Blacksad Amarillo: Sorrow Is Not An Aesthetic Choice [Review]
If you've not come across Blacksad before, created by Spanish authors Juan Diaz Canales (writer) and Juanjo Guarnido (illustrator), it is an anthropomorphic noir series, set in 1950s America, centering around eponymous trench-coated private investigator, John Blacksad, a lithe, witty and cynical cat. Wildly popular France since the release of the first book in 2000, it's equally loved around the world, having been translated in 23 languages, with Dark Horse doing the honors for English reading audiences. This fifth and latest volume, Amarillo, was published in its original French in November last year, with next week seeing the release of the English language edition. It's a few rungs above, thanks to Canales' writing: mixing up the mystery with social issues at the time, but largely due to Juanjo Guarnido's breathtaking watercoloured art and the superb manner in which he amalgamates human and animal characteristics.
Amarillo opens with a fight over literary merit. Beat poet Abraham Greenberg (modeled on Allen Ginsberg, and who made who made a brief appearance in book 4: A Silent Hell) is cruelly railing to his novelist friend Chad about the book Chad is working on, warning him against editors and success -- telling him to write from a place of courage, ranting about writing as blinding epiphanies and enlightenment, as he sets his own sheaf of papers alight and tosses them away. Blacksad, meanwhile, is still in New Orleans, at the airport seeing off Weekly, his journalist friend (I'm still all here for the Weekly/Blacksad pairing up- would love to see a full-on duo adventure), broke, and weary of always seeing the worst of people, and looking to take a break. A chance encounter sees him hired to drive and deliver a Cadillac Eldorado to Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's the perfect job, at the perfect time, but Blacksad being Blacksad, the inevitability of finding himself once more mired is near unavoidable.
On superficial reading, Amarillo is lighter and brighter in tone and subject; this is a Blacksad-getting-embroiled-in-trouble-on-holiday adventure. It's a road trip comic, designed to showcase the associated elements: the open road, the changes from setting to setting, meeting characters in place to place, moving from cool vehicle to cool vehicle. It feels breezy, like a summer book; Guarnido works his magic with breathless, airy, spaces- taking it away with panoramic wide shots that incorporate a lot of sky. Watch the way he uses sky here to manipulate tome and mood a clear blue with romantic cloud, a streak of golden yellow, a sublime purple/orange/pink concocted sunset as a train chugs past on a bridge. There is nobody in comics who renders light better. I wondered and wondered what was different here -- there was something I knew I was missing, but couldn't pinpoint -- and then it came to me: Blacksad's trench-coat- it's missing. Replaced with a lovely, natty jewel green suit, it's as visible a signifier of off-duty you're going to find.
Blacksad's undoing, ironically, comes from a misjudged good deed: intervening on the behalf of Abraham and Chad to stop a group of bikers from whom they had been attempting to steal a motor-bike. While he's trying to calm things down, the duo see fit to make off with the Cadillac he's supposed to be delivering, and so a journey of follow-that-crime-spree and hitching begins. An unlikely partnership is formed when he meets Neal the lawyer, also searching for Chad for different reasons, and the stand-out character here, providing both comedic relief and surprising dramatic depth. Canales does an exceptional job of writing him, so that he grows fuller as you read, revealing layers of more attributes, so that you find yourself almost unknowingly attached. There's a great scene where they've hitched a ride with a racist parrot (that spot-on blending of animal and human characteristics again coming into play: the ignorant parrot mouthing of, not really aware of what he's saying or what he means) and Neal is sandwiched between the two; the parrot prattling obliviously on, ending each sentence with 'no offense meant', Blacksad fuming.
But at the center of Amarillo and its tragedies is Chad and Abraham's debate: how meaningful is life if it is not experienced fully -- its sorrows, dangers, and ugliness embraced. Is that what it means to live- to try to experience as much as possible as thoroughly as possible? Abe is convinced life is to be exploited as the only way in which to create true and pure art; that in order to write truthfully, with verve, you must have experienced trouble and extremities, and Chad, while not of the same thought, ends up inadvertently being driven to make choices that see him live out his friend's philosophies. And yet deeper trouble, more problems don't bring inspiration, but even more turmoil and discontent, although he seems to determined to continue in the same vein. A fed-up Neal gives him a lovely little speech: 'live, laugh, love, dance... don't take pleasure in misfortune as if it was a wonderful aesthetic category.' Bad things happen, awful things happen, we deal with them in our own way in our time, but to glorify pain is a dis-service to life, as imperfect as it may be. It's a realization that Blacksad, too, is to make.
It has never occurred to me that some readers might not like anthropomorphism as a presentation; I have never questioned it -- it's just another way of telling a story, but it's perhaps worthwhile to consider why it is used and what function it adds. In previous Blacksad books, I would argue it has softened otherwise starkly presented graphic scenes: racism, lynchings, etc. I don't think you need a reason for anthropomorphism in comics other than it can be visually interesting and arresting -- and it's certainly that here -- but it also presents material in a different, more digestable, context, in the same way that a lot of sci-fi neutralizes sociopolitical themes by setting them in strange, future-flung lands. Ultimately in the act of making something unhuman human, much like androids and aliens, it manages to be even more so. In it, we recognize both our inadequacies and our potential.
At times, there is so much lavish praise and anticipation around a book or series, that the obstinate, perhaps natural urge, is to push-back and question: is this really as brilliant as people say? Blacksad is not without its flaws: rounded female characters are still very thin on the ground, with little agency: the two making an appearance in this volume are Blacksad's sister, Donna, a working single mum, who appears briefly when he visits to borrow her car -- but Luanne, the runaway circus belle is once again reduced to love interest in service of plot. There is issue, too, with the narrative- it gets overstuffed with too many characters and plot threads -- the two cops following Blacksad, and some of the circus folk are superfluous -- the removal of which would have made a much leaner, focused tale, in keeping with the streamlined tone.
Despite these faults, Guarnido and Canales' mastery is such that Blacksad remains nothing short of engrossing, as transportive and immersive a reading experience you will encounter. As much as I appreciated A Silent Hell, the change of pace here was the right decision, reinforcing the duo's command of the gorgeous crime caper and the coolest cat around, and ensuring that a new Blacksad book remains an event. A special series.