Section from Bryan Talbot's Grandville

Your hairy English bottom

Bryan Talbot’s Grandville is a huge stylistic change from Talbot’s other recent work. While his most recent work, 2007’s Alice In Sunderland (which would have to be on a shortlist for best graphic novel of the decade) was a deeply personal discursive essay about the history of Sunderland, Lewis Carroll, and the comics medium, Grandville is an utterly straightforward – though hugely enjoyable – genre piece.

Most of those reading this will, on being told that the genre in question is steampunk – and that furthermore it is steampunk with anthropomorphic animals as the main characters – dismiss it instantly. That would be a mistake. While this is nowhere near as weighty a work as Alice or The Tale Of One Bad Rat, Talbot’s craftsmanship shines through in every panel.

Set in an alternate universe in which Britain lost the Napoleonic Wars and has only recently gained its independence from the French Empire, Grandville follows Detective Inspector LeBrock – a badger with the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes and the violent streak of a Tarantino character – as he investigates the murder of one Raymond Leigh-Otter in Nutwood. What starts as a simple murder investigation turns into a conspiracy that leads all the way up to the French leader, far right nationalist Jean-Marie Lapin.

The story itself plants ‘9/11 truth’ conspiracy theories in Talbot’s imaginary world, but the plot isn’t really the important thing here, so much as an excuse for Talbot to draw animals and Victoriana (one of the rooms in the story is taken directly from Sarah Bernhardt’s rooms, while one panel is Manet’s A Bar At The Folies-Bergère ‘but with the perspective done right’ as Talbot put it in his talk at the recent Thought Bubble convention) along with great, sturdy steampunk contraptions.

Talbot’s imaginary world doesn’t hold together under even the lightest scrutiny – despite some surface similarities, this isn’t a League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen style exercise in worldbuilding – but the characterisation between the central character and his rat assistant (whose speech patterns are clearly modelled after Penfold in Danger Mouse) makes for some wonderful comic moments, and Talbot’s action scenes are perfectly executed (if excessively gory, especially one scene nicked from Reservoir Dogs).

The whole thing, in fact, is full of references – not only to Tarantino and Manet, but to Rupert The Bear (we see Rupert’s father in the background in an early scene, and before the story moves to Paris it’s set in Nutwood) and Tintin (a homeless junkie dog called “Snowy” Milou who hallucinates trips to the moon and the Congo). As much as anything else, the book is a celebration of a whole tradition of anthropomorphic animal-art (which really is the thing that, more than anything else, ties this to Talbot’s earlier work – One Bad Rat was of course hugely influenced by Beatrix Potter, and Alice by Tenniel). If you ever get a chance to see Talbot’s lecture on the history of anthropomorphic art, go.

All in all, Grandville is fluff, but fluff by one of the greatest craftsmen working in the comic medium, and while it doesn’t break any new ground, it’s just fun to read someone who knows exactly what he’s doing hitting every single beat perfectly. The level of attention Talbot pays to even such supposedly-trivial things shames most of his contemporaries, let along his juniors.

Which makes it all the more disappointing to have to report one big problem – the colouring. Talbot has clearly paid a great deal of attention to this, but it could have done with him paying a lot less attention to it. While someone else did the colour ‘flats’ for a big chunk of the book, Talbot has rendered every page in Photoshop to an excessive degree (a problem I also had, to a lesser extent, with Alice).

Some of the colouring is very tastefully done – the sampling of Manet’s colours to provide the background for the Folies Bergère scenes, for example, or the way that every scene has a separate colour palette – but in general, everything is over-rendered and artificial-looking. Talbot’s impeccable taste appears to have deserted him when it comes to the use of Photoshop gradients and filters, which just take away from his stunning line art.

But that’s a minor blemish on what is otherwise a wonderful little story. Talbot is already planning a sequel to this, though one has to wonder if this will find its market (it looks for all the world like a children’s book, but it definitely isn’t). It’s not Talbot’s best work – it’s probably not the best graphic novel of the year, even – but it’s damn good work, and well worth a read.

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3 Responses to Grandville

  1. Zom says:

    It’s strange, I’ve never really done Talbot. I tried reading some Luther Arkwright but it started to bore me so I stopped. Probably doesn’t help that I don’t much like his art.

    Should try to give the man a proper crack sometime, I reckon.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I would have said pretty much exactly the same thing til I read Alice. Check that one out… and if you get the chance to see him speak at a con or whatever, take it – he’s utterly astonishing when it comes to talking about technical stuff like page layout, panel placement and so on…

  2. I was similarly wowed by Talbot’s abilities as a speaker (at Comica rather than Thought Bubble, but I believe it was the same presentation), but was completely underwhelmed by Grandville.

    He obviously put a lot of time and skill in to putting the book together, but I thought the end result was especially forgettable.

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