Back in 2000, Spanish comic creators Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido published the first volume of Blacksad, their gorgeously rendered foray into the noir milieu of Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett. A subsequent volume appeared in 2003, and a third in 2005.
Though written in French, all three were set in Eisenhower's America, and followed the pulpy adventures of one John Blacksad, tough-guy P.I. The three storyarcs featured gat-toting gunsels, shady dames with gams that wouldn't quit – the full detective story options package, really.
But Blacksad wasn't your typical lantern-jawed shamus. Because, that jaw? And those aforementioned gams?
Blacksad, see, is a contemporary iteration of a trope as old as funnybooks themselves: The anthropomorphized animal comic.
He's a black cat, to be specific, who lives in a world where the cops are dogs, lizards are cold-blooded killers (geddit?) and weaselly sidekicks are ... well, you get the idea.
So that's the elevator pitch: a talking, anthropomorphic cat detective navigating a painstakingly rendered urban landscape rife with violence and deceit.
Let's get the jokes out of the way.
The Big Catnap!
The Maltese Falcon (Left Dead on Your Doorstep)!
Kiss Me Deadly (Because Your Breath Smells Like Fancy Feast)!
There. Done. Now down to business.
Dark Horse is releasing all three Blacksad volumes — the third of which has only now been translated into English — in a handsome hardcover edition. In volume 1, Blacksad investigates the death of an old lover; volume 2 sees him tackling racial violence in a dead-end town, and volume 3 finds him caught up in Communist witch-hunts.
It's detective fiction, so there's some violence of a less-than-gruesome variety, and some PG-13 anthropomorphized-cat-on-anthropomorphized-cat sex that is, undoubtedly, A Fetish for Someone.
But the reason you linger over these pages is Guarnido's expressive, richly detailed watercolors. His panels invite you in to have a good look around, and he uses the physiological differences between his character's species in a pleasantly understated way that's anything but cartoonish; a bird's beak, a cat's snout, a rhino's dull, empty eyes — Guarnido ensures that these things augment, but do not simply stand in for, their personalities.
A fourth volume will be appearing in France shortly, and will likely make its way over here soon after. Which is good news: For those willing to look beneath its outermost, LOLCats trappings, Blacksad is deft, understated, mature comics storytelling.
... Double Indemkitty!