Blacksad: They All Fall Down Part 1

Private Detective John Blacksad considers it a good day when he can get home with peace of mind and his knuckles intact. Sadly, days like that are all too rare, particularly when Blacksad is more frequently employed as hired muscle than for his keen insight. Such is the case when Blacksad is hired by a union president with no confidence in the police to hunt the hitman he’s sure is after him. His paranoia proves well founded and Blacksad soon finds himself embroiled in a mystery that will take him from the depths of New York City’s underworld to the lofty heights enjoyed by real estate magnate Lewis Solomon.

Coincidentally, I had the Blacksad series recommended to me as a Film Noir fan just before I had a chance to preview Blacksad: They All Fall Down—Part One. Somehow, it had flown under my radar, despite the Blacksad books being critically acclaimed and published in translated editions in 39 countries. This is largely because the original English translation went out of print before Dark Horse comics picked up the American license. Throw in the complication that the series was originally written for the French comic market by two Spanish creators and it is small wonder Blacksad is still relatively obscure in the United States outside of a few niche fandoms.

It should be mentioned that the world of Blacksad is populated by anthropomorphic animals, but this is no children’s story. Like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, different species of animals are utilized as metaphors for racial and social strife, with John Blacksad himself facing suspicion both because of his mixed-race status as a tuxedo cat and his being a predator among prey animals. The effect is like a gritty version of Zootopia, aimed firmly at adults.

The English translation of Juan Diaz Canales’ script by Diana Schutz and Brandon Kander is excellent. The pater of a 1950s detective story is replicated perfectly, despite the original French text being translated literally. Thankfully, an afterword explains some of the linguistic oddities and literary allusions, such as Blacksad’s reference to the folly in sending a fox police officer to the henhouse, when the police break-up a Shakespeare in the Park production. (Henhouse is a slang term for the cheap seats in France.)

Thankfully, the artwork of Juanjo Guarnido transcends language. Beyond the sheer variety of colorful creatures he has created to populate this world, Guarnido is a master of expressive faces. The emotions of each character is clear, despite the delightfully alien nature of their features. Guarnido is also a master at working little details into every panel.

This volume is recommended for readers 18 and older. Having not read the earlier volumes of Blacksad, I can’t vouch for the series as a whole, but that seems a bit high for this particular chapter. There is bloodshed and murder, but nothing in excess for an Older Teen series. There is also some sexual content, with a perverted peeping tom spying on one of his neighbors and slapping a woman on the bottom, but no nudity. I would still advise keeping this series in the adult collection, however, given that the sensibilities and historical context of this series are more likely to appeal to older audiences.

Blacksad: They All Fall Down Part 1
By Juan Díaz Canales
Art by  Juanjo Guarnido
Dark Horse, 2022
ISBN: 9781506730578

Publisher Age Rating: 18+

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Creator Representation:  Spanish,  Character Representation: African-American,

Days of Sand

Days of Sand, written and illustrated by  Aimée de Jongh,  is a beautifully illustrated graphic novel about a devastating time from US history. During the Great Depression, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired photographers to chronicle the devastation of the Dust Bowl. This book follows John Clark, a fictional photographer, who moves from New York City to Oklahoma for a month. The story explores the complexity of capturing something so large in such a small medium. What kinds of truths can be captured in images that are cropped and often staged? What truths are left out when viewed through the perspective of still images?

De Jongh front loads with exposition including the causes of the Dust Bowl, the historical context of the Great Depression, and the economic and social consequences of the dust storms. The exposition is at times a bit forced, but not tedious, and helped to give context to the story.

While Clark is a fictional photographer, the job was real. The FSA hired photographers, such as Dorthea Lange and Arthur Rothstein, to travel throughout the United States to document the devastation and extreme poverty of those living through the Great Depression. In Days of Sand, the FSA office strongly suggests that Clark may find success in exposing truths through his images through some staging and manipulation. “It goes beyond the subject to reveal a deeper truth.” Clark arrives in the panhandle of Oklahoma and immediately begins to manufacture scenes to match a list of requested images. The people of the town are rightly hesitant to trust him. It isn’t until he is able to see the people of the town as humans rather than an assignment that he is able to truly understand their predicament and take photos with more truth and honesty. There were heartwarming moments and moments that made my heart drop.

This was a devastating time in US history, and much of what we know is in large part because of the work of these photographers. However, the act of taking photos is not free from bias. Photography (as with any art form) is unable to capture whole truths. Some photos meant to be documentary in nature are staged, but more so, the choices made by the photographer (where to crop, the angle, and the lighting) affect the message and meaning derived from the image.

De Jongh writes a detailed afterward with a well-articulated discussion of the work of the FSA photographers and the effect they had on public perceptions. In the end, the book makes the argument that these photographers may have done more harm than good. Staged photography casts doubt on authenticity, and many photographers acted more as spectators than members of the community. Can you have empathy or truly understand a community from the outside? Is art an effective way to share truths? De Jongh argues, “no,” despite using the comic art form to make said argument.

I think it is also important to note that there is a missed opportunity for a diverse perspective. Days of Sand is about a white male fictional photographer. In real life, the FSA hired many white men, but it also hired women, such as Dorthea Lange, and people of color, such as Gordon Parks. Marginalized perspectives are an important part of history, and a perspective from a woman or person of color would have added important layers to and depth to the realities of the day.

Days of Sand is far from perfect, however, the illustration style is beautiful and many of the images are exquisite. There are also a number of tender moments with human connection that do, in many ways, redeem the book. The book is illustrated in a mixture of highly detailed comic illustrations and realistic illustrated reproductions of real and fictional photography from the FSA photographers. The realism reflects the haunting nature of documenting such tragedies.

In the end, I found the book interesting and will include it in my high school graphic novel collection. There are other (arguably better written) comic descriptions of the Great Depression, but the story of the FSA photographers is an important and interesting story to tell. I found the book to be thought-provoking and will recommend it to teen and adult readers who like historical fiction and philosophical discussions about the nature of capturing truths.

Days of Sand 
By Aimée de Jongh
SelfMadeHero, 2022
ISBN: 9781914224041

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)

Dark Blood, Vol. 1

Superpowers, as depicted in fiction, are often a double-edged sword—there’s the freedom of flying like Superman or having enough strength to move the car that’s taking up your parking spot, but there’s also the inherent fear of others that comes with having abilities different from mainstream humanity. Add in the volatile component of racism and the superpower narrative can become quite explosive, as it does in Dark Blood, written by LaToya Morgan and illustrated by Walt Barna.

The book focuses on Avery Aldridge, a former Tuskegee airman living in 1950’s Alabama. He’s a veteran who fought in the war with the hope of making it back home to his family, but home means he and his family must endure the racism of the Deep South. While processing the trauma of war and the racism at home, he discovers that he can somehow move things with his mind. Many people, especially those who see Avery as less than them, will also be afraid of that power.

The superhero origin story is a popular trope and Morgan’s story offers an interesting take. There are multiple plotlines that run through this story, from Avery being trapped behind enemy lines to him being the victim of a racial attack that ultimately leads to him being on the run. The narrative jumps around a bit, but these stories are as vital to Avery’s superhero origin as a bite from a radioactive spider. Everything from the PTSD to how he is treated by the white people in his life all go into who he is and how he decides to use his gifts.

And when he starts using his powers in earnest, they are quite awe-inspiring, thanks to Barna’s use of dynamic POV angles that give a punch to the scenes of Avery fighting in the war as well as those showing him unleashing his powers. Where Barna really shines, though, is how he makes Avery’s telekinetic powers truly terrifying. Avery’s power builds from being able to lift small objects to stopping bullets, but it’s the characters’ body language, as illustrated by Barna, that really sells the power Avery has. From Avery’s tension-filled face as he uses his powers to people’s terrified reactions to them, readers can practically feel them thrumming off the page.

Some people dismiss superhero comics as straight-up revenge fantasies, as people gaining power to get back at those who slighted them. But the kinds of slights that Avery and his family must deal with go beyond what Peter Parker endured at high school or Clark Kent endured at the Daily Planet. More than just a story full of dynamic angles and fluttering capes, this tale is more of a character study of a man who suddenly gains great power and must decide how to use it. This book is sure to be a hit with superhero fans because of its many displays of awesome superpowers, but its social commentary is also an important message of how hard it is for the marginalized and disenfranchised to rise up, with or without phenomenal psychic powers.

Dark Blood, vol. 1
By LaToya Morgan
Art by Walt Barna
Abrams, 2022
ISBN: 9781684157112

NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation:  African-American
Character Representation: African-American