This, my favorite European comic, combines painted art, an American noir influence, and anthropomorphized characters to explore the seedy side of humanity. Blacksad is written by Juan Diaz Canales and illustrated by Juanjo Guarnido.
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.)