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Set in roughly the present day, this graphic novel shows a world very different to ours. Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo, and successfully invaded Britain. The world is a crazy steampunk mixture of retro-automata, rocket powered roller skates, dirigibles and cross-Channel railways. France is the world's great superpower, although Britain won her independence 20 years before the story begins. Then there was a terrorist outrage - British anarchists flew an exploding dirigible into the Robida Tower. Now, with the French press enflaming anti-British feeling, things look bad for Blighty. A British secret agent is found dead, seemingly a suicide; but what dark secrets was he holding? Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard races against time to learn the truth and save the world...
And, of course, everyone's an animal of some kind. LeBrock is a badger. The secret agent, Raymond Leigh-Otter, is an otter. Et cetera. They have normal looking human bodies (except for only having three fingers), but they're all animals of one type or another. This is apparently a tribute to a 19th Century French cartoonist called JJ Grandville, as that's mostly what he drew, too - I'm not familiar with his work, although a quick google image search suggests he'd be worth knowing more about.
'Grandville' in the story is the nickname of Paris, the most important city in the world. There are a few humans knocking around; they're described as "a hairless breed of chimpanzee that evolved in the town of Angoulême" and are treated as slaves by the French. Otherwise, there are a variety of mammals, fish, birds and amphibians. All are humanoid, and the females have breasts (which really, for a chicken or a frog, is pushing it a bit).
Bryan Talbot's one of my favourite comic book writers and artists. His previous work includes Luther Arkwright and its sequel Heart of Empire; The Tale of One Bad Rat; and Alice in Sunderland. All are required reading (although Luther Arkwright is perhaps slightly heavier going than the story warrants). Talbot's a wonderful artist, with lovely clear lines, and an amazing eye for detail. The colouring in Grandville is also beautiful: bright, clear and completely appropriate.
He has a tremendous ability to tell a story through static images, which puts many comic artists to shame. Even in dialogue free pages you're never in any doubt about what's happening - there are several lovely fight scenes, so often where a comic artist falls down by not making it clear enough what's going on. This is never the case with Talbot's work in Grandville. He also plots a good story, and his dialogue is refreshingly to the point, a nice change from Alan Moore's baroque complexities or Neil Gaiman's flowery twaddle. Grandville is a rare example of a comic in which the art and writing are of equal quality.
It never feels like it's aimed at children. In spite of the anthropomorphisation, there's a lot of violence, and some hot badger-on-badger action (nothing too explicit, rest assured). But mainly, it's an adventure romp through an alternative world, complete with chases, gun battles, noir elements, doomed romances and explosions, with a hero who's a kind of cross between Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage. Quite aside from the few things which might make it unsuitable for kids, I just don't think they'd get the joke. A two-fisted badger detective torturing a duplicitous ape in the style of Reservoir Dogs is going to go right over the heads of most children, I'd imagine.
The story bizarrely but effectively evokes conspiracy theories about 911 and the invasion of Iraq, of all things, and the anti-Vietnam War protests and the racism of the French give it a fabulously irrelevant relevance. I doubt we're expected to take it seriously as a comment on anything in the real world. It's great, though, that the parallels chosen are weighty enough to make the more serious-minded reader pretend they're important. After all, just enjoying on its own terms a comic about a tough-guy badger beating up lesser animals might be too much for some.
Grandville's an espionage-tinged mystery, so reminds one rather of Tintin. It also feels a bit like Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but with the sexual and horrific excesses removed. A cameo by a famous cartoon dog (in an opium den, no less) cements both these references. It also feels like a frivolous version of Talbot's first great work, Luther Arkwright, which features similar steampunk trappings, explosive gunfights, dirigibles, and international conspiracies in alternative versions of history. Various comic-related in jokes are scattered throughout, and I'm sure there are plenty I missed (it's a great one to re-read). They don't get in the way, though.
It's very funny, but it's not necessarily full of jokes. If the premise itself doesn't make you giggle every two or three pages then you're probably a soulless automaton. But there are hilariously lousy puns scattered through the story. The obvious gag about not needing no stinking badgers is dutifully wheeled out, and frogs don't die, they 'croak'. The right-wing president of France is Jean-Marie Lapin (took me a while to get that one) and Raymond Leigh-Otter is obviously Ray Liotta, for reasons I can't even begin to fathom. The groanworthy jokes remind me of Asterix, a bit, but that might just be because it's French.
The book itself is a lovely thing, a slightly over-sized hardback with nice glossy paper. It will currently set you back about £10 on amazon. I'm sure a paperback edition will be along at some point. Frankly, this is something that everyone needs, and it can only enhance your life. It's just about perfect.