My rating: 4 of 5 stars
(Note: A review of a graphic novel always benefits from a few examples of artwork, and since I was unable to scan any from my copy of the book I have added a link here to a nice selection, courtesy of Google Images.)
This is the kind of graphic novel that tends to find its way onto Top 10 lists, and in this case the chorus of adulation seems predominantly justified. It's a collection, really, of three graphic stories, about sixty pages each, that were originally published on a "when-it's-done" schedule throughout this past decade. The stories are the stuff of classic noir, heavily inspired by the world set down by old pulp fiction and 40s-and-50s-era black-and-white American B-movies; except here the roles are played by animals that look like people, or as the authors prefer to see it, "people who look like animals."
So, Reader, meet John Blacksad, a big black cat, with a bit of white on his chin and an unfortunate name. He's a detective, and a fairly typical one at that, who has to deal with, in succession 1) unraveling and revenging the murder of an old flame, 2) immersing himself in a neighborhood race-war in order to find a missing child, and 3) investigating the murders of a circle of leftward-leaning scientists. The stories, although perhaps a bit typical, a bit too form-fitting to their genre, are still valiant, commendable efforts in their own little time and place... but the art... the art is for all time.
This collection was illustrated by Juanjo Guarnido, a former Disney animator. Now, these days the term "Disney animator" still packs a wallop, and if the quality of Disney's traditionally animated productions have degraded in recent years it is certainly not for a lack of talent. Nevertheless today the term "former Disney animator" may carry with it even more punch, since it indicates the person to whom it's attached has talent enough to be picked up by Disney, and freedom enough to create their own vision, free from under the still somewhat tyrannical eyes of the Disney crew.
Well, now... I suppose it's more than just a matter of DISNEY IS EVIL. The comics medium has been through a lot, spending most of its formative years in a production-oriented, highly profit-based world. And then, when comics went "underground," this new breed of artist had neither the money nor the inclination to make finely intricate comics. But now... now, I'm convinced we are in a golden age of comics art, when comics have moved off the assembly line, into galleries and museums, and many of the genre's top illustrators have the inclination, time, and financial freedom to create absolutely jaw-dropping stuff. And not just a panel or two, but throughout the whole book.
With Blacksad the artist has done just that. Just about every panel can stand on its own, as an individual piece of artwork, a testament to the artist's mastery -- and bane of millions of students who can only wish they had those skills. For proof just look at the faces: those bulky, awkward animal faces come to life and express a full range of human emotion (The Dreamworks people should take a few notes.) And mind you, the faces are just an example. The backgrounds, clothing, props -- even the atmosphere, a word as difficult and somehow intangible as the thing it describes -- all come to life in each panel.
When combined, the panels only enhance their effects; the narratives are always fast paced and the art sticks with them every step of the way. It never wallows upon itself, a common foible amongst the upper crust of comics art. Sometimes, I suspect, an artist of that caliber gets a little too full of himself. But not here... Here, almost child-like passion and enthusiasm positively drip from every page. And even if the stories don't appeal to you or the premise seems too cliche, I hope you will at least crack this book to enjoy the art. If nothing else, why not take Emerson's advice on Shakespeare? Read it backwards, from finish to start, and avoid all that messy plot nonsense that just confuses and obfuscates, and drags your attention away from the poetry in motion on the page.
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