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.

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.

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 cultfiction@livemint.com