Blacksad is a private investigator/detective, but this case is personal and it goes to the top. Can he stay clean while chasing around the underworld’s riff raff and solving the grisly murder of a beautiful dame?
This is noir storytelling.
Everyone is an animal.
And the book is jaw-droppingly beautiful.
Writers: Juan Díaz Canales
Artist: Juanjo Guarnido
Colors: Juanjo Guarnido
Lettering: Studio Cutie
Digital Retouch: Susan Tardif and Matt Dryer
Translators: Anthya Flores and Patricia Rivera
Published by: Dark Horse/Dargaud
Number of Pages: 48
Original Publication: 2000
What’s Going On?
John Blacksad is a private detective in an anthropomorphic noir world. That’s the fancy way of calling this a talking animal book. And just to get the first comparison that jumps to mind out of the way, it predates “Zootopia” by about 16 years.
As Jim Steranko points out in his introduction, Juanjo Guarnido’s art is less talking animals and more humans with animal features that talk. (Picture Carl Barks’ more humanoid dog characters.)
Juanjo Guarnido’s art puts lots of life into these characters without making them look foolishly cartoonish, except for the rare times when the story demands it. Juan Díaz Canales and Guarnido’s world — which feels like New York City in the 1930s or 1940s, though later books would set it closer to the 1950s — is a remarkably detailed place whose inhabitants are a diverse set of creatures who act like humans with specific animal-like traits. You have birds living side by side with dogs and lizards and more. They take on some of the traits of the animals they resemble, like they’ve been typecast into specific roles.
In this first case, Natalia Wilford is found dead in her apartment. She’s the beautiful actress with a wandering eye who Blacksad once dated.
She enjoyed the attention she got for being attractive and she liked to party. Did she attract the wrong person this time?
“Nobody’s perfect and perfect love doesn’t exist,” Blacksad notes.
He’s being warned by the police to stay out of this case, though we aren’t sure at the beginning if that’s because of his personal connection or the potential scale of the case. The police captain plays by the rules (mostly) and likely doesn’t want Blacksad to make a mess of things. There’s an interesting relationship between the two, friendly but frustrated.
Of course, Blacksad ignored the advice and dives head first into the case. He talks to people he knows who know things or who have a tendency to see things. That includes the boxing gorilla, the mousey maid (straight out of Disney central casting), and the walrus movie producer. Just when he thinks he might be getting somewhere, a lizard in a shirt and tie tries to stab him on the street.
Hang in there, because the rat, the bear, and the rhino are still to come!
Yeah, when word gets out that you’re asking questions that people don’t want answered, you’re walking head first into danger.
What Is Noir?
The structure of this story very much reminds me of “Sin City,” from the narration to the lone hero (who at one point gets beaten up) to the lost love to the seedy criminal underbelly. That’s noir, right?
I’ve used the term “noir” often in life without thinking about what the specific definition of it is. So I looked it up. I thought it was time I got more specific about my knowledge rather than “it’s a feeling”.
The Wikipedia definition for “noir fiction” draws a line between noir and straight up detective fiction. We’ll get to that line in a minute, but let’s start with noir, which involves a self-destructive protagonist who is either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. Blacksad fits that description, though he’s not quite as self-destructive as many other noir leads have been. He tends to throw himself into situations that could get him beaten up, but that’s not the same as a nearly suicidal noir protagonist who throws all caution to the wind and goes looking for trouble.
There’s also a corrupt legal, political, or other system that creates a lose-lose situation for the protagonist, who may be a victim of it, or victimize others because of it. Without spoilers, I’d have to say that this book can fit into that.
The difference between “noir” and plain old “detective fiction” is that the detective comes out with clean hands, even if it isn’t a happy ending. You’ll have to be the judge of that, particularly when you read the ending of this book. His hands are relatively clean, I suppose, but not entirely. Canales has him straddling a pretty gray line here, but never turns him into The Punisher.
I think at this point that you’d have to get pretty pedantic about it to not call this book “noir.” If you wanted to draw the line at “detective fiction,” then that’s fine by me, too.
It’s just a label on what is a really good book with a solid script.
It’s also not a parody or a satire on the genre. This is a serious book that’s made to fit into that noir mold. It’s not even a Frank Miller pastiche, like so many crime or noir comics wind up looking these days. Miller’s work is very influential in comics, to be sure, but this isn’t a riff on “Sin City” or “Daredevil.” There are some similarities, but that’s due to the genre choice, not a nudge and a wink.
There’s not a boring page in the book. Even when there’s not action or a sudden plot twist on the page, the noir feeling permeates everything and pulls you in.
Blacksad’s personality carries much of the book, too. He can go from deadly serious and gruff to being a sweetheart and the good neighbor next door in the blink of an eye, depending on what the situation needs. It’s a good skill for a detective, and the script handles both sides well.
The story from Juan Diaz Canales is ultimately satisfying. It has a couple of strong revelations, but doesn’t get lost in trying to outsmart the reader or surprise the reader with one outlandish turn too many. The situation, the environment, the pacing — all of it carries the book to a degree where those kinds of tricks aren’t necessary to entertain the reader.
I only needed to read the book a second time for enjoyment, not to figure out the story.
It’s always tough to tell how much work the translators are doing to “Americanize” the script. How many French — or Spanish, as both creators are, in this case — sayings need to be converted to make sense for an English speaking audience. The good news is, the book reads very cleanly. I never stumbled over an odd turn of phrase or a caption that felt poorly translated.
If you told me that this book was written by a native English speaker, I would have believed you. It captures the mood and moves the story along at a good clip.
The credit for that goes to Anthya Flores and Patricia Rivera, who definitely deserve a mention for that.
Guarnido Steals the Show. Comics Needs More Animators.
Having said all that, let’s be honest: It’s Guarnido’s jaw-dropping art that sells this book primarily. It’s what will draw in readers initially. You can’t flip through this book and not fall in love with how beautiful it is. The fact that there’s a strong story behind it pours gasoline on an already-lit fire.
Guarnido spent time working for Disney when they had their animation studio in France. Once I heard that, it explained everything to me about this book.
I’ve long held that more comic artists should study animation. Being able to draw lively and active characters who act across a page is one of the most important things in comics that so often gets overlooked.
There’s nothing that makes me love a comic more than seeing characters in motion on the page. American comic artists are great at posing characters to get great panel compositions and powerful isolated illustrations.
But the great ones are the artists who can draw motion in a single drawing. Those most often come from from animation, where it’s a part of the stock and trade. Or, at least, it was in the pre-CGI days.
Guarnido’s work on every page showcases his abilities as an animator to use body language to tell the story. You can see which leg Blacksad shifts his weight to. Shoulders and hips twist to put bodies into proper position. Hands gesture wildly to sell a moment. It all feels very natural, but there’s clearly thought put into every panel. This is the habit of a trained animator to make every scene sell the story.
Guarnido seamlessly blends the animal with the human for the characters in this book. Blacksad’s head is clearly an animal’s, but the rest of his body underneath that trench coat and behind that shirt and tie are structured like a human’s. You know there’s fur under there, but the proportions and the skeleton must be mostly human-like. Even lizards walk upright, as do the bears and the rhinos. Some other characters are more animal, but their gestures and their motions are all human. None of them suddenly go down on all fours or flap their wings and fly away to outrun an opponent.
Beyond that, the Franco-Belgian influence shows. Every beautiful watercolored page is filled with details. The cemetery that Blacksad visits is a fully-designed setting, complete with mausoleums, wrought-iron fencing, gravestones, and overgrown vegetation. Everything is a gray tone, with the lightest tones closest to Blacksad, right where Guarnido wants to draw your eye.
The book is completely desaturated, with the exception of one flashback scene that uses bright colors and lots of flowers to indicate a better, more carefree time. Canales and Guarnido considered doing the book in black and white, but realized that that would be a recipe for commercial disaster. They probably made the right call, but I could picture this in black and white quite easily.
Every office setting in this book — and there’s at least three of them — includes an amazing establishing shot with a million small details and proper perspective. (Or maybe it’s isometric perspective? I can never quite tell.) These are the kinds of images you might find in a children’s book where they want you to find 50 items in a double page spread. Guarnido creates some of the most believable and lush environments I’ve ever seen in comics, and then he lights them up like a professional cinematographer.
I could go on, but there are four more books in this series as of this writing, so I’ll pace myself…
Two Different Editions
“Blacksad” v1 was originally published by ibooks (and distributed by Simon and Schuster) in 2003. There’s a story there. I’m working on it. Stay tuned…
It’s long out of print now, however.
Dark Horse took over the license and started by publishing the first three albums in 2010 as a single hardcover, titled “Blacksad,” using the same translation from Flores and Rivera, because there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a smart move.
The ibooks editions were larger by about an inch on the wide side and a half inch on the tall side. They also published the books as single albums with slightly shinier paper stock.
There are two big differences, content-wise, between the ibooks version and the current Dark Horse edition:
First, Dark Horse relettered the book “to the artist’s specifications.” That first lettering job used a more standard comic book dialogue font, square and traditional. It was an early digital font that I’m not sure even had a second set of letter forms. (Or, they just never used them.). It’s not a bad font and it’s otherwise not badly used. They even got the crossbar-I right!
The newer Dark Horse editions changed font to something that looks more hand lettered. It’s clearly not, but the letterforms are a little looser. They look a lot closer to being hand drawn. They blend in better with the organic art work of the series. Although, again, the letters all look identical. It doesn’t look like they used an alternate second set of letter forms. That’s mostly a nit-pick at this point.
They also changed the colors of the lettering in the caption boxes. The original went with a black font over a painted background. The Dark Horse edition uses white lettering on the colored background, and I think it is an improvement for readability. The sample above is a little more questionable, but there were a lot of darker backgrounds in caption boxes throughout the original book. The white helps a lot.
The second change is that the colors are shifted down a bit. The Dark Horse edition is even more desaturated than the ibooks edition. The colors all look a hair more gray, maybe with a slight tint of green? The orange light sources look slightly less orange. You need to look at the pages side by side to see it, but then you can’t miss it.
You can see it in the lettering samples above, but keep in mind that the colors might not run true. The first is a picture I took with my phone, while the latter is a screen grab from the digital edition.
The caption box color was likely darkened digitally to make the white letters more legible.
I read the Dark Horse print edition for this review, though I went to the digital edition — available as single albums — for all of the images you see in this review.
Yes. This is one of those books that brings people into European comics.
People who would never self-identify as Euro-comic readers will still profess to loving this book. Even if they read nothing else, this one appeals to North American fans for every conceivable reason — amazingly good art, strong story, the noir feel, the completeness of the tale, etc.
It fires on all cylinders, which is particularly amazing when you consider this is the first collaboration between Canales and Guarnido.
What can comics do that nobody else can do as well, or at all? “Blacksad”
Buy It Now
There are three different printings of this first book in the series out there. The first is the one that’s available now, and it collects the first three books in the series.
- The Dark Horse Hardcover (still in print)
- Blacksad: The Collected Stories (out of print Dark Horse paperback of all five books)
- iBooks Edition (long out of print, but used copies are out there)
- The Dark Horse Hardcover Collection (Amazon Kindle)
- Blacksad: “Somewhere Within the Shadows” (Comixology)
- Blacksad: “Somewhere Within the Shadows” (Amazon)
[Those Amazon links are affiliate links. I’ll get a tiny percentage from the sale, you won’t pay any extra, and the world will continue to spin.]
My review of “Arctic Nation,” the second book in the Blacksad series: