By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
Aug. 17, 2010 -- While the hard-boiled detective story is popular in graphic novels these days, I haven’t found better than Blacksad
, recently collected by Dark Horse ($29.99). Which is kind of unexpected, since this quintessential American genre is expertly limned by two Spanish creators, and because all the characters are animals.
is comprised of three stories by Diaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido, originally published in Europe, with two of them previously reprinted in the U.S. by Dargaud in the early 2000s. The first story, “Somewhere Within the Shadows,” is a classic noir thriller wherein our world-weary gumshoe tries to find the killer of a famous actress, who is, naturally, a former lover, and bears a striking resemblance to Lauren Bacall in the 1930s – despite being an anthropomorphic cat (or perhaps a fox). The second story, “Arctic Nation,” examines race relations with an overlay of actual American history, with the rise of a KKK-like group of the story’s title (comprised of all-white arctic animals), and the use of lynching and “passing” as story points. The third story is the Blacksad version of how the Soviets got the bomb in the late 1950s, with enough references to McCarthyism and other concurrent events to reveal that the creators know more American history than most Americans.
But let’s get to the animal thing, which may lead some to snicker. You shouldn’t. As legendary artist Jim Steranko says in a foreword, all characters are “visually crafted to reflect their intrinsic qualities – which might just qualify as overt symbolism. Or just typecasting.” So, yes, a slippery character is a lizard, a greedy one is a pig, a dogged policeman is a German shepherd. It could be annoying if it wasn’t so skillfully done; the art is so beautiful and the effect achieved so naturally that one forgets after a while that one is looking at animals. Guarnido gets more expression from a face with whiskers than most artists do on faces without.
Mostly the zoological differences are ignored – it doesn’t seem to hinder any sexual pairings, for example, of which there are a lot – but sometimes they are a plot point. Blacksad himself is a black cat, with a white muzzle. In “Arctic Nation,” white animals distrust him because he’s mostly black and black characters distrust him because he’s partly white. While his “race” is never clearly established, one suspects he’s a mix, which would further explain his solitary existence.
So, like R. Crumb’s “Fritz the Cat,” Blacksad
occasionally uses animals to make a point. But mostly it’s irrelevant – as Shakespeare said, the story’s the thing, and Blacksad
is comics storytelling at its best.
I wasn’t much of a Sgt. Rock fan growing up, because I found the stories – in the phrasing of my youth – “dumb.” (Obviously, I was born to be a critic.) I’m still no fan of the work of Robert Kanigher (who wrote most Sgt. Rock stories), but as an adult I’ve found a reason to enjoy Sgt. Rock: the terrific artwork of Joe Kubert, which I did not appreciate as a pre-adolescent, but which now fills me with awe.
First: Kanigher. He has his fans, but I find his dialogue painfully stilted, his plots ham-handed, and his stories padded with pointless repetition to get to a climax so predictable it wouldn’t surprise a child. And where else are you going to find wince-worthy attempts to be relevant like this prize piece of 1966 exposition: “The combat-happy Joes of Easy tore into the Nazis like teenagers wolfin’ up a six-foot-long hero sandwich after rockin’ and rollin’ at a hullabaloo party …” Like ouch, big daddy.
But what makes Rock sing is Kubert, who is at his peak in the latest collection, Showcase Presents: Sgt. Rock Vol. 3
($19.99) which reprints Our Army at War
from late 1964 to early 1967 in black and white. Kubert is a virtuoso in these stories, demonstrating his mastery not just of form, but all manner of rendering – from stippling to feathering to pointillism to cross-hatching to chiaroscuro. Sometimes it’s hard to stop staring in wonder at one page to get to the next.
Kubert is occasionally spelled by Russ Heath, another expert at delineating the exquisite detail of exploding tanks, World War II web belts and chin stubble. (Lots of chin stubble. LOTS.) So ignore the stories in Sgt. Rock
and absorb the atmosphere of master artists at work.
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at