Blacksad Sketch Files and Blacksad v1 books
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Blacksad: The Sketch Files

ibooks Blacksad: The Sketch Files

After the release of the second “Blacksad” book, ibooks realized they had a hit on their hands. The third volume at that point was still another year away. It was just being published in France in 2005, which meant the English edition likely wouldn’t make it across the Atlantic until 2006.

To help fill that gap, ibooks published “Blacksad: The Sketch Files.” It runs 96 pages, twice as long as your average BD album. It appears to be the translation of the French book titled “Hors-Serie. Les Dessous de l’enquête…” or “Special Edition: The Bottom of the Investigation.”

It’s a “Making Of” book, complete with a long interview with Blacksad’s creators, Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, reproductions of Guarnido’s pencils, layouts, and watercolors of the entire first volume. The only thing it’s really missing is script samples from Canales.

The book is a treasure trove of material for process junkies.

It’s long out of print now and fetches between $125 and $150 on the open market. Save your offers; I’m keeping mine.

And, as detailed elsewhere, ibooks went out of business before they had a chance to publish the third Blacksad volume.

Let’s take a look at what’s inside:

The Interview

Juanjo Guarnido discusses his cinematic influences for Blacksad

If you want to learn the full back story of the creation of “Blacksad,” then this 13 page interview is all you’ll ever need. It was done with both Canales and Guarnido while in production for “Arctic Nation.”

The interview covers all the background material you’d want to know from something like this: how the pair met, whose idea was it, how did they work together, etc.

But it’s also very honest. Canales speaks of using readers to find the holes in his early drafts, and balancing the tropes of noir with telling a solid story.

Guarnido speaks at length in a couple of places about panels and pages he thinks might not have worked as well as he had hoped. He specifically calls out the final page and the smiles between Blacksad and Smirnov being a mistake. I hadn’t thought about that moment in any depth, but I think he makes a strong point about how the moment deserved a more stone-faced serious image there.

It fits in with how the first book shows us how both characters changed in serious and personally scary ways. Blacksad was a killer now and Smirnov was a police official who learned to look the other way and cover up something for the greater good. Once you put the book into that context, the top tier of the final page of that book doesn’t work as well as it might have.

Now that I’ve ruined the first book for you…

Guarnido talks about all the work he did for the book that didn’t wind up on the final page. He does small color studies before painting his final artwork, since he really only gets one shot at coloring the original art. This book shows a few examples of those.

Juanjo Guarnido action pose sketches for a Blacksad sequence

The part that I liked the most was where they reproduced Guarnido’s action sketches that he used to lay out the gun fight scene. They’re classic animator roughs — you get the through lines, the action lines, the figure movements and the distribution of weight for both characters in these seemingly simple looking doodles. I love that stuff. It made it easier for him to lay out what was happening in the scene before picking the final static images to put in the panels on the page.

Guarnido talks about his influences in the interview. Unsurprisingly, Walt Disney is in there. The other two names he brought up were Moebius and Uderzo. The man has good tastes.

He also mentions things he learned from working at Disney alongside Regis Loisel, who is someone I haven’t talked about on this site yet, but definitely want to at some point. Loisel did some slide shows of his work and the storytelling lessons in it for the Disney animators, which I can only imagine were amazing.

In an interview excerpt, Juanjo Guarnido expresses his admiration for Regis Loisel

He also references American comics, and specifically brings up a storytelling moment from “Daredevil: Born Again” that they print in this book.

I pegged this series as a noir style story, but I think I underestimated just how specific Canales and Guarnido were with their references and story markers. It’s not that they’re referencing specific characters or scenes from the noir movies and detective novels of the time, but that they did specifically choose to use that as their influence and put as much of that stuff on the page as they possibly could. There are definite call backs with character and location names.

I can look back at the first Blacksad piece now and see it strictly as a “funny animal noir.”

And, yes, the topic of “Why Animals?” came up, because the correct answer of “Because it’s cool and makes for amazing visuals” is never enough for people.

Canales had an angle on it that I hadn’t considered, though. Using the animal stereotypes — whether subverting them or leaning into them — helps them to tell their story efficiently. They only have so many pages to tell their story. Any bits and pieces they can use to make it easier for people to follow it are worth using. In this case, the animal stereotypes help set up characters in readers’ minds without Canales having to overwrite his story.

“A 48-page book is a medium with obvious limitations on space when you’re trying to tell an even mildly complicated story. Thus is was a great advantage to have a few characters who would [be] summed up in their outward appearances, without having to go into motivations.”

Nothing new there, really. A classic example of the use of stock characters can be found in “commedia dell’arte.” I would go so far as to say that stock situations and characters are still in use today; TV series are crammed with stereotypes. Of course, this technique can also be subverted to great effect: It’s shocking when a character behaves in a way completely at odds with what we expect from him.”

Juan Diaz Canales

Well put.

One more thing I want to mention about Canales before we move to the next Guarnido-only section: He originally started drawing Blacksad himself. Two pages from that effort are on display in the book here, and it’s fun to see what an early take on the character looked like. It was still anthropomorphic, though Canales stuck to a nine panel grid.

Jean Diaz Canales draws early Blacksad adventures

Canales also wanted to stick to black and white for the noir series, but Guarnido successfully argued that it would be commercial suicide. Sadly, he’s probably right, though I’m glad this book is in color. Guarnido’s watercolors are beautiful

The Process of Making Blacksad v1

Guarnido works out the pencils on Blacksad's apartment. Or office? Or both?  I forget...

What follows is the heart of the book – roughly 60 pages filled with all the behind the scenes material you could ask for. You get rough sketches, alternate takes on panels, final inks, color studies, etc. Anything you can imagine going into this book, you’ll find an example of it in here somewhere.

It comes with Guarnido’s annotations, too, so you’ll learn a lot of interesting and often fun facts on the making of this book. His wife, for example, did some hand modeling for one page, and was the model for the body on the first page. She’s got some range…

Painting fans will be amused at Guarnido’s purist annoyance at having to use gouache in one scene to speed up production, even though he wanted the entire book to be pure watercolor.

In reading through the annotations, though, one thing keeps coming up over and over: the job of drawing a comic book is the job of making a thousand little decisions. Some of them will never be noticed by the reader. Some will only be subconsciously noted. Some won’t make sense to anyone but the creative team. Many are little tweaks to make the storytelling just a little bit clearer. Some are layout decisions to make sure a future plot point is set up, or to ensure the big reveal at the end happens on a left hand page, not a right, ruining the surprise. (That consideration resulted in a couple of scenes getting changes in length to accommodate.)

Some are even – gasp! – lettering placement. Yes, there’s a mention in this book about a lettering placement that serves as a very subtle joke. (Something “very high” is happening in a panel with a skyscraper. So that box was drawn high up on the tower. It’s a meta lettering gag!)

Guarnido sketches scene colors out before he paints them.

At one point, Guarnido mentions his disappointment that the original printing of the book came out slightly grayer than he had intended. That explains the color differences I noted in my review of the book. It sounds like Dark Horse fixed that production issue, adding back in the color the original ibooks version (and the Dargaud edition, I presume) had sucked out.

Getting color right throughout the printing process is hard.

There are a lot of pages that changed between the layout stage to the final pencils and ink stage, but there are also a lot of pages that changed even after that. Guarnido references it directly in a few places, but I have a funny feeling that a lot of the original art boards in this book would be a patchwork of paste-ups.

There are numerous times – including the first page! – where tiers of panels would change from being laid out vertically to horizontally. Guarnido kept returning to the idea of using more “widescreen” panels in the book to help mimic that film noir look he wanted for the book.

Here’s a quick example from the very first two panels from the first page of the book:

Blacksad v1 page one original layouts
Blacksad v1 page one final layouts

There are other panel rearranging examples throughout the book.

The other thing I came to appreciate about Blacksad from reading this book is the amount of thought and decision making that went into the world building for the series. At a glimpse, it’s 1950s New York, right? But it didn’t directly start out that way. That was the influence, but the city is never named and the year is never given. Identifiable landmarks are mostly avoided.

Guarnido shows a two page fight scene that wound up as one page

At a more detailed level, Guarnido writes about deciding what kind of house Blacksad would live in, and how the inside of it would reflect his status as a bachelor who’s probably too busy to keep things terribly clean.

And, of course, there’s the matter of deciding what animals are in the book and the purposes they serve. While most of that was decided early on, there were still some decisions for minor characters that were made up as they went along.

One small bit of trivia, because it’s a question that came up either in the comments of one of my reviews or on Twitter: The earliest roughs and layouts include dialogue penciled in in Spanish, while the final art boards have the dialogue all in French. It feels like Canales and Guarnido used their native language when working between themselves, but switched to their French publisher’s language for final approvals and scripting.

Preview Pages

That’s all followed by five pages of previews for “Arctic Nation,” including a few pages of near-final pencils, a lot of loose animal sketches, and some initial thumbnail layouts.

If you squint just right you’ll easily recognize some of those page. I quickly picked out the one with the white hoods and the burning cross inside the airplane hanger, which Guarnido drew an arrow to with a note, “Up or down shot”? (The final image is an up shot from a worm’s eye point of view.)

The notes across all of the thumbnails are written in Spanish. That one happens to be English because it’s a technical term from their days working in animation, I’d bet.

Guest Pin-Ups

The last three pages of the book is a special pin-up section from some guest artists. You might recognize a couple of their names if you’re a regular at this site: Mathieu Lauffray and Achde.

Lauffray’s piece is printed at full page size, featuring Blacksad sitting in a chair, having a smoke. Achde has a pen and ink cartoon on a half page in which one of his characters calls Guarnido the better artist.

Enrico Marini’s art is featured on a quarter page with a pencil sketch of Blacksad with a naked human woman on his lap. Of course.

More Like This, Please

The ibooks edition of Blacksad v1 and Blacksad: The Sketch Files, side by side

There aren’t many comics that could get away with a book like this. But the world Canales and Guarnido built with the first book of “Blacksad” is compelling and rich. Guarnido’s artwork is detailed and his coloring is meticulous. A dedicated comics reader can’t help but think about the details and thought that went into the making of this book as they read it.

And, thankfully, the original materials were still available to be shown off. Guarnido kept enough of his work process materials to make a lush volume like this.

I ate it all up and still wanted more. I wanted to see more of his animation-style sketches that he used to lay out scenes and map out the actions in them. I want to see more of his process in designing animals. I want to see more step-by-step processes showing how he does his watercolors. (You should check out Enrico Marini’s Instagram for little snippet of his watercoloring process.)

Ralph Meyer's Undertaker v6 Carnet de Storyboards edition

There are a lot of amazing looking process books in French publishing. Ralph Meyer recently showed off a companion book to the upcoming sixth volume in the “Undertaker” series. (See above.) It’s a notebook sized reprinting of the layouts he did for the album. It looks amazing.

There are lots of black and white editions of major releases in France, too, some of which go the full Artist’s Edition style of shooting the original pages in color so you can see all the details.

They’re all great, but between the overseas shipping costs and the actual costs of the books — usually limited editions and often $150 or much more — they’re out of the budget of this website.

This book will have to suffice in the meantime.

This ibooks presentation is outstanding, and not the kind of thing you see today. It’s presented at full original European album size, and it’s only $12.95. That’s the same price point as ibooks’ other to Blacksad volumes, which were half the number of pages. (96 vs 48)

The good news is, Dark Horse also did an extensive Making Of section in the back of volume 4, “A Silent Hell.” It’s mostly color tests and early sketches, but includes lots of commentary with it. I’ll be reviewing it when I get to that book, of course.

In the meantime, if you ever see “Blacksad: The Sketch Files” out in the wild at a convention or somewhere from someone who doesn’t realize what they’ve got, jump on it. It’s a great addition to your Blacksad collection. I don’t see Dark Horse ever reprinting it, though crazier things have happened, I suppose.

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

3 Comments

  1. There’s a deluxe black and white (French) version of Les Indes Fourbes with a fascinating interview with JG at the back. It was a very limited edition however so if you want a copy you’ll have to shell out upwards of around 500 bucks!

  2. “Because it’s cool and makes for amazing visuals”
    Both arguments are highly debatable, really, tbh they sound more like rationalization than anything. A good artist is a good artist regardless, or it should be. Having anthropomorphic animals in that kind of story detracts from the atmosphere and serves no overall purpose, does it make the narrative more impactful ? Not really. All it does is “typecast” Guarnido as “does not know how to draw people”, just like some super-hero artists can’t draw people in everyday clothes properly.