Aesthetic constructions

Bryan Talbot is a national treasure of British Comics, with a career that stretches from his underground Chester P. Hackenbush strip in the 1970s, through some of the most iconic stories in 2000AD, his extraordinary science-fantasy epic Luther Arkwright, and a whole range of work for major publishers, to a continuing output of self-penned comics at a work-rate to make most artists envious. I came late to his violent furry-steampunk detective story Grandville, and it’s also taken me a long time to get around to reading its follow-up. There are five Grandville books in total, shortly to be available in a huge omnibus edition—however, as I had the first volume, which is a real beauty with its embossed, cloth-covered boards, I wanted the others, which I’ve now managed to obtain (in varying conditions). I think it’s a shame the separate volumes have been allowed to go out of print, but I guess it’s an indication that Talbot isn’t planning any further sequels. It’s probably the sort of thing that it’s best not to milk for too long, but what I’ve read of the series so far has been riotously good fun.

The first book was a Tarantino-inspired romp through an alternative twentieth-century in which most of Europe has been governed by France since Napoleon succeeded in conquering it. And in which most of the people have animals’ heads. Like Tarantino, Talbot is a great aficionado of generic conventions, seeing what some might take as clichés as stylistic tropes, as the material in which an aesthetic is constructed—and like Tarantino’s films, Talbot’s Grandville books are incredibly stylish. Grandville Mon Amour sees Detective Inspector LeBrock (a badger, naturally) in mourning for his lover, killed in the previous book. He mourns in the manner proper to a fictional detective, which is to say with a great deal of drinking, furniture destruction, and self-neglect, and he emerges from this fugue in response to (of course) a new case. The rest of the story feels almost pre-ordained, without being predictable in detail, as the plotting is completely appropriate to the fusion of styles and genres that Talbot has assembled.

Bryan Talbot is a superb draftsperson, whose pen work has the exactitude and three-dimensionality of a Renaissance engraving, but as someone who is mainly familiar with his decades-old work from 2000AD and Luther Arkwright, most of what I’ve seen of it has been quite static in appearance. What struck me most forcefully about Grandville, and continued to strike me in its sequel, is the incredible fluidity he has managed to incorporate into that still very solid style. Very few artists are able to combine such dynamic action sequences with such a sense of physical presence—my only reservation is to observe that I’d sooner it wasn’t in colour. While the colours are excellent, I tend to feel that really strong inks fade into the background a bit when the work is coloured; Talbot draws so well that I’d like to see that foregrounded. That aside the whole book is an amazing and wonderfully coherent creation. Nobody else is credited, so the lettering and overall design are down to Talbot as well. Comics can work very well as a collaborative art, but there is something special about a volume that is entirely the work of a single imagination, especially when realised by a creator as meticulous as Talbot. Grandville Mon Amour is a great story to read, but it is also a beautiful object to be pored over and leafed through. This is the work of a master at the top of his game.

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