Mid-20th century N'Orleans and Detective John Blacksad is in the Big Easy, hired by the suggestively named Faust, the owner of a popular music label to track down Sebastian "Little Hand" Fletcher, a wayward jazz pianist and the star of the label whose heroin addiction may have gotten the best of him. But as Blacksad investigates the characters' murky lives in this outwardly jovial town, he finds the place riddled with corruption and murder, a bloody trail leading from the poorhouses to the highest levels of power. But there's a killer on the streets and the air is filled with mardi gras and voodoo... and time is running out.
For those new to this series - and really, you can just start right here rather than pick up the previous book - this is the world of Raymond Chandler and James Cain; that is, noir. But with animals. Every character is an animal-headed humanoid doing the things humans would normally do. And the book does hit all the noir buttons - the gritty detective, the dames, the drugs, the smoky bars and boozy nights, the fights and deaths and guns. If you love noir, comics, and animals this is your book.
But my problem with this book, like the first book, is the lack of originality in the characters and story. Blacksad is your average gumshoe: he's tough, he's street smart, he's tortured and angry - and he's unoriginal. Same goes for every character in the book. The evil rich guy, his entitled smug son, the working class depicted as honest, salt of the earth heroes, and so on. And the story of finding the pianist is barely touched on because it's over really soon and the subplot of the masked killer is easily solved by page 3 - it's as obvious to figure out as an 80s Columbo TV movie where the bad guy is always the most famous person in the cast. Then the real story begins which takes the form of a staple of the noir genre - the abuse of power and the corruption it brings. The private eye against those in power, the little guy versus the big guy! Etc...
The finale of the book is a poorly chosen plot point mainly because it relies heavily upon an artistic form comics cannot replicate: music. I won't go too much into it but suffice it to say that not since Alan Moore's atrocious "LXG: 1969" has there been such an unconvincingly written use of music in a comic book. And it's anti-climactic, coming off as more than a bit contrived. It may have seemed poetical in the planning of this story but reads very clumsily in the execution.
The art is faultless and every page - every panel! - is a master-class in illustration. From the simplest of scenes like Blacksad interviewing a drug dealer in a run-down bar to full page street scenes, Juanjo Guarnido brings it every time. For a noir story, the New Orleans in Mardi Gras setting gives Guarnido the chance to inject glorious amounts of colour to the normally muted stories of Blacksad and he takes full advantage of the newly opened up colour palette for this story, producing page after page of first class art. The full page street scene of the carnival in full swing is a page I would love to buy as a picture to hang on my wall. It's so detailed and full of mini-stories in the enormous cast of unknown characters living in that page, you'll find yourself happily pausing the story to examine the scene in the detail it deserves.
"A Silent Hell" is a slimmer volume containing one story while Dark Horse's previous Blacksad book had three. Dark Horse have beefed up the page count by including a 50-page "making of" commentary by Guarnido who walks the reader through the steps he took in creating this story. While the book is well produced with high quality paper and the artwork is gorgeous, I felt the book was overpriced for what is essentially a 54 page story plus two 2 page short stories. The additional 50 pages of behind the scenes material is really only going to appeal to the devoted fan rather than the casual reader who probably won't be as interested in finding out how Guarnido decided to draw a particular scene. It's inclusion seems to be Dark Horse's justification for charging so much for the book.
While this is a beautifully illustrated, well produced book, look beneath the surface texture and the story and characterisation is lacking nuance, originality and true intrigue. It is an average detective story that is fairly interesting but lacking the integral qualities that would make it a great comic book. In the end it is a pretty but insubstantial and forgettable read.