Review: Canales And Guarnido Do Animal Noir In The Big Easy With 'Blacksad: A Silent Hell'

The writing-art team of Juan Diaz Canales and Junajo Guardino's "Blacksad" gets a second English-language volume in the U.S. thanks to Dark Horse. The publisher released the first volume of hard-boiled crime stories back in 2010 featuring the post-WWII anthropomorphic animal detective stories featuring the titular feline lead in the Blacksad. Over the summer, that volume was joined by "A Silent Hell" which, if I'm reading the copyright correctly, was originally released in Europe back in 2003 by original publisher Dargaud.

Dark Horse has reproduced the book of U.S. audiences in a handsome, album-sized hardcover (8.5 inches x 10.9 inches), providing just enough page space for Guarnido's gorgeous, watercolor work, and a messy but thrilling story of murder set in New Orleans' jazz scene. Canales' story puts John Blacksad in the middle of a missing persons case that has a healthy dose of murder, drugs, and corporate wrongdoing which, in spite of its animal cast (or more likely because of it), never loses its power to draw you in.

Blacksad comes down from New York to find missing jazz pianist Sebastian by ailing music label owner Faust Lachapelle. Sebastian has a nasty heroin problem and a pregnant wife that misses him, and Lachapelle claims that he just wants the young man he's always thought of as a second son safe at home. Of course, Faust's real son thinks Blacksad should bow out of the case, let fate take Sebastian where it will, while Ted Leeman, the brutish hippo who was originally on the case might have his own crooked angle on the investigation.

The strength of the book (besides its stellar, richly-detailed art) comes from a lead character who's sensitive, smart, and tough all at once. He's touched by a hint of sentiment, but he can't see when he's about to be played. In fact, Canales and Guardino allow him to let loose and really do some violence against the collection of underworld-types who'd rather see his investigation fail (the two-page spread where he demolishes a pair of barflies is worth cracking open the book by itself).

But deeper than the hard-talking detective plot is a story about betrayal, and not just the simple kind that can happen between two people but of an entire community, destroyed by greed and deceit. Canales' script hints at the source of the scheme that will be the villain's undoing throughout (hint: pay attention to a common aspect of all of Sebastian's known musical associates) and it's a heartbreaking, all-too-real story of the poor being destroyed by the rich (or at least the uncaring).

The lettering, by Tom Orzechowski and Lois Buhalis should also get special mention. I'm not sure what to call the font, but it reminds me of the type used by Walt Kelly in Pogo.

Besides the main story, Guardino provides a 35-page breakdown of his coloring process for the strip, detailing some of the decisions that went into visualizing the neon-lit New Orleans featured in the story while contrasting present and past action. The short stories "Spit in the Sky" and "Like Cats and Dogs" are two brief, alternately cynical and sentimental stories, the first a bait and switch murder mystery setup and the second revealing the loneliness of the big city.

"Blacksad: A Silent Hell" is available now in hardcover from Dark Horse Books.