Review: 'Blacksad T.5, Amarillo', by Juan Díaz Canales & Juanjo Guarnido
Spanish writer Juan Díaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido met while working at an animation studio in Madrid in the early 1990s. After both moved to Paris, they met again and agreed to collaborate for the French comics market on this anthropomorphic crime noir/hardboiled detective series set in America in the 1950s, featuring feline private investigator John Blacksad.
The first album, Somewhere Among the Shadows was published by Dargaud in November 2000. The multiple prize-winning comics series has been published in 23 languages. So far there have been five 56-page cartoon-art novels, set in Hollywood, Chicago, amidst the Red paranoia/nuclear bomb-shelter craze, New Orleans and now the Midwest.
Paris, Dargaud, November 2013, hardcover €13.99 (56 pages), Kindle €9.99.
Amarillo begins right after tome 4, L’Enfer, le Silence/A Silent Hell ends. Two new characters are introduced: two irresponsible beatniks, Abe Greenberg, a bison, and his pal Chad Lowell, a lion. Abe plays at being a beat poet, while Chad has been struggling to become a serious novelist for two years. Meanwhile, Blacksad and his comic-relief friend Weekly, the investigative reporter (a marten, though he has been called a ferret and a least weasel in different American translations – the French expression is “to marten out the news”; someone could not resist the temptation to translate this as “to ferret out”, and the marten is less well-known in America than the similar but much smaller weasel) separate at the New Orleans airport. Blacksad finds and returns a thick wallet that a rich Oklahoman steer has dropped, and the steer, favorably impressed by Blacksad’s honesty, hires him to drive his Cadillac back to Tulsa.
In Tulsa, Abe and Chad, whose old car has just expired, try to steal one of a sheep motorcycle gang’s cycles. Blacksad arrives just in time to keep the gang from beating up the two, who repay Blacksad by stealing the Cadillac. The gang, amused, help Blacksad follow the Caddy to Amarillo, Texas.
After a binge in Amarillo, Abe steals the manuscript of Chad’s novel and mails it to the Dalai Lama in Tibet as a joke. Chad, drunkenly furious, kills Abe and uses the Cadillac to smash open the mailbox and retrieve his manuscript. He later puts Abe’s body in the Caddy’s trunk and abandons it. Tampering with the U.S. mail is a Federal crime, and two FBI agents, a cougar and wolf, whom Blacksad humiliated in tome 3, Âme Rouge/Red Soul, are assigned to go to Amarillo to investigate it. They find the ruined car, the body in the trunk, and Blacksad’s ID, and are delighted to have the excuse to go after him again. Meanwhile, Blacksad is following Chad who, horrified by what he has done after he sobers up, has escaped by joining the Sunflower traveling circus that is just leaving Amarillo for Denver, Colorado, as a water-boy.
This review is not a point-by-point synopsis. Blacksad is joined by a new dubious friend, Neal Beato, a smarmy ambulance-chasing hyena lawyer. Blacksad’s sister Donna is briefly introduced as a tourist guide in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Sunflower circus features lots of circus-type anthro animals, notably an elephant ringmaster, a bear clown, Luanne the sexy Siamese cat who is the panda sword-swallower’s assistant, and koala Elmore Kupka, the circus’ surly co-owner who doubles as another clown. There are more deaths and a near-lynching, a bittersweet romance, Blacksad’s and Neal’s continuing escapes from the inept FBI agents, and more before the adventure is over and Blacksad rejoins Weekly in New York City.
The story is thrilling and full of funny animals so realistically drawn and painted that you forget that they are only funny animals. It moves so fast that you don’t have time to wonder why the sheep tough-guy bikers are so accommodating, or what the reaction of that rich steer must have been to having his Cadillac totaled and abandoned in Amarillo with a body in the trunk.
The Blacksad series has been criticized for being insufficiently furry in addition to its stories’ many plot holes. An anonymous poster wrote in comments on Flayrah on August 12, 2011:
Seriously, no-one's disputing the talent of Blacksad's writer and artist, but what's the big furry deal about it? It's what might be called 'Hepcats Syndrome' -- the furriness exists on a wholly superficial level, with no thematic or allegorical weight derived from it (unlike, say, Maus), and straightforward cliche species (eg, a fat, slobbish bartender who's a pig). Note also how Blacksad himself is supposed to be feline but it's not like he can see or hear in the dark better than anyone else.
Also, the anthropomorphized animals notoriously do not have tails. Blacksad is notably too gigantic for his species (just a black cat, not a panther) while most other characters approximate their species’ real sizes.
The inclusion of an animal theme boils down to being just another method of telling a story, going all the way back to old fables and legends. For a modern furry audience, it's like icing on a cake. ‘Here's a movie about a fat kung fu wannabe who has to master martial arts really quickly - and it's got an anthropomorphic tiger and snow leopard in it, yay!’ Making a big deal out of the superficial icing even though the underlying cake has been made before, that's the way the fandom goes. […] What counters this [superficial plots] is that the artwork is really top-notch. There's a strong funny-animal comics and Disney influence to the artstyle, to be sure, and the quality of its execution is really high - in watercolor on top of that - not the easiest medium. The straightforward cliche of a fat, slobbish bartender who's a pig is the whole point. The artist thinks, ‘I want to show that a character is a fat slob, using an animal - how can I go about that?’ A big part of Blacksad is about expressing what a person is like, using animal caricature. It might be for indicating temperament (a mouse for shyness), physical build (a gorilla boxer), or an artistic challenge (‘I wonder how much I can express using different reptiles?’). The comic appeals more to people interested in art than in story, without a doubt. In a larger context, in the world of French comics publishing, it's quite the exception, which made it additionally distinctive. Most French ‘animalier’ comics are cartoony fluff aimed at kids.
P.S. I posted this to the June Newsbytes, but I am reprinting it here for conveniences' sake:
Blacksad vol. 5, Amarillo, coming in English in October -- but! Stuart Ng says in his June 20 catalogue update that, "Amarillo will not be out in English until late October and it will be 8.3 x 5.9 inches, not 12.5 x 9.5 like the French album, that's a full 33% smaller and not even as big as the previous American editions. So if you want to see the art as it was meant to be seen, buy the French edition!"