Review by Jamie McNeil
Much of Bryan Talbot’s story set in another version of Paris is inspired by the work of Frenchmen: caricaturist Jean Ignace Isidore Gérard (1803-1847) – using the nom-de-plume J. J Grandeville – and science fiction illustrator/author Albert Robida (1848-1926). Grandeville’s caricatures of anthropomorphised animals, Robida’s fantastical steam-punk visions of the future and other influences as diverse Quentin Tarantino, Sherlock Holmes and Rupert Bear blend with a touch of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic The Wind in the Willows like fuel to the fire for Bête Noire, the third book in the series.
Set approximately 10 weeks after the events of Grandville, the French Empire is reeling from a sudden revolution and is a powder-keg waiting for a spark. Criminal elements are taking advantage of the instability to seize financial control of Grandville and gain territory, initiating a vicious gang war that spills onto the streets. In the luxurious and extravagant rooms of Toad Hall, the enigmatic and flamboyant Billionaire Baron Aristotle Krapaud gathers other millionaires and industrialists to plan a quick counter-revolution, seize power and restore France’s glory. As it happens the Police Commissioner Rocher (see Mon Amour) has invited Detective Inspector Le Brock and Detective Sergeant Ratzi of Scotland Yard to Grandville to help solve the puzzling case of a famous artist stabbed to death in his locked and guarded studio just before unveiling plans for a mural to celebrate the Revolution. As Le Brock and Ratzi scour the art world, they find themselves having to tread lightly as they find artists and society at war, a bomb waiting to go off.
Bête Noire is more James Bond than Sherlock Holmes, far less mystery to it, but with plenty of grand steam-punk action. Bryan Talbot has introduced plot elements over the last two volumes and here he ties them up while making room for character development and other events to take centre stage, often at a fast clip. Again Talbot experiments with styles to make Bête Noire unique. He incorporates a lot more dialogue. Social observations on the class system, entitlement, politics and equality woven through the narrative to make it very ‘talky’, at least in the first half. New characters are introduced, and Le Brock’s complicated relationship with Billie develops while adding more grit to Billie. The storyline very much depends on having read the previous volumes, and may confuse if you haven’t.
Artistically Talbot is also expanding, with even more action, angry crowds bristling with agitation, tempers flaring at arrogant statements,and rank upon rank of automatons menacing frightened and panicked observers. Talbot makes no use whatsoever of traditional sound effects throughout the series, employing instead startling colours and illustrations to portray explosions, gunshots, fisticuffs, etcetera. It’s unusual for those used to epic sci-fi with even more epic “BOOOOM!”, but it works very well and allows Talbot to utilise his frames far more efficiently. Some phenomena (like gunshots) don’t work as effectively as they do in earlier stories, but the lack of sound effects improves other sequences considerably.
Grandville wouldn’t be Grandville without ladles of cheesy characterisations, Krapaud (‘Crapaud’ is French for ‘toad’) and Toad Hall an obvious nod to Grahame but there are other influences from weekly/daily comic strips (Garfield, Marsupilami), television (Meerkat Manor) and fairy tales (Puss-in-Boots) earning their spot of infamy here.
Bête Noire is different, but nevertheless a hell of a thriller that grips and entertains. Le Brock returns to Grandville just in time for Christmas in Grandville Noël.