Series Review: Blacksad, by Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guardino

A review of:

  • Somewhere Within the Shadows (2000)
  • Arctic Nation (2002)
  • Red Soul (2005)
  • A Silent Hell (2012)
  • Amarillo (2013)

Blacksad is a series of noir hardboiled detective stories, very much in the style of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett, and stars a cynical private investigator named John Blacksad. The comic drawings dive with relish into all the typical hardboiled noir tropes, as we see Blacksad navigate cluttered police desks – with the shadows of Venetian blinds on him – dirty back alleys of familiar cities in the 1950s, the lush homes of the rich, and his own past, full of regrets and old flames. All the while giving his cynical internal narration, of course. 

Blacksad the comic became popular and highly regarded, receiving multiple awards, and a video game adaptation and a movie seems to be stuck in development for some years now. The comics are produced for the French market first, although created by two Spaniards, and translated afterwards. Once every few years a new volume is released, for the writer and artist have to take their time to produce something special each time, with excitingly composed cinematic pages and painstakingly perfected art and colouring. Each new release has become a publishing event in the world of comics.

So, as you can see on the cover and the pages, this is a series with anthropomorphic animals. Blacksad is a black cat, but there are also mice, rhinos, lizards, gorillas and all sorts of other animals inhabiting the comic, and this is totally normal in the story-world. As the film has been stuck in development hell for years, in 2016 we got the Disney animated film Zootopia (2016) which comes closest to the material but is a kiddie version of the far darker and mature Blacksad comics. The connection with Disney runs deeper, as artist Guardino became a lead artist at Disney studios and worked for example on the Tarzan film. Like in Zootopia, the animals are type-cast insofar that they reflect human emotions. Weasels and lizards are often the criminals, dogs and wolves the police officers, gorillas and pigs are boxers, there is a loud, argumentative director who is a walrus, and Blacksad is very much like a cat: a loner, grumpy, quiet, quick to show his claws.

The art is absolutely wonderful. Guardino can show more emotions (and really nuanced emotions) in these animals than most artists can do with humans. The animal aspects even heighten the expressions or fit closely to our impression of these animals. To murder someone in cold blood makes more sense for coldblooded animals. Reptiles look like predators. Rats look like rats, if you know what I mean. On top of that, every single panel looks as if a lot of thought has been put into the composition and perspectives. The movements and action feel fluid and dynamic, as if we are truly watching a film. And the watercolours add mood: sombre or warm or clear or murky. 

As for the stories – look, this was created for those who love the hardboiled detective genre. It is a love-letter to the tropes, and as such it is more focused on style than on substance. Nevertheless, those tropes are taken up with verve and precision. The first story, Somewhere Within the Shadows (2000) is a perfectly composed noir story about the murder of a female movie star and has all the right beats of a noir story, but if you really want to personify with John Blacksad you might find it all a bit superficial. After this opening salvo, the stories get longer and each one tackles some new themes. Arctic Nation (2002) is about racism and a white supremacy movement, started by white-pelted arctic mammals like polar bears, seals and arctic foxes. This suddenly casts John on the Black side of things. Although a bit superficial, the story has some good twists and a strong ending. Red Souls (2005) deals with McCarthyism, runaway Nazis and Atom Bomb secrets. Blacksad investigates murders in a group of leftist intellectuals and artists.

Unfortunately, as the series went on, the level of detail in the drawings and the richness of the colouring declined. Once we get to the fourth and fifth stories, A Silent Hell (2012) and Amarillo (2013), which are sold separately by Dark Horse comics but are part of the French Integral edition, one begins to see a difference in the quality of the art compared to the first or second stories. A Silent Hell still has very impressive panels and occasionally masterful use of light and shadow, and a very realistic depiction of New Orleans, so I am giving that one a pass. But once we get to Amarillo, the contrast between light and dark toned down so far that everything looks flat, and the drawings got sketchier and cartoonier, and it’s really noticeable compared to the first stories. It’s still very good compared to most comics, though.

This change in style may be the consequence of changing preferences by Guardino and by a change to a different grain of paper and materials. In an extended treatise on the making of A Silent Hell, at the end of the album, Guardino explains that he started to experiment with different paper and pens halfway through Red Souls, where I started to notice the shift, and he says that he came to understand that too much heaviness in the shadows can deaden the luminosity of the entire piece. As the final stories are set in Louisiana and Texas, he wanted to capture the light of those places. We can clearly see the difference in the black used for Blacksad’s face, for example. In the early stories his head is deep black and the paintings as a whole have a feeling of weight to them, whereas in the latter stories is head is almost light gray. I really prefer the older style as it looks less cartoonish and more polished. 

That 40-page making-of material is fascinating though. Guardino shows how he often makes multiple sketches to try out the colors and design the right textures. He discusses different tones for shading, indoor or outdoor, and scenes where he had to deal with multiple sources of light in the panels. The question with contrast is often how to create depth in the panels. There are multiple scenes in A Silent Hell set inside bars and he chose a different base colour for shading each time. Lots of sepia. I loved this look behind the curtains and Guardino is an accomplished artist.

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13 Responses to Series Review: Blacksad, by Juan Diaz Canales & Juanjo Guardino

  1. Bookstooge says:

    Did you watch Zootopia? I tried. It was not a good foray into movie land as the messaging was crammed down my throat non-stop 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    • What messaging was that again? I remember it as a fun colorful film with cute animals.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bookstooge says:

        Everybody is equal (in terms of what you can do, if you just try hard enough) and basic instincts like prey/predator reactions are social constructs that can be overcome by everybody just loving everybody.

        It was very colorful and from the synopsis I had high hopes. but it pretty much was the last disney film I’ve watched.

        As for this comic, have you read much detective noir? I have not and so can’t make any comparisons.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Reality is more complex than those messages yes, but I didn’t let that stop me from enjoying the art direction and humor.

          I haven’t read much detective stories but I’ve seen enough movies to be familiar with all the tropes. That’s all you need for a comic like this.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. bormgans says:

    A friend of mine was very much into the first three back in the days. Never got around to reading them. I´ll ask if he still has them so I can borrow them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ola G says:

    This looks and sounds pretty interesting! I’ll give it a go if it’s available in my library – thanks, Jeroen!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Snapdragon says:

    I have this comic on my tbr. I need to catch up with reading the graphic novel classics.

    Liked by 1 person

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