Cat’s Cradle: “Blacksad” and European Comic Style

If You Like…

  • noir mysteries
  • a heavy dash of American history
  • fascination with the animal kingdom

Then You’ll Like…

Blacksad by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido

quirkyThree years ago I took a college class all about Graphic Novels. I assumed it would be an easy A, but I wasn’t prepared for the sheer vastness of the material we studied in the class. Most of the comics and graphic novels I will share on this blog came from this class and remain some of my top favorites. While Blacksad wasn’t on our syllabus, my professor shared it with us and it blew my mind. So, I will share it with you. It’s a European produced comic, currently with five volumes out (the fifth has been translated and will be released in America this October, according to Amazon).

As I was contemplating how to write my first impressions of this grand comic, I ran across an old essay I had written during my graphic novel study class. This post is much longer because I believe the content of that initial essay best conveys my first impressions of Blacksad and why it has so much influence on me. Didn’t want to leave anything out!

Check out that detail!
Check out that detail!

In 2010, Dark Horse Comics combined the three famed Blacksad issues into one collection and released it in America. A French comic from Spanish writer Juan Diaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido, Blacksad had already gained a raving reputation on both sides of the Atlantic, even before it’s translation into English. Set in late 1950’s America, Blacksad follows the figure of John Blacksad, a black cat detective in a world of human-like animals. These noir-style mysteries center around love and vengeance, racism and deception, and communism and betrayal. As a European-style comic, Blacksad offers American readers a whole new perspective on their European counterparts. Not only are the anthropomorphic characters a surprise, but for a comic about animals it includes very heavy themes and a page style that’s rarely seen on this side of the pond.

When someone thinks of an animal-based comic, it’s not uncommon to jump to the conclusion that the said comic is for children only: Blacksad is not only hardly for children, but perhaps not for some conservative readers as well. The first issue, “Somewhere Within the Shadows” is relatively tame in comparison, centered around lost love and cold vengeance. However, the second issue, “Arctic Nation”, further explores the world by introducing the theme of racism, a topic that was also prevalent in the 50’s. Animals with white colored coats and fur separated themselves from the black ones and gave rise to the creation of two gangs. These were Arctic Nation, a clear satire of the Ku Klux Klan; and the Black Claws, reminiscent of the Black Panther Party. One of the main villains, a polar bear police commissioner, is also hinted to be a pedophile, although it is never explicitly shown. Two of the female characters in this same story also share an Electra complex: a father who marries his daughter unknowingly. The third issue, “Red Soul” is centered around the infamous Red Scare and the fear of Communism. Canales and Guarnido never shy away from the reality of those same events. From truth serum to chilling interrogations, they turn barn-yard animals into God-fearing politicians with agendas and leave the reader questing for more.

The use of anthropomorphic characters was an exciting stylistic choice. Rarely is there ever any serious themed comics featuring human-like animals that still leave an impression. John Blacksad himself is a “cool cat”, if you pardon the cliché. Judging from the diversity, Canales and Guarnido must have scoured all corners of the animal kingdom just to find the perfect animal for a certain character. Each character can be catalogued according to their animal type. For example, in a scene of the police station on page 53 of the three-issue collection, all of the policemen are breeds of dogs and a few foxes, from Bloodhounds to German Shepherds. In the first issue, reptiles represent the shady underbelly of the city. In a way, the anthropomorphism of Blacksad breaks down the barrier between gendered comics. It appeals to both male and female readers. The animals are mostly gender-less, and gender distinctions are determined according to dress or hair-style. Along with Scott McCloud’s assertions, readers connect more with characters that are less human-faced in order to project themselves onto the character. Such is the case with Blacksad. In addition, Canales and Guarnido cleverly inserted several known animal myths and sterotypes into their work. For example, John Blacksad acknowledges a rivalry between “cats” and “rats” (pg 43), and later he gains an ally in a news reporter named Weekly, a nosy weasel (pg 68). The mother in “Arctic Nation” is a grizzly bear, a play on the ‘mama bear’ stereotype (pg 75).

The European style comic of Blacksad differs greatly from its American counterparts. The panels are larger, which in turn creates larger pages. The contrast of space leaves more room for greater detail, such as large cityscapes and elaborate camera angles (pg 47). There are no black outlines to be seen, on the panels or the speech bubbles and even thinner “gutters”. The speech bubbles are not the traditional circular outlines, but structured in squares with a handwritten-looking font. In addition, sometimes these bubbles are colored to express certain moods, such as black for the inner thoughts of John Blacksad. The watercolor palate of the comic and the lack of black lines almost melt the panels together, seamlessly. The watercolor leaves a sense of old film noir, with elongated shadows and darker colors. One striking scene is four rectangular panels colored in red light, featuring a flashback of vengeance. They stand out in sharp contrast to the darker toned panels around it. Guarnido uses the large panels to his advantage, making each facial expression and action clear as day. On another note, there is a hint of Eastern influence in the action scenes. In Japanese manga, sharp lines are drawn around the character to indicate speed or a quick movement, and Guarnido has used the same technique in various fight scenes with Blacksad.

Blacksad is a hallmark achievement, using anthropomorphic characters to blur the borders between comics for children and comics for adults, who remember what they read as children. From childhood, we are raised on animal cartoons and caricatures, and that nostalgia rings throughout Blacksad. It’s as though Guarnido and Canales were calling readers to remember the inner animal in all human-kind, and how we connect to animals, make them equal to us in order to understand ourselves better. They have also built a world through beautiful color and seamlessly constructed scenes, a world very familiar to us. Despite the “childish animal” stereotype, Guarnido and Canales don’t shy away from extreme content matter, such as racism, pedophilia, and stone-cold vengeance outside of the law. The high-quality art and characterization are too gripping to ignore, and are worth studying in greater detail, especially for a class.

Due to the success of the three-volume collection, Dark Horse has begun releasing the next volumes of Blacksad much closer to their European counterparts. I have the fourth volume, “A Silent Hell” in my possession, which I will review at a later date. As I said above, the fifth installment, “Amarillo” is on it’s way this October, and I hit that pre-order button so fast it made my hand dizzy.

photo 2

Will Make You Feel: Like watching Law & Order all day long. And having tea with your favorite noir detective.

Music to Listen to While Reading: Jazz and blues

Publisher: Dargaud (France), Dark Horse Comics (US)

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