Cat Burglar Black
By Richard Sala
First Second Books
Surveying the world of sequential art over the past couple of decades, it’s difficult not to bemoan the contemporary state of comics for kids. The late 80s was the beginning of the end for the happy arrested development of superhero books, which, for once, began to grow up with their audience, thanks to likes of Alan Moore and Frank Miller.
What started as a break from the pack soon grew into the industry standard, as the books that once wholeheartedly embraced the restrictions of the industry nearly all adopted a “gritty realism,” in an attempt to keep up with the R rated action films, which were quickly stealing away their audience.
Of course, even during this period, facets of the industry were still attempting to draw a young readership, but these titles largely suffered on the other side of the censorship spectrum, offering the manner of over-safe affair that has been allowed to flourish in this post-Disney society.
For a number of years, very little middle ground has existed between these two extremes, and few in the industry have allowed creativity to flourish in the kids’ market. The manner of weird and wonderful books that so enthralled and engaged us in our own childhoods have largely vanished from the landscape. Over the past couple of years, however, something has happened—there’s been a minor renaissance in the world of kids comics, a youthful microcosm of the industry at large.
The MacMillian comics imprint, First Second, has been a leader in the charge, due in no small part to the company’s embrace of artists whose work tend to straddle the sometimes arbitrary line between adult and kids books, a category into which Richard Sala’s work fits rather nicely. It’s not by mistake that Sala has, over the years, drawn comparisons to the likes of Charles Adams and Edward Gorey. His work is often decidedly dark, but also frequently whimsically so, infused with the a playful spookiness, an aspect that manifests itself in the secret passageways and disembodied voices that populate Cat Burglar Black.
The book is built upon all manner of ominous subject matter, from murders, to spirits, to evil grownups, to the titular robbery. But while Sala embraces darker topics, he always does so with a kid-friendly sensibility, an approach echoed by a simple, cartoony style, with a color scheme that invokes many of the children’s books that have arrived out of Europe after the reign of Herge.
It’s this delicate balance that imbues Cat Burglar Black with a quality present in so much of the best comics for kids, a story that can be enjoyed by adults and kids alike, and there’s enough swashbuckling adventures and mystery in the book to keep even the most distracted kids (or adult) entertained for 100-odd pages. Of course, the adult reader may well run into some issues with Sala’s plot and the speediness with which the author ties up lose ends, but the book is plenty fun enough to convince most readers to forgo such issues until its end.
The book also embraces Sala’s love of strong female characters. Cat Burgular Black’s protagonist, K. Westree is an ideal lead—strong, smart, and skilled, with more than enough mystery to her backstory. She performs athletic feats, gathers clues, and ultimately backs up against a life-changing moral quandary.
Cat Burglar Black will no doubt prove thrilling for most young readers and will serve as a welcome reminder to comics reader adults of why this fell in love with this medium in the first place.