Blacksad v4 cover detail by Juanjo Guarnido
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Blacksad v4: “A Silent Hell”

This is the fourth Blacksad book. Looking at these pages should be getting old hat by now.

Yet this book put me in awe of Juanjo Guarnido’s artistic skills all over again. Picture everything I’ve said about the first three books, and then triple it. It’s jaw-dropping, how good this book looks.

I do have one storytelling quirk that bothers me in his art. We’ll get to that, I promise. It took me four books to find it, but now I can’t unsee it.

Juan Diaz Canales’ story maintains the straight noir style, providing plenty of surprises and a solid backstory that pays off everyone’s actions and attitudes. It’s well thought out and he reveals it in delightful doses.

Colorful Credits

Blacksad v4 cover features Blacksad upside down under water
Original Title: “L’enfer, le silence”
Writers: Juan Díaz Canales
Artist: Juanjo Guarnido
Colors: Juanjo Guarnido
Digital Retouch: Chris Horn
Translator: Katie LaBarbera
Letterers: Tom Orzechowski and Lois Buhalis
Editor (English Edition): Diana Schutz
Published by: Dark Horse/Dargaud
Number of Pages: 108
Original Publication: 2012

What’s Going On?

Weekly walks through the prison yard in New Orleans

Weekly’s job with the newspaper helps him line up a job for John Blacksad: A record mogul is missing his star piano player. Can Blacksad find him?

Seems simple enough, right? The pianist is troubled. He has a drug habit. But he’s the record label’s biggest star. They need to find him, make sure he’s OK, keep the label going. Right?

Of course not. There are a lot of little twists and one big twist to the whole story. There’s the story of the pianist’s band of misfits. The record mogul is in declining health. His son is — looking out for him? Looking out for himself? And what’s the deal with the detective who the mogul had hired before Blacksad? Was he really ineffective at his job, or did he know too much?

Canales puts a huge story into this relatively small book, but is effective in laying it out. I didn’t get lost at all. I didn’t need to read it twice to understand what happened.

There are a lot of names to keep track of, but the fact that each is a different animal probably helps me to keep them separated. It’s the same thing with superhero comics — you may have a lot of names, but their wildly different and colorful costumes help keep them separated visually.

The interesting way Canales tells this story is that it all happens in one night. He throws in long flashbacks along the way to give you the back story. The flashbacks are so obvious and well constructed that there’s never any question as to whether you’re in the present or the past. There’s not a single “Meanwhile…” or “Earlier” or any of those cheat kinds of captions in the book. It helps that most, but not all, of the flashbacks are far more colorful and vibrant than “tonight’s” setting.

Guarnido draws a busy New Orleans street corner, heavily referenced

The most interesting thing about this book, visually, is that it’s set in New Orleans. Shades of “Ekho,” it feels like Canales likes to set each book in a new city. New Orleans is a visually vibrant place for Juanjo Guarnido to go. Canales throws in some creole elements, Guarnido researches some real street corners, and everything blends together well with the story. It’s not stuff that’s done on top of it. It’s all a part of the story. It makes sense.

This is, by far, the brightest and most colorful installment of this series to date. Guarnido isn’t just painting back alleys and cemeteries and dimly lit bars — though there’s some of that in here, for sure — but he also draws the bright city streets in daytime and a full scale Mardi Gras parade.

How Guarnido Does It

Guarnido uses bright, primary colors in this book. There are bright reds and blues in this book that you’ve not seen from him watercolor brush before this. It all leads to a page that’s so bright, so vibrant, and so busy that I’m going to share the whole thing here.

Full page splash of a Mardi Gras parade shows a packed city street

I regret only that I have to shrink it down a bunch to fit it on your screen. Seek out the digital or print version of the book to see it much larger. It’s even more breathtaking.

Yeah, that’s an insane piece of work, and I’m sure it took him days to do it. But you know what’s even more impressive? If you read the panels leading into this — Blacksad chasing after a red caped character — you’ll find those two in this page almost immediately. Guarnido does just enough to help them stand out, but he also positions them in the places on the page you’d look for them first. He carries the momentum of the storytelling from the previous page over to this one.

What impresses me even more in this book is Guarnido’s sense of lighting. Look carefully at that splash and you’ll see the sun only hitting the top half of the buildings on the right, and how its hits squarely in the back of the parade, likely at a crossroads where there’s no building to the left to block it from shining through.

I can’t imagine the amount of work that went into watercoloring a page like this.

We’ve seen Guarnido’s dappled lighting before, but he goes over the top with it in a scene in this book. Blacksad sits down to have an impromptu meal outside with the record producer’s son. It’s a very bright day out, and the trees above them filter through the light.

Juanjo Guarnido shows dappled light at the lunch table from the trees above.

This should be a chaotic and busy panel, but instead it looks natural and real. It’s impressive that there’s all this detail of individual tree leaves’ casting their shadows.

Blacksad meets Lenoir in the city street

There’s another scene on a city street where everyone is out in the full sunlight. There is no shade from the trees. You almost want to squint when you read those pages. It’s that bright looking. The cast shadows are on the ground directly below everyone. It’s obvious that this scene is set pretty close to noon, just from looking at those shadows.

In other panels of this sequence, you can see Guarnido using straight up white, unpainted paper to create the boldest highlights yet. From the lower angles, you can see the sky overexposed and blanking out. It all feels very very real. There were moments that it almost felt like I was looking at a picture of the place.

That’s why I’m spending so much space here going on about Guarnido’s lighting. It’s not something you think about too much when you read comics. Often, the colorist handles all the work, and in the production line of North American comics, we don’t think about that.

Some artists are good about recognizing their light sources and dropping black areas in where appropriate. But, even then, the colorist does a lot of the work to make that look right. It’s not just brightness of colors, but tones and shades and all the rest.

There’s something about Guarnido’s lighting in this book, in particular, that really pulls me into the scenes and makes me feel like I’m in that location. It’s something I’ve never felt about a comic book before.

Usually, when someone goes for a photorealistic coloring job, it either looks too Photoshoppy or it looks fake in an Uncanny Valley kind of way. Guarnido threads that needly beautifully. It likely helps that he’s drawing anthropomorphic characters. It’s not like he’s photoreferencing those… His colors aren’t minutely detailed and filled with extra textures. This is still watercoloring we’re talking about. Maybe it’s the suggestions of his colors that do the work for him.

Whatever it is, it’s damned impressive.

Odds and Ends

Time for some leftover thoughts on this book that don’t fit in anywhere else and aren’t big enough to get a whole section of their own. Rather that precede each with a Stan Lee-esque “ITEM!”, I’ll go with “BLACKSAD!”

Weekly outside a bar in New Orleans

BLACKSAD! This is the book where you really will fall in love with Weekly. He’s the sidekick for Blacksad that has to put up with the drudge work. Even worse, it often interferes with his attempts at any kind of pleasure. In this book, he meets a beautiful woman at a bar who shows interest in him, only to have to run out to get information to Blacksad. Poor guy can’t catch a break.

He’s honest and loyal to a fault, even when he knows he’s drawing the short straw.

BLACKSAD! Canales starts this book off in a similar way to the previous one: It’s a short scene in which Blacksad waxes poetic in caption boxes over a more interesting visual. Blacksad talks about what hell is, referencing Sartre’s well known response, “Other people.”

The visuals show a woman performing a strip tease on stage. Blacksad sits in the crowd annoyed that the informant they’re waiting for isn’t showing up. Weekly is soaking it in, excited at what he sees in front of him.

It’s interesting to see the way Canales plays with those two very different sounding thoughts. They play together in an interesting way, giving Guarnido something to draw while still exercising the reader’s mind with some high thematic ideas that play out in the book ahead.

BLACKSAD! Canales’ script gets one demerit for this panel:

Weekly at the bar serves up an "As You Know" moment

It’s a classic “as you know” moment, where one character tells a character something they obviously know in order to get the info across to the reader. It looks clumsy. It’s a very minor issue in the grand scope of the issue, but I always trip up over these kinds of things.

But do you see Weekly’s hands in that panel? That’s a pure animator gesture right there. You only see it drawn by animators or comic artists who are heavily influenced by animators. I love it.

BLACKSAD! Music has always been an important part of “Blacksad.” I haven’t mentioned it much in my reviews because I haven’t had much to say about it. It really comes to the fore in this book, though, given that the plot is centered on the music industry.

It’s a great use of “Summertime” here, with a moment that feels very cinematic. I could hear the music playing in the background over the action elements that would be happening on the screen. It’s the perfect song for that moment.

BLACKSAD! The book ends with two two-page short stories that are both good in different ways. The first is clever and perhaps a bit.. political? The second is a lovely Christmas-time mood piece that will make you feel all warm and fuzzy at the end, even though it starts a little more noir-ish. It’s also the only time in the book we see Commissioner Smirnov.

BLACKSAD! There’s one “What the what?!?” moment in the book that is a bit too spoilery to cover in detail here. Let’s just say Blacksad gets caught in a potentially deadly situation, and the way out is a giant, unexplained deus ex machina.

Is it part of “the magic of New Orleans”? Is it the start of a new subplot to run through the series? Is it a case of a writer backing himself into a corner and not figuring a logical way out?

I’m not sure. It’s just a bizarre page in the book that would fit into a quirkier book, but not a straight-up noir one like this. I’m still baffled by it. If anyone has an explanation or can point to a quote from Canales about what he was going for there, I’d love to hear it.

Panel and Word Balloon Layout Problems

Guarnido mostly sticks to a three or four tier grid of panels. Most pages are three tiers, but many are four to cover conversational pages or for scenes where there’s enough stuff going on that he needs to squeeze it all in somehow.

It never looks crowded, though. Guarnido adjusts his art to make it work, always.

When he falls off that grid, though, he gets in trouble. There’s a scene set in a bar — of course there is; this is “Blacksad” — early in the book where Guarnido’s layouts lets one panel get cut into by the panel below it. Suddenly, the eye feels guided to the panel directly underneath, instead of the one on the next tier.

What makes this is worse is that there’s a word balloon in the lower panel that overlaps the panel above it, drawing the eye straight down when it really needs to go down and all the way to the left.

Here’s how you’re supposed to read this part of the page:

Reading order of the bar scene in Blacksad.  The balloons are all over the place.

That is some serious eyeball gymnastics right there.

This, it turns out, is the one weak spot Guarnido has: Balloon placement. This isn’t just me being a lettering pedant. This is an actual problem that impacts the reader’s experience reading through this book.

I’ve been reading comics for thirty years. I know how this stuff works. There were multiple times in this book when I moved to the wrong panel, because of these balloon overlaps.

Here’s a simple, straightforward example. The first time you read this sequence, which balloon do you read second?

Blacksad lettering example 1

I think a lot of people would read the balloon at the top of the first panel, followed by the balloon straddling the two panels, and then back up to the balloon at the top of the second panel.

I had to read these two panels in different orders a couple of times before I realized what was going on. Follow the arrows for the real reading order:

Arrows point out the correct reading order, which just looks wrong

Looking at it now, that almost makes sense, except that you’re going backwards to read the last balloon.

When you read Blacksad, you can’t read the balloons in the classic way of left to right, top to bottom. You need to take into account the origin of the balloon. Follow the tail.

This is a funny example for even that technique, though, because:

Pointing out the accidental two tales of one word balloon

The bright spot on Blacksad’s jacket looks like a tail, also, albeit one pointing to his shoulder.

I know, however, why it’s happening. It’s a storytelling issue and something all comic book artists have to learn to be less precious about. Guarnido doesn’t want to cover his drawings up with the word balloons.

No letterer would want to do that, either, but when you have to, you have to.

Guarnido includes lots of word balloons that overlap from a panel on the left into the panel on the right, but that works to guide the eye properly. Mostly. (It didn’t in the example above.)

There are plenty of examples in this book. Here’s a page where it happens twice, including one balloon that straddles three different panels.

Here's a Blacksad sequence where the lettering is very easy to read out of order.

I blocked it out to indicate the gutters in dark blue and the balloons in yellow. Here’s the way my eye naturally read down the page in the typical “Z” formation:

The wrong reading order feels the most natural

Those balloons with the “X”es in them are out of sequence. (They’re not students of Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.)

That feels like the most orderly way, doesn’t it? I knew as I read it that that second “X”ed out panel was wrong. It cut off the bottom left panel entirely, and that was where another balloon started.

Here’s the correct reading order on this one:

Correct reading order, with arrows pointing from balloon to balloon

To me, it looks like Guarnido is guilty of that old comic book artist sin of not leaving enough negative space in his panels to fit the word balloons in. He has a lot of word balloons cutting across two panels in order to avoid hiding characters

There are times when Guarnido lets panels expand to fit his art. He needs to find more places where he can shrink his art down into a panel to fit the word balloon. That will help the readability of the book.

At the end of the day, comics are pictures AND words. It’s the interplay between the two things that makes a great comic, and the physical lay out of that is a part of it. Never underestimate a good letterer.

Blacksad’s Watercolor Techniques

Front covers of Blacksad v4 and Blacksad Aquarelles v2
Back covers of Blacksad v4 and Blacksad Aquarelles v2

There’s a whole second book at the end of the story that provides a behind the scenes look at how Guarnido works to watercolor this book.

Seriously, it’s a whole second book. I recently picked up a copy of it on eBay: “Blacksad: L’Histoire des aquarelles, tome 2” [“Blacksad: The History of Watercolors, Book 2”] is a 40 page hardcover album filled with Guarnido’s color sketches and a ton of text from an interview with Guarnido that explains it all.

Dark Horse reprints the entire thing here in their book, complete with an English translation of Guarnido’s text from Bart Beaty.

It is super instructive for those of us who don’t quite understand how watercolor paints work. You may think you do, but until you read these pages of Guarnido’s recounting his struggles to make this book look the way he wanted it to, you just don’t understand.

It’s incredibly painstaking work, obviously. It’s tough to slosh water across a piece of paper and get it to land right and absorb properly into the paper, but that’s exactly what Guarnido has to do with a book like this, over and over again for 48 perfect pages.

Some of the most basic parts of creating this look are things I never considered, like the way he lays down a base count of a single color to influence the rest of the colors he paints on top of that. Or, on the other hand, the way he can add a color over the final artwork at the end to shift all the colors in one direction.

It’s harrowing stuff to me because this is the kind of work that you can’t CTRL-Z. Once the paint is down, it’s there and you need to work with it or around it. There’s no eraser.

Guarnido shares dozens of color sketches – small pieces of art where he traced the original pencils and then applied some paints to it to see how the final panel would look with his chosen colors. Then, he can adjust the colors or the amount of colors in the mix to get something closer to what he wants. Then he can do it for real on the art boards.

That’s all the technical work, but there’s also a lot of talk in these pages of his creative choices and the reasons he makes them. He even mentions in a couple of places where he adds items to the extreme foreground to add depth to the panel, which is a technique I talk about often in HyperAnalysis posts. He attributes it to his animation artistic training, which is honestly where I likely learned a lot of this stuff, too. But it’s still a much bigger thing than that, and goes back even further. It’s just good composition.

If you’ve ever been interested in learning a bit about how an artist manages a watercolored comic, this book is a must read for you.

Guarnido’s watercolor studies are, to perhaps nobody’s surprise, also highly valued in the original art market. Here’s one from the first page of volume 3 that auctioned off at over $1400. (It’s the first panel from the sequence I did a HyperAnalysis of.)

Recommended?

Blacksad v4: A Silent Hell book photographed from above

As with all Blacksad books, yes. Of course.

This one is doubly recommended, just because of the different art style and the complex story that’s so relatively easy to absorb. The book, itself, gets a second recommendation for all the back matter at the end, where we learn about Guarnido’s process. It doesn’t feel like the typical by-the-books “back matter” material. This is much more personal and informative.

For $20 in hardcover format with its oversized pages, it’s well worth the price.

It’s also the first volume in the series that Dark Horse published as a standalone volume. There is no volume number on the spine, which I’m happy about. It would be too confusing for Dark Horse to call this “Volume 4” when they’d have to call the first book collecting volumes 1 – 3 “Volume 1”. They’re making the best of the situation.

I always prefer albums to be published individually, but I understand the realities of the North American market and why packaging the first three into one thicker book made sense. Adding in the second book worth of Behind the Scenes material helps justify this book’s price, so the reader gets something while the publisher hits the price point they need. All is good.

The next book, “Amarillo,” is a stand alone album. No bonus material in the back of that one. The price is $17.99, which I happily paid because the book is still hardcover and oversized.

Blacksad Back Issues

In the meantime, you can read my reviews of the rest of the books in the series:

And don’t miss the story behind “Blacksad and iBooks“, or this detailed HyperAnalysis of Juanjo Guarnido’s artwork.

One Self-Indulgent Meta Note

This is the 700th article published to this website. It’s the 362nd categorized as a “review” and the 399th as “BD”.

Thanks to one and all for visiting and reading and commenting and sharing the reviews on social media and with your local mail carrier. I appreciate the support over the last five years that this website has existed, and look forward to writing for another 20. (I’ll re-assess then, but I bet I still don’t give up.)

What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)

3 Comments

  1. The notion of an anthropomorphic animal doing strip tease, in other words trying to turn the reader on, is slightly disturbing. Jessica Rabbit never did anything for me either. Then again, it’s not her fault, she’s just drawn that way.

    This big panel that you praise, is for me a symptom of a big problem in modern BD. Where do you look first ? everything on that page feels flat because there is no significant difference in thickness of the inkline, or in the pastel colors distribution should signify layers of proximity to the reader’s eye and depth of perspective but here it flattens everything. Compare this to any typical Sergio Aragonés Groo splash page or a McCay Little Nemo page and you’ll see how a professional artist handles that particular craft.

    This panel layout issue that you point out is creeping up in BD, has been for a few years. The way I see it, for the following reasons :
    – Lack of formal training of BD creators. Have they even read Scott McCloud?
    – Disappearance of the thought balloon. This led to overuse of captions, which are way more invasive on the page and sometimes makes me feel like I’m reading a Hal Foster Prince Valiant page. Bring back the thought bubble, publishers!
    – and finally, twisted influence of Manga. Not sure how it is in the US, but some Manga are published here in the original format, right to left, so it feels like you’re starting a book at the end. Reading practice for Europeans used to be Left-to-Right THEN Top-to-Bottom. Now it’s reversed (best case scenario. Sometimes it makes no sense at all). Everything in our civilization gets deconstructed… That’s the age we live in now. As I was rereading some DC Golden Age Archives the other day, I was reminded that captions used to be numbered, for clarity, as the medium was in its infancy. Maybe we should get back to that…

  2. I tried a couple times, but I just can’t get into Blacksad. Nice art sure, but the overall mood of those finely painted pages just comes off as drab to me. I like looking at his behind the scenes/art of books tho.

    If I’m gonna read stories starring anthropomorphic characters, I much prefer Jason (I Killed Adolf Hitler, Lost Cat, etc)!

    (oh, and same squirrel, different account)

    1. You tried it, so I can’t give you any grief. To each his own, as they say.

      That said, I should do a Jason review here one of these days. I have a few of his books and genuinely like them. I’m sure I did a shorter review of them in the CBR days, but I’m due for a second look at them…