Over the years, comic book writers and artists have proven the unique versatility of the medium and its power to blend vastly different genres. In doing so, powerful new narratives and captivating storytelling techniques can be explored in ways that may not be possible through film or novels. One perfect and thoroughly exciting example of that power is writer Juan Diaz Canales and former Disney artist Juanjo Guarnido’s Blacksad – a hardboiled and mature detective series done in the anthropomorphic animated style of classic Disney films.
Beginning in 2000, the series follows John Blacksad, a black cat private investigator who solves all manner of heinous crimes in a 1950’s America populated by anthropomorphic animals. As of 2015, five volumes have been published, with each being approximately 50 pages in length and following standalone tales centered on Blacksad. Rather than being published in a monthly format, the series, originally published in French, is continued through these irregular volumes, which surely gives time for Guarnido to craft his incredibly intricate pages.
Blacksad’s cat-like nature is the perfect pairing for his slick, cool, and deadly persona. But the animal choices are telling for every character who walks into the story, as their real world characteristics are used to play off stereotypes or highlight the nature of a very specific character. Policemen are frequently depicted as Bloodhounds, German Shepherds, or other hunting dogs while sleezy criminals like hitmen or thieves are most often reptilian or amphibian. When paired with the frequent bloody violence and mature themes of the stories, these Disney-like characterizations are upended for something incredibly intriguing and often shocking.
Make no mistake, Blacksad is for mature readers due to its content. While it may not be shockingly gruesome or feature gratuitous content like other comic books that try and push their maturity levels, this is still on the level of an R-rated crime film. While the juxtaposition of a bright animation style artwork with dark plots may give the impression that Blacksad is a parody, it truly is not. Rather, Diaz Canales and Guarnido take their creation very seriously, while still knowing how to lighten the mood through bits of comedic levity. It’s this intense approach to the noir stories that gives the series its brilliance.
Classic Thrills with Modern Sensibility
The noir detective story finds its roots in 1940’s pulp detective novels, where hardboiled detectives spat terse words while investigating corruption, crime, and danger dames while walking a fine moral line. The style and structure was quickly set in place by such writers as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, which has largely remained in place throughout its many interpretations over the years. In addition, many of these crime novels were quickly adapted to film, which helped to solidify the visual style of film noir through classics like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep. Men decked out in suits and fedoras wielding pistols stalk dark alleys at night while beautiful women in elegant dresses use their cunning wits to pursue their own goals. Violence, corruption, crime, and sex all mix together as the protagonist works to uncover the truth behind a mystery. Most often, it ends with someone dead and someone going to jail.
Each entry into the Blacksad series involves these elements in one way or another, but never repeats itself. Thanks to frequently changing up the settings, the detective hero encounters everyone from corrupt businessmen to white supremacists to down and out musicians. While only a few characters outside of Blacksad himself make return appearance (his tabloid reporter weasel friend named Weekly being the biggest and funniest), each volume digs deeper into the lead character. While there is no needed reading order, this is an experience that you will want to dive into from the start. In addition, each entry presents something new and exciting while still delivering the noir thrills that the series is founded on. Currently, the series is comprised of the following:
- Somewhere Within the Shadows – The first in the series, Detective Blacksad is drawn into the mysterious murder of a famous actress he once loved. Hounded by hitmen and unaided by the police, Blacksad works to find both justice and revenge.
- Arctic Nation – Segregation, economic depression, and racial violence collide and explode in the suburb known as The Line. Here, fur color is substituted for skin color, which pits Blacksad against the white supremacist group known as the Arctic Nation in the midst of a kidnapping.
- Red Soul – The Red Scare rears its head as Blacksad works to protect a nuclear physicist from assassination due to his association with a leftist group and several known Communists. Here, politics and mystery smash together to form a tragic tale.
- A Silent Hell – Blacksad and Weekly travel to New Orleans to track down a talented musician who has disappeared. This one is a potent mix of drug addiction, music, and the terrible cost that comes at pursuing a legacy after your death.
- Amarillo – On vacation after A Silent Hell, Blacksad accepts a job to drive the prized car of a rich Texan to Oklahoma. But when the car is stolen, the detective ends up entangled in the feud between two writer friends and his very own sister in the middle of the American heartland.
As far as narratives go, “Somewhere Within the Shadows” is pitch perfect as it hits each noir note just right, even if it doesn’t reach beyond the typical trappings of the genre. Each subsequent volume reaches for something new, with racism in “Arctic Nation” and the Red Scare in “Red Soul” being particularly potent topics. Altogether, once you’re hooked on Blacksad (which should be about five pages into your first issue), you’ll want to read them all.
Of course, there is no discussion about Blacksad worth having that does not give proper attention to the artwork of Juanjo Guarnido. Prior to beginning Blacksad with Diaz Canales, Guarnido worked in France for Walt Disney Studios for several years, including being the lead animator for the evil leopard Sabor in the animated film Tarzan. When comparing Sabor with characters like Blacksad, it’s clear to see Guarnido’s style, which blends finely detailed musculature and facial expressions with a heightened cartoonish style. Together, they bring these characters to vivid life in a way that feels real while still popping off the page from frame to frame or panel to panel.
In Blacksad, Guarnido has created incredibly memorable characters who walk the line between animal and human in order to encapsulate their unique species while still emoting properly. In addition, many of the stories take place in real world settings, with actual buildings, streets, and landmarks being backdrops for the events of each story. As such, there is an even greater sense of realism given to the proceedings, which gives greater importance and higher stakes for each mystery that Blacksad must solve.
From the very start, Guarnido’s art is absolutely stellar. His clean and realistic lines blend with detailed watercolor work, which makes for an incredibly adaptable look. Dark and dirty bars are the perfect backdrop for a brutal brawl while glittering casinos work wonders in the “Red Soul” storyline. Somehow, Guarnido’s art only gets better with each successive story. In particular, the Mardi Gras setting of “A Silent Hell” gives an enormous shift from the typical dark noir look as Blacksad makes his way through vibrant parades and colorfully costumed characters. But even within a single story Guarnido shifts looks many different times.
Above all, his anthropomorphic characters are chocked full of detail. There are no shortcuts here, as everything from a wide city shot to a massive closeup is given as much detail as possible in order to bring each character to vibrant life. A single panel can be studied at length thanks to the immaculate work of the artist, making the series worth it alone for the visuals.
Whether you love crime stories and are looking for a new avenue for the medium or are simply looking for something different in the world of comic books, Diaz Canales’ and Guarnido’s Blacksad is a must read.