Blacksad: A Silent Hell might be one of the best crime/noir graphic novels you’ll read this year. Check out the full Leaving Proof review to get the lowdown on this book from Juan Díaz Canales, Juanjo Guarnido, and Dark Horse Books.
Key Review Points
- Absolutely stunning ink-and-watercolor art.
- Story successfully recreates the mood of classic hardboiled fiction and film noir.
- Behind-the-scenes bonus feature extensively details the creative and technical processes behind the art.
- None of note.
- Publisher: Dark Horse Books (a division of Dark Horse Comics)
- Publication Date: July 2012
- Written by: Juan Díaz Canales
- Illustrated by: Juanjo Guarnido
- Translation by: Katie LaBarbera
- Lettering by: Tom Orzechowski and Lois Buhalis
- Format: 112 page full-color hardcover; collects Blacksad Volume 4: L’enfer, le silence; Blacksad: L’histoire des aquarelles, Tome 2; and the short stories Comme chien et chat and Cracher au ciel, originally published in France by Les Éditions Dargaud.
- List Price: $19.99 US (digital review copy provided free-of-charge by the publisher)
- Availability: On sale on 11 July, 2012
Page Previews (Click on images to view in larger size)
Anthropomorphic animal comics or “talking animal” comics aren’t nearly as popular in North America these days as they used to be during their heyday in the decade after the Second World War (Dell Comics’ licensed Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories anthology title was the best-selling comic book of the mid-1950s, boasting a monthly circulation in excess of three million). In Europe, however—particularly in Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands—the genre maintains a considerable following, and Disney comics artists like Don Rosa and the late Carl Barks are deservingly held in high esteem as preeminent visual storytellers on par with European comics legends such as René Goscinny and Hergé.
It should come as no surprise then that one of the best talking animal comics should come from the Old Continent. Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido’s Blacksad series of graphic novels are very popular internationally, having been translated from the original French and Spanish (both Díaz Canales and Guarnido hail from Spain, but they work primarily with French publishing firm Dargaud) into twenty languages. Putting aside the fact that all characters in the books are various anthropomorphized animals, Blacksad‘s core premise is actually pretty straightforward hardboiled detective fiction. The graphic novels detail the adventures of private investigator John Blacksad (a black cat) and his associates in 1950s America, but the manner in which Díaz Canales and Guarnido masterfully combine the hard-hitting grit of the American crime novel, subtle social commentary, and gorgeous comics art should be read and seen to be fully appreciated.
A Silent Hell is actually the fourth Blacksad graphic novel (the previous three books in the series were reprinted in English by Dark Horse Books as part of a 184-page hardcover released in 2010) and it finds the eponymous gumshoe in New Orleans, hired by a retired “race music” producer to find a missing, heroin-addicted jazz musician. With his sidekick Weekly (a young news reporter depicted as a weasel), John Blacksad discovers that his employer might not be telling the whole story regarding the ins and outs of the case, and his investigation puts him face-to-face with the grim realities of race relations, poverty, and drug addiction in the pre-Civil Rights Movement South. Readers unfamiliar with the previous Blacksad graphic novels need not worry about being lost in the middle of an ongoing graphic novel series. Each Blacksad book is designed to be read as a standalone volume and like the best pulp novels, A Silent Hell‘s story is accessible to new readers. Díaz Canales’ script (as translated by Katie LaBarbera) effortlessly and discreetly weaves in exposition with character development and plot advancement, resulting in a pace and tone that maintains an air of suspense even when the endgame is slightly telegraphed about three-quarters of the way through the book.
Juanjo Guarnido’s art is really something to behold. My general feelings on painted comics are mixed because—due either to poor execution on the artist’s part or inadequate printer/reproduction technology—many painted comics come out looking quite muddy. But when the deft application of watercolors is employed with expert inking technique and practiced visual storytelling; and when the finished art is reproduced with high fidelity, the results can be absolutely stunning, as in this book. Guarnido’s anthropomorphic animal designs remind me a bit of the aesthetics favored by Walt Disney Studios’ “Nine Old Men” in their animated feature films from the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if A Silent Hell‘s Junior Harper character is supposed to be an homage to Alan-a-Dale from the 1973 Disney film Robin Hood. Guarnido also does an excellent job of making the setting of New Orleans a visual character in its own right. The backgrounds and foregrounds are awash in details and it seems like every individual in the crowd scenes has his or her own little story playing out. The art alone is is worth the book’s list price.
The volume also has an extensive 36-page behind-the-scenes feature that walks through how Guarnido composed, illustrated, and painted key scenes in the book. The artist imparts advice on theory, technique, and materials that should prove invaluable to novice (and even experienced) painters and illustrators curious to see how he was able to achieve the book’s appearance, but even casual artists and just plain comics art fans will no doubt derive some measure of enjoyment and edification from the section’s text, sketches, and photographs.
The Blacksad: A Silent Hell hardcover collection is a terrific read, and is easily one of the best crime/noir comics to come out this year. Highly recommended.
A quick Leaving Proof advisory note: For those regular readers wondering where last week and this week’s Weekly Digression entries went, I’ll be suspending the sub-feature indefinitely while I try to catch up on the books that need reviewing (they pile up real quick). Sorry about that.