Comic Book Classics -6-
Anthropomorphic characters (that’s animals behaving like humans) have long been a staple of the comic book, like Biffo the Bear, Donald Duck and Babar the Elephant. I have just returned from a fine evening at Leicester Central Library where I went to hear Bryan Talbot talk about his latest project, Grandville, which takes an a more adult perspective on this type of thing. It is a sub-genre that has recently been revitalised by a number of great works (Talbot’s included), but the one I want to talk about today is Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido’s Blacksad.
Blacksad, named after its eponymous hero, the P.I. John Blacksad, is a hybrid of American and European comic book traditions. Both the artists/writers worked in Disney’s Paris office, conceiving their masterwork in their spare time. One thing that you have to be good at when working as a Disney animator, is cute, expressive animals. You either know how to do this or they make sure you learn. Canales and Guarnido (both Spanish –another ingredient in this multinational soup), exploit this to the full in their treatment. On top of this expertise they add the BD values of quality, breathtakingly good design and painstaking attention to background and detail. The result is one of the finest comic books available. A true work of art.
Blacksad is in essence a classic noir thriller (again that French/American mix), set in a non-specific American past hovering between Dashiel Hammett and Mad Men. All the characters are animals. John is a cat, the police commissioner is a chain-smoking Alsatian dog called Smirnov, villains include a frog and a polar bear. The stories are typical of the genre: the first album deals with a murder covered up by a rich industrialist, seemingly powerful enough to remain beyond the law. The second explores the world of white supremacist movements. The plotting is tight, the hero hard-bitten and cynical and the whole story is told extremely well.
A device that works well in this context is the use of anthropomorphism to highlight character. For example; a vulnerable woman may be portrayed as a deer or a lamb sitting at a bar with a predatory (male) lion buying her a drink with a grin that displays his many serrated teeth. Police informers are invariably rats. While not as rigid as the system employed with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Blacksad plays with our expectations through this use of animal ‘types’.
The ultimate point is a sobering one: the society portrayed is all too human with its violence, corruption and hatred there for all to see. Using animals as a device to distance ourselves from these excesses also serves to make an overarching point. They are not “behaving like animals” but as humans do. We look from pig to man and man to pig and cannot tell which is which.