Beautiful, beautiful violence

Many comics today feature anthropomorphic animals, or animal-headed humans, as do animated cartoons, prose fiction and other media. Anyone writing a history of this practice would probably start with Egyptian deities, or with the lion-headed palaeolithic Löwenmensch figurine, but as I know very little about the topic I have no clue how they would extend this narrative to the early nineteenth century. I do know that once they reached that era they would spend a good while discussing the French caricaturist Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard, who worked under the nom de plume of Grandville. Bryan Talbot, one of the giants of British comics, is a fan, and his comic Grandville is an homage to the founder of modern furry art. The story is largely set in France, with some scenes in a French-speaking England that has been liberated from Napoleonic rule for around twenty years, and although it is set sometime in the late twentieth century, the setting’s technology and material culture is all late Victorian in appearance.

Most of the characters, naturally enough, have animals’ heads, although human-headed humans do feature, as a disadvantaged underclass of ‘bald chimpanzees’ thought to have evolved near Angoulême (presumably a deliberate reference to one of the world’s largest comics festivals, which takes place there). The comic is full of references, some of them extremely corny—‘We don’t need no steenking badgers’, one characters tells the hero, an anthropomorphic badger, an allusion to a popular misquote from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In this it resembles the work of one of Talbot’s inspirations, Quentin Tarantino: I would guess that very few cultural works have ever owned both Rupert Bear and Pulp Fiction as influences!

It’s not only in its plenitude of hip cultural references that Grandville resembles a Tarantino movie, but also in an abundance of cartoonish and brutal violence. Although it is not primarily a comedy, the implausible prowess of its hero, and his unlikely success in (spoiler alert) single-handedly exterminating most of his most senior enemies, reminded me more of Inglorious Basterds than anything else. Inspector Le Brock, as our brawny but Holmesian protagonist is known, is quite willing to drown someone or beat them to death, just in order to impress his seriousness on someone else he’s interrogating. Of course he always does it in the name of justice, of course his victims always have it coming, and of course his actions are completely vindicated by the outcome of the story. The bad guys, as always in a story like this, get their just desserts.

Talbot is an accomplished draftsperson, and his technical proficiency can be seen to have developed throughout his long career, from the wonky figure drawing of Chester P. Hackenbush, via the stylish, rather static tableaux of Luther Arkwright and Nemesis the Warlock, to the superb pages in this book. His style retains a solidity reminiscent of the engravings in Victorian magazines, although his action sequences now are extremely fluid and dynamic. His layouts make extensive use of bleeds and floating panels—pages with white borders on them are in the minority here—which are used to give the narrative a fierce forward momentum, the eye continually drawn on to the next event. It’s quite a formally straightforward approach, which fits well with the directness of the narrative and dialogue.

Talbot’s world is a very male one. It’s one thing to postulate a Victorian style society, which is necessarily a patriarchal one, but it’s always another thing to make choices about whose stories you will tell. Women do not have a great deal of agency in this book. One of the principal antagonists is a powerful businesswoman, and Le Brock’s girlfriend is what might be described as ‘feisty’, but she does require rescuing more than once. Her narrative function (apart from being the loving reproduction of a stylish stereotype, with which I take no issue in itself), is to lend emotional impetus to Le Brock’s character arc—the reader is not invited to identify with her in the same way. While some narrative attempts to redress the balance around gender and race lack credibility, in simply ignoring the patriarchal or racist social structures of particular settings, there’s a great deal about this book that is plainly in the realm of the fantastic already. If we’re willing to believe in Le Brock’s unstoppable rampage across Paris, we should be willing to believe in a few women being and doing something interesting as well.

However, if the Tarantino works that Talbot draws on here do not appear to include Kill Bill or Jackie Brown, there is still a lot of fun to be had in Grandville. It’s a witty and entertaining piece of pop-cultural fancy, which goes so far over the top in some ways that it almost defies criticism—we are clearly not supposed to take this too seriously. It’s an exciting, frantically-paced thriller, with a charismatically macho protagonist, which makes absolutely no apologies about aestheticising violence. I remember thinking ‘well, duh!’ when parts of the press levelled that accusation at Tarantino’s first movies: that’s precisely what every adventure story has done, in any medium, since the beginning of time. To aestheticise it is not to condone or incite it—indeed it is, in some ways, to disarm it, to break its glamour. What Talbot shares with Tarantino, is an honesty about the part that violence plays in his narratives. This is a book, then, which has some faults, but it is also as charismatic as its hero, an absolutely superb example of its genre from the hand of a master.

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