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Blacksad: The Collected Stories vol 1 s/c

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Blacksad: The Collected Stories vol 1 s/c back

Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guarnido


Page 45 Review by Stephen & Jonathan

Collects all five (count 'em five!!) volumes of Blacksad so far. Please find below our reviews of each and every one!

Here's our Stephen with the first three to get started...

Please do not be derailed by my next five words: European, anthropomorphic, colour crime fiction. Anthropomorphism is the term used to describe the attribution of human behaviour or traits to animals, objects or - it says rather interestingly in the dictionary - God. There's quite a history of this in comics, with excellent results (MAUS, CEREBUS, PEANUTS), reasonable results (OMAHA THE CAT DANCER) and rubbish results (FURLOUGH, SHANDA THE PANDA etc.).

In fact the genre has acquired such a fetid reputation that I never consciously or unconsciously think of MAUS or CEREBUS as anthropomorphic at all and completely forget about Snoopy and co.. There's no getting away from it here, however: all the characters in this book are animals - fully-clothed, self-aware and bipedal - living, working, loving and killing in exactly the same way as we do in our very own cities, and they have never been so beautifully drawn before.

The figures and clothes are slick, sleek and attractive - a strange and wholly successful mixed breed of Frank Miller, Walt Disney and J. Scott Campbell. The expressions on the cleverly adapted faces of these creatures (be they cats, lizards, rats or orang-utans, carefully chosen for each individual character) are exquisitely realised each and every time.

Moreover, when it comes to architecture and furniture, Guarnido is on a par with the mighty Gerhard, which can only place him at the very top of the field. His line is seductive - both sharp and smooth - making it impossible not to linger on the curves of wood, the folds in the bunched drapes, the intricately patterned rugs or even the general desk clutter which you'd normally not even register.

Were that not enough, Guarnido's watercolours wash over the panels in a warm palette of blue-greys, greens, cream and chocolate brown, and the man even gives serious consideration to the relationship between the environment and the action taking place within it, as seen in the graveyard where Blacksad is given a brutal kicking behind one of the angel statues which holds its hands over its face as if in pained sympathy.

And if the story is a simple piece of A-Z detective fiction which doesn't even offer you the opportunity of joining in with hidden clues (it doesn't), the storytelling is so involving you won't really care.

... And of its sequel, 'Arctic Nation':

There were a lot of orders for volume one, cheers, upon which I heaped lavish praise regarding its art and storytelling whilst conceding that the story itself was somewhat pedestrian: a simple A to B to C detective piece with little for the reader to go on. I'm pleased to report that things aren't half so black and white here - except thematically. For not only is the mystery far more complicated with clues scattered throughout (though they fooled me completely which is always a bonus), but the book has something to say and a very clever way of saying it. I even learned a new word: endogamy.

Blacksad finds himself in a town struggling with unemployment, rife with gossip, and overshadowed with overt racism verging on apartheid. The town square plays host to Oswald Mosley-like rallies and public lynchings, both serving to enforce the oppression. Within this community a young girl has disappeared yet her mother, evidently upset, makes little attempt to find her, claiming the white police force would do nothing to help a black family. It sounds simple enough, but I promise you that's the tip of the dirty iceberg. Once more the anthropomorphism is of the highest quality, but whereas each animal was chosen to represent certain human attributes in the first book, the process is taken one step further in 'Arctic Nation' because it revolves around colour as well. So you get white tigers, polar bears, black stallions and bulls, crows, goats, working and living in a highly segregated society. And to make matters even more interesting Blacksad is a black cat built like a panther... with a white snout. Nor is he the only cross-breed creature in town.

Once again, please don't be deceived by the sleek art and potential "ahhh" factor of having animals involved. The book involves racism, paedophilia (tangentially), incest and brutality, so not really recommended for those younger than 16.

Now we come to the third book, 'Red Soul', and my failure so far to mention that these are period pieces. Here the dapper but down-on-his-luck Blacksad is forced by circumstances to take an assignment he couldn't care less for.

"My self-respect and bank account were slugging it out to see which could hit rock bottom first. So when Hewitt Mandeline offered me a job as bodyguard and collector, I didn't really have much of a choice."

Hewitt is a naive, gnarled-necked old tortoise, and Blacksad's rumple-nosed, sulky disgruntlement at having to sit through a tacky gala dinner with him is priceless. But things start to look up at an art gallery where he first bumps into an old friend in the form of an Alsatian Commissioner, and secondly spies a leaflet promoting a lecture by old friend and one-time saviour Otto Lieber. The lecture is on nuclear energy, "An Energy For Peace" sponsored by Senator Samuel J. Gotfield. Peace is the emphasis for Lieber, an owl of quiet humility, but chauvinistic showtime and self-promotion is what's on the agenda for the overexcitable Dalmatian that's Gotfield. The lecture goes down well with the crowds inside but not the protestors outside, so when the stones start flying they retire to the beach where Blacksad meets Lieber's extended family of leftist intellectuals - artists, poets and writers like instant love-interest Alma Mayer. It's then that a swimming accident causes a fatal case of mistaken identity when a second McCarthyist Senator makes his move and Blacksad finds himself embroiled in a murder investigation that spirals out of control and, frankly, beyond the remotest realms of credibility. It's a welcome stab at wider issues - Cold-War politics, the balance of military power and all the scare-mongering that's ignited in America by the word 'Communism' - but it's a tad simplistic so scores a flesh-wound only! Shhhh, though. Given the sheer passion and accomplishment of the cartooning, I'll give it free pass. I could stare at these pages for hours. I have stared at these pages for hours.

Then of A Silent Hell our Jonathan wrote...

“I need to find Sebastian ‘Little Hand’ Fletcher.”
“The piano player? I love his music”
“For as long as I’ve known him, I’ve done everything I could for him, personally and professionally. But he’s been missing for months now.”
“That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s in danger...”
“He’s a heroin addict. I’m afraid he’s in danger of doing something stupid. You see, I’m not just a patron to Sebastian... If anything were to happen to him it would be like losing a son...”

And so begins what appears, initially at least, to be a very straightforward case for private investigator John Blacksad and his right hand fox Weekly, to find a missing musician in the jumping, jazzy town of New Orleans, on behalf of the ailing owner of a prominent local record label, old goat Faust Lachapelle. Except very quickly, of course, Blacksad starts to realise everything isn’t quite exactly how it seems. For a start there’s the estranged son of the label owner, whose just a bit too friendly with the very heavily pregnant wife of the missing piano player, not to mention the loudmouth hippopotamus investigator who old goat Lachapelle hired and then promptly fired before retaining Blacksad’s services.

What does become apparent, though, is that someone wants ‘Little Hand’ to play his last note, and in fact they’ve handed off some strychnine to the local heroin dealers (who are horses, of course) to pass on to Sebastian to ensure he’ll soon be getting his very own jazz funeral, trombones, umbrellas and all. By the time Blacksad tracks the local dealers down with a view to finding Sebastian, they’ve already made the sale, making it even more imperative that Blacksad locates him as soon as possible. The down at the jowls boxer dog himself, meanwhile, oblivious to the hot shot he’s carrying around in his pocket, is determined to make a stunning comeback on the ivories with a brand new song he’s written entitled ‘Pizen Blues’. It’s a lament of sorts, for sure, but also a very incriminating one as well. And to make sure he delivers his damning message to perfection he’s not planning on shooting up until after he’s performed, if he can find a venue that will let him play these days that is, which means Blacksad still has a chance to save him!

This fourth instalment of Blacksad was certainly worth the wait, I must say! It’s as gripping a story from Juan Diaz Canales, if more straight crime and less socio-political than the previous three instalments collected together in BLACKSAD, with the usual extremely witty dialogue and interplay between all the characters. Though, of course, John gets to steal most of the best one-liners! And yes, Blacksad simply would not be Blacksad without Juanjo Guarnido’s breathtakingly beautiful art. I instantly enjoyed that this story was set in a new locale, giving the artist chance to do something with a very different background feel, and he really captures the slightly wild Cajun flavour of the Big Easy. Once again, though, his true genius is in how he brings his anthropomorphic creations to life, by simultaneously making use of their distinctive animal features for maximum dramatic and comedic effect, yet doing so in such an incongruous manner that you do forget at times it’s an anthropomorphic work, usually until he hits you with a classic sucker punchline. I do think the equine heroin dealers were my favourite creations, actually, they did crack me whenever they appeared!

BLACKSAD: A SILENT HELL could easily be read without having first read BLACKSAD. It’s completely standalone and you don’t need to know anything that has gone previously. If this is your first experience of John Blacksad though, I would think it’s a pretty safe bet you’ll be picking up the first work shortly thereafter. My only very minor gripe about this volume was that I didn’t realise that fully half of it was extras, where basically Guarnido performs a show-and-tell with various of his first draft sketches (mightily impressive in themselves) and a commentary as to how he then intended to work them up into the final panels, and what he was trying to achieve in each case. It’s all extremely interesting stuff, it’s just that I was so disappointed when I realised I’d got to the end of the story and I thought I was just about half way through, simply because I was enjoying it so much!

And finally of Amarillo Stephen wrote...

"I'll just try to find a nice, quiet job here, where I don't have to dodge bullets and nobody winds up dead… for a change.

Did you know that Walt Disney's Bambi was originally a flop? It's hard to believe these days, but the only thing that saved the studio was the Pentagon hiring it for propaganda purposes during WWII.

I mention this because we have a long love of anthropomorphism and most unused to comics usually associate the genre with childhood pleasures like Alice Through The Looking Glass or Winnie The Pooh. But don't be deceived: like so much anthropomorphism in comics (MAUS!), BLACKSAD is decidedly adult in nature.

All the characters are bipedal animals working, living and loving like we do and they can be equally vicious and flawed. BLACKSAD VOL 1 contained one particularly powerful story involving racism, segregation and lynching using each creature's colour to clever effect, while its star, P.I. John Blacksad, is a big black cat… with a patch of white on his chin. What I inferred from that is here - for the first time, I think - expressly explored when a hitch-hiking John is forced to endure the charmless verbal diarrhoea of a truck-driving macaw.

BLACKSAD books are all period pieces: the Cadillac on the cover isn't a classic yet, it's current. One glance at the glorious, dark grey spread preceding the story itself instantly reminds one of Will Eisner works like A CONTRACT WITH GOD set fairly and squarely in a bustling, fully functioning, very specific environment.

The level of craft on Disney-trained Guarnido's part is mesmerising. When it comes to architecture, both exterior and interior, Guarnido is on a par with animator Hayao Miyazaki for detail. His line is seductive - both sharp and smooth - making it impossible not to linger on the curves of wood, the folds in bunched drapes, the intricately patterned rugs or even the general desk clutter which you'd normally not even register.

In BLACKSAD: A SILENT HELL there was a sunlit courtyard cafe dappled in leafy shadow, a funereal street scene populated by dozens more mourners than you'd think you could fit on a page, and even a thirty-page art class in the back, Guarnido explaining his compositional decisions through preparatory sketches and paintings - enlightening for aspiring artists of any genre, not just anthropomorphism. Here there's a sunny, open airport, a grand old railway station foyer and one hell of a motorbike for Blacksad to stand astride on.

His clothes are so slick, sleek and attractive that you could actively consider them well pressed, and the expressions on each of these creatures are exquisitely realised each and every time - animal versions of our own, exaggerated with such energy that you'll be grinning from cover to cover.

It begins with a moment of bravado by the private swimming pool of author Chad Lowell, a lion who's spent two years on his latest manuscript in the days when there often was only one - no back-ups. His supposed friend and fellow writer, poet Abraham Greenberg, ducks then holds Chad's head underwater, then sets fire to his own poetry before lobbing Chad's scroll at the pool. The red-check-shirted Bison thinks this is funny.

"No guts, no glory, Chad. Give your story a happy ending for once, and leave that roll of paper in some toilet, where people can put it to good use."

Chad catches the script - just - but the expression under his mane, dripping with water, says it all.

John Blacksad, meanwhile, is considering a change of career when his sharp eyes and act of kindness at an airport earn him the respect and trust of a wealthy, outbound bull. He needs someone to drive his expensive yellow Cadillac back to his house in Tulsa, so hands John its keys.

"Ya seem like a straight shooter, son - the kind who stays outta trouble."

And he does seem that but we, by now, know differently. Blacksad's a trouble-magnet, his sense of fair play his undoing, and the raw iron filings heading his way are those loose-cannon writers. Bloody writers, eh?
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