December 2022
Alan Dean Foster

Feline Noir

I learned how to read with a series of small paperback books called the Golden Nature Guides. Each volume dealt with a different subject: trees, insects, flowers, and so on. There was a single page for each entry, illustrated with straightforward, excellent art. I don’t know if they’re still around (they came out in the 1950s), but if you know kids who are just starting to read, these are excellent books with which to get them interested in science and the natural world. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are electronic versions, but that’s not the same thing as turning the pages of a real book. The publisher was Simon & Schuster. I still have my 70-year-old copies.

My other reading instruction came from comic books. My parents bought me subscriptions to a dozen or so comics back when they used to all come out monthly, and they were mailed to our Bronx address. Superman, Green Lantern, and especially Uncle Scrooge. The Carl Barks Scrooge comics influenced thousands of kids my age, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg among them. Barks also sparked my love of world travel.

Sadly, I haven’t had time for comics in a very long while. Too many other commitments, from writing my own books and music to trying to keep up with developments on our beautiful planet and its certifiably insane dominant species. But occasionally someone will cast something my way or I’ll stumble on it, and I’ll give it a look-see. Rarely does it impel me to pursue the particular work beyond my initial exposure to it.

I’ve seen a lot of graphic novels. Earlier work from Europe, especially work that was science fiction-based, drew my attention. I admire the work of Mobius, Phillipe Drulliet and others. I became a big fan of the French series Asterix (something else to get for your kids). Heck, back in the ‘70s, after a summer in French Polynesia, I bought a copy of Asterix in Tahitian so I could practice that language. But generally I just don’t have the time to shuffle through the hundreds of excellent graphic novels that are out there (if you’re curious, Peregrine Books in Prescott carries a great selection). Then somebody told me about Blacksad.

Panel from Blacksad by Juanjo Guarnido

What’s Blacksad? Well, I was informed, it’s about a detective of the same name, and the stories take place in the US in the 1950s. All the characters are anthropomorphics. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the characters are all animals who live as humans. Think Disney’s Zootopia.

Speaking of Disney: The creators of Blacksad are Spanish. For a while Disney had a branch in Spain, where the artist of Blacksad, Juanjo Guarnido, found work. When Disney closed its Spanish adjunct Guarnido was left looking for something to do, and ended up teaming with writer Juan Diaz Canales. The result was Blacksad, which is now on its fifth or sixth story, depending on how you count.

How to describe Blacksad? Suppose Disney had decided to have Raymond Chandler write one of his full-length animated films, then assigned all the very best studio artists to work on it with the admonition that nothing be kidified. Private detective Blacksad is a cat. A black cat (more of a panther, really). With a touch of white. I don’t want to compare him to any well known actors because I don’t want to have a specific image form in your mind, but if you want to give him Robert Mitchum’s voice, why, that would work just fine.

In 1950s America Blacksad finds himself involved with, among other matters; KKK-style white nationalism; Russian nuclear spies and ex-Nazi scientists; jazz, heroin, secret medical experiments on poor Southerners and New Orleans; bikers in the Southwest — maybe you don’t want to give this one to the kids. Or if your kids are especially perceptive and mature, maybe you do. Blacksad was not written for children.

I’ve written anthropomorphic tales myself. Kingdoms of Light, the Spellsinger series, and more. I loved Zootopia. So I can tell you this: The art in Blacksad is better than in Zootopia.

Different format, true. But you are genuinely not going to believe Guarnido’s work in Blacksad. And when you find out that it’s watercolor …. well. How he does it, I don’t know. There are individual panels in the Blacksad stories that would take most artists days if not weeks to draw. They all flow seamlessly. If you fill in the visual blanks mentally as you read (something animators call “in-betweening”) you can see the fully rendered animated film for yourself, if only in your mind. That film is something every fan of the series would love to see.

I recommend specific books only occasionally. The last two I recommended to folks, depending on what I knew of their interests, were Bill Browder’s Red Notice and Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific, 1941–1942, a three-volume history of US naval operations there. It’s time to add Blacksad to the list. All the stories have been translated into English. Start with the first volume from Dark Horse Comics, which collects the three initial Blacksad tales. It will be money well spent.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.