Script, art and book design by Bryan Talbot
Even though I am European, I haven’t read a lot of what I consider European comics (specifically bande dessinée and Italian comics) – even though there is only a small stretch of water separating us, it’s not that easy to get your hands on them (except for Asterix and Tintin), and they’ve always seemed to be completely different to the sensibility of British comics (such as Eagle, 2000 AD or The Beano). Grandville seems to be a British version of those exotic European books, produced in their hundreds every year (on a trip to Brussels, I spent a happy hour just being in a shop that was covered from floor to ceiling with thousands of these graphic albums), and I mean that in a good way.
Grandville is a ‘scientific-romance thriller’ – containing elements of steam punk, alternate history and adventure. It just happens to occur in a world of anthropomorphised animals (which is not a problem for someone like me who is a huge fan of the excellent Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai). The hero of the tale is Detective Inspector LeBrock (French for ‘The Badger’) of Scotland Yard, a powerfully built and capable badger with the deductive ability of Sherlock Holmes. The setting is a world where the British lost the Napoleonic wars and France conquered Europe; for the past 200 years, Britain was a ‘small and unimportant country connected to the French empire by the Channel railway bridge’ that has recently gained its independence, becoming the Socialist Republic of Britain. The French empire is ruled from Grandville (Paris) by Emperor Napoleon XII, where there is a lot of Anglophobia after a terrorist attack occurred which had a similar scale to September 11.
LeBrock has been called in to investigate the death of a British diplomat, who was found in his home having seemingly committed suicide. Things are not what they appear, naturally, and soon LeBrock is on his way to Grandville accompanied by his sidekick, Detective Ratzi, and where LeBrock immediately finds himself in trouble as his investigations start to uncover a political conspiracy. And the trouble is violence – for a book full of animals that harks back to children’s stories (Rupert the Bear is an inspiration, according to Talbot, and makes a cameo in the town called ‘Nutwood’ where LeBrock’s investigation begins), the violence is bloody and vicious. It is no surprise that, along with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Quentin Tarantino is one of Talbot’s influences – there is even a torture scene where an ear is cut off. This blood-spilling action and fruity language make for a compelling blend that contrasts with the furry setting – seeing LeBrock firing a massive machine gun with one hand and slaughtering lots of Frenchies is great stuff.
There is lots of referencing in the book, which adds to the appeal. In addition to Rupert, there is a character called Snowy Milou (Tintin’s dog was called Snowy in the English translation, Milou in the French), who refers to the Congo and the Blue Lotus; the only humans who exist (‘a hairless breed of chimpanzee that evolved in the town of Angoulême’) look like they’ve been drawn in the style of Hergé; there’s a poster for Omaha the cat dancer at the Folies Bergère; there is even the priceless film reference pun, ‘Badgers? We don’t need no steenkin’ badgers!’, which is an indication of the humour Talbot employs throughout.
This is a beautiful book – Talbot’s clear line is exquisite and his sense of design and storytelling is impeccable. All the different animals look great and the action sequences are fantastic. The story is a thrilling mix of different genres – it’s exciting, it’s funny, it’s smart, it’s romantic – and I love the alternate history that Talbot has created for himself. If I have one tiny complaint, it was the unnecessary death of the love interest, seemingly there just to provide LeBrock’s fury for the final violent section. It was the only bum note in an otherwise rip-roaring adventure yarn, and I look forward to the remaining books in the series (a second book is already out, Grandville Mon Amour, and there are three more planned).