Posted by: Joe McCulloch on October 8, 2009
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Grandville is a comic about funny animals that have adventures and shoot things.
Well, all right, it’s not just that.
This is actually a pretty tough book to write about, in that much of its appeal is tucked away in not only how the story itself plays out, but how its packaging and marketing and author’s comments have been underplaying exactly what the bloody thing is. And I mean bloody – I was pretty startled by how violent a comic this was, particularly given how everything I’d heard about it emphasized the adventuresome funny animal aspect of the work. Although I suppose that’s one aspect of the book connecting it to prior works by that ever-restless living legend of British comics, Bryan Talbot: few seemed to know what the hell 2007’s Alice in Sunderland even was before reactions started trickling in, and 2008’s Metronome didn’t even carry Talbot’s name upon its initial release. Expect the unexpected, eh?
So let me say this up front, before I start giving the game away: Grandville, in spite of its odd disposition, is probably the most straightforward action-adventure book Talbot has ever produced, although it’s still best taken by those who felt what Blacksad really needed was steampunk and 9/11. See what I mean?
Now, the cover art above doesn’t lie or anything, no. This is indeed a “scientific-romance thriller” starring Detective-Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard, a hulking b&w badger with the brains of Sherlock Holmes and the drive of Jack Bauer, knocking the provincial coppers dead in the Socialist Republic of Britain, until a strange “suicide” case sends him and his nattily-dressed rodent adjunct Ratzi off to Grandville, aka Paris, the biggest city in a world 200 years past the Napoleonic War, in which the French Empire conquered all of Europe. It’s only been 23 years since Britain was liberated from French rule — a giant bridge still connects it to its former ruling power — and two years after the terrible September day when British anarchists flew a dirigible into Grandville’s Robida Tower, although LeBrock doesn’t think all the pieces add up.
But on Talbot’s list of influences (helpfully provided on-page), below caricaturist J.J. Grandville and illustrator Albert Robida, Frenchmen both, their impact already evident on (respectively) the characters and setting of the work, is filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. As the story plays out, it becomes clear that he’s not just there due to the Mexican standoff panel or the big ear cutting bit — although all of that’s in here too, post-9/11 allegorical funny animal steampunk style — but also for the artist’s love of reference. Talbot himself headed the book’s design, in homage to the European children’s books of years ago, and there’s a distinct mid-20th century Franco-Belgian adventure comic decoration to the innards, extended (unnamed) Spirou cameo included.
Several art and illustration history nods crop up as well, but it seems mainly from the children’s works that Talbot draws his fanciful take on comics sci-fi, citing later robot concepts and furry characters — Omaha the Cat Dancer!! — to establish a continuum that might lead to his violent, conspiratorial characters. Not that they’re perfectly serious about their position; in the good Tarantino style, Talbot works in vivified archetypes played straight in the way that can only quite be done in an absurd universe that supports them. As a result, DI LeBrock is never is never short of opportunities to haughtily inform others of his superior mind, nor does it seem at all odd when a stimulating evening of reading a book on Vidocq while pumping iron with huge dumbbells carried at all times in his travelling case is interrupted by a summons to a comely lady badger’s boudoir, at which point Talbot threatens to sail the book down the waterfall of full-blown furry action, only to switch away to an exterior and leave the reader with the exhilaration of, in the language of Herzog, being shot at unsuccessfully.
And, you know: violence, shadows, secrets. It gets droll, leaving it up to the reader to take what they want from a stone-faced dramatic moment in which Tintin’s own Snowy relates through an opium haze the sad tale of the day his life was ruined by witnessing a murder.
Yet, to what end is all this done? Kids’ characters put in a booming, bleeding political caper? LeBrock torturing his funny animal fellows, at one point cracking a (ha ha) froggy’s ribs until he expires, following up with the line “Damn. He’s croaked“? The allegory is obvious: Grandville may be geographically French, but it’s really American, playing up the wonder and size of a U.S. population center while toying with oft-voiced American perceptions of Britain as ‘socialist’ with a dangerous connotation. That’s the most timely piece of satire, really: the rest of it is a simple enough embracing of Truther nonsense for genre comic plot fodder — and I’m okay with that; it’s certainly been the best stuff to come out of Garth Ennis on The Boys — with a big ol’ dollop of Bush administration revenge impulse.
I’m not conducting a close reading here, by the way. Part of the climax has Our Man struggling with Donald Rumsfeld as a muscular rhinoceros onboard a robot-piloted flying machine.
This doesn’t automatically lend itself to a tremendous amount of depth, frankly, and the somewhat stale, vengeful nature of Talbot’s plot leaves it teetering on the edge of embarrassing-silly instead of fun-silly. The artist isn’t as adept with his genre/tonal mixes as Tarantino, often leaning on the simple dissonance between his animal characters and their activities for kick, which admittedly has its effect, given the wide, often placid badger eyes of DI LeBrock, humans drawn in a serviceable ligne claire approach while the critters remain very much Talbot’s, his coloring (mostly with flats by Jordan Smith) reminiscent of 1999’s Heart of Empire look with Angus McKie, if shinier and more overtly digital.
Moreover, while some readers might accuse Talbot of trafficking in tired old children’s characters-gone-grim ‘n gritty shocks for the purposes of a bemused, not-terribly-shaded conspiracy thriller cum revenge fantasy on America’s expired Presidential administration, there’s a virtue, I think, to the build of the damn thing. I mean that both in terms of concept and culmination. Concept in that this is, at its center, by its design, a type of children’s fantasy, which perhaps encourages a sort of simplistic approach as catharsis, now for an adult robbed of much sense of overt justice in the world, as Talbot seems to feel. Culmination in that Talbot’s execution piles killing atop killing, violence upon violence, until — shades of Inglourious Basterds, which I doubt the artist had time to see — until patches of the fantasy start to go rotton on even LeBrock, haunted eyes gazing on a real terrorist’s fire.
That too is nothing fresh — a genre piece chasing its tail — yet Talbot’s basic skill with comics storytelling affords eveything a real joy of tale-telling: the pace is quick, the settings are often witty, and I can’t deny the novelty of a miniature Iron Giant repurposed as a heroic suicide bomber. It’s a master’s fancy, this, and Talbot is already at work on a second volume, which will hopefully join Detective-Inspector LeBrock’s search for the Prime Minister’s longform birth certificate. I’m GOOD with that.