Welcome one and all to another MDM comic review. This time around, we’re taking a walk through the world of crime noir, and looking at the hardcover first volume of Blacksad. With a ton of awards to its name and comic luminaries such as Stan Sakai and Will Eisner counting themselves as fans, the book has an immensely good reputation. Let’s see if it’s warranted.
Background: Blacksad is written by Juan Diaz Canales and is illustrated by former Disney artist Juanjo Guarnido. The book contains three stories, each originally published between 2000 and 2005, and this collected edition first saw the light of day in 2010, thanks to the well-known Dark Horse Books.
The general set up sees PI John Blacksad wade through 1950’s America as he attempts to solve various crimes. Not one to shy away from hard hitting subject matter, we get a heady mix of conspiracy theories, child abduction, racial tensions, and violence throughout, all presented in glorious colour.
The Good: So, as has been stated, this particular book collects the first three Blacksad stories. These are titled Somewhere Within the Shadows, Arctic Nation and Red Soul. What makes this special is that this collection was the first time that Red Soul had turned up in English, and so made the collection well worth buying, even if you already owned the original two publications.
The stories themselves are all decent too, and cover a variety of different cases: SWtS sees our feline hero investigating the death of an ex-lover, AN deals with a child abduction in a town fraught with racial clashes, and RS follows a painter and a government conspiracy. The thing that remains prevalent throughout though is that the writing is top notch. The speech flows seamlessly, and you never get the feeling that characters are talking just to fill space, meaning that each word moves things forward, even if just a little.
The stories are all hardboiled detective tales at the core, and the staples of the genre are all present (so basically, internal monologues, things descending into violence, a hero with a stubborn doggedness to their way of work, and a number of budding romantic entanglements). Do they stand out from the other well-known pieces of crime noir? Aside from being in comic form and featuring an anthropomorphic cast, no, they aren’t anything different to what you can find in novels. That’s fine though, because the overall quality in storytelling is high enough that, even with short running times, they’ll all easily hold their own against perennial favourites like The Maltese Falcon.
Of course, crime noir doesn’t work without a decent lead, and Blacksad certainly has that. John is a likeable fellow with a strong sense of justice that often leads him into some nasty situations. Perk of the job, right? Still, it’s easy to root for the PI. Even if he has to crack some heads, he’s always doing what’s right, and that puts him a cut above the darker denizens of his world. Outside John, a lot of the cast are of the one-shot-and-gone variety. The love interest changes from story to story, as does the villain. In fact, the only real recurring side characters are Commissioner Smirnov, a likeable ally in the local police force, and Weekly, a stinky but loveable reporter/informant. In truth, that works for the series. Without the ties of too many regulars to keep up with, things can move swiftly and people can be introduced when needed and for as long as is necessary without needing to worry about what to do with them next time around.
Love or hate their style, there’s no denying that Disney artists are of a high calibre. Without the constraints of the family friendly setting, Juanjo Guarnido has been able to improve upon the skills he forged when animating Hades (Hercules) and Sabor (Tarzan), and has honed them into something remarkably real. When it comes to facial expressions and the quality of body poses and panel composition, you’d be hard pressed to top this, and not just in the anthropomorphic realm of ‘funny animals’. As much as I love the big known Marvel and DC titles, as well as some of the less known series such Top Cow’s Witchblade, I personally find that they can sometimes be inconsistent in terms of body proportions and movement. With Blacksad, this problem never creeps in. Could that be because Juanjo had more time to work on each piece than the artists working on the big, weekly titles do? Possibly. That’s no bad thing though. Oh, and as a side, the colouring is beautiful. The book is presented in a style akin to a darkened watercolour painting, which certainly helps give the piece a unique feel that compliments the style of storytelling.
The Bad: The introduction to the book states that, rather than work with animals that act like humans, this pairing has opted to work with people that look like animals. It’s an interesting statement, but it also highlights where the book may struggle with some. Let’s be honest here, people see anthropomorphic art and often immediately jump to furry. This then leads to a lot of common misconceptions for a lot of people. Unfortunately, with Blacksad skirting the borders of explicit content at times, it doesn’t do anything to dissuade this line of thinking, and that will no doubt put some off. That’s a sad, sad thing, because the content of the stories is what it is because of the literary genre that it’s working in, not because it features what could be classed as furry art. Would Blacksad work with a human cast? Yes, but the quality of the anthro art is part of its charm, so I do feel that it would lose something by switching to something more common. That people will miss out on some awesome comics because of that is such a shame.
Final View: Consistently good throughout, and not afraid to throw itself at darker themes, Blacksad weaves some enthralling tales, and litters each page with some of the best comic art that you could find. Yes, there’s a reason that Stan Lee himself described the series as, “As good as it gets!” If nothing else, fans of Dark Horse’s other big hitters, Hellboy and Sin City, will find plenty to love here, but any fan of the medium should at least try the tour de force that is Arctic Nation. Blacksad is a brooding series, but it’s one that will suck you in before you know it. So, move over Sam Spade, there’s a new cat in town.
Final Score: 5 / 5
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