A Review of Blacksad (Vol. 1-3) by Juan Díaz Canales (writer) and Juanjo Guarnido (artist)

 


 

Would you pay 18000 Euros (approx US$ 23,500) for this?

[Cover to Blacksad Volume 3 Red Soul]

Well, someone did. Actually,  I lie. That 18,000 Euros was just the upper estimate on this album cover which finally sold for 37,303 Euros (approx.US$48K) before taxes. This kind of pricing can wear you down after a while. It lodges in your memory and when people keep repeating the mantra (“Blacksad…Blacksad …Blacksad!”) within listening distance of your computer screen you begin to ask yourself whether you’re missing out on some fabled piece of Euro pop culture, the kind that has cats in trench coats.

The three volume Blacksad omnibus has an introduction by Jim Steranko and he is effusive in his praise of Canales and Guarnido’s work, placing it in the tradition of “funny animals” and finding that this subspecies of the genre is “predicated on people who resemble animals”. He cites especially Guarnido’s “persuasive ability…in the emotional nuances and facial expressions of his characters, easily the equal of any Disney effort on record. The trick, of course, is making it look easy…”

He’s wrong in that last part of course. Blacksad looks anything but easy. The grimy city is meticulous in its details, the well appointed interiors obsessive in preserving this gaudy “reality”.

There are the expert rhythms of the gun play, the worn tenements which seem like a skillful nod to Will Eisner…

…the dappled shadows playing on figures at sunset, all of these individuals decked out in clothes and cars befitting their status.

Research, homage and passion. There’s very little doubt that these comics required a huge investment in terms of time and technique and its Prize for Artwork at Angoulême in 2004 is not surprising considering the continental taste for such things (the other nominees included Seth, Richard Corben and Taiyo Matsumoto).

Make no mistake, you won’t find anything close to the malicious brusqueness of  Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of Parker or Steranko’s Red Tide here, much less the novels of Hammett and Chandler. That dark, dangerous and sweaty existence reeking of convoluted machinations is for the real aficionados. Canales and Guarnido are itinerants in this world and there version of this landscape is the kind of Day-Glo purgatory you get in more light-hearted television fare like the Spenser adaptations; a tourist’s view of the underworld more beholden to family oriented cartoons than classic film noir; that strain of false memory you find in films like Slumdog Millionaire which almost convinces you that slums of Mumbai are kind of acceptable and don’t actually reek of everything that is bad about poverty.

It’s all quite intentional of course, this appropriation of the brightness and nostalgia associated with 50s America. This sepia tinged bathos is used to highlight institutional corruption, racism, nuclear secrets and the Red Scare among other things. The anthropomorphics are capably deployed in the same vein resulting in a pleasantly predictable experience, a kind of funny animal fan service: the rat is both a snitch and a double-crosser; the faithful commissioner is a German Shepherd; the wily lieutenant is a fox; a  rhino and a bear serve as paid muscle; and the big boss is suitably enigmatic in his countenance (I presume he’s a lizard but not your garden variety gecko).  Canales and Guarnido get a bit more mileage out of their “funny animals” in their second story concerning small town racism where a number of white supremacists are represented by a bunch of white furred critters, all of them endangered (a polar bear, a white tiger and an arctic fox). Getting deeper into the meanings of these metaphors a la Maus (the concrete jungle, the bestial nature of man, the politics of fur color etc.) seems unwarranted and unnecessary. This is an exercise in bravura style closer to comics like Torpedo than many reviewers would have you believe (just more of a conscience and less breasts) .

Now some fur lovers will tell you that the anthropomorphizing here isn’t a gimmick but honestly, that’s about all there is to it. It’s a form of cartooning shorthand long cherished by comic readers and in the case of Blacksad an excuse to defer good plotting and characterization. I would be hard placed to find a single character in these three volumes who isn’t a cardboard caricature. This sort of explains why Blacksad is a cat. Draw him as a human and these books will be revealed for what they are – acts of regurgitation. As far as the long history of noir novels and films are concerned, Blacksad is a hardboiled eunuch, reeking of a need to appeal to an all ages audience despite some PG13 sex scenes and a few casual murders scattered here and there.  As for the regurgitate, we have the usual suspects: the murdered dame, the old flame, the hero being pulped by the hired help, the depraved mandarin sitting in his aerie casting a disdainful eyes over the insects crawling beneath him; the deck of noir tropes shuffled, reshuffled and coming out largely unchanged. This creative masturbation is totally in keeping with the book’s asexual and unfertile content. The second volume of Blacksad is equally tiresome in its sanctimonious examination of racism. Canales and Guarnido invoke Robert E. Lee, Southern values, sexual deviancy, the KKK, mob lynchings, Billy Holiday (I assume it’s her anyway) singing “Strange Fruit” at various points in this album, all of which is meant to add that hint of of cursory depth and creative frisson because the hero is, you know, black.

This is the kind of creative endeavor that makes you want to call Frank Miller a cartooning god (well, not quite). Miller suckled at Steranko’s teat as far as the imagery of Sin City is concerned and he is utterly immersed in the no nonsense misogyny and prurience which drips from the genre. There’s no artifice in his comics, no shroud for his uninhibited passion for violence and overcooked dialogue, no mistaking his joyous delight at the Mickey Mouse transgressions of leather-clad whores with whips. This creative philosophy has found its way into almost everything he’s written since.  His hilarious portrayal of Wonder Woman in All Star Batman and Robin (drawn by Jim Lee) is in some ways a more forgiving experience than the overwhelming tedium of Canales and Guarnido’s buxom lilies and cookie cutter “liberal” values.

 

[Concept art for proposed Wonder Woman mini-series (2005) drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz and written by Frank Miller; from the collection of Steven M.]

There’s no question that both of these comics are filled with enough crap to choke your toilet and bidet but at least Miller’s crap makes you cackle once in a while. We’ve all heard the refrain that modern day super women look more like street walkers but Miller doesn’t make Wonder Woman look like a whore, as far as Miller is concerned Wonder Woman is a whore, a BDSM goddess straight out of Sin City and the meanest, dick-stomping bitch in the universe. And Jim Lee almost reaches Miller’s state of hardboiled superhero nirvana turning traditional fight scenes into family friendly strip shows (Breasts! Crotch Shots!). Only edible in very small portions to be sure but this kind of stupid honesty is marginally more entertaining than the saccharine slop we find in Blacksad. At worst, it’s almost a novel idea which is more than I can say for Blacksad with its laundry list of recycled sluice water: racists fucking beautiful black people…

…woman cringing as she takes a shower because she feels dirty after using sex as a weapon…

… hero screwing sexy heroine before she disappears at the end of the book, and don’t forget to send in the Nazis…

– all of this perfectly judged to ensure your reading experience comes out smelling  like a starched white shirt. It’s this strain of stereotypical morality, this dogged adherence to soporific storytelling conventions and this attraction to one dimensional portrayals of evil which have ensured Blacksad’s appeal to the masses.

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