There are certain names which are automatically associated with quality, artisanship, and excellence: BMW, Ferrari, Jaguar, Harrods, and Harris Tweed for example. In the world of graphic novels, Bryan Talbot is quite simply the benchmark, the high watermark, the name amongst names for sheer unparalleled artistic and storytelling brilliance. All of which makes it difficult to review Grandville: Noel, the fourth entry in the Grandville series, because there is scant reason for any negativity. I cannot even bring in the old standby that it is inaccessible to new readers because you do not have to have read the previous volumes to understand the world in which the series is set.
The novel is highly accessible and depicts a recognisable world, despite the anthropomorphised badgers and rats; à la The Wind and the Willows, Grandville’s characters are universal. Every panel and transition testifies to the thought and care that Talbot has invested; the framing, the perspectives and the difficult task of word balloon placements are all made to look easy in the hands of a masterful artist. The close ups are deeply expressive, the alternative steam punk style of Paris makes the city feel like a living, breathing entity, and the little details, the ones barely noticed on first inspection, are extraordinary. Breath gently misting, snowflakes falling on a cold day, and other such effects truly add depth and a three-dimensional feel to the work.
Talbot somehow makes the social commentary on today’s issues blend seamlessly with the adventure elements of the narrative. Many would take a hammer to point out social ills and indulge in shock for shock’s sale tactics, but Talbot takes a gentle brushstroke and the commentary is all the more powerful for its subtlety. The brief aside showing a Hitleresque (A hawk) figure as the leader of a party that demonises the “doughfaces” (Humans) as the scourge of society, taking the jobs of Frenchman by being willing to work longer hours for less pay, which prompts a political discussion in a pub, is a keen dig at a certain Pint-loving, right-leaning politician.
This volume opens in an alternative reality to our own; an American town is host to a religious cult, their compound is set upon by the town’s citizens and the police have to keep the crowd at bay. Before the police are overrun, the cult’s leader, a messianic figure in the form of Apollo, a bipedal Unicorn, informs his followers that they are about to ascend to heaven. It is a sequence ripped straight from the headlines, and like many such events we see in the news, the ending is not a pleasant one. The ascension involves poison and Apollo planning his next compound, in Paris. To emphasize Talbot’s wonderful command of pacing, all of this takes place in six pages, whereas in the more mainstream comics, where a nine or six panel page is a rarity, the sequence may have been dragged out to twenty-two pages.
Following the opening, the reader is (re)introduced to Inspector LeBrock of the Yard, who in a twist he finds slightly unsettling, is on mandated holiday during the festive period. Not for long however, as his landlady seeks his help in finding an abducted girl, leading the detective to cross paths with Apollo’s cult. It is a simple yet effective set-piece to build the drama, and to mention anything more would be verging into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that the set-up is never as simple as you initially believe, and the third act is incredibly satisfying.
Grandville: Noel is not just something you read, it a graphic novel you experience but, to be honest, did we expect anything less from Bryan Talbot? A special mention should go to the colour flatting of Jordan Smith, Jesse Kindzierski and Christine Harper – they really did a phenomenal job of enhancing an already phenomenal work.
David M Graham.