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A review a day: Grandville

Hey, it’s Bryan Talbot’s latest work! Why don’t we take a look at it?

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!

10 Comments

Hm. Not to dismiss his subsequent career which has included excellent work, but… I do kind of feel like Talbot is one of those writers who produced his masterpiece (Arkwright) very early and hasn’t really been able to approach that level again.

Artistically, on the other hand, his elaborate wedding-cake visuals continue to wow, in combination with a slick, mature rendering style.

Greg, have you ever read “Blacksad”? The anthropomorphic animal schtick is used to gret effect there, with excellent art and some nice subversions of Noir cliches, complex characters (at least in the two latter instalments, the first one is straight noir). What really elevates the story (also over grandville I would argue) is the gorgeous, painterly art that still manages to eschew the stiffness issue often plaguing that type of work. So, if you like animal detecrtives kicking ass, Blacksad ( a Chandlerian black cat) probably has the edge over the Scotland Yard Badger.

bombie: I’ve ordered Blacksad, which Dark Horse is reprinting. So I’ll have it in the new year sometime!

No one on the US would ever recognize them, but two of the humans in the story are classic french-belgian comic characters Spirou and Bécassine.

I liked the story myself.

Best,
Hunter (Pedro Bouça)

Sorry, Greg, but I loved this story.

From it’s commentary on September 11, the US/UK relationship, Angouleme being the place all the “doughfaces” come from, Snowy recalling his adventures as an opium trip, the Omaha The Cat Dancer poster…

And no one draws faces lit from below quite like Brian Talbot.

Plus, Dogs Playing Poker?? Come on…

;-)

Blackjack: Everything you say after the “commentary on September 11″ works fairly well, I agree. Those are all minor points, though. The September 11 plot is bad because it falls into all the “conspiracy theory” stuff that tries to excuse terrorists and put the blame on the government. We’ve seen it before all too often, and Talbot doesn’t do anything with it. The small touches that homage or reference older works are fantastic, but that’s not the main plot.

I don’t think there was anything “excusing terrorists”… There was commentary on making a war for war’s sake (including subverting the media to that end) and profiting from it.

Sure, Talbot’s politics usually are more Left-orientated, but that didn’t come across as heavy-handed to me as it would appear to have done with you.

Maybe this book is just better suited to a British/European audience?

I don’t actually think this story is driven by the plot. I think the plot is designed to carry you through this world and to see the analogies he’s presenting. The anthropomorphism and steampunk trappings are just make-up and costumes… Though I did love the steam powered roller-skate/boots…

Ah well, sorry you didn’t enjoy it, Greg.

Well, I enjoyed it enough to recommend it, although “mildly.” I’m certainly not disappointed I bought it, because it is stunning to look at and all the fun details Talbot throws in almost – ALMOST – overcomes the weakness in the plot. I agree that it’s not really driven by the plot, but if that’s true, I’d almost rather him do what he did with Alice in Sunderland and almost forgo plot altogether!

FunkyGreenJerusalem

December 14, 2009 at 6:29 pm

The September 11 plot is bad because it falls into all the “conspiracy theory” stuff that tries to excuse terrorists and put the blame on the government.

I haven’t read the book, and I’m unsure from the review what exactly the 9/11 parallel is, but are you sure he’s writing about 9/11, if that’s what his saying?
Not drawing a parallel between the IRA or Basque terrorist groups?
It’s just with Europe’s encounters with terrorists, it’s often much easier to draw the line from terrorist act back to government action.
(Much the way that with the US, it’s easier to draw the line from war back to failed business opportunity).

FGJ: He may be, but the structure that gets attacked is a tower, and I just read it that way, especially because those who did it are not fighting an occupying power (like the IRA or the Basques would tell you the English and Spanish are) but are attacking a foreign power that used to occupy them (British anarchists versus the French). I don’t mean to be American-centric, but it just feels like a 9/11 parallel. I could be completely wrong, however.

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