Friday, November 15, 2013

"He's going to burn, alright." Grandville review

Imagine a world which - although it appears to be set in the Victorian Era - possesses encroaching advances in technology such as robot menials and commonplace automatic weaponry. Now, imagine in this world Britain was conquered ages ago by the French. Finally, imagine human beings are not the dominant lifeforms, but rather humanoid versions of every other imaginable member of the animal kingdom, with humans square on the bottom. Put this together and you have Bryan Talbot's Grandville.

I'm certainly behind the times with Grandville, being as it was first released by Dark Horse in 2009. I've repeatedly considered giving at least this first volume an opportunity, but it's taken these many years for me to make the plunge. What exactly did I find?

The protagonist of Grandville is Archie LeBrock, allegedly a detective inspector in Scotland Yard who investigates murders with his rattish companion Ratzi. In the midst of social upheaval owing to Britain & France's tumultuous past (Britain only recently regaining its independence) and mechanical workers forcing flesh-and-blood menials out of work, LeBrock investigates the murder of Raymond Leigh-Otter, a mysterious figure whose death is linked to similarly-mysterious figures at work in France.

Above: a loving reference to the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or an unwitting reuse of a joke from Weird Al's UHF?

Laying aside the alternate history, the science fiction trappings and the anthropomorphic cast of characters, what we have here is a very standard pulp adventure story. Although it's presented as a detective story, it's really more about thrills than intellect; somehow, what begins as a story about LeBrock investigating the murder of a man in England climaxes with LeBrock killing a head of state with a zepplin. Although LeBrock spouts exposition at various intervals, there's no sense that we readers might be solving the case alongside him - we're never granted all the information we need about this world to understand what's going on.

Strangely, some significance is granted to a character called Snowy Milou, an obvious reference to Tintin. Although some time is spent around LeBrock searching for him, it only seems to be for Talbot to make several references to Tintin - it's not actually important to the plot.

I keep feeling as though I'm missing something important within the text of Grandville - some sly way in which it subverts the detective-mystery-thriller-adventure genre. On the surface, it appears to be nothing more than a very authentic pulp story, the sort of which could have been published 100 years ago. In which case, would the anthropomorphic cast be nothing more than a distraction from a fairly average tale? Perhaps.

I think I can best explore my feelings about Grandville by bringing up a similar series: Blacksad. Certainly Blacksad is likewise a very standard period detective series elevated by its gorgeous artwork and anthropomorphic characterizations. Where Grandville and Blacksad split, to my mind, is where their protagonists are concerned. LeBrock is not only ahead of his audience, he's fairly well ahead of his foes as well. There is no moment in the novel where LeBrock appears to have lost control of the situation - even when he was shot point blank in the chest, I never doubted he was prepared for it. As the story progresses, he continues to overcome every physical and mental obstacle thrown before him with seemingly little effort. Along the way his friend Ratzi is roughed up a little and a woman who sleeps with him is murdered (re: sex=death), but LeBrock being a very British badger his upper lip is supremely stiff. Compare him to the frequently-flawed John Blacksad, whose triumphs are at best bittersweet and is nearly always struggling to survive and outwit his foes. I am not forced to choose between Grandville and Blacksad because all things are permitted to those who want them; nevertheless, I know which one I find meaningful. I don't empathize with the stolid, unflappable LeBrock, but I've certainly felt beaten up and dragged down like John Blacksad.

No comments: