A dead starlet. A kidnapped child. A blacklisted intellectual. Hardboiled P.I. John Blacksad knows better than to get personally involved in his cases, but fate seems disinclined to let him keep his distance. When politics, passion, and prejudice stir up trouble, this cynical tough-cat’s instincts land him in one hot mess after another as he stalks the streets for clues…and hopes his nine lives will be enough to see him through.
With its convincing recreation of Cold War-era America, you’d never guess this trio of detective stories was originally published in French by a pair of Spaniards. All the standards of American film noir convention are here: jaded first-person narration, beautiful dames with unknown motives, a dingy office, overturned apartments, class conflict, smoking guns, hard liquor, red herrings, trench coats, and goons and flunkies aplenty. But though they are conventions, they don’t feel contrived, instead falling together naturally like pieces of the same atmospheric puzzle.
The same goes for the anthropomorphic casting. Rather than come off as cartoonish, the characters ooze so much personality and so fit their roles that you don’t even realize you’ve absorbed the symbolic implications of their species until well after the fact. The dedicated chief of police is a German Shepherd; a weasely tabloid reporter, an actual weasel. And then there’s the coolest feline detective you’re ever likely to encounter. Arrogant and inquisitive, a fighter and a lover, John Blacksad epitomizes the smooth, sarcastic, loveable private eye with just enough moral fiber to keep him in a modest tax bracket…and just enough moral flexibility to deliver his own justice when the system fails him.
The beautiful art, with its filmic layouts, lush watercolors, and accomplished realism in both backgrounds and figures, contributes hugely to the reader’s unconscious acceptance of people, place, and story. Guarnido, whose work here garnered him a 2011 Eisner Award, renders his characters with the same attention to detail that he puts into his period vehicles and architecture. Clothing hangs on bipedal feather- and fur-covered bodies as though there’s actual bone and muscle structure beneath; and facial expressions are impressively nuanced. You can’t help but giggle at John’s cocky sideways grin when flirting with a lady, or sympathize with his itchy trigger finger when faced with the smug smirk of a (literally) cold-blooded murderer–and those are two very different smiles.
Other than an initially confusing chronology in the climax of the last story, my only quibble with Blacksad is more a quibble with noir in general. As per tradition, women are few and far between, often end up dead, and are largely portrayed as objectified eye candy (unless they’re too old or homely to qualify). As noir is rife with fairly flat archetypes, I can let that slide. In Blacksad‘s case, however, they also tend to be the most human-looking of the characters, making it difficult to determine what type of animal they’re supposed to be. One spinster is clearly a deer, and whiskers suggest a few buxom love interests may be cats, but others are more inconclusive–younger deer? small bears? tail-less dogs?? Does it not matter what any of them are because their only role is to be attractive females? The fact that they don’t all receive the same individual artistic characterization as the males is disappointing and a little distracting.
That said, I still loved this book.
Blacksad is gritty, witty graphic noir at its finest, sporting a smart, endearing lead and a satisfying balance of moody rumination and dramatic action. The book’s significant violence (death via guns, knives, screwdrivers, truth serum, and nooses, among other things), suggestive themes, brief scenes of anthropomorphic sex (one of which seems to dare the reader not to think the phrase “doggy style”), and a few instances of female nudity make it most suitable for adults, though the publisher includes older teens in its suggested rating. This hardcover volume collects the first three translated story arcs (“Somewhere within the Shadows,” “Arctic Nation,” and “Red Soul”) of the original French comic series and includes an introduction by Jim Steranko.