I had been reading a great deal of good things about a series of film noir graphic novels set in 1950s America called Blacksad by Spanish author and illustrator team Juan Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido. Although the creators are Spanish the volumes are released in France first. (I read the the work in English. The entire series is translated into English) It was my intention to buy one of the books from the series a while ago but I never got around to it. Seeing random pics of the series on the internet really peaked my interest. The artwork is amazing. The illustrations are in an old story book style of art with animals as the characters. I describe it as story book style but it is not childish in anyway. The art still thoroughly maintains the sophistication you want in a film noir story. Honestly the artistic stylings are what originally caught my attention.
Amarillo is the fifth installment in the series so I know I am missing a lot of things from the previous volumes but I only started with this volume because I ran into it serendipitously at Barnes and Noble while perusing the manga/graphic novels section. However it’s really not the worst problem. The volumes seem to be one offs with a continuous backstory building up as the volumes increase in number so there is no need for to have read the other volumes to appreciate this one. The only thing about this one is that it starts with just a little bit of back story.
Amarillo follows the series’ namesake and protagonist John Blacksad. He is depicted as a large black cat. According to what I could ascertain from the beginning of the story, he was previously a detective with the FBI who got into some dangerous and violent situations. Amarillo starts with him saying that he wants a break from the violent life. In this volume he refuses to use guns. And through his adventures in the story, he does very well without them. This cat can fight.
While on a bit of hiatus from his normal occupation he winds up getting a job as a driver. Well he isn’t really a driver. He becomes more like a transporter. After a random act of kindness he performs for a stranger,he is offered a job driving the man’s car back to his home. The man hires him on the spot because he says that Blacksad’s act of kindness and honesty made him seem like a straight shooter who keeps his nose clean. Little did the stranger realize that trouble and Blacksad are inseparable homies. On his way to drive the car from the airport in New Orleans, LA to Tulsa, OK the car gets stolen by two writers, one of which is on some whacked out infatuation with the dangerous life. The other writer is just sort of along for the ride until he himself becomes the story. The story thereafter follows Blacksad’s search for the car which finds him on a wild adventure.
I loved this story and read it through in a really short sitting. The book isn’t long in the first place though. All of the characters are very compelling. And as I have been saying for a while now. Animals make fantastic characters. Choosing to depict a lawyer as a hyena gives that feeling of a slick lawyer so completely that it can’t be questioned what that creator is trying to represent with the character. This is not to suggest that the characters are hackneyed or simplistic though. They are dynamic and nuanced. For example, that slick hyena lawyer turns out to have tremendous depth. He accompanies Blacksad on his adventure due to a mutual interest in the car thief and during their travels he and Blacksad develop a cool relationship. The hyena also proves to incredibly loyal as well. So while the characters being animals makes it easy to visibly get a sense of the character they are representing it doesn’t in any way take away from the story’s ability to develop characters and provide nuance. The film noir style and the 1950’s setting is very engaging as well. They make little references that kinda get you from time to time. For instance, apparently Blacksad who is a black cat, is black. When he and the Hyena lawyer hitch a ride along the way, a Parrot picks them up and makes a number of racist remarks that piss Blacksad off. The Parrot immediately recognizes that Blacksad is black and says “No Offense” before and after every remark he makes. While reading that part my mind was kind of blown. I hadn’t considered that there was any race in the entire story until that moment. My mind was further blown that a brightly feathered parrot was calling a mono color jet black cat “colored”. LOL. My mind was blown. The funny thing is that I subconsciously thought of John Blacksad as black as I read it up until that point but when I read that part it suddenly hit me. I found myself realizing that I had attributed race to many of the characters way before I ever realized there was any race in the book. The bull who gave Blacksad the job, I naturally thought of as a wealthy Texas oil baron or something. It’s a very cool characteristic of the work.
The subject matter and narrative are substantive and gritty. It also fills the action and suspense quota for a good detective story. I mean there are lots of scene changes and the adventure goes from the open road to dealing with a bike gang, to FBI involvement and a travelling circus conspiracy. The main characters in the story keep falling deeper and deeper into shit storms and circumstance. That’s old school detective shit right there. The story weaves in good humor to boot. The best thing about the story though is probably how it ends. It ends like it should. Amarillo ends with a suitable end. I only have one qualm with the ending and that has to do with a character dying that I really wished had stayed alive.