I first came across J.J. Grandville sometime in the mid-1980s. I do not remember the context in which I became familiar—at a very superficial level—with the works of the 19th century French illustrator but do recollect that it was before I read Art Spiegelman’s Maus for the first time.
Anyone who is familiar with the works of the two will realize the connection. Grandville (his real name was Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard) made his name on a play Les Metamorphoses du Jour which features characters who have the bodies of men (and women) but the faces of animals. In Maus, Spiegelman portrays Jews as rats and Germans as cats. Still, the link is tenuous although it didn’t seem so to me when I first noticed it.
A few months ago I picked up a graphic novel called Grandville. It was by Bryan Talbot, some of whose earlier works—Alice in Sunderland, and a collaboration with Neil Gaiman on one Sandman book—I had enjoyed. Grandville, named after the French artist for obvious reasons (the characters have human bodies and the faces of animals) uses a device fairly common in science fiction as a starting point— alternate reality.
So, England has lost the Napoleonic wars to France and after a period of subservience to France has, at the beginning of Grandville, just been independent for 23 years.
There’s nothing else predictable about the book, though. Talbot’s Grandville (written as well as illustrated by the man) would do Umberto Eco proud with its allusions.
There are references, direct and implied, to French science fiction illustrator Albert Robida, the Tintin books, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, children’s comic character Rupert the Bear, even Quentin Tarantino. I use the last name because Talbot says so, but personally believe that Grandville is more a doff of the hat to John Woo than Tarantino. It was Woo, after all, who invented the classic stand-off of multiple people, pointing multiple guns in an entirely non-mathematically corresponding way (which means that if A has guns pointed at B and C, then B and C do not have guns pointed at A but at D and E who in turn...).
Steampunk flavour: Grandville is set in an alternate Victorian London.
I won’t get into the plot of Grandville (Cult Fiction has always avoided spoilers), but suffice it to say that it is convoluted enough to be intriguing, yet straight enough to remain interesting.
Watching a new major talent in comic books emerge is one of the minor pleasures of being a regular reader of the genre. With Grandville, which scores high on both literary merit as well as visual technique, I have a feeling that Talbot has made the leap. I can’t wait for the sequel.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org