Created by: Juan Díaz Canales, Juanjo Guarnido
Published by: Dark Horse
ISBN: 159582393X (Amazon)
John Blacksad is a cat. Or, at least, he is cattish. And not like kitty-cattish but big-cattish. He’s dark and comely, like Bagheera. Maybe he’s sort of a pantherish guy. And that’s the thing. For all his cattishness or pantherishness, he’s definitely a guy—a tough guy with brimfuls of moxie and the good sense to wear a hat that matches his attire.
I’m not particularly well-schooled in the history of literally anthropomorphized animals (or are they zoomorphized humans?). There may be some long and storied tradition stretching back centuries, but for the time being let’s talk about cartoon animal development over the course of the last hundred years. With George Herrimann’s Krazy Kat and later Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks’ Steamboat Willie, talking animals (usually living the lives of normal people) became more and more popular. Then there came Donald Duck and Bugs and Daffy and a whole proliferation of non-human humans. Many of these were successful and both the newspaper strips and cartoon circuit were inundated with the enjoyable interactions and stories of innumerable Uncle Scrooges, Wile E. Coyotes, and Pogos.
By the ‘70s the trend, while entrenched, began to wear thin. Maybe it was Kennedy. Maybe it was Vietnam. Maybe it was Nixon. At any rate, funny animals comics began to seem juvenile and stopped capturing attention (save for twisted outliers like Fritz the Cat). And just as with every trope that begins to stale through overuse, continued success demanded either renovation or subversion. The ‘80s marked a revival of the anthropomorphs and gave the idea a new* twist: the animals were no longer funny. (Or if they were, then at the least that was not their primary attribute.) The independent comics scene was flooded with books like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Omaha the Cat Dancer, and Cerebus. One particular book, Usagi Yojimbo, did something kind of neat that I hadn’t seen elsewhere previously: creator Stan Sakai put some effort into pairing characters’ personality types with appropriate animal representation. So Gen, the grizzled and tough bounty hunter, is a rhinoceros and Hebi, the sly and duplicitous lord, is a snake. (Amusingly the worst villain of the series, Lord Hikiji, is a human.)
Check out John Blacksad in the doorway admiring the view.
Blacksad creators, Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, have taken anthropomorphized animals to the destination for which I believe they must have always been intended. Mickey Mouse (who rarely exhibited any mouselike qualities) was merely a nascent form in the evolutionary process of the anthropomorphization of animals, something like the nadir of the genre where Blacksad is the zenith. Guarnido’s characters are to be loved with the heart, studied with the mind, and ravished with the eyes. The artist makes the polar-bearish character move and act like a polar-bear person might. The weasely, ferrety rag-journalist acts and moves both weasely and ferrety. Crow-people, lizard-people, tiger-people, turtles, rabbits, rhinos, a German shepherd: they all inhabit their animal skins pretty much as you expect. Which brings us to John Blacksad.
Blacksad’s animal avatar is a dark panther with white muzzle. He’s got plenty of feline qualities (curiosity, predatory nature, fleet violence, and a certain sleekness to his movements), all of which contribute to his occupation as a private dick. He’s got luck with the ladies—though perhaps not enough that he can ever keep one for long. He’s a tough-bitten customer, but leans toward acts of charity that tend to get him beaten up more than he deserves. Essentially, he’s a young Philip Marlowe (maybe Big Sleep-era), only with less verbal wit and penchant for dialogical gymnastics.
This volume of the Spanish creators’ noirish tales collects three separately published stories about the cattish detective. The first is a standard revenge pursuit (like the first volume of Sin City), the second twists a kidnapping in with WWII-era klansmanship, and the third deals with McCarthyism, immigrant thinkers, and the Bomb. None of the stories are particularly novel, but each is visually well-spoken enough that most readers will never mind. While the mysteries rarely keep ahead of astute readers, the real fun is in devouring this lush, over-detailed world—and the beasts that inhabit it.
The Artic Nation will rise again! You shall know them by their pelts.
Guarnido is an incredible artist. Not only are his character designs prodigy-level, but his use of these figures is completely liquid. His miniature biography reveals that he’s trained in animation. It shows. Characters move in believable, extra-human mannerisms, filling the space of their panels with regality or temerity or fury or pathos or joie de vivre—with whatever aura their stories demand. Guarnido’s sense of locale is likewise impeccable, and he supplies a full-fledged world for these denizens to inhabit. And all of this is painted in palettes wholly suitable to moods governed by story concerns.
Honestly, I can’t say enough kind things about the art. It’s simply magnificent.
Additionally, Dark Horse did a wonderful job in packaging here. The book is gorgeous. It’s sturdy and oversized, meaning it will take many multiple readings in which the reader carefully pours over every large drawing before it finally, reluctantly falls apart (if only to prove universal laws of entropy). The only downside is that it doesn’t contain four Blacksad stories. Or eight. Or thirty. I can’t get enough.
No furs allowed, silly.
* Of course, doing serious zoomorphs in comics wasn’t entirely new. But this was probably the first time it became wildly popular. Eventually, though, even the over-serious TMNT became a kids’ show and moved back toward the silly/funny animal zone.
Good Ok Bad features reviews of comics, graphic novels, manga, et cetera using a rare and auspicious three-star rating system. Point systems are notoriously fiddly, so here it's been pared down to three simple possibilities:
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