Monday, November 10, 2014
The hardboiled PI story long since boiled down to a hard crust of required elements: the laconic, tall, poor-but-honest hero, always pushing his hat back on his head and wearing a suit that was nice a few years back; the dame who is much more trouble than she's worth, poured into a smart expensive dress and probably wearing a hat with a little veil; the dusty office, hot and languid, with a bottle in the bottom desk drawer; the cops, always cruel and usually corrupt, looking to pin crimes on the hero or whoever is handiest; the rich man with opaque motives, sometimes with crazy daughters or an ornate wheelchair; and at least one murder, either bloody and immediate or long-buried a generation ago in Canads, but either way poisoning the life of preferably an entire family and definitely at least one important, tormented character.
Juan Diaz Canales (script) and Juanjo Guarnido's (art) Blacksad graphic novels are hardboiled PI stories, and they fit the mold as well as any story can: they're set in the US 1950s as imagined by a couple of Spaniards fifty years later, made up entirely of fiction and received knowledge rather than actual life and experience. Their world is also one of anthropomorphic animals, though this is the kind of world -- unlike Bryan Talbot's Grandville, which I poked at yesterday -- where the specifics of which animal someone is doesn't actually matter and is never mentioned. (Our hero, John Blacksad, is a panther, but that translates to African-American, and that's the only race mentioned. Presumably, all of the other lions and bulls and foxes and horses and rabbits and sheep and jackals and flamingos are Caucasian, as long as their skin is relatively light.) The great flaw of the Blacksad stories is that second-handedness; Diaz Canales and Guarnido can tell strong stories and fill living worlds, but nothing here is new or shows any original thought. They take a character design sense from mid-century Disney movies, a worldview from Chandler via the more commercial side of film noir, and a background from a thousand cliches and received ideas, but don't add anything unique or particular from their own conceptions of the world.
The fifth book in the series is Blacksad: Amarillo, which sees our usually New York-based detective traveling across the American South, driving a car for a rich man from New Orleans to Tulsa in the aftermath of another case that went bad. His good nature gets the worst of him, as usual, and he's caught up in the anguished career/personal crisis of Chad, the novel's Jack Kerouac character. Chad is able to pretty impressively mess up his life -- though he does have help from a wide array of horrible friends, bad acquaintances, and unfortunate passers-by -- and Blacksad is mostly just trying to clear up his own minor role in that frenzy of self-destruction and get out the other side without being pinned with any of Chad's crimes.
Amarillo relies less on PI cliches than some of the earlier books did, though it pulls out new cliches -- about the Beat writers in general, and tormented creative types in general -- to make up for them. It also has the requisite woman with a dark secret in her history, who can only be saved by a man making a noble gesture -- don't look for her to get much agency or room to solve her own problems. The plot is a thread of events, driven almost entirely by Chad and his associates -- Blacksad is along for the ride, and influences things here and there, but he mostly functions in a clean-up role here, attempting to put things back together after they've been broken. Readers looking for a traditional PI story will be disappointed; Blacksad here is our window into a plot more like a Jim Thompson novel, in which everything that can go wrong does and the central character (Chad) is doomed from the first page.
As always, Guarnido's art is deeply expressive, and he makes the reader ignore the fact that these are all animals within a few pages. And the dialogue -- translated by Katie LaBarbera with Neal Adams  -- is colloquial in a very movie-derived style, deeply entertaining but clearly artificial and genre-bound. Amarillo is a smart genre exercise, and it does see Diaz Canales and Guarnido stretching beyond the initial inspirations for the series -- but if Blacksad is ever to turn into something really special, it will need to find its own path, instead of just continuing its current magpie ways.
(I reviewed -- pretty badly, I now have to admit -- a collection of the first three Blacksad stories two years ago.)
 Adams also contributes a self-congratulatory introduction, almost entirely in sentence fragments, about how he loves the series even though he hated the previous translations and can't actually read the languages he supposedly translated Amarillo from -- in its randomness and incoherence, it comes close to demolishing any claim for his work being even slightly useful to this book, since it functions very badly at the task of showing us that Neal Adams can write pleasing English sentences.
Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index