Cat detective John Blacksad investigates the disappearance of a famous pianist in Blacksad: A Silent Hell.
How do I like my summer noir? Hard-boiled, with brooding investigators, sharp wits, danger, crazy fights, bullets, chases and loves lost, unrequited, or dripping with passion. Or perhaps tempered by darkness in a cold, post-revolutionary world filled with intrigue, conspiracy and a resistance hanging in the balance. Even better, it should be part of a series, making it both binge-worthy and binge-able. And if it turns out it's a graphic novel featuring anthropomorphic characters? Best of all.
Anthropomorphism: We've practically been weaned on it — from The Little Caterpillar, Mother Goose and Charlotte's Web, to the army of Disney characters guarding the passage to adulthood like the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. As teens, we're turned on to the political satires like Animal Farm, with its pigs and dogs playing out tableaus of politics and human cruelty far more expressively than actual humans.
Reams have been written on our psychic response to stories told by animals, and the way animals can provide a voice to the oppressed under the mask of cute and cuddly. Plutarch wrote essays about it ("On the Use of Reason by 'Irrational' Animals" — definitely not beach reading, by the way). But that aside, most of us simply crave a good yarn well told.
Fortunately, graphic storytellers Bryan Talbot, S.M. Vidaurri and duo Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guardido all deliver with their anthropomorphic creations, wowing us with their words and art, and this very important message: Don't make the kitty angry, trust toads or give bunnies explosives.
This triptych of satisfying graphic novels is set in late Victorian Europe, in a world rich with steampunk gadgets and lingo. Telephone? No, "voicepipes." Robots? Try "Automatons." Humans? Servant class "Doughfaces." History is set on its head, with Britain having lost the Napoleonic wars to France. After a long occupation, Britain is independent, but Anglophobia, revolution and growing restlessness abound. Paris, now the capital of a French empire, is Grandville, and most of the action revolves around British and French imbroglios threatening the Pax Francia. Enter Detective LeBrock, the hard-bodied badger detective who travels with barbells, deploys Holmesian deductive reasoning and has a tragic past. He and his posh rat partner track down assassins, revolutionaries turned murderers and a cabal of wealthy industrialists led by a heinous toad plotting another war. You'll want to see the Badger beat the Toad for yourself in the third book, trust me. And the Grandville books are full of grimly funny set pieces — like a disheveled Snowy the dog, found in an opium den muttering about his Tin Tin adventures in a heroin-induced hallucination.
What is it with the Europeans and their mastery of the anthropomorphic sub-sub-sub genre? Written by Spaniards for French audiences, the award-winning series has been published in more than 20 languages. The stories closely resemble American pulp fiction, with the titular PI a big, black, burly kitty in a trench coat, more Philip Marlowe than Sylvester in his mien. Blacksad investigates all the underbelly society has to offer in 1950s New Orleans, the perfect setting for racial tensions, abductions, murder mysteries and beatdowns. Wars — in this case the specter of WWII and the height of the Communist Red Scare — make cameos, and Blacksad bears it all with stoicism, when he doesn't get seriously pissed off. Beautifully painted panels and sharp pacing will keep you turning pages, as will the many mentions of key historical moments — and oh so many unsavory characters and hot dames — woven into the storylines.
If our parents are good stewards of our educations, we read Art Spiegelman's Maus, with its Nazi cats and Jewish mice — the sine qua non of anthropomorphic graphic storytelling. Iron, with its tale of prey animals resisting the oppression of a predator regime after a long conflict, evokes both Maus and Animal Farm. What lends this story its power is the simplicity of the plotting in contrast with the complexity of the characters as they come to grips with their pasts and the paths before them. This holds true whether they are chasing the resistance, carrying out a well-laid plot, or claiming the mantle of a fallen comrade with disastrous results. The perma-winter setting, sparse watercolor art, frequent dialogue-free panels, and tense action between bunnies, goats, crows and tigers succeeds in drawing us into the darkness spawned by war and its offshoot, fear-induced complacency.
... And that's how I like my hot summer noir.
Jody Arlington is a communications and policy strategist for the independent film and documentary community, and the owner of a truly astounding number of graphic novels. She also has a thing for creepy bunnies.
Three Books... is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.