Blacksad v2 cover detail by Juanjo Guarnido ("Arctic Nation")
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Blacksad v2: “Arctic Nation”

Remember that Star Trek episode about the aliens who were half black and half white? It’s the one about racism because — spoiler alert — the character’s black and white sides were reversed.

Here comes the Blacksad take on that — white animals declaring their supremacy over the black-furred animals. It’s far less subtle, but the nature of animals of specific fur color being at odds is a good use of the anthropomorphism of this series. And being a black cat with a half-white face, Private Investigator John Blacksad gets stuck in the middle.

The rest of it is, well… It’s Chinatown, Jake.

I’m full of 40+ year old pop culture references today. Let’s get to the comic!

Credits in Black and White Fur

Blacksad v2 cover by Juanjo Guarnido ("Arctic Nation")
Original Title: “Arctic-Nation”
Writers: Juan Díaz Canales
Artist: Juanjo Guarnido
Colors: Juanjo Guarnido
Digital Retouch: Susan Tardif and Matt Dryer
Translators: Anthya Flores and Patricia Rivera
Published by: Dark Horse/Dargaud
Number of Pages: 46
Original Publication: 2003 (Dargaud), 2004 (ibooks), 2010 (Dark Horse)

What a Twisted World…

A black crow is hanging in the middle of The Line

The Line is a neighborhood just outside of the city, connected by a train line. Built up economically during the war around an airplane factory, the post-war era has not been kind to the neighborhood. The plane factory closed, crime rose, and the town split into the white animal Haves and the black animal Have Nots.

On top of all that, the Arctic Nation has taken power and openly espouses the superiority of white-furred people. In response, of course, an underground of black furred animals are ready for a fight.

Everyone else is caught in-between.

The Arctic Nation openly recruits in The Line

In the midst of all this, a school teacher looks for help with a missing student who nobody seems to care is missing, not even her own mother. Enter Blacksad to take the case.

We also meet Weekly, a weasel who writes for the local tabloid newspaper. He starts as a bit of a thorn in Blacksad’s side, but he proves useful and he’s generally well-meaning. He’s a great bit of comic relief for an otherwise very serious book.

Canales and Guarnido are not very subtle with their parallels of the Deep South in America from a certain time. It reminds me a bit of the way Christophe Arleston handled the same geographic region in Ekho v6 (“Deep South”). Depending on who you ask, some would call it a stinging indictment of a culture while others would call it a broad cliche that sacrifices any nuance.

To my taste, I look at the book as a cartoon that pushes the cliches as far as they’ll go for maximum effect. It’s not like this stuff didn’t exist and, to a lesser degree, still does. This book was written and drawn nearly 20 years ago about a world 50 years earlier, but there were bits that jumped out for being timely today.

Blacksad meets the Chief, whose office includes a Confederate flag and Robert E. Lee memorabilia

For example, police chief Karup is a white polar bear with a confederate flag and a saber from General Robert E. Lee hanging on the wall. Both the flag and General Lee have been in the news in the past year…

Canales pushes it further, showing Karup to be a good church man who, it is suspected, takes perhaps too keen an interest in the children he works with there.

(Like I said, every negative stereotype/cliche gets thrown into this book. It really is a Greatest Hits of hit pieces.)

And, of course, the book ends with a KKK meeting, a hanging, and a cross burning. Also, the Arctic Nation proselytizers in the town square wear Nazi-like arm bands.

Canales and Guarnido are throwing everything into the book. It makes Jul look positively restrained with his script on Lucky Luke’s “A Cowboy in High Cotton.”

Guarnido draws a KKK meeting, complete with a burning cross
Blacksad: Arctic-Nation
The most recent Lucky Luke book includes a KKK meeting and cross burning
Lucky Luke: “A Cowboy in High Cotton”

Mostly, I give Canales and Guarnido credit for using their animal characters as parallels to real world events and people. The book begins with the public hanging of a vulture, adds in a crow to the story later – his name is Cotten, not Jim — and has a black dog, bull, and horse substituting for the Black Panther type of group. (Why not just use panthers? Can’t be subtlety…)

“Arctic Nation” uses animals with their natural fur colors to represent skin colors perfectly, dividing characters not by species, but by color. In any other book, the divisions would be between the mammals and the birds, or between different breeds of the same animal or between the furry and the scaley. In Blacksad, the fact that everyone is an animal of wildly different species is not the thing. It’s strictly, in this story, the color of their fur.

This, of course, all goes to show you how silly and arbitrary racism is. It’s just division by a random trait for no reason.

Is Blacksad Black?

Blacksad is a black cat. That’s not a generic description. He’s an actual a black cat, but one with a white maw.

He does not, however, have any other white fur, such as on his chest, where you might otherwise see it on a cat.

The resemblance is uncanny:

An actual black cat that looks like Blacksad
Photo by Darren Richardson on Unsplash

There’s a particularly gratifying scene early in the book in which Blacksad and Weekly stop to eat a diner that includes a sign, “No Colored People Allowed”, hanging on the wall. When representatives of the Arctic Nation walk in, they try to give Blacksad a hard time, but he has none of it. Blacksad is flippant and quick with his wit and fists. So it is that Blacksad gets to meet the Police Chief.

Later, Blacksad meets members of the opposite alliance, who give him trouble for having a white maw and even trying to cover it up. Blacksad shuts that down again in dramatic fashion, to even greater effect.

Here, take a look:

Blacksad versus the Black Panthers

I’ll write more in a bit about Guarnido’s storytelling strength, but I have to point out one part of this sequence. The closeup on Blacksad’s mouth before the turn to the next tier of panels to unveil Blacksad’s gun in the horse’s stomach is the best panel transition I can think of in a long time. Guarnido is unveiling a surprise — the gun is out! — but hiding it on a tier turn instead of a page turn. He does that by drawing you into an extreme close-up on Black before zooming immediately back to a mid-shot that shows just enough to give you the punchline.

It’s a small trick, but it sells the whole page for me.

Ultimately, though, all of this is just the background to a Missing Persons case. When we get to the core of this book’s mystery, it becomes an even more tragic and twisted affair. The girl who’s missing is almost the MacGuffin. She’s the thing that kicks off the story, but unraveling all the secrets everyone else is harboring is the actual story.

Canales’ script introduces a lot of new characters, but I never got lost keeping them apart or remembering their names. The relationships are pretty tight, and Blacksad eventually uncovers the whole story in a satisfying manner. It takes more than a couple of twists along the way to get there. In fact, it feels like there are two or three endings to this book. The big set piece third act number that you assume is the conclusion to everything is really just the catalyst to getting the rest of the story to come out.

That might just be my favorite part of the book. Canales’ plot structure seems to have a satisfying climax, until he continues the story and gives you an even better ending.

It’s a heart breaking book in many ways, but that’s a good noir story, isn’t it?

Kaylie's mother has an emotional moment

Being noir, there are a lot of complicated characters in this book. Most of them, as a matter of fact, are in a really bad place in one way or another. They’re all keeping their secrets. Some are wrong and enjoying it. The rest are victims of circumstance or a series of bad decisions brought on by peer pressure and social status. They act in their own self-interests, and it’s up to Blacksad to figure out what those interests are. It isn’t always obvious. And when the character tells you what it is, they might not even be truthful. That holds true even when they’re perfectly innocent.

It’s The Line. The place messes you up.

Worth Reading Again

This book rewards a second reading, but not because you need to. It’s just that once you know the whole story, you may look at scenes from earlier in the book in a new light.

You’ll see a shift in the shadows the characters live in. Their motivations for actions and bits of dialogue that weren’t previously clear will be unlocked for you the second time around.

It brings everything to new life. It also shows you the skill Canales has in telling this kind of tale. He knows which pieces of the story to hide and how to make the whole story make sense either way for a new reader, but while rewarding the repeat reader.

One character wasn’t as bad as we thought, while another was even more evil. The tragedy at the center of things is even worse when you can see where Blacksad is chasing dead ends or listening to the wrong people, in retrospect.

Comics aren’t cheap. Finding one that’s just as entertaining on the second read as the first is a rarity that’s worth reaching out for. You get your money’s worth out of Blacksad, for sure.

The Storytelling of Guarnido

Blacksad takes a beat, and that's all you need to know from this moment drawn by Juanjo Guarnido

One of the things I didn’t mention in my review of the first Blacksad book is what a strong storyteller Guarnido is.

He does things in his panel to panel storytelling that are very subtle, but important to the sequence of events. Characters don’t need to comment on it as they do things, because Guarnido is careful to have them happen while other more prominent events take center stage. They can be doing nothing and it tells the story without needing words. (See above.)

It’s the writer’s dream — a script where you can remove dialogue because the art shows what’s happening so clearly. It never in this book feels like Canales is adding dialogue to cover for shortcuts the artist has taken.

(Anyone who looks at a Blacksad book and thinks Juanjo Guarnido is taking any shortcuts is out of their mind.)

There’s a scene late in the book where Blacksad has to transition from dealing with one character to dealing with a new, just revealed one. If you’re just reading the dialogue, you’ll think he flips 100% from one to the other, but when you look at the art, you see how he hands off the first character and makes sure they’re ok while he approaches the new one. That pays off a few panels later when the scene takes another turn.

Sorry for being so vague, but we’re deep in spoiler territory, otherwise.

It all makes sense, but you need to look at what’s happening, even in the background, of every panel. He’s not hiding anything, but he’s getting two things done at the same time.

Blacksad's white maw doesn't save him from the Arctic Circle

Just in general, though, Guarnido’s panel to panel storytelling is very strong. It’s both the page layouts and the acting that I mentioned in my review of the first volume. Characters don’t flex and pose through gritted teeth for 50 pages here. They emote and act their way through the script, very deliberately. It does look cool, yes, but it’s not why he ever drew it that way.

In an interview we’ll talk about another time, he talks about drawing this series with an eye towards the influences of noir cinema. He doesn’t want to do any comic book tricks like diagonal panels or characters sticking out of the borders.

He’s purposefully keeping everything in square and rectangular panels. It’s four tier storytelling and as many panels as he needs to get things done. On some pages where more detailed actions take place, he’ll break a page up into a dozen panels. In others, he can simplify it down to six.

But whatever is needed, he’ll do it to tell the story. There are a lot of small panels that show specific details to lead the reader into what’s going to happen next, or to emphasize objects or motions that are about to be important. Again, they’re smart additions that a lesser artist would skip because the dialogue or narration can cover it.

Differences Between the ibooks and Dark Horse Editions

As with the first book, there’s a different font being used in the Dark Horse edition, along with narration boxes that are white text on darker backgrounds instead of ibooks’ black text on a darker background.

It seems like ibooks/Dargaud corrected for that last point by this second book. The narration boxes still have black text in them, but the backgrounds are much lighter this time around. The Dark Horse edition still darkens the backgrounds, now more than ever, to increase the contrast so the white type is legible on top of it.

There’s one content difference that I saw: The name of the kidnapped girl in the original ibooks version is spelled “Kayleigh,” while the Dark Horse edition modifies it to “Kaylie.”

There isn’t as big a noticeable difference in this book as the previous one with the color shift. Things don’t look desaturated so much in the Dark Horse edition for this book.

I will say, though, that the Dark Horse version looks almost high definition by comparison to iBooks. It feels crisper. There’s better contrast and the black lines are blacker in the Dark Horse book. I don’t know if that’s just from using a less glossy paper or what, but it’s definitely an upgrade.

Recommended?

Blacksad v2 cover by Juanjo Guarnido ("Arctic Nation")

Of course. It’s a strong story that rewards multiple readings. It has some of the most beautiful art in comics from the last 20 years. And — wait, isn’t that enough? Don’t be so greedy.

Buy It Now

Print:

There are three different printings of this second 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.

Digital:

[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.]

Bonus Image

I didn’t have a good enough excuse to use this one in the article, but I had to find somewhere to put it:

Blacksad strikes a pose on the roof. All he's missing to be Batman is a gargoyle.

By day, he’s a mild-mannered billionaire playboy. At night, he dresses up as the animal that strikes fear into the heart of every evil-doer: a black cat! They hate it when he crosses their paths and gives them seven years of bad luck!

He’s the g&$#%@*!ed Blacksad!

Next Book!

In “Red Soul,” Blacksad befriends some intellectuals on the wrong side of the political divide when a rooster who bears a suspicious resemblance to Senator McCarthy produces a list.

Also, a cute owl is a professor from Blacksad’s past, but with an interesting past of his own!

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

2 Comments

  1. Jul must of been inspired by the Ku Klux Klan scene in this book for the Ku Klux Klan scene in Lucky Luke A Cowboy In High Cotton 17 years later probably.

  2. Back when people were sufficiently educated, you could afford subtlety to get your message across. These days, I’m afraid, not so much. Second degree is a lost art, so are irony and sarcasm, unless you want the outragists to get at your throat; if you want modern readers to understand what you mean, there is no other choice but to be as heavy-handed as you possibly can, then add subtitles to spell it out. This is painfully apparent in regular literature as well, books that have no pictures in them.

    Oh by the way, I was wondering, seeing the names of the translators, is the English version translated directly from Spanish or from French ?