Leave it to a couple of Europeans to write and draw the Great American Graphic Novel. I’m referring to the Blacksad series (2000 – ongoing) as a whole, and the hyperbole is based on the star-crossed combination of Juanjo Guarnido’s insanely good draftsmanship and Juan Diaz Canales’s incisive writing. Both men are fascinated by the light, shade, and colors of 1950s America, in every sense: moral, geographical, and racial.
Amarillo, the fifth John Blacksad adventure, opens with our hero broke and stranded in New Orleans. He takes a job driving a big yellow Cadillac Eldorado to Tulsa for its owner, but this being Blacksad, his plan is quickly derailed by a crazed pair of beatnik writers. If you haven’t been reading this series from the beginning, you can’t appreciate how far (but how organically) the stories have evolved from the private eye movie cliches of SOMEWHERE WITHIN THE SHADOWS (2000) to the tragic grandeur of A SILENT HELL (2010); a cartoonish conception of black hats vs. white hats has grown into a troubling perception of crime as the legacy of original sin, a sickness of the soul that can be diagnosed, but never fully cured. That’s more or less what happened when the Polish emigre Roman Polanski turned the American private eye movie inside out in CHINATOWN (1974); it’s also the theme that crime writer Ross Macdonald would examine obsessively in his Lew Archer novels (1949 – 1976).
Don’t let the anthropomorphism fool you: though he may make passing references to his nine lives, or to his acute feline sense of smell, John Blacksad isn’t a talking cat – he’s a man who’s drawn to look like a cat, and a black cat, at that. This in a world in which fur and feathers (black, brown, and white) stand in for skin color, with all the usual problems. The second novel in the series, ARCTIC NATION (2002), made Blacksad an outsider in a town run by a white supremacist police chief and his gang; what American cartoonist would’ve gambled their success on a series about a black hero in ‘fifties America? (The story also introduced Blacksad’s dirty-minded, hygenically-challenged sidekick, Weekly, and it isn’t hard to see Weekly as the fanboy in all of us.)
It was in the Red Scare epic RED SOUL (2005) that Blacksad began to encounter thinly-disguised versions of such historical figures as Einstein, McCarthy, and Allen Ginsberg, and the Ginsberg stand-in, “Abe Greenberg,” returns in AMARILLO as a bullying mentor to the troubled young writer “Chad” — a composite of Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac. If Greenberg is the rebel angel of this graphic novel, Chad is the story’s fallen angel, and his fall has lethal repercussions on those around him.
Heavy theme, but life goes on around it; there’s a brief, tantalizing glimpse into Blacksad’s biracial family, and he acquires a new sidekick in Weekly’s absence: an avuncular, grasping attorney who seems to be lampooning Kerouac’s literary agent, Sterling Lord.
The imagined America of the Blacksad books is a heady mixture of satire, nostalgia, melodrama, and eroticism, all of it gorgeously rendered, and Blacksad: Amarillo is no exception; that it took a pair of Spanish animators to create it is an irony to savor. Get the French language Dargaud albums, if you can: at 9-½” x 12-½”, they’re larger than the 8-½” x 11” Dark Horse volumes, and the artwork really pops off the page in the larger size.