Page 45 Review by Stephen
Hot on the haunches of Bryan Talbot's GRANDVILLE comes an all-in-one hardcover of all three BLACKSAD books to date, the third being completely new to the US/UK market. Here's what I came up with for the first book:
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.
And 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.