Noir stories have been making yet another surge in American culture, and especially the comics world over the past few years, with Warren Ellis’ Fell, Richard Stark’s adaptation of the Parker novels, Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt’s The Damned, and seemingly everything Ed Brubaker touches ever being just a few shining examples. Adding to this stack of worthy reads, Dark Horse has mined the European market for a more traditional hard-boiled detective in writer Diaz Canales and artist Juanjo Guarnido‘s anthropomorphic creation, John Blacksad. Although the creative team is from Spain, they set Blacksad in the U.S. during 1950s and modeled him heavily on the archetype created by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.
The first three volumes of Blacksad have already been collected in something of an omnibus of their work, and now the fourth one, Blacksad: Silent Hell, has been released for the American market. As a bonus, this edition includes two Blacksad micro-shorts and nearly 40 pages of preliminary sketches with commentary by the artist.
It’s the watercolors of Juango Guarnido that really makes this book something special to behold. Eschewing the traditional dreary, monotone color scheme of many noir books, Guarnido uses the backdrop of New Orleans to unleash a vivid burst of color as often as he can. Steet scenes are awash in bright, sunny colors with children scampering about, lively gossip between neighbors, and parades marching through. Moonlit nights have a dreamy glow that evokes the wonder of the city. Scenes set in seedy bars or voodoo dens are still soaked in the familiar sepia and shadows, but even then the color of a gaudy dress or a neon sign will often lend a splash of vibrancy to the scene. Guarnido succeeds, like the best noir – think Chandler with L.A. – in making the city around the story its own character.
Writer Diaz Canales also draws from New Orleans’ place in music and the intertwined history of secret cultures. Blacksad is hired by a dying record mogul named Faust to find his label’s star, who has a history of heroin use, and has gone missing. The story picks up on the last night of the case, with a series of flashbacks woven in at the appropriate moments. Having Blacksad and his partner, Weekly, working different angles simultaneously keeps everything moving along at a brisk pace as we bounce back and forth between them. While all the storytelling mechanics are in good working order, the mystery itself perhaps suffers from being a bit too linear and easy to deduce.
Of course the best noir is as much about the protagonist as the mystery to be solved. Raymond Chandler has said that “the ideal mystery [is] one that you would read if the end [is] missing.” This is where Canales shows his skills, as the characters are generally given some room to breathe outside the bounds of the central mystery. Blacksad especially seems to be in brighter spirits than in the past. He makes shrugs off his tough demeanor, saying he just acts that way because the clients expect it. He also quotes Satre’s famous adage, “Hell is other people,” – it’s worth pointing out here that Blacksad is written for a French audience – but challenges it, offering this rebuke:
“I admit, other people can make life a living hell. But they can also be your partners in paradise. For me, hell is nothingness. A place without friends, without music, without words to stimulate the imagination, or beauty to arouse the senses.”
It’s a signal that perhaps Blacksad is breaking out of the Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe archetype that bore him. A self-aware P.I. who has mastered his demons and is content within himself would certainly be a twist on the template, if not wholly breaking with the themes of noir. It also may not be sustainable, as it is difficult to follow a character with so little personal adversity. Either way, I’ll be reading to find out.