A beautiful woman. A brilliant owl with a dark secret. A rooster politician on a rampage.
In the middle of that maelstrom, Blacksad is trying to keep everyone safe.
It’s just not possible.
This one gets a little complicated.
The Story So Far
Each album is a standalone story, but here’s where to go if you want to start from the beginning and meet some of the recurring characters for the first time:
The McCarthy Credits List
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: 2005 (Dargaud), 2010 (Dark Horse)
What’s Going On?
It’s America in the 1950s, and certain political movements are afoot. The biggest one, to the point of this book, is the McCarthy hearings: One Senator on a rampage comes up with a list of suspected communists, and wants to round them all up.
This is the Blacksad version of that story, though. McCarthy is a giant rooster named Senator Gallo. He’s Foghorn Leghorn, but evil. (Coincidentally, Foghorn Leghorn was based on a fictional Senator from Fred Allen’s radio show. The circle is complete?)
We’ll get back to him in a moment.
The book starts with Blacksad in Las Vegas. Times are tough and he’s piecing jobs together to get by. Currently, he’s playing the hired muscle of a rich turtle named Hewitt Mandeline. That involves accompanying him to the casinos, the art galleries, and more. He’s a bodyguard and, occasionally, a money collector. It’s all small time stuff and kind of beneath him, but it pays the bills.
Along the way, he reconnects with a professor from his short-lived college career. He’s an owl named Otto Liebber who worked on the atom bomb and has thoughts on nuclear energy.
Otto is one of the Twelve Apostles, a group of politically leftist individuals who get together from time to time to confab, appreciate each other’s works and creations, etc. They argue politics and snap their fingers to beat poetry.
Being a communist sympathizer at the start of the Cold War was a wee bit risky…. When Senator Gallo goes on his crusade, this entire group of people is put under a microscope for their suspected sympathies. They’re left unprotected when the communist hunts truly begin.
One of them turns up dead and another is being targeted. Is it an inside job? Is the atmosphere of anti-communist propaganda inciting these murders? Or is there something else going on?
As you might expect with this series, nobody comes out of this looking too great… Along the way, Blacksad has a love interest, a fight he loses, a couple of fake identities, and a series of surprising realizations.
Yup, Blacksad is still noir, through and through.
It’s a story filled with interesting characters and a brand new situation for Blacksad to deal with. We also see a small glimpse into Blacksad’s formative years, from childhood into college.
There is, however, one catch to it:
Read It Twice (Seriously, That’s My Advice on This One)
The book is visually stunning, as always, but it’s a little tough to keep track of, at first.
I’ve read it three times through now in the process of writing this review, so everything is easy to follow now. But on my first reading? It turns out I’m not great at keeping character names straight. You’d think it would be easier since everyone is a different animal, so they’re never visually confusing. But…
This is a book with a relatively large cast and a couple twists and turns that you’ll need to pay attention to in order to follow everything.
With the first two Blacksad books, I re-read them strictly for enjoyment and to see how the pieces were laid out in the story after I knew all the secrets and revelations. This book is one whose plot veered in enough different directions that I needed that second read to see what I had missed the first time.
It helped me to keep the characters straight and put the story all together. It’s funny to say that because the final few pages spell out the endgame for the story pretty blatantly. Canales’ script is a pure info dump as the pages run out. It all ends up being explained, but I still had to go back to see if I properly understood how everyone’s actions were interrelated.
And, yes, I enjoyed the book more a second time around than the first, because of that. I can understand how some people might have read this once and didn’t think much of it. If that’s you, go back and give the book a second chance. I think you’ll enjoy it more.
Ties to the Past and Recurring Moments
There are a few callbacks and returns from the first two books in this one.
As I mentioned before, Blacksad starts the book in Vegas, where he is giving Cotten (from “Arctic Nation“) a proper send-off.
His bodyguarding duties in Vegas included dinner at a “Natalia Wilford Impersonator Contest.” That was his girlfriend and the murder victim from the first book. His discomfort with the whole scene is clear in the panel. Guarnido does an excellent job in conveying that with just one panel.
The cast of recurring characters is starting to grow, even if it doesn’t appear that anyone from this book will show up in the next couple. Commissioner Smirnov is back, as always. Most happily, Weekly from “Arctic Nation” is now a permanent fixture in Blacksad’s stories. He doesn’t have much to do in this book, but he’s a fun character. Any excuse to bring him back for however much page time is a good one.
With three books in the series now, we can also start to see a bit of the formula to a good “Blacksad” story. It starts with all the trappings of a noir story — whether in film or novels — but then Juan Diaz Canales makes the appropriate tweaks to keep it fresh. Blacksad still gets beaten up and loses fights. He still has a new love interest that’s fated to not work out so well. HIs first instinct isn’t always the best. You can’t really trust anyone. The happy ending is always shadowed with a healthy dose of sadness.
Thankfully, Canales goes in a new direction with the main murder mystery in this book. It’s not about old flame or a woman of potential interest showing up dead. This time, all the victims are males, and the murders at first might be the sign of things to come, or might be isolated incidents. Of course, there’s still a personal connection for Blacksad through the professor and the love interest who’s caught in the middle of things. That’s the core of the book.
Put all the fancy genre trappings on it that you want, it still winds up as a character piece. You can enjoy the formulas and the moods, but if Blacksad wasn’t as attractive a personality as he is, it would quickly become a chore to read. And you get a lot of that Blacksad magic in this book, both good and bad.
The Growing Menagerie
At this point in the series, we’ve seen a large variety of animals, but there are a few groups that are becoming clear. The police force is made up of dogs, for example. Amphibians tend to be the hired muscle that hurts or kills opponents.
We get a couple new species in this book. Most notably, Professor Otto Liebber is an owl. The image of a smart owl jumps immediately to mind, and I love the results. He’s a cute old man, in many ways, but he can show a crazy range of emotions through his large eyes and dramatic face.
Guarnido can tell a story with just a face. Liebber’s is easy to read from the state of his feathers to the size of his eyes, to the curl of the corners of his beak. He gets some of the most extreme emotions in the book, and Guarnido goes to town with it.
There’s a lot of extreme acting in this book. Samuel Gotfield, the canine leader of the Apostles and the man that Blacksad refers to in the most derogatory terms repeatedly in the book, goes from sleazy over-the-top showman to broken over the course of the book, with stops in-between at drunken mess and defeated/desperate coward.
Seriously, “Red Soul” is an intense ride.
Blacksad’s romantic interest in this book, Alma, is an interesting creature. She reminds me of the women Carl Barks would draw on occasion in an Uncle Scrooge or Donald Duck comic. They were drawings of normal human woman, but with a black nose and the hint of floppy ears.
Alma is 90% human. Guarnido blends her cat qualities into her physical frame in such a believable manner that you almost forget she’s not completely human. She has a full head of hair and wears glasses. It almost looks like her ears are a headband. Also, she has no tail. (No Blacksad characters have tails, but this is the first time I thought to look for one.)
That’s the opposite of her boyfriend at the beginning of the book, Samuel Gotfield. His head is pure dog, complete with the longer snout and no hair. His fur’s patterns continues across his entire body. (That’s him in the previous image, looking disheveled in his robe on the couch.)
The Spoiler Section: Why So Silent?
There’s one scene I want to bring up here because I’m still not sure I completely understand one part of it. It’s a total spoiler for the book, though, so skip ahead to the “How It’s Collected” section if you haven’t read the book yet.
Blacksad confronts Liebber at the university aquarium near the end of the book. Liebber spills his guts and explains everything.
Blacksad looks devastated. Little squiggly lines emerge from his head in one panel to help indicate that.
The weird thing is, he never speaks in the entire scene. He gestures wildly. At one point, he holds one hand up and point to the ground with the other to indicate “Stay here.” He looks like he wants to scream, but he never says a word.
I understand using constraints in storytelling. I also can understand wanting to let the other person speak while they’re explaining everything at the end of a book exposition dump.
But why doesn’t Blacksad say anything?
I thought at first that an Illustrator layer with his word balloons must have been lost in production, but that’s not it. Guarnido draws the word balloons on the original art boards.
Am I missing something else? A reference to a noir movie, perhaps? A line of dialogue from earlier in the book that is paying off?
Other than that, the whole scene is a remarkable piece of storytelling. Liebber, the professor, feels like the natural kind of character to lecture another. He’s talking about the life cycle of fish and the analogy to the story in this book is obvious. It’s also setting something up for visual cue Blacksad will pick up on later in the book.
But the atmosphere for the scene is beautiful. If this was a movie, I’d be calling it well-staged and well-lit. The aquarium glows blue through the water. Liebber starts stoic and calm in his monologue, while Blacksad grows more frazzled through the scene. Guarnido moves his camera around and doesn’t pick any boring angles. The acting for the two characters is strong.
It’s the scene that kicks off the ending of the book, and you can feel how important it is by how Canales and Guarnido pace it. It’s that silent part of a movie where all the music drops out to set up the loud explosion that happens next, figuratively speaking.
One Translation Issue
This is a major spoiler for the end of the book, too.
Here’s the front page of a newspaper:
Am I the only person who didn’t know the word “delator”? I assumed it was a Spanish word, or maybe something that a Spanish creator might think is a common English word. Maybe it’s a term used in French or British law that they also assumed was common in English?
I had to look it up. “Delator” is a Latin word that was used commonly in Ancient Rome, one of my favorite topics. It refers to a “denouncer,” or someone who would inform the government of someone else’s misdeeds, particularly the taxes they didn’t pay. Sometimes, the denouncer would get a cut of the unpaid moneys/properties after they were collected.
“Informant” would have been a better word to use here.
Also, I checked the original French edition of the book. This newspaper appears the same, in English, even in the original French edition. It’s not a translation error.
How It’s Collected
This book was released in France after ibooks’ bankruptcy. The first time it saw print in America was five years later in Dark Horse’s 2010 hardcover collection alongside the first two books of the series.
On ComiXology and Izneo, you have your choice of buying the first three albums as single books through Europe Comics (Izneo | ComiXology), or as one collected edition through Dark Horse (Izneo | Comixology). If you want the pure reading experience, you can also pick it up in French (Izneo | Comixology).
If you’re trying to buy the entire five book series as it exists today in the cheapest way, buy the Dark Horse collection of the first three albums and then the rest as single albums through Europe Comics.
The art is beautiful and the story sucks me in, even if my feeble mind can’t keep all the characters straight. It’s a book that I’ve spent a lot of time with and I’m not bored by. In fact, the more I study it, the more I find to like. (Expect a HyperAnalysis article based on two pages of this book in the near future…)
So, yes, recommended. Since I’ve now recommended the first three albums, you should definitely go buy Dark Horse’s hardcover:
I’m looking forward to reading the next two books, to see where the noir elements are executed well and where Canales takes stories in different directions.
I already know that Guarnido’s art is going to be worth looking at and studying in detail.
It’s nice to see a team working so well in comics together. “Blacksad” is a great series for that.