By Adam Roche
Let me reproduce for you the dedication at the beginning of Bryan Talbot’s ‘Grandville: A Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard Scientific-Romance Thriller’:
“This story was inspired by the work of the French caricaturist Jean Ignace Isidore Gerard (1803-1847), who worked under the nom-de-plume JJ Grandville, and the seminal science fiction illustrator, fellow Frenchman Albert Robida (1848-1926)
Not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rupert the Bear and Quentin Tarantino”
Imagine if you will, an alternate 19th century. Anthropomorphic animals walk, talk and dress like men and women, Britain is ruled by the French, the sparse human population are called “doughfaces” and perform only menial jobs in servitude to the animals. Paris is now known as Grandville, and is the hub of the French empire.
In a rain-sodden alley, somewhere near the Eiffel Tower, a souped-up carriage, pulled by a steam engine the size of a car races through the strewn litter, driven by a doughface, whose passenger is a gun-toting otter in a top hat and overcoat. They are pursued by a fox and his gang, all armed to the teeth with oversized revolvers, their legs strapped into what can only be described as rocket boots on wheels.
A shot from the fox narrowly misses the otter’s head, who in turn removes a double-barreled pistol from his coat, leans out of the carriage window and fires a bullet clean through the head of a straggling gang member. The fox returns fire, the bullet screaming through the eye of the doughface, and leaving the otter a helpless passenger in a runaway carriage. With no time to spare, the otter spots a gas tank in the alley, labelled “Danger. Volatil A L’extreme”, takes aim and fires into it as the carriage howls past.
The resulting explosion happens too quickly for the fox’s gang to comprehend. Without warning they are flung into the flames. Only the fox himself and three others manage to halt in time to watch their compadres sent to hell. Silhouetted against the flames, the fox calls orders to his remaining flunkies, and seethes with rage as he watches the carriage pass into the night.
As so begins the marvelous ‘Grandville’, an exceedingly sweet steampunk confection from Bryan Talbot, who really wasn’t lying when he named his influences at the beginning. The spectre of Conan Doyle is evident in every frame, from it’s gaslight rooms to it’s rainswept streets. The humour and overblown action of Tarantino leaps from the page; just witness the mexican standoff on page 67, that leads to a seven page shower of bullets and teeth, as LeBrock, the musclebound badger, and hero of the tale, takes on a whole batallion of armed goons, ranging from an elephant to a shotgun-packing panda.
As for the Rupert reference; he’s all over the book’s beginning. As well as appearing on page 15 (albeit slightly more grown up, and sporting a pipe), the village in which the book’s first murder takes place could very well be Nutwood.
Inspector LeBrock is called to the house of Raymond Leigh-Otter, whose exploits we witnessed at the book’s outset. He has been found dead in a room locked from the inside, having supposedly committed suicide. Through concise deduction, LeBrock concludes that he was in fact murdered, and the trail leads across the channel to Grandville. Aided by Detective Ratzi (think of a large monacle-wearing rat who talks like Bertie Wooster), he travels to Grandville to uncover the mystery, stumbling upon a conspiracy involving arms dealers, automatons, superbombs and a secret society that stretches far up into the upper echelons of the French government.
But Talbot is a canny storyteller. Not only does he straddle various genres and create a supremely entertaining story, he also manages to make the story completely relevant to present day woes, with a nation’s hysteria and paranoia taking itself to the streets in the form of anti-war protest, acts of terror orchestrated as a means to war by a power hungry government; there’s even a ground zero in Grandville, the site of a successful terrorist attack some years earlier.
It also doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. You can blow through the book in an hour if you feel so inclined. The art is beautiful, yet not overdone, lighter than most graphic novels, yet intoxicating and vivid enough to haunt the eyes. And LeBrock? Well, he’s quite simply a wonderful creation. Witty without being cocky, tough without being macho. He’s a world-weary hero, resourceful, clever and flawed. He’s also a rare example of a hero who stands out against his cunning, charming sidekick.
In short, ‘Grandville’ is a treat. A genuinely well plotted mystery in a bizarre Victorian steampunk, animal filled world. It’s short, and may not appeal to those of you who don’t have a penchant for Sherlock Holmes crossed with Born Free by way of Inglourious Basterds. Those of you who do, however, rejoice.
‘Grandville’ is published by Jonathan Cape, and is released in hardback on October 15th, 2009