Origins in Animation
Studio Lápiz Azul
What we know for sure is that the two first met in the animation department of this small, Spanish studio where they worked on licensed projects during the early 1990s. And the concept for Blacksad was hatched in this time. Beyond that, the story gets a little difficult to pin down. Partly this is because of sub-optimal translation work on some of their interviews, but partly it’s because the two are a little cagey about details. (That’s incredibly common when talking about licensed work; non-disclosure contracts can be an absolute nightmare.)
However, we can infer a few things
- Canales was hired as an animator first and was somewhat established Guarnido
- The two were paired together on a TV show, most likely Rupert.
- Guarnido says their friendship began when he saw how good Canales was at storyboarding.
Post Lápiz Azul
Juan Díaz Canales
- Asterix and the Vikings — Based on the French comic series, this fun little animated film follows the exploits of a tiny Gaul and his slapstick band of warriors as they repel Roman invasion.
- Nocturna — Canales and Guarnido both worked on this delightful film about a child and his friend, Shepard the cat. The two go on an adventure to find out why the stars are disappearing. Think Nemo in Dreamland meets Studio Ghibli. (Though I suppose that’s redundant.)
- A Goofy Movie
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire
- Nocturna — With Canales
Storyboarding is “visual storytelling.” It’s the same as plotting or editing, only using art instead of words. Above all, it’s doing that while also giving animators room to invent. It’s an incredibly difficult skill to master.
So a friendship over Canales’ storyboarding is one based on high praise. It shows a deep respect and a commitment to working together. Accordingly, that’s how the concept for Blacksad began.
The story goes that Canales would Guardino would talk comics over lunch. A conversation that eventually turned towards creating one. (Canales describes a goodnatured pestering on his part.) Canales was the first to propose the character, but he admits that his initial pitch was a little more conventional than the cat detective we have now. Probably a cop book, by the sounds of it.
But the two worked together to play to their history and strengths. They dissected golden age cartoons for what made them tick. Why their plots worked, their artistry, and how these things became their visual language. Guaranido says the ideal for the story sprang from the realization that everything was just legends. The same formal structure we intuitively know from folktales, Hans Christian Anderson, and L. Frank Baum. That made using animals “okay,” which played to both of their animation histories.
But the flavor came second after the two puzzled what constitutes contemporary folklore. As in, what modern story format held the same formal structure yet intuitive understanding. “Noir” became the best answer
This idea of “modern legends” makes up the throughline for all of Blacksad.
Chapter 1: Somewhere Within the Shadows
This book hit me like a freight train. Another incredible recommendation by Patrick over at Challengers Comics + Conversations here in Chicago.
Five pages in, and I was certain this was some of the best art I’d ever seen in comic. Maybe ever would see. It took about five more pages before I realized that the writing was every bit as brilliant.
On the surface, this first story is pretty boilerplate. It’s filled with semi-anthropomorphic animals who can be any exaggeration between “hilarious” and “murderous,” just like any animation. Moreover, John Blacksad is a PI who’s hung up on a damme, has run-ins with the cops, hangs out at bars, and has to fight a criminal cartel. That’s straight out of a Dash Hammett book.
That’s the obvious stuff. But this book really works on subtly. Canales’ story subtly clues us into an entire world. Just as in the 20s, there are political structures at play, social biases, and race restrictions (or family, genus, and species ones.) These are the things running the world, not some Magic Kingdom music box. This means that John Blacksad isn’t the hero or the anti-hero. He’s just a guy caught up in the world.
So when the big, bloody climax comes and the consequences are dolled out, the story ends on an almost John Woo note where the whole thing almost feels meaningless. And yet, you can’t stop loving Blacksad.
Guaranido’s breathtaking watercolors take cartooning to the level of high art. His characters are both characteristically animal and hauntingly human. He dances between naturalistic and expressive. Everything has that “real-er than real” feel of a classic film. No, not that. It feels nothing like classic movies are but exactly the way you remember classic movies. The way things can only be in memory.
Also, it feels nothing like Disney, which I say not only because the book begins with a beautiful sex scene but also because regardless of Guaranido’s background this isn’t “Disney artwork.” There’s none of that oppressive, flattening simplicity. Instead, if I had to liken it to anything, I’d say Blacksad feels more like one of the richer, deeper worlds of Don Blooth animation. World-building through detail and character, not catchy songs.
It’s the expressive body language that really makes it work.
Chapter 2: Arctic Nation
If Shadows was about establishing John Blacksad as a classic hardboiled detective in the vein of Marlow or Spade, then Artice Nation is all about Canales and Guarnido finding their own voice.
This story takes place in Post-War America with its bitter ironies and juxtapositions. GIs come home to parades and a nation’s heart overflowing with gratitude. Yet troops of color can’t sit for a meal, own a home, or get a job.
Amazingly, this idea adapts perfectly to the world of Blacksad. Because where “race” is largely a cultural and political construct, animals have actual scientific designations. So when our hero enters the a suburb called The Line, he’s not only squaring off against soft concepts like red-lining and profiling. He’s fighting against violence based on family, genus, and species. There’s an extra solidity. Somehow, watching a mink assault a stoat, or the polar bear mayor brutally subjugate brown bears hits differently. Maybe it’s the abstraction of using cartoon animals that makes it easier to understand than when using human beings. Or maybe it’s the multiplicative effect of all these different creatures, all arbitrarily committing to this violence.
For me, the cleverest idea was in making Blacksad’s white muzzle the point of contention. He’s too black for the artics, and yet that little aberration makes him suspect to the citizens of color. But at least he has his new friend Weekly, an annoying weasel and freelance reporter. On second thought…
This isn’t Animal Farm and it isn’t Devil In A Blue Dress. This is something unique to Canales and Guarnido .
Guaranido’s work is somehow even better. The oppressive starkness of the winter landscape is rendered perfectly, bringing everything closer to shades of grey (and corrupting his black paints, pulling them towards charcoal.) And the flashbacks, rendered in Sepia, feel harmonious as they subtly tell us of a better time, before color distinctions. These also feel like French “coffee art,” an old pastime where Parisian artists would use their morning coffee to paint. A perfect wink towards the book’s French publisher, perhaps?
Guaranido’s ability to render violence and menace are extraordinary. His way of rendering flames reminds me just a little of Mark Smylie’s Artesia, but his framing and blocking is straight out of a 1950s thriller. All cramped and crowded at points, jostling with motion, the faces so much closer than we shoot today.
But what really does it for me is his sly and subtle characterization. In real life, white foxes, cats, and minks have fewer details by virtue of their pelts. Their bodies and faces are genetically crafted to be as reflective as pure snow. Suitably, this is exactly how Guaranido draws them which means the sympathetic brown deer and weasels, the black horses and one black cat all appear far more nuanced by comparison. Their coats show far stronger emotion than even a screaming white fox could. (Though it does help that Guaranido gives them the best camera angles…)
Chapter 3: Red Soul
This is Canales’ take on classic pulp adventure. A mixture of Temple of Doom; Doc Savage, Man of Bronze; and Corto Maltese (another famous pulp book we’ll get to at the end.)
In this story, Blacksad runs into his old school teacher, a nuclear physicist named Otto Liebber (naturally played by an owl.) Through Liebber, Blacksad gets sucked into a world of “leftist intellectuals,” including a number of proxies for actual artists and thinkers of the time. There’s a yak version of Alan Ginsberg, which is either hilariously perfect or strangely upsetting. I’m not sure which.
The story devolves into a paranoid mirror of the age, complete with FBI surveillance, the unholy alliance between the super-rich and the government, murder, and madness. Much like Arctic Nation, this story does a surprisingly good job of displaying compulsion, anxiety, and other complex impairments.
This book opens on a poker game and I could honestly spend the next two paragraphs just describing that. But then I’d have no room for everything else.
The opening is significant as it shows that Guaranido is working with color pallets and “toning” his pieces with mother colors. I think this was built off the success of the sepia flashbacks in the last story, but whatever the case, it’s a welcome upgrade. The whole rest of the book benefits from this sensibility, pushing things more towards cinema but without losing the animated base. Rooms feel full of smoke or technological menace. Cities feel diesel blue under sodium yellow. And halfway through there is an explosion that really takes the cake.
Also, as a final note, Guaranido has a lot of fun with the lettering in this book. And it shows.
Chapter 4: A Silent Hell
Canales puts everything together here for this story about New Orlean’s jazz scene. The story is told an out of order, which feels like any memory of the Big Easy and its drunken revelry. But straightened out and sober, the main narrative of the story has Blacksad helping out Fletcher, a musician who’s in deep trouble. Fletcher’s girl is pregnant, which would be great if it weren’t for the fact that someone is murdering all of his friends. This main story feels just like a composition built from Shadow’s classic sleuthing and Arctic’s racial tensions
But with Mardi Gras everything explodes into a hyper-realized version of Soul’s almost supernatural sense of doom. Suddenly, everything becomes much more like the Phantom of the Opera meets Faust rather than The Big Sleep. This new element is both deeply unsettling and a lot of fun. Best of all, it really highlights how Canales writes to make Guaranido look good.
Content warning: This story features imagery of animal experimentation.
Guaranido takes everything he’s learned so far and adds a new, subtle twist. As I said before, A Silent Hell is told in a series of days and nights, a fact the artist leans into. The day scenes in this book feel cleaner and subtly brighter than natural while the nights might as well be shot through a saloon window for all the grime and dark. This sounds simple when I describe it this way, but the execution is anything but.
There’s also the way the book “saves” its color in the beginning. Everything feels either muted by a bright sun or concealed under yellowing bar lights, with saturation few and far between. Then, out of nowhere, the parade crashes into all this restraint with an absolute riot of color.
Speaking of riots, this book’s nightmare sections are the heaviest to date. The nightmare sections of this story really do feel like one of Goethe’s tableaus of hell, mixing old world paganism, folklore, and the anguish of animal experimentation. The colors are lurid, the panel structure unusually bold for them. This book’s structure means these too come out of nowhere, so be forewarned.
Which brings us to the way Guaranido works with that structure, using clever color and shape cues to help readers sort it all out. This little attention to detail is a perfect example of how Guaranido illustrates to show how brilliant Canales is.
Chapter 5: Amarillo
Content warning: This story has an attempted rape scene.
This story takes place soon after A Silent Hell, making it a bit unusual for the series. Blacksad is still in New Orleans, taking a much-needed vacation. But it’s cut short when a writer murders someone, steals Blacksad’s prize car in order to get away, and crashes said prized car into a post box. All this leads into a story of artists and mobsters, two of the series’ favorite subjects. But something seems different.
At its core, Blacksad has always been a pulp book. One that moved between detective, adventure, even horror, but always with the right mix of excitement and drama. But Amarillo feels decidedly like a tragedy feels more like a tragedy than the other stories. Supporting characters like Chad (the killer) and Luanne (his female companion) feel fated to this life somehow. Doomed by another meaning. Even Blacksad himself seems powerless at times. He’s only on vacation, but he takes on a role resembling the retired police chief that wants to help the criminal with the heart of gold.
In the end, it’s sorted out in a morality lesson that only classic cinema dare sermonize.
Something changed with A Silent Hell, either for the character or its creators. Maybe something changed over these twenty years of publication history. Either way, this book feels more considered somehow. Amarillo is a beautiful place to leave the story during this long wait for chapters 6 and 7.
Guaranido really captures the car craze of the late 1950s. Not only are the cars beautifully rendered as enormous, benign monsters made from paint and chrome, but the sentiment carries over into everything. Guaranido takes the tricks he learned in the daylight scenes from the last story and adapts them, giving everything this bright, freshly-waxed shine. It all feels so hopeful.
Beyond that, his framing and staging have gotten even better. His lighting choices take on more drama
But what I really notice are his skies. Big, beautiful expanses of Oldsmobile blue and deep Cadillac cobalt. Evening sunsets done in hot rod purples with canary pinstriping. For maybe the first time in the book, the heavens feel enormous and inviting. Begging for our hero to put the top down on a convertible, and drive towards a better tomorrow.
Ugo Eugenio Prat (aka “Hugo Pratt”)
Hugo Pratt, a legend in the Italian comics world, created this series of adventure books in 1967. The book features the eponymous Corto Maltese, the classic “rogue with a heart of gold” archetype, and his daring exploits throughout the early 20th century. It would be easy and safe to stop right here and say these simple commonalities are what makes Corto Maltese a major influence on Blacksad.
But the actual truth is some far more incredible.
In 1937, Pratt’s parents were involved in Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Italian power structure. So involved that when Italy conquered Ethiopia, young Hugo was dragged to the country as part of his family’s support. His father was eventually captured by British troops and died in prison in 1942. That same year, Hugo and his mother were interned in a French prison camp, where the young boy bought comics off the guards. Comics that forever changed the man.
Corto Maltese wasn’t just a fun action comic. It was Pratt’s way of wrestling with what was done to him as a child. The character is bold and strong, as all children imagine their heroes. But he’s also dangerously un-Italian.
- He’s half-Romani (a people mistreated throughout Europe even now, and one especially targeted by the fascists).
- He displays true tolerance and sympathy for the underdog, a concept completely lost in the hyper-aggression of the Fascist state.
- He questions every one of Italy’s beloved authorities, from the government to the church. Even a paternal world view.
- He associates with real-world artists and intellectuals.
It may not seem like much now, but each of these ideas was a potential death sentence. If not in his home country of Italy, then in his adopted country of Argentina. But moreover, it shows incredible bravery on the part of Pratt to embrace such progressive ideas rather than succumb to the national bitterness that came on after the war.
Canales and Guarnido
Corto Maltese was relaunched in 2014, with both Canales and Guarnido supplying their talents to the book. While I’ve read some of the Pratt-era work, I must confess that I’ve only had a chance to skim through these new editions. But they look incredibly promising, and I’m hoping to get back to them over the holidays.
There’s something truly special about seeing my own culture reflected back to me. Seeing how third parties witness this nation and experiencing where they find sadness and hope.
While Blacksad treads familiar ground, it seems no feels no less revelatory. Maybe it’s the relief in the confirmation of things, the verification of my own experience. But I think maybe it’s in the way Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido can catch me off guard. And do so consistently.
There’s something magical about how their messages can survive translation — from Spanish to French to English; from humans to cartoon animals — that causes these stories to resonate with me.
And now that a game is coming out it feels more incredible still.