Action Crime Historical

Blacksad Review (A Spanish Masterpiece)

Blacksad by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido Review

Wanted: A hard-boiled noire detective thriller with anthropomorphic animals set in 1950’s America.

Beautiful dames & gangsters. Racial tension & child abduction. Old friendships & the red scare. Blacksad has it all.

Follow hard-nosed private investigator (PI) John Blacksad. Live the madness and hope of the 50s. Watch John dispense his own brand of justice.

Blacksad is what Raymond Chandler would have created if he wrote graphic novels. Like the classic ‘40s PI Philip Marlow, John Blacksad holds nothing back.

At first I was a little bothered by the fact that all the characters are humanoid animals. It seemed childish. Boy was I wrong!

Read on to find out why and discover today must read graphic novel…

A Suave & Tough Private Dick Who Looks Like A Cat

First of all. Canales and Guarnido don’t tell stories about animals that act and look like people. They associate people’s character and personality with their animal equal.

Police officers are various breeds of dogs. Gangsters are lizards or rats. Our inquisitive and independent hero is a cat.

It is through this lens that we see the USA during the 1950s.

Each story is a good old fashioned hard-boiled detective thriller. Each also serves as a unique perspective on some of the major social issues of post-war America.

Blacksad: Somewhere Within the Shadows

The collection starts with the first volume of Blacksad: Somewhere Within the Shadows. Blacksad’s old flame, the beautiful young actress Natalia Wilford is murdered in her home. Called in to identify her body. John’s ally and friend, Police Commissionaire Smirnov warns John. Stay out of the investigation he says.

John ponders his relationship with Natalia. In flashbacks we get to see her as a person with her own fears, emotions and ambitions. And while he loved her, Natalia was not a ‘one-man-woman’.

Blacksad -She's a little hearbreaker

The dame was trouble. Trouble enough to get her murdered?

Blacksad is still in love with the memory of his time with Natalia, and decides to investigate on his own. This leads him down a familiar path of gangsters and political corruption.

What is the worth of one woman’s life weighed against the interests of the establishment?

A captivating story of one man’s struggle for truth and justice follows.

How far will Blacksad go to avenge an ex-lover?

John is a practical man, but we meet him at a time when he’s been pushed to the edge emotionally.

To say that we get an intense view and appreciation for his character and values is an understatement.

Blacksad: Somewhere Within the Shadows doesn’t disappoint. It is a great introduction to the world of John Blacksad.

Blacksad: Arctic Nation

The next volume in this compilation is Arctic Nation.

Canales and Guarnido take on some really nasty and difficult topics. Racism, segregation and bigotry. The authors manage to tell a story around painful social issues in a tasteful and mature manner. Especially since it involves the child abduction.

Arctic Nation begins with a hate crime and gets tenser from thereon out.

Blacksad is on his way to investigate the abduction of a little black girl in a suburb, called ‘The Line’. The Line is a desolated, economically depressed community.

Then John Blacksad comes upon the scene of a lynching.

Blacksad -A lynching

He gets to know Weekly, a hyperactive and chatty weasel who works for a gossip rag back in the city.

After meeting his employer, an elderly teacher who fears for little Kylie. John gets a taste of the local politics. All courtesy of a white supremacist group called ‘Arctic Nation’.

This is where Canales and Guarnido’s decision to use animals really pays off.

The members of Arctic Nation are all depicted as white furred animals. While everybody else is brown, black or some other darker color shade.

John is a black tomcat with a white muzzle. But his ‘human ethnicity’ is kept ambiguous. He doesn’t seem to have any problems in the segregated South during later volumes.

Back to the story. Some Arctic Nation thugs take offense at him and Weekly (a red/brown weasel) having a drink at a local bar.

They get to learn the hard way why you don’t mess with Blacksad…

From there we quickly get acquainted with the local police chief Karup. Who goes on to lectures John and Weekly at length. He keeps talking about about the moral failings of “their people”.

And how he is upholding the values of the “great men who founded this country”. Pointing to his shrine to the Confederacy… Charming.

Speaking to the missing girl’s pretty mother also doesn’t seem to yield any results. Nobody seems to care about a missing little black girl.

Out of leads, John and Weekly have a run in with the other gang of thugs operating in the Line. A black-power organization called the ‘Black Claws’. And once again, someone takes offence at John’s face.

“What’s wrong with your face brother,” says a thug while pointing at John’s white muzzle.

After roughing up Weekly to get him to publish their statement on Kylie’s kidnapping. Which they claim to have nothing to do with. The Claws finger Chief Karup.

Rumor has it that the chief has an unhealthy and criminal interest in children. Hmm…

Will Blacksad find Kylie?

What dark suburban secretes lie at the heart of this tragedy?

Will John survive his run in with racist, the police and the local establishment?

I loved Blacksad: Arctic Nation! John’s wit and dignity in the face of bigotry and hate was amazing. This is a dark story. It’s also a subtle commentary on economic depression. And the consequences of hate and the fear of sexual perversion.

Blacksad: Red Soul

In Red Soul, John is bored out of his mind because financial circumstances have forced him to… get a job!

Good thing, then, that he is back in town just in time to meet up with his old school teacher Otto Liebber. Otto is a Nobel Prize nominated nuclear physicist.

Otto’s speech on global peace is interrupted by anti-socialist demonstrators. John get’s invited to a private party by the idle wealthy communist Samuel Gotfield (who is a jerk).

At the party Blacksad meets several notable leftist figures. Including the Russian painter Sergei Litvak. Hungarian chemist Laszlo Herzl. And the beautiful writer Alma Mayer who is engaged to Gotfield.

After the party. Another guest is mistaken for Otto and killed by a professional assassin. John and Alma fall in love with each other. But their bliss is interrupted by another attempt on Otto’s life.

Alma and the other leftists from the party are betrayed. Gotfield sells them out to the fanatical Senator Gallo and the FBI.  Who arrest them as dangerous communist agitators.

Blacksad -Talk Dirty to Me

While trying to find out Otto’s whereabouts, bumbling FBI agents accidentally kill Sergei Litvak. And cover it up.

Can John save Alma?

Who is trying to kill Otto?

Does his work on the nuclear bomb have anything to do with it?

Will John survive getting framed for Litvak’s murder by the FBI?

Blacksad: Red Soul is another gem by Canales and Guarnido.

It deals with an emotive period in American history without getting preachy. John Blacksad isn’t interested in politics, he cares about his friends not their politics. Unfortunately politics cares about Blacksad.

This volume is a great story. All about fear, mass hysteria, good intentions & evil deeds, love and redemption.

A sobering look at McCarthyism and the Red Scare. And, an awesome piece of noire detective literature to boot!

The Art & Writing of Blacksad

Guarnido’s art is sublime.

Often it feel more like you are watching a hand painted movie than reading a graphic novel. His ‘day job’ as an animator for Disney in France shines through!

Scenes are set up like classic film noire movies.Blacksad Review

Our  hero moves through menacing streets at night. Overlooked by menacing skyscrapers. Peering through half closed Venetian blinds, onto the streets below.

I mentioned that Blacksad looks hand painted. Unlike American graphic novels which are usually  digitally colored.

I don’t know if Guarnido actually manually paints his artwork. But in the best tradition of European graphic novels it looks like he does. And it works! The colors are mat and make you feel like you are watching a really good copy of early color films. The atmosphere is dark, no bright spots here. Which suites the story lines just fine.

What stands out about Guarnido’s art is his skillful use of facial expressions.

Characters come alive on every panel. Aside from the basic emotions of anger, fear and happiness. Guarnido conveys more subtle feelings like contempt, introspection, lust and longing. You can read a characters state of mind by looking at his or her posture! It amazing.

Canales writing and dialogue are smooth, like well-aged whisky on the rocks.

John Blacksad can be charming, witty or sarcastic without skipping a beat. I love the comic interactions between him and Weekly in Arctic Nation. The candid man to man talk John and Commissioner Smirnov have in Somewhere Within the Shadows.

All characters are typecast based on the animal they represent. Yet we get to see a depth that I didn’t think was possible in stories that are only 58 pages per volume.

John is no hero! But unlike other hard-boiled protagonists he is no anti-hero either.

He is simply a practical man who is not afraid to get his hands dirty.

The naked truth is that John has values and integrity.

He is not preachy. He is not insincere. He is an honorable man, somebody out of another age. But he is human with all the appetites and ugliness that entails.

Few writers could pull this off and Canales succeeded where many others have failed.

Conclusion

This compilation of Blacksad collects the first three volumes of the series. It was put together by Dark Horse Comics.

Somewhere Within the Shadows & Arctic Nation have been published in English before. But I was glad to see that Dark Horse has done some minor editing.

The original translation was a little clunky in a few places and Dark Horse has ironed out those kinks.

All in all, Blacksad is an awesome detective yarn set in the 1950s USA.

I recommend you get a copy just for the art but that would be doing a disservice to the amazing story that is Blacksad!

The Spanish creative team of Canales and Guarnido have created a master piece. One for which they have won awards several times.

Get this graphic novel if you like hard-boiled detective thrillers or love a good story!

Happy reading!

PS: Click here to orderBlacksad today!

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