*Blacksad — Best of 2010

This, my favorite European comic, combines painted art, an American noir influence, and anthropomorphized characters to explore the seedy side of humanity.

John Blacksad is an old-fashioned private detective, trenchcoat, reserved demeanor, and all. He also happens to have the head of a black panther. That’s nothing unusual — everyone in these stories is an animal, often reflecting their character. The police detective is a German shepherd, for example, a prizefighter a gorilla, the housekeeper a mouse. Henchmen are weasels and snakes.

This volume collects three stories. “Somewhere Within the Shadows” begins with the murder of an ex-girlfriend of Blacksad’s. She was an actress, and the screenwriter of her new movie, her latest flame, is also missing. Blacksad vows to find the killer as a way of assuaging his memories of happier days and take revenge for the regret he feels. It’s action-packed and gorgeously illustrated, with a solid sense of place and character. Like many classic PIs, Blacksad manages to close the case through two skills: He can take a punch, as every detective gets beaten up at least once when they’re too close to the truth, and his determination makes him unable to quit.

I’ve already written about “Arctic Nation“, a fable about racism involving white-furred animals, a well-chosen use of the visuals. A dark youngster is missing, and the police chief is no help. He’s a polar bear, associating with the white dogs and snow otters that make up the cause of “purity”. In response, the dark animals make up their own gang, and Blacksad’s face, black but with a white muzzle, pleases neither side. In addition to the racist symbolism, there’s also lots of class distinctions and social-climbing secrets that play into the kidnapping.

“Red Soul” is translated into English for the first time here. Blacksad’s in Las Vegas in 1956, working as a debt collector. There he runs into an old friend, an owl professor lecturing on nuclear energy, who’s hooked up with a playboy entertainer. Under the umbrella of fear of communism and the atomic bomb, a loose group of authors, artists, and scientists are caught up in political plots. This different setting and cast of characters, quite distinct from the more noir-ish first two stories, demonstrate the versatility of the Blacksad character, although the tale still has its bittersweet overlay. Nothing ever goes right for a noir investigator — he brings about justice, usually through his own sacrifice.

The first two stories were previously published by ibooks, but this book is an improvement on the previous release in several ways: The substantial hardcover I find easier to read than the oversized paperbacks, which easily got dinged and frayed. The colors are more subtle, to my eye, less yellow/orange-y. The translation has been redone, and the pages re-lettered (in a slightly smaller font, which means less obtrusive captions in some cases). And most importantly, this volume’s in print, so you won’t pay inflated used prices. It’s a worthy read, well-illustrated adventure with a message underneath.

I’ve previously posted a set of preview pages. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

11 Responses to “*Blacksad — Best of 2010”

  1. Marc-Oliver Frisch Says:

    These books are a visual feast, and the page-to-page storytelling is awesome.

    That said, the stories themselves (of the first three albums, at any rate) fell flat for me when read them a few years ago. They seemed pretty bog-standard and sketchy, once you get past the beautiful art, and the anthropomorphic-animals schtick didn’t seem to have much of a point beyond providing a visual gimmick.

    It’s fun to read if you like this sort of thing, certainly but I was disappointed after all the praises I’d heard about it. The concept, the plots and the scripts could have used a few more rounds of revisions and into-shape-kicking.

  2. Johanna Says:

    I think one might could criticize the first story for being familiar to its genre — although I could also argue it — but the other two take it far beyond the typical noir. I certainly wouldn’t call them “standard”, and as for sketchy, I admire the layers included in the last one, especially. I found myself wanting to reread it as soon as I finished so I could follow up all the hints and various loyalties. If you thought that a few years ago, maybe you should give it a reread before writing it off now?

  3. Marc-Oliver Frisch Says:

    Absolutely — I want to read the new (fourth) one that came out this year, at least. Maybe I’ll take another look at the first three books, if I like it.

  4. Paul Sizer Says:

    I just got this from my lovely wife for Christmas, and I was totally blown away! I am not a fan of most anthro comics, but THIS one just amazed me. I’m so used to seeing more humanized anthro being done in service to soft core sex than to engrossing stories, but the use of animals here is great, really drawing in the power of the personalities of each animal’s character.

    The detail, and writing, the sheer power of expression in the art is just astounding. And the book itself is beautiful. A great package overall.

  5. Johanna Says:

    Marc-Oliver, I was thrilled to see that there was another story — I hope Dark Horse brings it over here as well.

    Paul, glad you enjoyed it! I should say that there is some sex, nudity, and violence in this book — I forgot to warn readers that this is for adults — but those elements are in the service of the story and genre.

  6. Mike Kowalczyk Says:

    I own the originals (sans Red Soul) published by the late Byron Preiss (to whom this edition is dedicated) and his iBooks company who got the jump on everybody regarding Blacksad.

    What a gorgeous book from story to art. Will Eisner’s quote on the original cover “Brilliant art and an unusual display of anthropomorphic realism” says it all!

    These types of stories may be a bit overdone here, but keep in mind these are two creators outside the US looking in.

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