Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Blacksad by Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido

You probably had the same reaction I did -- that is, if you've heard of Blacksad at all.

"Oh, a serious funny animal comic, with a tough cat-man private eye?! Snort!"

But I try to read even things I think will be silly -- sometimes, I go out of my way to read things I think will be silly, since I enjoy making fun of silly things online -- so I found myself a copy of this Blacksad book, which collects three European-style album-length stories (originally published in 2000, 2002, and 2005) written by Juan Diaz Canales and drawn by Juanjo Guarnido. And a funny thing happened when I read it: it wasn't funny. Not at all. The funny-animal faces turned into just another way to tell the story -- and gave some interesting twists on old material, especially in the second story, "Arctic Nation" -- and those stories were tough, smart, compelling noir thrillers.

(It's not as if I haven't learned the "funny animals can be serious" lesson before -- books as varied as Little Nothings, Dungeon, and Maus have done it -- but maybe I was expecting these two Spanish creators' take on "grim & gritty" would be as laughable as most recent American efforts along those lines. Whatever the reason, I was wrong.)

So, yes: Jon Blacksad is a panther-man (I guess), in a world very much derived from US B-movies of the '40s and '50s -- this is clearly the US, and equally clearly that time of history, and both of those things should make telling these stories even more difficult for two modern European men, but there's no sign of strain or axe-grinding here. Blacksad has a complicated relationship with the local police -- neither used as an extension of their power nor reflexively kicked aside, but somewhere in between, depending on the case -- and inhabits a world full of many other complications, from racial politics to nuclear dangers to movie-star intrigue, and, of course, the requisite murder and secrets and lust and greed to fuel the plots he gets caught up in.

And these are three damn good mystery stories, with sharp dialogue and an excellent world-weary narration. Even more, Guarnido is a excellent artist, giving these dog-men and cat-women and owl-men a full life, with realistic body language and great facial expressions. There is a whole world inside Blacksad, and I really hope that these aren't the last stories to come from that world.

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