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A Silent Hell it may be, but this volume is truly something to sing about!
on 27 July 2012
I came to this new volume of Blacksad having read the three previous Blacksad stories, and whilst that background is not essential to understanding this fourth story, I highly recommend checking them out first (picking up where original English-language publisher iBooks left off, Dark Horse has been kind enough to collect all three in a single volume). This review refers to the 2012 hardcover edition of 'A Silent Hell'.
After resigning myself to a seemingly interminable wait for the third Blacksad story (originally published in 2005, finally appearing translated from its original French in 2010, courtesy of DH), I was thrilled to stumble across a few pages of what looked to be a new instalment several years back on the site Blacksadmania. Now, following its original publication in 2010, 'A Silent Hell' has arrived, and it is well worth the wait.
I'll admit from the outset that the primary reason I love the Blacksad graphic novels is the art rather than the stories - something not entirely unexpected since several major definitions of film noir, from which the series takes its inspiration, have preferred to examine it as a style rather than a particular narrative or even generic mode. The stories typically lack the labyrinthine plotting usually associated with the form - 'A Silent Hell' is much less a whodunnit than a whydunnit, though there are a couple of unresolved mysteries in there that have really been playing on my mind since I finished the book. Though this volume tells us less about Blacksad and his past than some of the previous stories, it has enough shocks, twists and red herrings to keep you hooked in. Juan Díaz Canales' dialogue really pops and flows and conveys the mood of the story well, whether indulging in a few much-needed laughs at the expense of the hapless and rather seedy journalist Weekly (consistently one of the most fun characters and a nice foil for Blacksad) or unveiling the tragic abuse of power and money so often a part of Blacksad's world. For the sake of those familiar with the series, I won't say any more on that front as it is better to come to the story with minimal prior knowledge.
The art is, as ever, awe-inspiringly beautiful, and an object lesson in conveying a host of clear and dynamic facial expressions without resorting to exagerrated and increasingly abstracted levels of cartooniness. The extraordinary level of detail in Guarnido's backgrounds is a marvel to behold - the spaces the characters move through feel solid and truly 'inhabited' without detracting from the main actions and events of each panel and page (Guarnido knows precisely when to introduce more firmly defined and more elaborate details in order to establish setting and when to soften his lines in order to fix our attention on the foreground). Just witness the sheer variety of design and expression in the numerous incidental characters wandering the streets of Canales and Guarnido's New Orleans. These are not anonymous crowds of identikit stick figures who exist purely to convey busy-ness or simply to react to events concerning the principal characters, they are individuals captured in the midst of their daily conversations, business and errands, and the nature of Blacksad's universe (populated, for the uninitiated, by a host of anthropomorphic mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians) is such that Guarnido succinctly expresses each major and minor character's nature through the physiognomy of the animal he selects. It's less a simple shorthand than an expert grasp of how to delineate character with remarkable economy, humour and energy. On subsequent readings and throughout the progression of the series there are aspects of his style that I am less fond of, such as his tendency to show certain characters (especially Blacksad and those with 'subtler' and more humanoid features) with their mouths frequently closed as they talk unless angry, distressed, laughing, etc., and the more humanoid quality of female characters designated as young and attractive (which, though something of a safety net, would not necessarily be a problem were it not for the fact that it leaves several of the principal female characters across the series as a whole looking very similar in face and build). Yet the strengths of Guarnido's watercolour art generally outweigh these gripes. It is particularly interesting after the murky and muted colours of the earlier Blacksad stories to see him working with a much more varied palette. Just compare the sequence at the beginning of the first volume, 'Somewhere within the Shadows', where Blacksad sits brooding in his cluttered office with a double-page spread where we are every bit as surprised as the great detective himself to stumble into the middle of a Mardi Gras parade. Stunningly intricate effects that astonished on their appearance within the occasional panel in earlier stories, such as the dappled shadows cast on figures walking down tree-lined streets in the sunshine, run throughout entire scenes here. You could spend hours losing yourself in the detail, lighting and texture effects across just a few pages, and that alone is justification for owning this book rather than simply hiring it from a library.
This is to say nothing of the second half of the book, which presents a beautifully written (and translated, lest we forget the fantastic work done by Katie LaBarbera and Bart Beaty) commentary by Guarnido detailing the processes behind his colour-work for each sequence. Written with warmth and intensive (but never boring or dry) insight into the creative challenges and choices presented by the story and illustrated with plenty of sketches that greatly add to an appreciation of the hard work involved, this is a fascinating addition to the volume.
If you don't already feel spoiled by this point, the book ends with two short stories never before published in translation, including a friendly face that fans of the series will remember from earlier instalments.
All in all, this is a magnificent volume that rewards multiple readings, provides brilliant value for money and is beautifully put together by Dark Horse. An absolute delight from start to finish.