Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Blacksad

I guess it's fairly obvious that I tend to stick to manga. I have nothing against comics from other regions. It's just that there is already more manga than I could ever hope to read, that it is even more daunting to try to branch out and try other things. So I usually just keep chipping away at a never ending stack of manga. But thanks to the massive time-sink that is Tumblr, I came across some comic book art that my manga-centric mind couldn't ignore. That art was of Spanish artist, Juanjo Guarnido's 'Blacksad', and I'm really glad I came across it on that fateful Tumblr scrolling session.

John Blacksad is a cat. An anthropomorphic private investigator cat that sticks his whiskers into dangerous cases in 1950's America. If he's not avenging an old flame, he's investigating a kidnapping, all the while, trying to keep himself from ending up on the wrong side of the often corrupt law.

Each chapter is its own story, with John Blacksad, and maybe two other side characters and a few subtle callbacks being the only real overarching aspects. The stories themselves have a familiar feeling that are enhanced by great execution, and not without their surprises and twists. At the same time, it's obvious that they are suppose to be a little recognizable as an homage to the film noir genre. The characters are also kind of familiar, especially side characters who only appear in one story and don’t have enough panel time to be fleshed out into something super original. The ones with the most focus show shades of complexity, but the stories are over before that can be fully realized for the most part. Main character, John Blacksad, is basically your hard-boiled private detective archetype seen frequently in the film noir genre. Still, the devil is in the details and John Blacksad does display some qualities of his own underneath his surface archetype, and a unique character history. The short length of the stories really works against the characters. That’s my main problem with this series. The whole time reading, I just wanted it to be longer. Partly because it was engaging and I didn’t want it to end, but also because I felt like it would be more engaging if it took its time more. The stories are very compact, and there are currently only four individual stories released in English. With the short length of the individual stories, I’m afraid the side characters will always suffer, but John Blacksad, being a recurring character, has the potential to show more and more with every arc.

What brought my attention to this series was the art, and though I found the writing to be more than adequate, in the end, the art is what left the biggest impression on me. Simply put, it's flawless. I love the use of anthropomorphism in 'Blacksad'. The style kind of reminds me of a Disney cartoon from my childhood that I liked called TaleSpin. It having a Disney-esque appeal may not be a coincidence seeing as how the artist once worked as an animator for Disney. And you would think animal faces wouldn't be as expressive as human faces, but I think the facial expressions are probably the most impressive aspect of the art. The sheer variety and fluidity of the facial expressions is astounding. In each and every panel, foreground and background characters convey the full range of emotions. It's all very animated, without you know, actually being animated(would love to see a Blacksad animated movie...). In fact, I'm afraid now that I've been spoiled by 'Blacksad' and when I go back to manga that are often full of "cool" and stoic characters, I will miss this level of emoting. The facial expressions are impressive, but my favorite thing about the art is the group shots. Crowds in comics are often given less detail, favoring the foreground main characters, but in 'Blacksad', crowd shots really make the comic come to life. Random, nameless background characters also get rendered in painstaking detail, really giving you something to look at and examine. I love catching little background details that just make the work seem so much more vibrant than comics where the background is just an afterthought.


Another great aspect of the art is the lighting. The artist is a master at lighting. He can pull off dark and seedy equally well as bright and welcoming. The well lit, colorful sunny scenes are among my favorite in the series. It's interesting that as I read this in the dark and gloomy Winter, Juanjo Guarnido's bright and sunny scenes almost have a brightening affect on me personally, and certainly immerse me into the scene perfectly. Not to mention how well these bright scenes help contrast the dark film noir style scenes. It's not just for show. The lighting is very functional and helps tell the story. As usual, I'm unable to do the art justice with my description. Fortunately, Dark Horse provides a preview that you can judge for yourself. If that's not enough, I'll just say that in my eyes, nearly every panel is a gallery quality piece of work. If I was forced to make one criticism, it would be that the paneling is rather conventional, which isn't really a "con", it just it's a "pro" either.

The 'Blacksad' series is published by Dark Horse in English spanning two books. The first book features three stories in a large hardback with thick, glossy pages. The second book, titled 'Blacksad:Silent Hell', only has one story, but to fill the book out, it has an interesting thirty-five page commentary by the artist detailing his creative process, such as how he gets his colors just right, and what kind of paper he uses. Another extra in 'Blacksad:Silent Hell' is two little short chapters. More of John Blacksad's adventures, even short ones, are definitely welcome. 'Blacksad' isn't quite perfect, but I feel like this foray away from manga was very successful and that I got my money's worth and more. The fifth installment, 'Amarillo', is already published in France, and here's hoping that Dark Horse is already working on their English release, because I'd love to see more John Blacksad and his anthropomorphic world.



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