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Grandville is, according to the subtitle, “A Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard Scientific-Romance Thriller.” Man, that’s a mouthful! Talbot writes and draws it, Dark Horse publishes it, and your local retailer charges you $17.95 for it. Of course, on-line retailers may charge you less. They’re shady that way!
After the brilliance of Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland a few years ago, I was really looking forward to this, even though it sounded completely different. It’s the story of a Scotland Yard detective who happens to be a badger investigating the apparent suicide of a British diplomat who just returned from France. Yes, I wrote “badger.” Most of the characters are animals of some kind, and Talbot has some fun things to say about the few humans who show up. In addition to starring animals, the book is a steampunk adventure, set in the present day but using science fiction elements from the past, as automatons wander around and dirigibles float in the skies and everything appears powered by steam. Talbot loves this stuff, obviously, and he’s such a good artist the world he creates is utterly real. There are some absolutely stunning pages, like when our hero, LeBrock, takes the train across the Channel to France. Talbot makes this a thrilling comic to look at, with wonderfully drawn characters, a world that feels like true fin-de-siècle Paris, and some great action scenes. He also steeps the books in nods to older works (I guess LeBrock himself is based on Badger from The Wind in the Willows, but I’ve never read it, so I can’t say – yes, I’ve never read The Wind in the Willows), and although I’m sure I’m missing plenty, I did like the poster for Omaha the Cat Dancer outside a nightclub where, indeed, cats dance.
There’s a lot of fun stuff like this in the book, even though it’s a rather dark tale. Talbot rarely passes up an opportunity to make a play on “badgers,” from using it as a verb to references to famous movies (I won’t give it away, but perhaps you can figure it out on your own). The use of various animals in specific roles is well done, too. Tintin’s dog, Snowy, has a key role in the book, which is neat. Talbot’s attention to detail with regard to the world he’s created makes this a pleasure to read … for the most part.
Unfortunately, Talbot drops the ball with regard to the story. Alice in Sunderland was almost a lecture, which may have bored some people (those people are foolish, I would argue), very short on plot but with a lot of little stories that allowed Talbot to build a grand narrative concerning northern England. In Grandville, he goes almost the opposite direction, and turns this into an extremely plot-driven comic, and the plot simply doesn’t work. I’ll set it up for you, but I don’t really want to spoil it, because you might want to read the book! A British diplomat escapes from France but then ends up dead in his cottage in England. Detective-Inspector Brock determines that it was murder made to look like suicide and deduces that he was killed by French assassins. We learn quickly that two hundred years ago, Britain was conquered by Napoleon and became part of the Empire. It only regained its independence 23 years earlier and is now the Socialist Republic of Britain. LeBrock and his assistant, Roderick, head to Paris (which is also known as Grandville) to solve the crime, and as they start digging, they uncover layers of shit that reach way up into high society. This is where the book is weakest, and in a book like this, that’s a problem. The book is somewhat obviously a 9/11 parallel (in some respects), and it reads like a left-winger’s dream of “what really happened.” LeBrock follows the clues and uncovers things, but nothing about it feels terribly fresh. Yes, he even hooks up with a lovely badger, and we know what happens to females in stories like this. The story unfolds pretty much the way we expect once we realize what Talbot is doing, and that’s too bad. LeBrock is a fairly interesting character, because he’s not above torture and murder to get to the bottom of the crime, and he’s pretty relentless, too, which makes him … well, an action movie hero. But he’s so reserved, it makes his bursts of violence interesting and terrifying. But he can’t save the plot.
It’s a shame, because the book is so nice-looking and interesting. The problem is that Talbot doesn’t do anything with the two things that would make this book unique: The steampunk aspects and the fact that anthropomorphic animals are the main characters. This is basically a standard murder plot that we’ve seen dozens of times before, but with odd characters in an odd setting. Why do anything different with the setting and the characters if you’re not going to run with it? I don’t mean explaining how animals came to be in charge, but it’s interesting that humans are second-class citizens who “evolved” in Bordeaux – in a world where every animal is sentient, the fact that humans are isn’t too strange, but the fact that they are looked down upon by every other animal might have been something to go with. The politics of this book are wildly simplistic (basically, left-wing = good, right-wing = bad), despite Talbot hinting at complexities under the surface. Talbot is certainly capable of dealing with more complex things, and although I guess he wanted to have some fun with this, the fact that the plot is so hackneyed doesn’t make it fun, it just makes it dull.
Despite all of that, Talbot’s art and the world he creates makes this a comic that’s fun to read. I just started to ignore the plot (as I could easily figure out where it was going) and concentrate on the way Talbot put each page together and how LeBrock went about solving the crime. If you like seeing an very good artist at the top of his game, you should check this out. Just don’t expect a terribly good plot, unfortunately. Too bad!
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