Back when Walt Disney and his brother began their film production company, with a focus on animation, they held themselves and their artists to the highest possible standard. In the then brand-new field of film animation, Disney had to devise this standard himself, and this and this alone can speak to the utter creative genius he possessed.
But the thing is, once this standard became the gold standard for film animation, it became quite literally the gold standard: The Walt Disney Company quickly lost interest in expanding or creating new artistic horizons unless there were fat stacks of cash involved. Hey, fair enough. After all, these guys had lived through the Great Depression and much harder times than any of us 21st century creampuffs will ever see. Only problem is Disney, as a multi-billion dollar corporation, now has the means to create lasting works of art as they always have, yet choose to churn out by-the-numbers junk that hasn’t been at all culturally relevant for at least 25 years, possibly more, in order to keep those coffers full. Again, fair enough.
Fortunately, there is Blacksad.
Writer Juan Diaz Canales is obviously well-steeped in American private-eye fiction. The genre has been more or less fully explored at this point, but like any lasting genre, there are still nooks and crannies to be discovered and enjoyed. The stories in Blacksad are enough to keep any hard-core hard-boiled enthusiast happy, with plenty of sex, drugs, and violence in post-war Los Angeles. The dialogue is cracking, none of it lost in translation at all. But the twist here is that it’s all enacted by funny animals.
And here’s where artist Junajo Guarnido steps in to shine. Both Canales and Guarnido share similar work histories in animation, but Guarnido spent some years working for the Mouse Itself at one of Disney’s satellite studios in France. And it certainly shows in his work in Blacksad: Guarnido executes what might be the most beautifully rendered watercolor pages the comics field has ever seen, perfectly capturing not only that gold-standard Disney feel, but also a time when Disney was still a trendsetter and not just a money-printing machine.
But honestly, words (whether mine or those of a capable writer, even) fail to express just how gorgeous Guarnido’s work is here. Walt Disney himself would be a fan, I am certain. Guarnido reminds us just how the Walt Disney Company became such a leader in its field. His settings are almost photo-realistic, and by anthropomorphizing all the characters, both Canales and Guarnido are able to more effectively convey emotion and pathos. One of the essential tenets of cartoon art is that it can present us our own humanity in a way that is deceptively simple to the eye. These cartoons are iconic in that they act as an avatar for us all. Canales and Guarnido have internalized that notion, and have thus brought this style of comics back to its rightful artistic fore.
Plus, did I mention the sex, drugs, and violence? There’s sex, drugs, and violence.
Dark Horse Comics has released two collections of Blacksad here in the States, Blacksad and Blacksad: A Silent Hell. Do yourself a favor and buy them at once.
Written by Jimmy Callaway