When a friend’s research for an article on the New Orleans blues scene lands private investigator John Blacksad a job looking for a missing musician, the whiskered detective’s persistence takes him deep into the city’s secret-filled shadows, putting the old adage about curiosity and the cat to the test.
This latest adventure of cynical feline sleuth Blacksad (once again accompanied by his unrefined weaselly reporter friend, Weekly) has as its backdrop a thriving mid-twentieth century New Orleans, steeped in tradition and overflowing with music. Removed from his native New York environment, our tough but selectively compassionate hero remains largely unfazed by the unfamiliar (such as voodoo medicine and random kisses from costumed revelers), immediately setting about asking questions, reading faces, and attempting to connect the dots as he and Weekly encounter drug dealers, masked mystery men, and would-be murderers.
Using his likeable principals’ sarcasm and amusing interactions to balance out the darker elements, writer Díaz Canales weaves a melancholy, hope-touched tale of people poisoned in mind and body – by addictions and illness and the secrets they keep – and a world in which music is a balm and an outlet for truth.
Guarnido’s art is gorgeous. His detailed watercolors and deep, near-obsessive understanding of light breathe vitality and personality into every expression and panel, whether depicting a sun-dappled lunch beneath the shade trees, a riotous Mardi Gras parade down canyon-like streets, or a cutthroat brawl in a smoke-filled bar. His close collaboration with Díaz Canales results in secondary characters as unique and memorable as the protagonists. And, in an improvement over the previous volume, most of the female characters are as identifiably leopards or foxes or pigs as their male counterparts, instead of just vaguely animalized bombshells.
The book’s one stumbling block is its guideless nonlinear structure in which one longer timeline catches up to and overtakes another very compact one. All of the main action takes place during a single night. All of the daylight scenes, interspersed among the scenes depicting the events of that night, chronicle the weeks leading up to and the days following it. The only clues as to what’s happening when are contextual and often subtle, and, for a reader who doesn’t know this going in, it can be very confusing. In the afterword, Guarnido mentions this ambitious structure and the decision not to include any kind of “meanwhile, two weeks earlier” narrative hints within the story, saying he hopes readers pick up on it naturally. I love these creators and these characters, yet I had to read the story twice to figure out how it all fit together and am still fighting the urge to cut out all the lovely panels and arrange them in chronological order just to be sure.
Even with the struggle to make sense of the timeline, this is a beautiful piece of graphic Southern noir literature (with a European pedigree) and an engaging mystery about the power of music and the legacies we choose to leave to our children. The book includes a fascinating making-of commentary by artist Guarnido with accompanying images illustrating his color, composition, and lighting decision processes, as well as a pair of pithy 2-page stories, “Spit at the Sky” and “Like Cats and Dogs,” featuring the detective back on his home turf.
As with earlier “episodes,” Blacksad: A Silent Hell fits most comfortably in the eager hands of older teens and adults who can value the artistic importance of the story’s occasionally strong language, suggestive themes (the boys call at a strip club and a brothel in their search), depictions of drug use and deadly violence (including an especially harrowing drug-induced vision of torture), and instances of briefly exposed female bosoms (two panels belonging to a lady of ill repute careless of her décolletage, another simply depicting a new mother nursing her infant).
This is truly impressive work and I can only hope there’s more to come.