Sunday, 9 February 2014

Blacksad: Amarillo review

I grew up reading bandes dessinées (or BDs). My youth was filled with afternoon reading titles such as Spirou et Fantasio, Gaston Lagaffe, Lucky Luke, Tintin, Astérix et Obélix, and a few others. My dad had an impressive collection and I took full advantage of it, reading volume after volume of my favourite series. If I remember correctly some of those volumes have loose pages in them, probably because they’ve been read so many times. For a few years I essentially stopped reading BDs. Part of it is that I barely recognize the landscape. I grew up reading older series, many of them classics, and I didn’t know where to start if I wanted to read another BD. For reasons I can no longer remember, I picked up the first two volumes of Blacksad in a French bookstore in downtown Ottawa. It was my lucky day because I adored Blacksad. I bought the third volume a couple weeks later and the fourth when it finally came out. It’s been two years since the last volume and I finally got my hands on a copy of Blacksad: Amarillo.

My initial reaction is one of disappointment. The story didn’t have as much weight as the previous volumes and overall it reads like a bad mixture of anthropomorphized noir road trip comedy film. Actually, that’s exactly what it is! Amarillo tries to be too many things and it fails.

Blacksad is created by a Spanish duo made up of Juan Diaz Canales (writer) and Juanjo Guarnido (artist). The first few volumes focused on John Blacksad, a private investigator, and the whole thing is set in the 1950s. Blacksad is a well-educated man (well, cat – tomcat?) who also knows how to talk with his fists which is a useful skill to have in his line of work. Like many noir characters, Blacksad believes in justice, it’s almost an obsession but Canales brings a nice balance to it by giving his character a deeper level of characterization. Sure he seems like your run of the mill detective story character but Blacksad is a well-rounded character and I liked him instantly. Creating strong and instantly recognizable or familiar characters is one of the creative duo’s best assets and that’s what contributed to making me like this series so much. The success of the series so far can be attribute to hitting that nice balance between character, story and art.

It’s too bad that I can’t say the same about Amarillo. The whole thing feels unbalanced. There are plenty of interesting characters in the latest volume and although I’m saddened that Canales and Guarnido chose to create new characters, I would have liked to have more Weekly in this story.  The other problem is the absence of a good story. Amarillo feels like a collection of events as opposed to a narrative. The most consistent aspect from the first four volumes and the fifth one is the art. The other element that contributed to throwing things out of balance was Canales cranking up the dial on the humour. It’s somewhat surprising considering Weekly’s near-absence from the story but the hyena character (sorry, I can’t remember his name – I know, hyenas are people too, I’m sorry ok?) did a good job picking up the slack and Blacksad proves once more that he’s best suited to playing the straight man.

I should probably talk a bit about the story but I’m not really feeling up to it because there isn’t much to talk about. Still, I feel my reviewing responsibility pretty strongly tonight so I’ll give it a go. The story is about a writer lion, Chad, who has a poet friend and on their way to meet Chad’s editor in Amarillo get caught up in thievery and booze and Chad ends up with blood on his hands. The rest of the book is made up of Blacksad searching for the writer and Chad getting into deeper and deeper trouble. Along the way Canales incorporates humorous sequences and fails at trying to say something meaningful about Beat Culture of the 50s. The creators have been successful at incorporation some message or theme about America in their previous stories but it really doesn’t work in Amarillo. It might be the subject matter or even the tone of the comic which is a combination of dreamlike horror (Chad’s portion of the story) and humour (Blacksad’s portion).

My problem with this story wasn’t the tone. Blacksad’s had comedic moments in it before and I don’t mind that the creators wanted to spend some time on the lighter side of things but it doesn’t work with the rest of the story. Part of the problem is that the humour is cliché ridden. The other problem is that the humour feels tacked on as if Canales didn’t have faith that the rest of the story could stand on its own. Guarnido has no problems drawing his characters expressively and his style proves to be as effective for serious stories as well as silly stories. While the art can jump seamlessly from the tone of both halves of the story, the writing can’t. The humorous scenes are intercut with those involving Chad and his troubles and vice versa resulting in an absence of momentum. That just made the culmination of both stories converging near the end difficult to appreciate. It’s like oil and water, it feels forced.

I respect that Diaz Canales tried a different sort of story but Amarillo doesn’t deliver like the earlier stories did. Guarnido, as always, is spectacular on the art. After roughly 250 pages of anthropomorphism, I still love the art. Guarnido does a fantastic job with body language. His characters are so expressive that even the non-speaking characters in the background have a personality. He draws a few new (at least, that I don’t remember seeing) animals in Amarillo such as a parrot, a Chihuahua (with a moustache, no less), a flamingo and a koala bear just to name a few. I’m already looking forward to the next volume but I’m hoping it’s an improvement on this one.

My review is based on the French edition published by Dargaud.

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