If famed detective writer Raymond Chandler would have created gritty, noir stories with animalistic humans instead of tales like The Big Sleep and The Lady in the Lake, if Dashiell Hammett would have envisioned a tough, corrupt 1940’s where Sam Spade would still have tried to solve the mystery of The Maltese Falcon, but with a dog’s face or cat’s personality, they would have created something like the excellent Blacksad series. Written by Juan Diaz Canales with art by Juanjo Guarnido, the tales are set in the same universe as Chandler and Hammett, but there’s never a question about the personality of anyone in the story because each is represented by a human with overt animal characteristics.
The hero of the stories is private eye John Blacksad, a feline who storms through the frames of the story, glowering, threatening with his claws, and trying to pry the facts out of a rogue’s gallery of hostile witnesses, tough guys with enough attitude to leave some behind when they walk out and femme fatales who are all too happy to sidetrack Blacksad as required. There are the cast of characters you’d expect in a noir detective mystery too, including police inspector Smirnov (a German Shepherd, natch), reluctant ingenue client Natalia (definitely a feline) and heavyweight boxer stool pigeon Jake (a dumb, hulking gorilla).
The first story in the book is “Somewhere Within the Shadows” and it’s so noir that Guarnido could have just used black to color the frames. Blacksad sums up the story when he glowers at the city beyond his office window and mutters “out there, hiding somewhere, was the guilty party. Guilty of at least two murders… he’d both killed a person and destroyed my memories. And that bastard was going to pay!”. There are lots of nuances to the tale, corrupt politicians, and a white supremacist group headed by a thuggish Eastern European mountain of a man Karup (a polar bear).
The second story in the book is “Red Soul” and it too is some solid writing and great art, a story that sees Blacksad accept a job as bodyguard and collections heavy for old crony Hewitt Mandeline (a dried up tortoise with a perpetual grin on his face).
I’m a big fan of noir fiction and cinema, and the entire Blacksad series is a great addition to the genre, with tough, sprawling stories and period perfect artwork that is a pleasure to consume. Indeed, I often found myself looking at all the details Guarnido has tucked into the backgrounds on some of the larger frames in the story, posters, signage, cars, and clothes that demonstrate close study of the 1940s. I highly recommend the series, and suggest starting with Blacksad to introduce all the characters in the story.