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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Bryan Talbot’s Steampunk menagerie – welcome to Grandville


by Bryan Talbot

Jonathan Cape


"An anthropomorphic steampunk detective thriller" – Bryan Talbot.

Which pretty much sets the scene for Grandville quite nicely. Talbot's no stranger to steampunk, having given us the trailblazing, way ahead of it's time Luther Arkwright, but Grandville takes it a step further and mixes his beautifully rendered steampunk visions with the anthropomorphic illustrations of nineteenth century French illustrator J.J. Grandville and the retro-futuristic inventions and architecture of fellow Frenchman Albert Robida. And, like Talbot says in his frontispiece, "Not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rupert The Bear and Quentin Tarantino".

That triumvirate may seem a little at odds with each other, but here in Grandville Talbot actually pulls it all together rather well. This isn't, as you may have worked out, something as deeply serious as Luther Arkwright, Tale Of One Bad Rat or Alice In Sunderland – this is pure fantastical rollercoaster ride stuff – manic races through London streets, vicious gunfights and a plot that fair races along the meticulously detailed cobbled streets of Grandville.


(Detective-Inspector LeBrock getting his Tarantino on. From Bryan Talbot's Grandville.)

Grandville is a world populated almost exclusively by walking, talking animals. The only humans here are found in France; simple things that could have just walked off the pages of a Tintin album, they're disparagingly called "doughfaces" by the French: "a hairless breed of  Chimpanzee that evolved in the town of Angouleme". Yes, Angouleme; site of France's prestigious comics festival – Talbot throws these comic in jokes our way all the way through the book, never to the detriment of the tale, but if you know your comics you'll be smiling at some of the wilder ones. Except for poor, drug-adled Snowy Milou of course, having his opium dreams of crabs with golden claws and being on the moon "with the doughface". Then it's just melancholic and rather touchingly sad.

Granville Snowy

(Oh, Snowy, poor, poor Snowy. Here in Grandville he's just another tragic drug victim dreaming of all the things he might have done in another life.)

Here in Grandville France is a major world power, having only relinquished their hold on Britain a few decades back. The new Socialist Republic Of Britain is a minor player in world affairs, hated in France for the atrocity that was committed on the Robida Tower in Paris in the name of British anarchists fighting for independence from France.

Detective Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard, aided by his rat assistant Detective Ratzi, finds himself involved in the investigation into the murder of Raymond Leigh-Otter, respectable diplomat. And the trail of the crime will take LeBrock to the highest levels of French society and a conspiracy in the heart of Grandville that goes all the way back to the Robida Tower atrocity.


(LeBrock finds that the folks of Grandville are non too keen on the English.)

Along the way we get all of the influences Talbot was talking about; Rupert crops up early, as does Sherlock Holmes, when LeBrock does his best Holmes impression at the murder in Nutwood that starts the whole investigation off. It's brilliantly done, perfect establishing stuff – with LeBrock's instant genius detective credentials established. (And there's even a Rupert cameo in the background.) Once we're over in Grandville the action kicks up a gear and the Tarantino aspects kick in, just like Talbot promised, guns, knives, explosions – the works.


(Detective-Inspector LeBrock's welcoming committee. Cue eight pages of perfectly choreographed violence from Bryan Talbot.)

As you'd expect from Talbot the art is meticulously detailed, although at first glance it's easy to be taken in by the big and bold figure work, with his characters tending to dominate the page. But take a while on a second and third reading to look beyond the characters and look at the whole page – some of the backgrounds are beautifully detailed works in their own right. And then there's the design; from the beautifully retro cover to the "art-nouveau steampunk" endpapers and very playful Grandville font and you have a very satisfying package indeed.

Grandville may not be Talbot's best work, and some may be disappointed at it's lightness, but take it as it's intended; as a bold, brash detective thriller that's over far too soon and you'll find a very fast, highly entertaining and just out and out good thriller.

Grandville will be published by Jonathan Cape on 15th October.

Richard Bruton

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