In light of the recent Comic-Con announcements and Blacksad receiving yet another Eisner
nomination, I thought now might be a good time to bring to bear a piece I’ve
been thinking about for quite some time. Blacksad
is a very popular noir comic featuring the titular detective John Blacksad.
Throughout the series of comics, John Blacksad solves crime, knocks some skulls
together, and makes friendly with the ladies in the classic noir style. But the
most striking feature of Blacksad is
its use of anthropomorphic characters – the book’s namesake detective is a black
tomcat with a white muzzle.
In “Artic Nation,” John Blacksad is hired by a teacher, Ms.
Grey, to find a student who has been kidnapped. The story takes place in a
small town nicknamed “The Line” in what is essentially the American South. Within
this story, Canales and Guarnido use the trappings of the Jim Crow South to
tell a story of race and revenge. A white supremacist hate group called the Arctic
Nation commits heinous acts of murder and torture throughout the story, the
source of societal devolution and fear. The second page of the story starts
with a lynching. In order to find the girl, Blacksad goes through twists and
turns, throws a few punches, shoots some racists, and uncovers the truth behind
the girl’s kidnapping.
This is furry people comics in the mainstream, which is
unusual, but the use of anthropomorphic animal characters is as ancient a
storytelling tool there is, and over time certain types of animals have been
awarded a stereotypical set of features. Some of which come from our understanding
of the animal and some are just how the animal looks; i.e. the corvid is seen
as greedy or a hoarder (fairly accurate) and the owl is often portrayed as a
wise man (when in fact owls as a bird are good hunters, but are pretty dumb). Blacksad takes this a step further, and
codes characters as certain species not just to assign stereotypical
personality traits, but also to represent race. This coding can be troubling,
especially in the “Arctic Nation” issue which appears collected in the first English
volume of Blacksad.
The plot is focused on the Arctic Nation, and its
counterpart, the Black Claws. The Arctic Nation is a supremacist group made up
mostly of men of power – its leader the police chief Karup, a polar bear, has a
sword owned by Robert E. Lee hanging in his office and proudly displays it to
Blacksad at the beginning of the book. The Black Claws are shown to be another
nefarious group after the introduction of the Arctic Nation. Clearly these two groups are thinly veiled KKK
and the Black Panthers. But what I find interesting is the choice of animals in
either group; white animals tend to be apex predators – lions, tigers, and
polar bears, oh my! But black animals are coded as beasts of burden, crows, and
primates (monkeys, gorillas, orangutans).
That alone makes me stop and scratch my head – stated plainly, many of
the black men in this book are portrayed as apes.
Blacksad’s racial coding doesn’t just exist in “Arctic
Nation.” In the first story, “Somewhere Within The Shadows,” both primates and
reptiles appear to be coded/caricatured as male people of color, and these
characters are not shown in a positive light. It’s clear that in Blacksad there are “bad animals,”
reptiles being one of those groups.
Use of animal species to represent race or creed isn’t
necessarily a new concept to Blacksad.
Famously, Art Spiegelman’s Maus uses
various animal species to represent different races in the story of his father’s
time as a Polish Jew during WWII and Nazi Germany and as a Holocaust survivor.
But the use is different here; Maus
lumps each race together in a way that shows the absurdity of the notion; the
animal metaphor in Maus is designed
to self-destruct over time. But even Maus,
with its completely different focus, has been criticized as dehumanizing.
I have other qualms about Blacksad that aren’t really that intricately linked with its ugly
portrayal of race. The length to which female characters are anthropomorphized
in Blacksad compared to their male
counterparts is suspect (male-gaze driven at the least, and often gross). Women
are more humans wearing cat ears and snouts where men are polar bears in
business suits. There’s a laziness to the worldbuilding here – animal species
appears to be chosen basically at random, minus the racial concerns I’ve already
discussed, and the conflict within the stories doesn’t seem to follow any
logical line (cats vs. dogs, etc.). The internal logic doesn’t make a whole lot
of sense in general (how do a deer and a polar bear have a pair of fraternal
twin girls, one of which is a deer and the other a polar bear?) There’s also
the appropriation of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry by a murderous sociopath; take it
all as it is.
Scads have been written about how pretty Blacksad is, and I can’t deny that –
clearly the art is a major focus point for the people who love Blacksad. But these
comics are not smartly written, more Americana than American (something to be expected, perhaps, given their European origin). Without strength
in other areas, Blacksad’s troubling features become the only things that are
memorable. With the way Canales and Guarnido develop their characters and
assign race on top of fur, you’ve got a comic that is simultaneously gross and
boring – despite the pretty pictures.