Shiny Shelf


Grandville

By Mark Clapham on 08 October 2009

It’s been a couple of years since the publication of Bryan Talbot’s ‘Alice in Sunderland’, and now he’s back with another original graphic novel. It’s heartening to see a writer/artist of Talbot’s calibre continue to have his work released by a major book publisher, and with ‘Grandville’ he’s delivered another substantial graphic novel.

Like ‘Alice’, ‘Grandville’ is a large format work which combines Talbot’s unique imagination with his veteran’s grasp of cartooning technique. However, in terms of tone, subject, genre, and pretty much everything else apart from how Talbot draws rabbit’s heads, this is a wildly different novel to its predecessor.

‘Grandville’ is described on the wonderful retro cover as ‘A Detective Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard Scientific Romance Thriller’, and on the title page as, more simply, ‘A Fantasy’. While the former subtitle gives an indication of the kind of story this is – an interwar action thriller, with steampunk trappings and a hero in the genteel thug mould of Bulldog Drummond or Fleming’s Bond – the second subtitle, ‘A Fantasy’, perhaps gives us a bigger clue to the contents, that Talbot has flicked all the safety catches off his imagination and has gone to town.

Compared to the spiralling loops of fact and fiction in ‘Alice’, the intercutting of art styles and narrative threads building and drawing together, ‘Grandville’ is a much more straightforward affair, a thriller that starts with a chase, turns into a murder mystery and, through a series of violent confrontations, builds to a spectacular climax. Talbot draws in a consistent style throughout, with the exception of some witty notes of pastiche applied to some of the background characters. The storytelling, both in terms of writing and art, rolls forward with absolute clarity and gripping pace.

The narrative core of ‘Grandville’ may be straightforward, familiar even in its action-movie momentum, but the detail and the worldbuilding is not. Grandville itself is an alternative Paris, capital of a vast Napoleonic empire from which Britain has only recently declared independence. It’s a francophone world where all foreigners, especially the English, are regarded with deep suspicion as potential terrorists, and where Imperial might has resulted in epic feats of science, engineering and architecture. Oh, and it’s also a world where the people are all anthropomorphised animals.

LeBrock, our hard-nosed hero, is a badger. His sidekick is a mouse. Squirrels guard crimescenes, cats dance burlesque and eagles work as barmen. In a masterstroke of worldbuilding, there are some humans as minor characters, but they’re dismissed as an odd subspecies of hairless chimpanzee, work as menials and don’t have citizens’ rights.

Antrhopomorphised animals have, for a long time, been the narrative preserve of children’s stories and, in recent years, the domain of the dreaded furries. (If you don’t know, don’t ask. And certainly don’t google it at work.) With ‘Grandville’ Talbot claims, or maybe even reclaims, the use of animal characters in stories aimed at a general audience of adults beyond a specific, eh, niche market. It also gives him incredible licence: nothing says that we’re outside conventional reality quicker than a talking otter in a top hat, and the charm and appeal of the animal characters makes the often brutal action hit even harder. It starts out as a novelty, but by a dozen pages into ‘Grandville’ it feels like a book that could only work with a cast of animal people.


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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named markclapham.com.




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