Friday October 5, 2012
Not all black cats bring bad luck
Worlds of Wonder
By TERENCE TOH
With its gorgeous art and marvellous characters, Blacksad proves that not all black cats bring bad luck.
JOHN Blacksad is one hip, cool cat. And we mean this quite literally: Blacksad is a large black feline, complete with whiskers, claws and all.
He’s also a hard-boiled private investigator hot on a case that will lead him on a scandalous trail of drugs, jazz and betrayal through 1950s New Orleans.
Blacksad is the protagonist of Spanish writer Juan Díaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido’s critically acclaimed Blacksad series. Nominated for three Eisner awards, and winner of the Angoulęme Prize for Artwork at the biggest comics festival in Europe, the series is a gritty and atmospheric crime noir featuring anthromorphic animals. A Silent Hell is the fourth volume in the series, after Somewhere Within the Shadows, Arctic Nation, and Red Soul. Translated from its original French by Katie LaBarbera, the graphic novel is published by Dark Horse Books.
In the latest instalment of the series, Blacksad finds himself investigating a missing person: famed canine jazz pianist Sebastian Fletcher has left his wife and is missing, and the curious cat is tasked by ageing record producer Faust Lachappelle to track him down.
This shouldn’t be too difficult for Blacksad: after all, he’s faced far worse than this in the past. But Blacksad soon meets a cast of colourful characters, which include the hard-pressed members of Sebastian’s old band, and the crooked investigator hippo, Ted Leeman. Soon he finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue involving ruined lives, broken families and cold-blooded murder, and the daring detective finds he may have to put one of his nine lives on the line to solve the case.
Blacksad is your standard-issue private eye: relentless, resourceful, and respectful, and extremely dangerous in a fight. A scene where he takes out two conniving donkey innkeepers is beautifully brutal yet comic at the same time. Providing comic relief is Blacksad’s naive reporter sidekick Weekly, a weasel with hygiene problems (his unusual nickname apparently refers to the frequency in which he changes his underwear.)
The most impressive feature of A Silent Hell is its impressive artwork. Done primarily in watercolour, every panel is mesmerising, every page amazing to behold. Guarnido’s strong, clean lines and vivid colours bring the rich world of Blacksad’s New Orleans to life, and his wonderfully plotted-out panels bring a cinematic quality to his art.
Of particular note are his amazingly detailed Mardi Gras parade scenes, which are lush with colour, action and character. Also noteworthy is a delightful vignette where Faust visits a sinister voodoo practitioner, chimpanzee Madame Gibraltar: here, Guarnido focuses primarily on two colours, yellow and grey, to invoke a shady, almost mystic atmosphere.
Guarnido also has amazing range with his characters. The cast of Blacksad’s world come from every class of the animal kingdom, but whether it is goats, roosters, toads, apes, leopards or even hippos, every character is expressive and memorable. You wouldn’t think it possible for skunks to be seductive, penguins to look disappointed, or hippos to look suave and dapper, but Guarnido excels in doing all that, and more.
While previous issues tackled issues such as inter-racial segregation and communist scares, A Silent Hell concerns itself with class struggle, as illustrated by rich manager Faust’s exploitation of Sebastian and his fellow struggling musicians. (An interesting note: the makeup of the Sebastian’s band, namely a dog, a rooster, a horse and a cat, is perhaps an allusion to the Grimm Brothers fairytale The Town Musicians Of Bremen).
True to the gritty feel of noir, abandonment is also an important theme. Sebastian abandons his pregnant wife to concentrate on music, despite her begging him not to, while ignored son Thomas becomes estranged from his father Faust, who similarly turns his back on Sebastian’s band and Leeman.
The only minor flaw with A Silent Hell is a strange deus ex machina climax involving a mysterious character, which we will hopefully learn more about in future Blacksad volumes. Another issue is its relatively short length: at slightly under 60 pages, the graphic novel can be devoured in one short sitting. Given how compelling the story is, this may feel a little unsatisfying.
Perhaps to compensate for this, the graphic novel comes with several interesting extras, including two one-page stories, Spit At The Sky and Cats And Dogs. Interestingly, both stories are thematically contrasting, with Spit being a cynical fable of political exploitation and Cats being a heart-warming ode to friendship.
Comic art enthusiasts, however, will be drawn to The Watercolour Story feature; where Guarnido explains the visual choices he made in A Silent Hell. Providing details on all matters artistic, from colour contrasts, lighting effects and watercolour techniques to the challenges of large crowd scenes, this illuminating section will give readers new appreciation for the amount of effort put into making this graphic novel.
Canales and Guarnido’s Blacksad: A Silent Hell proves that black cats don’t always bring misfortune. Featuring gorgeous art and marvellous characters, this graphic novel is recommended for all, particularly furry enthusiasts (who will love this, trust me) and crime noir fans.
> Blacksad: A Silent Hell is available at Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur.