3 out of 5
I’m generally a fan of anthropomorphic books. There’s a wide range of stuff, to be sure, and I’d say I lean more toward things that take the genre “seriously,” but nonetheless, a well-drawn funny animal book will, likely, at least merit a browse. And so Blacksad, truly animated by artist Juanjo Guarnido, has been catching my eye since Dark Horse saw fit to give us English versions of the French / Spanish originals.
But I never took the plunge. Presented in a European album style, and serialized as different cases or events in which our titular P.I. gets immersed, the mash-up of a lush, animal-stocked world with a Tintin type of rollicking and noir-dipped plotlines should very much appeal – I like all of those things – but, again, I never took the plunge. Sampled pages didn’t grab me. And in all due defense of my guts’ ability to suss these things out (like, 90, 95% of the time…?), when I gave in to reading Amarillo, Blacksad’s fifth outing – I sorta figured I should catch up before too many books came out, in case I was missing out – it matched what a few pages suggested: it looks pretty damn good, and at a surface level, the story very much satisfies, but it’s not gripping. Going against Neal Adams’ completely ignorant introduction to the book, which claims that writer Juan Díaz Canales’ and Guarnido’s efforts are true first of their kind, I feel like I’ve seen this stuff before, despite it being very professionally and well in Blacksad; that is, it’s admittedly a rather perfected version of the form, but it also feels pretty sanitized to make it awards bait and appealing. This sounds like an insult to its creators, but it’s not meant to be: it certainly takes skill to whip something like that up, and to pare it down to essentials, but it also becomes fairly disposable as a result. Alternately, though, one could view this as a gateway book to deeper experiences, and anything that works to get people into comics – and international comics to boot – is a good thing.
Amarillo is a piece-by-piece tale about writer Chad and his bully of a friend, and poet, Abraham, and how the latter’s ribbing of the former over selling out leads to calamity after calamity for Chad, who ends up crossing paths with Blacksad along the way. The ‘piece-by-piece’ is where this story doesn’t quite elevate the genre, for me: everything in Amarillo wanders – panels wander, to the extent that it’s really unclear why some panels were included, except to space out a page; the dialogue lacks punch and wanders in and out of conversation long enough to give us plot direction; and the story, in general, bounces between characters, never really establishing Chad as much of an interesting sort, and casually assuming that we like Blacksad because he’s the title character. He is likeable, for sure, but he’s also sort of a faceless, charming dude here. What this all means is that noir dressing is applied – Chad’s spiraling series of events – but instead of working within the style to drive the story with momentum, it feels instead that the settings and concepts felt “cool,” and so we get some cop talk and some guns and beatniks and bikers. It’s all smooth as butter in presentation, however; there’s nothing wrong with Amarillo if you want a breezy read.
That said: skip the friggin intro. Neal Adams’ over use of ellipses and blinders-on exclamations nearly soured the whole experience for me before I’d gotten to the first page. Otherwise, DH’s over-sized hardcover printing is really professional looking, inside and out, and I’m sure this volume on a shelf, along with other Blacksads, would look great.