I talk about comics a lot on this side, but I’ve definitely been focusing too much on superheroes. While the two largest companies putting out comics exclusively stick with the superhero genre, there are countless other types of amazing comics being put out by the smaller companies. Which is strange. That would be like if 80% of the movies Hollywood put out were Westerns of something. There’s a serious genre disparity in comics that really doesn’t make sense, and often makes it so people don’t even realize there are non-superhero comics out there. I’m certainly a superhero fan, but my second favorite genre of comic book is probably noir. Now, I’ve talked about noir a lot, because it’s one of my favorite genres of media in general. I love noir movies and novels to no end, so of course I love comics that tackle the genre. Now, there are some great noir comics out there that follow the genre more straightly, like Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillip’s amazing Hollywood murder mystery the Fade Out, but a lot of the noir comics that come out throw in some tweak that makes it a little weirder than you normally see it. And while I want to talk about the Fade Out or really any book that Brubaker and Phillips have worked on (like Fatale, their weird noir/Lovecraftian horror mash-up) but today I’m taking some time to tell you about a spectacular comic I just heard about that really blew me away.
Blacksad is a Spanish comic created by writer Juan Diaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido that follows the life of John Blacksad, a hardboiled detective making his way through a large city (never specifically called New York, but we can assume) in the late 1950’s. Along the way he takes on some traditional noir cases, deals with institutional racism in the police department, the abuse of wealth and power, and the Red Scare. Oh, and he’s a cat. Blacksad is a comic that creates some wonderfully classic noir trappings, but takes place in a world full of anthropomorphic animals. There are all different kinds of animals, making their lives in the big city, getting through the tumultuous 50’s while trying to stay alive and sane. And I will say, anthropomorphic animals can sometimes be super creepy, and come off as weird ‘furry’ porn, but that is definitely not a problem here, because the art is spectacular. The artist Juanjo Guarnido used to work at Disney, and brings that training to this book, creating a world full of animals that we’ve been trained to think should break out into song at any moment, and are instead murdering each other and dealing with incredibly real issues.
The first three volumes, which were combined and released in America as simply Blacksad, has three different cases that John has to tackle as we explore this beautifully crafted world. His first case, “Somewhere Within the Shadows” follows John investigating the murder of a famous actress that he used to bodyguard, and then date. It takes John all around the town, following up leads through the sketchy underbelly of the show business in the City. He meets seedy producers and the richest man in town trying to figure out who killed his former lover, all while establishing a relationship with Smirvnov, the police commissioner. Next up, in “Arctic Nation,” things get way darker than I had assumed a comic about a crime solving cat was going to be, as John starts investigating the disappearance of a child from the poor part of town, while getting embroiled in a White Power movement sweeping the city, and a potentially pedophilic police chief whose covering the disappearance up. This story was probably the highlight of the whole collection, and really became a fascinating noir tale unlike many I’ve ever read before. Having John gets stuck between the racist Arctic Front, comprised of white animals, and the Black Claws, who are essentially the Black Panthers. And the final story, “Red Soul,” follows John trying to help an old teacher and mentor of his, Otto Liebber, a nuclear physicist owl who never stopped believing in him. Otto is a Communist, and part of an influential Communist organization called the Twelve Disciples, who are really just minding their own business when the Red Scare kicks up, throwing all of their lives into chaos. One of the disciples ends up dead, and it’s clear that the hit was meant for Otto, causing John to dive in deep, investigating the anti-Communist factions in the city that ends up getting him into some weird Nazi stuff.
I just read these three volumes, and there are two more waiting for me, which I’m extremely excited to check out. This collection is fantastic. John Blacksad instantly becomes a great noir detective, oozing with danger and charisma while doing his best to deal with all the weird shit that’s bubbling under the surface of America in the 50s, which we like to falsely remember as a quaint, happy little time. John runs into a lot of the standard trappings of the genre, like corruption, greed, lust, and political intrigue, while also handling things like racism and the Red Scare, which I feel were underserved topics for the noir genre. They were three extremely well written, exciting, and just all around perfect noir stories, all while being acted out by wonderfully cartoony animals.
I can’t praise the artwork in this collection highly enough. Guarnido knocks the art out of the park in this book, making a suitably dirty and grimy city, populated by some genuinely loveable, disgusting, and horrifying animals. But one of the things I loved most about it was the fact that there were still bright and vibrant moments too. The coloring in the book is wonderful too, and while I do love a noir comic that sticks to a grayscale color palette, this book expertly flows between dingy, gritty colors and the bright optimism of the day where we see the happy promise of the 50s trying to get through. There’s this fascinating nostalgia that comes up with the book, similar to what Who Framed Roger Rabbit did, by having such dark, depraved noir happen with characters that so similarly resemble Disney characters. He does an amazing job at having you instantly recognize which characters are our heroes, and which are our sleazeballs, probably best personified by a pal that John makes in “Arctic Nation” and comes back in “Red Soul,” a little weasel reporter called Weekly, who instantly becomes a loveable character. The reporter friend of a detective is a pretty tried and true trope, but man does it work great with Blacksad, especially by having Weekly be the eternal optimist to John’s grumpiness, where Weekly’s bubbly personality eventually wears down John’s gruff exterior.
And while I’ve been ranting and raving about Guarnido’s art, that’s night to slight Canales’ writing, which is excellent. He expertly weaves the overly complicated mysteries that we’ve come to expect from the noir genre, while finding new and fresh angles to tackle it with. Honestly, the fact that their animals doesn’t come up that much, and other than references to being “a cold-blooded” or something like that, you could probably take his script and make the exact same story with humans with little to no changes. But they find a way to make the animals work beautifully with the story, especially the “Arctic Nation” story where we see the white animals and their hatred and mistrust of the colored animals. In the first story there was some antagonism between mammals and reptiles, which I assumed was going to be the big dividing line between races, but apparently there are a whole lot of different races wandering around the City. Canales successfully shows all the tension and hatred that’s barely below the surface of 1950’s America, and does it beautifully while John Blacksad gets to wander around and just see the deepest, darkest pits of the city, perfectly aware that the 50s were no shining paradise, something we tend to forget.
Blacksad is written by Juan Diaz Canales and drawn by Juanjo Guarnido.
Categories: Back Issues