disjointed, as if the creators wanted to explore moments, characters and develop the plot more but were forced to cut out because of page limits. It never derailed the plot but it would have been nice to see the development or escalation of situations before seeing the setup then resolution on the next page (often in the first panel of the next page). I’m not sure that wanting more of the story is any kind of a valid criticism or not, but httre it is.
But the craft comes through in spades. Not just in the rendering I’ve already mentioned but in how the majority of situations would flow throughout a page. The creators really understand the art of the page turn with often somewhat odd panels ending an even numbered page being revealed on the page turn. It was generally handled with aplomb when moving from one character situation to other times and places. It is only occasionally that it would jump along one character’s arc and feel off. And, ending each volume with a negative black and white image of a loose plot thread was always fun and rewarding. Particularly the confused Australians. Fun stuff.
All in all, this is an easy book to recommend for anyone who likes comics and appreciates both Uncle Scrooge and the Parker books.