Blacksad holds up a rabbit who tried to run

Blacksad: A Hypernalysis of Juanjo Guarnido’s Art

It’s such a simple couple of pages, at first. A group of animals play poker. One loses, grabs all the money off the table, and runs off.

But look carefully at all the craft that goes into a sequence like this. Juanjo Guarnido uses these techniques and these styles throughout the Blacksad series, but this sequence is a microcosm for many of them. We can analyze it now and see it repeated elsewhere.

The reader who pays close attention to the art is best rewarded across all of “Blacksad.” Juan Diaz Canales’ script is restrained because the art tells so much of the story. This sequence is a great example of how it works.

These are the first two pages of “Blacksad: Red Soul.”

Page One, Panel 1: Establishing The Smoky Back Room

A Blacksad poker game in a smokey-filled back room

One of the things I love so much about Franco-Belgian comics is the attention to detail in the backgrounds. I know it drives some people nuts because they feel it makes the page “busier,” but I disagree. Particularly at the larger format of the European album, those backgrounds are glorious. (This is another argument for why American publishers shouldn’t shrink these books down.)

It’s also a style that crosses over all sorts of genre and art movements. Franquin carefully drew detailed backgrounds, too. They may not have been as photorealistic as Francois Schuiten’s, but they held the page down. They grounded the characters in a realistic environment, even when it was drawn with cartoony flair.

This panel, though, has no background. It’s an establishing panel, but you see nothing about the room these characters are in.

That’s OK, though. It’s a backroom poker game and it’s smoke-filled. It’s an immediate cliché that the reader can latch onto. The scene only lasts a couple of pages, so it’s important for Juan Diaz Canales’ script to get into and out of it quickly. Seeing a group of card players at a ramshackle table surrounded by the meticulous watercolored texture of smoke all around them instantly triggers a feeling in the reader.

You don’t need to see what furniture is against the wall or what frames are hung on the wall. The smoke is the background here, and Guarnido pays a lot of attention to it.

In fact, the only thing in this panel that isn’t the game and its players around a poker table, is the light hanging off the ceiling. It’s a handy light. it acts as a light source, but also as an additional layer in the scene. It adds depth to the panel.

That camera angle is something, too. Guarnido could have gone for a simple eye level point of view here, and show all four players at the card table. This higher angle spells things out much better for the reader. You can see more, like all the ash trays and empty drink glasses and bottles of alcohol.

There might not be a background, per se, but Guarnido doesn’t skimp on the details that makes the scene look real from every other angle.

We also see a lot of money in the middle of the table. This is a huge hand, and we must be coming up on its conclusion. Tempers are high, money is huge, things are bound to get emotional…

And rabbits will do what rabbits do…

Panels 2 – 5: Dramatis Personae

A variety of great faces on display at the poker table

I love this tier on the page just for the way that Guarnido sums up the situation around the poker table without any words. If you’ve ever played at a poker table, you know all these types.

The first guy is openly annoyed that the cards aren’t flopping his way. He’s all but given up. He’s going through the motions, but is outwardly annoyed by the whole thing. I have no doubt that he was in the hand for a good chunk of change, but he’s smart enough to know to get out before throwing good money after bad. Doesn’t mean he’s happy about it, though, and so he throws his cards out in disgust.

The second guy, who happens to be Blacksad’s client, is perfectly symmetrical. I bet he’s had this look the entire night. He doesn’t show any tells. He maintains his composure, but to the average comic reader it’s a sign of confidence and power. Everything is ramrod straight, up and down, the only character like that in the row. There’s a feeling of control and confidence just in his body language. He’s not hiding from anything or anyone.

He’s downright…. symmetrical.

His small head and long neck give him something of a meek appearance, though I imagine his fellow players are smart enough to not underestimate him.

He has one screaming tell that the rabbit isn’t noticing, though. He’s only holding four cards in his hand. His fifth is face down on the table, like an unneeded discard that doesn’t impact his game at all. Who does that?!? (The answer is someone whose big hand only needs four cards. You can rule out a straight and a flush, but not four of a kind or two pair.)

The third character is openly depressed about how badly his night has gone. It’s even possible that he has a decent hand that he’s folding, but knows he’s beat by the other two left betting. He can’t play with them. The return on his bet isn’t enough, given the long shot odds that he’d win. He has to play the marathon here. Take the loss and lick the wounds. Fold this hand to play through the rest. He’s very similar to the first guy, but more despondent and less ticked off.

Finally, there’s the over confident rabbit, already counting his chips and pulling the money down in his mind. His hand is just that good. The problem is, he failed to think through his hand and the odds that an opponent has one of the very few hands that would beat him. He’s right to take it to the end, but maybe less right to look so smugly arrogant.

And so he shows his Kings over Queens full house. What’s going to beat that, besides Aces over Kings, four of a kind, or some kind of Royal Flush?

On the other hand, that tortoise over there has been keeping up with his bets. Those large bets meant to scare off the weaker hands with a draw opportunity worked. Two are now gone. But that pesky tortoise…

Honestly, the tortoise should be betting here with such a strong hand in an attempt to extract more money from the overconfident rabbit to his left. Sure, he’s out of position — which we know because the rabbit played after him and the game ended when he showed his cards — but he still has a chance to learn more with another bet. There’s lots of money on that table. It’s worth betting into. The odds prove that.

On the other hand, they’re not playing Texas Hold ’em here. There’s no cards face up on the table. This is likely Five Card Draw. Still, it’s a little overconfident of the tortoise to only hold four cards in his hand. (Also, don’t look too carefully at his panel, because you might think that the middle cards are unsupported by his hands and should be falling to the table.)

There’s also a nice continuity between the two tiers of panels. Each character is posed slightly differently, but telling the same story, except the tortoise, of course, who is perfectly stoic and confident in both. He doesn’t budge an inch. Everyone else’s attitude carries through in slightly different ways.

Panel 6: The Reveal

Wide-eyed hare can't believe the poker hand he's seeing

There’s the reveal, with shocked expressions around the table. The miracle four of a kind defeats the King high full house.

Nobody is more surprised/shocked than the rabbit, of course. Guarnido places him closest to the reader in this panel. Keeping him large and close to the center of the panel keeps your attention on him. He also has the biggest over-reaction. Those eyes are bulging, and for good reason.

Those eyes also serve as great leading lines. Everyone around the table is looking towards the cards. That, in turn, leads the reader to follow their eyes to see what they’re looking at.

The lettering being at the far left side of the panel also makes sense. You want to read that before the reveal of the cards. It draws out the moment and ensures that the reveal of the cards is the point of the panel, and not the part that leads into a caption that would be almost redundant.

It also happens that it’s the home of the most dead space on the panel, being where the rabbit’s back and shoulders produce a big black zone. The only other non-character place to put the lettering would be in the smoky air between the rabbit and the tortoise. That’s also the last place you’d want the caption to go. It would get in the way of everything there and destroy the leading lines.

Poker fun fact: The odds of being dealt a four of a kind in 5 card poker is 4164:1. The odds of getting a full house is 693:1. In other words, if you’re holding a full house, the odds of someone else having four of a kind of 6 times worse. (This avoids the help of the draw cards, of course, but for the sake of this argument, we’ll do the math this way.)

Panels 7 and 8: Off to the Races

The hare grabs the money off the table and makes a run for it.

Being the first page of the story, this page appears on the right side of the book. Guarnido is going to use that to his advantage here. The reader is going into the story blind. What’s about to happen to the hare? You know as much as the hare does. No doubt, he thinks he’s going to get away with it.

When you turn the page, however, there’s a big image in the middle of the page with Blacksad holding the hare by its ears. That’s part of the reading experience of comics. Even though that panel is in the middle of the next page, it’ll be the one you see first. Your eyes can’t help themselves. It’s a surprise when you turn the page. If it had been on a facing page, you would have known it from the start. It robs the story of that surprise.

In Panel 7, Guarnido includes the white lines to indicate the rabbits’ motions. It’s one fell swoop across the table to scoop up as much money as possible and away he goes. Guarnido doesn’t use speed lines or action lines or any comics-centric effects like that a lot. He almost exclusively uses it in quick motions and sudden mood shifts for characters, but this is already the second time on this page. (In Panel 6, the shocked rabbit’s look has little black daggers emanating from his head to emphasize his shock.)

Guarnido mostly limits himself to telling these stories in a very cinematic way. He restricts himself from many of the tools of comics storytelling to put across that feeling. It’s always interesting to see when he uses them, though.

In that last panel, you could almost make the argument that the rabbit is kicking up little dust clouds as he leaves, which feels like a classic cartoon moment from the 1940s. One could also just consider that part of the general smokiness of the room. As he’s running, he’s disrupting it in some way.

Page Two Panel 1: The Little Things Add Up

Wait for it, wait for it…

I love this panel. It’s not entirely necessary, but it stretches out the big reveal of the next panel for an extra beat in an entertaining way. And, like I said earlier, your eye is going to see it, anyway. But when you start back at the top fo the page to read it, you’ll understand how this plays out better.

Things happened so fast at the end of the first page that this is a nice moment to give the reader a chance to have some reactions to the runaway rabbit before Canales and Guarnido resolve it in the next panel.

We see the confidence of the tortoise, which makes sense since he’s the money man who hired Blacksad. The other two are basically in “jaw drop” mode here, not sure what to make of what’s going on, but surprised by the whole thing.

I also like the loosened collars for both of them. Again, the boss man, in all his confidence, still has his shirt buttoned up all the way and his bow tie on tight. The other two, sweating profusely from one too many losses, no doubt, sit awkwardly and turn towards the reader with their shirts looking frumpier and their top buttons popped open. They’re doing everything they can to be comfortable in this awful room.

Guarnido hasn’t forgotten his light source, either. That hanging light above the table still features prominently in the panel, breaking up the smoky background but also providing a light source for the three characters. Check out the rim lighting on the front two and front-facing downwards lighting on the boss.

Guarnido is a painter. Paying attention to his light sources is a major part of his job, even more so than a line art maker, who can leave a lot of that material open to interpretation by the colorist.

Panel 2: A Study in Opposites; A Confident Blacksad

Blacksad grabs the runaway rabbit

I like how this panel works in combination with the previous one. In the first panel of this page, the three characters are all looking left to right at the rabbit. In this panel, Blacksad is coming from right to left, his arm holding up the rabbit on the far right side of the panel. Our eyes were lead perfectly into this panel by the previous one.

Blacksad facing to the left works opposite of how you traditionally perceive forward momentum in a comic book page. It’s the right direction — the reverse direction — to show how Blacksad stopped the rabbit from getting away.

Also, it’s just a funny pose with Blacksad holding the rabbit up by his ears. Blacksad is looking down, chin held high. The rabbit who has been caught red-footed has his chin down, almost sheepishly, and is looking up at Blacksad. Opposite looks for people in opposite situations.

We also know this panel takes place a split second after Blacksad caught him, because there’s still money floating in the air behind them on the far right edge fo the panel. This is a panel catching a very specific moment in time.

Blacksad also looks supremely confident and competent here. He positioned himself well for the job, anticipating a situation like this. He didn’t break a sweat, and he’s not struggling with the rabbit.

Blacksad is a bad ass.

Panel 3: The Background, the Sweat Marks, and the Shirt Folds

The rabbit has returned to the poker game

From this last panel, one gets the feeling that there are no hard feelings and, in fact, this might be a regular occurrence. The goose is laughing. The sheep is lighting a smoke. And the tortoise is looking at the rabbit with a bemused expression on his face.

It’s like a father looking at his son and saying the equivalent of, “I know you know better. Let’s reset this and start over again, shall we? You just can’t help who you are, can you?”

Suddenly, I feel like we’re back in “Zootopia.”

This is also the only panel in the two pages that shows any part of the background. The smoke has lifted just enough from the break in the game that we can see the shelves and the dresser behind them.

There’s also something about the way Guarnido draws the smoke in this panel. You can see it moving in the space. The smoke just above the rabbit’s head is lit beautifully and swirls around in motion.

You’ll also see a third instance of Guarnido drawing some “comic book marks” in this sequence just about the rabbit’s head. This time it’s the little sweat drops from a character who knows he’s been caught doing something wrong and grateful that he didn’t get kicked out. It’s a very subtle thing, but visible.

Also, check out the folds in everyone’s shirts and jackets. The clothing just drapes over their bodies beautifully. Blacksad has one shoulder up and an arm on the chair. That creating a tension point on that shoulder, from which the rest of the jacket hangs. Those fold marks across his back are well-chosen.

Everyone’s long-sleeve white shirts allow for lots of fold lines coming out from the elbows, with the watercoloring doing the work of creating just a hint enough of shades to make it obvious that some parts of these shirts are folded in front of the rest as these lines dictate.

Keeping the Word Count Down

Noir storytelling so often crackles in its dialogue and in the thoughts of its protagonist. (I immediately think of Frank Miller’s “Sin City” for that.) Word counts will usually be high because of that, but Canales’s script is careful not to over-embellish or include all the meaningless small talk that might clog up a page.

There are many moments in the book that are purely visual. Guarnido’s art often shows events that the reader needs to see, but that Canales restrains himself from covering up with dialogue to make sure the reader saw it. It’s classic Show, Don’t Tell storytelling, which takes on special meaning with comic books.

In this scene, there’s no dialogue. It’s just a few caption boxes with Blacksad’s thoughts. There’s 87 words in total across the two pages. 34 of them are in the final caption box that does the heavy lifting of catching the reader up to why Blacksad is in Vegas and what he’s doing there.

The rest of Canales’ captions show Blacksad not thinking directly about this particular game of poker. He’s ruminating on the concept of luck in general and setting up the reader for his new location. This is all about thematics and the clever juxtaposition of those thoughts with the events of the poker game.

In short, the captions are not “on the nose” in that they don’t describe what’s obviously happening in the scene, even thought the parallels are obvious and intentional.

Canales is doing two things at once on these pages without weighing down the page with extra reading. He’s using the comic book format to his advantage, which also helps Guarnido’s art to shine all that much brighter.

To be sure, we are reading a translation of Canales’ script here. I looked at the original French edition to make sure the translation wasn’t going in a completely different direction. It isn’t. The English script tracks closely. If anything, the pure number of words in English is more, but only by the little bit necessary to smooth out the language. Credit goes to Anthya Flores and Patricia Rivera for their translation work.

Why HyperAnalyze?

It’s the surface level most of us see when we first look at comic book art. We see the fancy lines or the crazy angles or the character designs.

It’s only when we study the art, even if just with a second reading, that we start to see and appreciate all the little decisions that are made along the way.

That’s what these HyperAnalysis articles are all about.

It might take Guarnido a week to draw what takes us a minute to read. When you stop to think about what choices went into the art, you appreciate it more. It elevates the book and educates the reader.

So, yeah, Guarnido has an amazing eye for turning animals into something closer to human form. HIs watercoloring skills add texture and shadow and volume to all of it.

But don’t let that blind you from seeing how he moves the characters across a scene, or how the most subtle gestures of acting moments reflect the plot and reinforce the dialogue. Check out just how expressive the characters can be, whether it’s just in their face or in their total body language. See how he uses the language of comic books to tell the story, and when he chooses not to use those tools.

“Blacksad” is a beautiful and unique comic book experience. Spend the time with it to better understand why. I could write something like this up for any page in the series. Guarnido is just that good.

Pick any two pages on your own and look at the storytelling choices. The angles. The panel to panel transitions. The character moments. The acting. Yes, look at the way he chooses his colors and where he draws in details and how he suggests things that your mind fills in for him. (I may come back and do another article on his use of watercolors to create out of focus areas…)

It’ll help you understand not just “Blacksad”, but all of comics storytelling better.

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

2 Comments

  1. Maybe I’m jaded but the smoke looks to me like a lazy excuse not to draw any background.
    One of the things that as of yet prevented me to put this series at the top of my reading list, and this page is the perfect example, is that the colors are so monotone and boring. This full page is beige, most of the series is grey or brown. I hate that in modern european BD. It’s a heavy heavy trend that needs to go. “Serious” “Adult” book does not necessarily imply boring colors.

    1. I think the smoke works well for the background. Honestly, flip through the rest of the book and you’ll see that Guarnido isn’t shy about drawing in detailed backgrounds. This page is more the exception than the rule, which is part of the reason why I chose it.

      I have another half page from later in the book that I’d like to do a HyperAnalysis of, just because of the way he handles the background in it. Maybe you’ll like the next one, if I ever get around to it.

      It’s true, though, that he’s a painter and tends to color key his scenes — that is, he uses one color to tone each page with. The series gets brighter as it goes along. The fourth book is set in New Orleans and has the absolute brightest colors in the series overall. It also has some great lighting techniques in it.

      Also, the original book is slightly brighter than what you see on this webpage. By the time I shrink the screenshot down and bring down its resolution, it unfortunately loses some of its brightness.