Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Blacksad: A Silent Hell (#4)

"Weekly if I ever start acting like that, remind me to get the hell out of this job" - John Blacksad

Time to return to the tough but sensitive P.I. with Furry appeal, John Blacksad.  I covered the first Blacksad release a few months ago, a three issue volume that told some stories about a fifties America populated by anthropomorphised animals rather than humans.  Covering such hard hitting topics as gangsterism, racism and the Red Scare, it's all seen from the viewpoint of John Blacksad, a cat-headed, two fisted tough guy but also one with smarts and a heart.  The whole book has a noir sensibility about it and Blacksad sees the very worst that his animal brethren can stoop to on an almost daily basis.  Yet his struggles to discover the truth of the tangled webs of deceit he finds himself him mark him out as an unwilling perhaps but still a true hero, and now two more adventures have been released in the series, 2012's "A Silent Hell" and 2014's "Amarillo" in lovely hardback format. "A Silent Hell", the one I am covering today, takes him to New Orleans and he soon finds himself involved in sinister shenanigans against a backdrop of drugs, Jazz and Mardi Gras. "A Silent Hell" also contains a gorgeous art book called "The Watercolour Story" detailing the work that went into the visual design of the story, and some Blacksad shorts as well. But it's the main story I will be looking at, those are just nice, bonus extras to be kept in mind if you decide to buy it yourself (and you really should).  Still on creative duties are Juanjo Guarnido on art and Juan Diaz Canales as writer, both bringing their Spanish and thus outsider perspectives to American culture as expressed through the quirky observer of life character Blacksad. Begin!

We're in New Orleans.  We get a page of some mysterious hands grinding up strychnine tablets, then we see reflected in the bottle, someone putting on a red cloak and horse skull helmet.  Then we cut to Blacksad and his friend, the small ferrety newspaper reporter "Weekly" who he teamed up with in the first collection.  They are watching a strip show which Weekly is enjoying immensely.
Weekly and Blacksad enjoy the sights.
Blacksad decides to leave, their contact "Junior Harper" hasn't shown up so he's going to the "Ebony Lounge" to ask some questions.  Weekly wants to stay and watch the show, but Blacksad packs him off a hotel where he says Junior is holed up after he got out of prison. Weekly sulks that he wouldn't have got Blacksad the "job" if he knew this was how he'd be treated. Then we cut to Weekly walking with a goat headed man he calls Mr. Lachadelle, but who tells him to call him Faust.  They are in the local prison yard, where Junior Harper is.  This is a flashback, Weekly had originally been sent to New Orleans to cover the music scene.

Junior Harper is a Rooster headed person playing a banjo, Faust says a lot of musicians on his record label end up in jail.  Harper tells Weekly that Faust owns the local law enforcement authorities, then as a clearly ill Faust decides it's time to leave, Harper sneers that he should come back sometime "an' talk about the good ol'days." 
Weekly, Faust and Junior Harper.
Back at his home, Blacksad has arrived and Faust asks him and Weekly to help with a private matter.  While he speaks to them a voodoo priestess performs spells on him.  He has cancer and is dying, the voodoo seems to be keeping it at bay for now, but he is still dying.  He wants them to find someone called "Sebastian 'Little Hand' Fletcher".  Blacksad perks up, he has heard of him "I love his music" he says.

He's been missing for months and is a heroin addict.  Faust worries that he has done something stupid.  Faust says losing him would be like losing a son.  After some back and forth, Blacksad agrees to take the case. Afterwards, Weekly questions his "tough guy bit."

Blacksad: "It's all marketing, Week.  You've got to play the part.  The hard-boiled P.I. It's what they expect."

They are then confronted by a large hippo gentleman who introduces himself as Ted Leeman.  He was intitally hired to find Fletcher but Faust fired him.  Because he asked for more money and tried to blackmail Faust say Weekly and Blacksad.  "Lies" says Ted, knocking back some booze from a flask.  He leaves them annoyed that they have taken Faust's "side".
Ted Leeman, a real private dick.
In the present, Blacksad goes to a shady bar where heroin is dealt which he's been watching for a few days now.  After questions nearly get him a baseball bat to the noggin, he gets rougher.  He wants to know who "the guy in the mask" is.  The bartender doesn't know, just that he wanted Sebastian Fletcher to be sold some bad dope.  So they sold him what he passed on, "straight up rat poison."

Later the same day a heavily pregnant dog woman called Hannah boards a tram.  She is surprised by Sebastian.  She says she never thought she'd see him again.  He says he wants to come home and "start over."  She tells him Faust has been looking for him and wants him to record a new album.  This frightens and angers Sebastian.  When she says how helpful he's been, Sebastian runs:

Sebastian: "All lies!  If you're on his side, you just forget about me comin' home.  I'd rather hit up a million times than work for that monster!"
Sebastian and Hannah
He flees the tram car and Hannah starts to suffer labour pains.  She gets home and starts to go into labour proper, another goat headed man appears at her doorway and calls her name.

Another flashback, Blacksad is in a record shop, so is the goat headed man from Hannah's place. Blacksad hears some singing and playing coming from outside and goes to investigate. It is a one legged, horse headed man called Lenoir.  He knows Sebastian, he rambles that he, Sebastian, Junior Harper and "poor Joachim" were all in a street band together.  The war interrupted their progress as Joachim enlisted and it was never the same when he came back. But then he confesses he hasn't seen Sebastian in years, then he yells in some impenetrable dialect at some kids who have stolen stuff off his cart.

Thomas: "It's Gullah a southern dialect they speak in Caldonia.  Lenoir was born there.  Just like Joachim, Junior and Sebastian.  And my father too."

The goat headed man who tells Blacksad this then intoduces himself as Thomas, Faust's son and he takes Blacksad to lunch.  They have a pleasant chat.  Thomas says Faust's illness has affected his mind, using voodoo to stave off death is ridiculous.  Blacksad says his passing will be bad news for all like him who love Jazz.
Thomas introduces himself.
Thomas says his father was a "mediocre musician" but a great producer with a "sensational knack for new talent."  He admits that Faust was like a father to Sebastian, but "genius doesn't give you carte blanch to act like an idiot."  Blacksad says it seems like he doesn't want him to find Sebastian.  Thomas says he was like a little brother to him but he abandoned his pregnant wife of his "own free will."  He asks Blacksad to drop the case, so Blacksad leaves without another word.

In the present, in a club called "The Wild Note", Sebastian is begging the owner to be allowed to perform his new song "Pizen Blues" that night.  The owner is dubious due to Sebastian's drug habit affecting his performance in the past.  Sebastian promises to stay clean for tonight and the owner relents.
Not the best time for an interrogation.
Blacksad goes to question Hannah, who has had her baby successfully.  Thomas is there looking after her and when Blacksad tries to question her, he tries to deflect him.

Blacksad: "Don't play the good Samaritan with me Thomas!  This kid is about to be left without a father and you haven't lifted a finger to find him!"

Thomas: "One can live without a father."

Blacksad says that's the real Thomas speaking, "the jealous, abandoned son".  Hannah says Sebastian came to see her earlier that day and said he'd come home tonight for good.  She says she has some song lyrics he wrote some time ago that might have a clue in them, they're in the Galluh dialect and when she showed them to Faust he became very upset.

We then cut to a flashback of Hannah, slightly showing her pregnancy and Sebastian having a picnic in a park.  He gives her the lyrics to his new song "Pizen Blues" and says it'll blow the minds of people.  He also wants his baby to be called Joachim if it's a boy, after a friend of his who died a few years ago from tuberculosis.

In the present, Weekly reaches the hotel Blacksad sent him to at the start.  Unfortunbately Junior Harper is dead, he's been thrown out of his hotel window and killed.  Weekly phones Blacksad to tell him:

Weekly: "Bad news, John.  Seems Harper tried to fly out the window, but forgot he had a bum pair of wings.  Suicide?  I'd say murder more likely..."

Blacksad tells him to go check every club where there is music tonight to try and find Sebastian, he's off to ask Faust about something.
Harper becomes an ex-rooster.
Another flashback, Faust and Thomas are on board a riverboat talking.  Thomas tells him his wife is leaving him and taking everything, even the house which is in her name.  Thomas says the only thing Faust has ever cared about is the fact Thomas won't give him grandchildren.  Faust accuses him of spending no time in getting close to Sebastian's wife, then says he'll give him cash if he needs it. "Goodbye dad" says Thomas and walks off.

Back in the present, Blacksad arrives at Faust's and takes the offered bourbon.  Faust is still being attended to by the voodoo priestess.  Blacksad tells him someone is trying to kill Sebastian and it has to do with his new song.  What does "Pizen Blues" mean?  Faust says "Pizen" means "Poison".  He thinks Sebastian is referring to heroin and it is a "farewell note" from a drug addict at death's door.  Blacksad tells him Junior Harper is dead and Thomas wants him to drop the case, he then leaves while Faust frowns and looks angry.

Another flashback to a couple of days ago during Mardi Gras.  Blacksad has been staking out the drug bar, "The Ebony Lounge" and sees a person in a horse skull mask and red cloak hand over the rat poison and some cash to one of the dealers.  Blacksad then chases the cloaked figure but loses him in the main Mardi Gras parade.
Just gorgeous artwork in this book.
In the present, Blacksad is walking down by the docks trying to put it all together.  He thinks Thomas might be responsible, wanting to kill Sebastian out of jealousy and getting to Junior to stop him being able to tell him where Sebastian is.  Then he stops and feels dizzy and realises his bourbon was drugged.

The hippo man, Ted Leeman confronts Blacksad and goes for his gun.  Blacksad gets his first and shoots Ted three times in the gut.  Ted headbutts Blacksad off the dock into the water and Blacksad sinks, having a vision that melts into one Sebastian is having.  Then Sebastian is called on stage to perform his new song.  Meanwhile Blacksad has been rescued by a buff and handsome ginger cat with mermaid tattoos who claims to have met Blacksad before maybe in one of his other nine lives, then walks off enigmatically.
Mystery cat...
Weekly is in a bar and gets chatting to a beautiful woman who has actually heard of him and wants to spend some time with him as she is a fan.  But fate intervenes as Weekly overhears people saying Sebastian is going to be playing at The Wild Note club, and so Weekly abandons the woman with reluctance and goes looking for Blacksad.

We're then shown Lenoir the one-legged horse's run down bedroom.  Someone is under the covers and the injured Ted Leeman comes in sweating and in pain from the gut wounds he sustained.  He tells Lenoir that Faust has hired him to take care of the troublesome witnesses at twice the price he hired him before.  Then he goes to strangle Lenoir who turns out to be Blacksad, they fight and Blacksad takes Leeman out.  Then Blacksad calls in Lenoir and asks him to tell him all about the story behind "Pizen Blues" as he holds up a tatty leaflet for something called Dupre's "Life Everlasting" Tonic.

The story is told via a sad looking Sebastian sitting at the piano at The Wild Note telling it to the waiting audience, while Blacksad, having been told it already by Lenoir goes to confront Faust about it.
Sebastian's tale of woe.
Joachim, Harper, Lenoir and Sebastian grew up together in a small town called Caldonia.  Also living there was a "Dr. Dupre" who sold a flu remedy called the "Life Everlasting" tonic, which turned out to be dangerously poisonous causing a wave of deaths, miscarriages and birth defects, although it seems in general people there especially the dirt poor, didn't know it was the tonic that was responsible.  The town survivors went their seperate ways "afraid of what might happen if they broke their silence"  for some reason.

Dupre also left Caldonia and changed his name to Faust Lachadelle, building up a very successful record label on that name.  Sebastina, Lenoir, Joachim and Harper had stayed friends and formed a street band, but Joachim was drafted during the war and the band fell apart.  Enter Faust, first he gave Harper a deal, but his records didn't sell well.  The along came Sebastain:

Faust: "He had talent so bright it outshone the sun.  After only two albums he became Lachadelle records' star and a household name in Jazz circles."

The trouble started when Joachim and Lenoir met up again.  Joachim was dying of the delayed effects from the poisonous tonic.  He knew who Faust really was, and knew it was the tonic that had caused all the troubles having got the truth of the story via another Caldonia native he met during the war.  Lenoir knew that no one would believe the word of a "crippled black tramp", but two famous musicians might be listened too.
The truth comes out via Lenoir.
He told Sebastian and Harper, who tried to blackmail Faust but the authorities were in his pocket again and Harper got sent to jail.  Sebastian didn't want to lose his career and status so kept quiet, but started using heroin to numb his guilt.

Sebastian: "...only to realise that you can put your conscience to sleep, but you can't kill it."

Then Sebastian sings his new song "Pizen (Poison) Blues".  We don't hear him though, Blacksad instead talks to Faust asking how someone dying of cancer could treat others "so cheaply".  Faust say he isn't dying of cancer, he has a rare genetic disorder "my blood is poisoned, rotten" and he's spent a fortune looking for a cure so his son Thomas won't suffer the same way.  He wanted to keep the case of the Life Everlasting tonic closed and so was bumping off everyone who could speak of it to prevent himself being financially ruined because of lawsuits.  He wants his name to continue, he wants grandchildren.

Blacksad: "A legacy handed down under a fake name and stained with innocent blood?  I hope that Thomas has other plans for his future."
Faust has plenty to feel guilty about.
Then Weekly bursts in and tells Blacksad that Faust is playing at The Wild Note, realising what's going to happen when he's done playing, Blacksad goes pelting off to stop him.  We then get a couple of pages narrated by the Ella Fitzgerald song "Summertime".  Thomas is with Hannah watching her feed the baby and smiling, while Sebastian is dead having shot up the rat poison he was dealt earlier that day Blacksad having got there too late.

The story wraps up with Blacksad and Weekly discussing the case.  Seems Blacksad got paid, but he handed the cash back to Thomas saying he'd need it more than Blacksad does and that Thomas' life is in danger.  Weekly says that's funny coming from a guy who was nearly drowned, then strangled, it's like Blacksad has a guardian angel.  This makes Blacksad smile and although it's not shown, you know he's thinking about the ginger catman who saved his life at the docks...
Blacksad knows the score.
And that's about as happy an ending you're going to get in the murky world of John Blacksad.  This is a gorgeous book, while I do have one complaint, that being it's a little hard to figure out what is a flashback and what is in the present in places. However the book screams to be read multiple times, it is simply gorgeous and very textually dense (unfortunately no specific translator is credited this time).  Despite looking a little thin, it's no quick read, and that's good because it forces you to linger and just wallow in the sumptious artwork.  The America of the fifties is brilliantly depicted, both in the background to the events that take place and authentic dialogue married to some of the finest and most obviously well researched artwork you'll ever see in comics.  The decision to use animals is once again vindicated by the sheer amount of personality and emotion even the smallest bit players are imbued with and John Blacksad remains a compelling noir protagonist, taking his licks but still dedicated to uncovering the truth no matter what the cost.  With the addition of the art-book and two shorts, this volume is well worth picking up, for fans of good comics, fans of detective fiction and fans of antropomorphised animal people this shouldn't be missed.  Join me in January when I tackle the last Blacksad release (so far), "Amarillo".

4 comments:

  1. Wow, they like watching that lady strip and she's not even the same species :-D

    Okay, this is like some weird fever dream where we're just seeing them as animals, right? It's not fleshed out like a sci-fi concept would be. Probably a metaphor. 'Cos Hannah should have had more than one baby.

    "I'm an evil doctor and I desperately need a pseudonym to hide my evilness. What shall I call myself? I know... Faust!"

    This reminds me of that thalidomide case.

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  2. There animalness is occasionally referred to, like the ginger cat saying he and Blacksad are cats with nine lives, so it's not just a representational thing. And you'd have to be as tough as a real hippo to survive three shots to the gut like Ted did and so on.

    I did think "Faust" was a tad on the nose, heh.

    I hadn't thought of the similarities to thalidomide, but it fits. Right down to the attempts to duck out of taking blame for it and the German company behind the initial synthesis and marketing of the drug as a morning sickness cure didn't say sorry until 2013! And the drug was used in Spain during the 1970's too, so I hadn't thought of that angle but I think that's a good spot. Truly Lucy, you are a sharp one :)

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  3. wow, such amazing art again! I love the ginger cat who saves Blacksad, he looks really cool :D

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  4. Yeah, I loved the ginger cat as well. Hope he turns up again!

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