Review: Grandville Noel, Bryan Talbot’s finest yet

Grandville: Noel,

Bryan Talbot,

Jonathan Cape

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The fourth album of Bryan Talbot’s magnificent Grandville series arrives from Cape (just in time for you to add to your Christmas “I-Want” list). Each of the preceding three volumes has made my Best of the Year list, I’ve absolutely loved them. Talbot, of course, is more than a very gifted artist, he’s a superb storyteller, not just in terms of creating a cracking narrative to draw you in and filling it with wonderfully realised characters, but also because as you read his books you can feel the thought and care that has gone into each panel, even slight touches  added with great deftness to achieve just the effect on the reader that is required (and I know full well there will be techniques and devices employed which are almost inivsible to the reader but picked up subliminally, adding to the effect in the way a tiny pinch of herbs mixes with other, larger, more obvious ingredients in the perfect dish). Grandville: Noel not only carries on this tradition, I think it surpasses it: pitch perfect story, the balance between adventure and humour, bravery and shock, the elements that clearly draw on current worries in our own society (something the best science fiction has always been good at) and some glorious artwork to give us the finest Grandville volume yet.

We start thousands of miles from this Steampunk alternative Paris, in the compound of a religious cult in America, being surrounded by baying citizens, held back by police as the army is deployed; you don’t need a knowledge of Jonestown or Waco to realise that this is not going to end well. But before the place can be stormed the messiah of this particular cult – a remarkably rare unicorn going under the name Apollo – appears before the robed cult members, telling them they are all now about to ascend to a new level of being… Sadly this approach to a supposedly higher form of being is, like the infamous Heaven’s Gate cult incident, is taken by ingesting poison. However, Apollo himself, his old, now broken down mentor and a power hungry Gryphon (another rare creature) and a few truly brutal-looking guards (all of them pigs) have not taken the poison and instead flee to a prepared airship. All of this happens within the first half dozen pages.

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But what of our large badger chum Inspector LeBrock of the Yard and his solid companion detective Ratzi? The pair have something rare for those who work for the emergency services – a festive period off. Ratzi retires to his large home and family, leaving LeBrock on his own. Noticing his landlady is upset he soon encourages her to explain what’s wrong: her sister’s daughter has run off, just a young, teenage girl. Naturally our gallant badger undertakes an investigation of his own, picking up small clues the local police overlooked, which soon lead him to a religious cult via a believer on the streets nearby giving out leaflet (leading to some superb expressions, not least on the religious zealot’s face as LeBrock bears down on him. It isn’t long before the trail of the missing girl, Bunty, leads our intrepid inspector back to Paris and the new headquarters of Apollo and his followers, along the way taking in a joyful reunion with Billie, the Parisian lady of the night who LeBrock is rather keen on, his old friend in the French detective service and tangling in both a new gang war as a vicious but remarkably rarely-seen new kingpin, Tiberius Koenig (yes, there is a clue in that name, which I shall not spoil) who has been taking over all criminal operations in Grandville, and also a search for fabled – possibly mythical, perhaps real – religious documents that could reveal something shocking (and which Apollo also wants), as well as a growing civil unrest by the ‘doughfaces’ (derogatory terms for humans) demanding equal rights (including a cameo from a couple of very familiar faces!), and in the absence of Ratzi a new partner events push him to working with, a doughface cowboy from Pinkertons, “Chance Lucas”, a gunslinger who can pretty much outdraw his own shadow (yes, I think  you can guess which famous comic character he alludes to!).

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And the brief summary of Grandville: Noel doesn’t really give you more than a small taste, but I am reluctant to spoil it for you with too much in the way of narrative detail, because it is an absolute cracker of a plot, buzzing along happily and a terrific pace, developing nicely, the main thrust carrying on swiftly but Talbot still allowing plenty of space to work in some increasingly blossoming romance with Billie and LeBrock, some bonding with Chance, some sidebar elements which at first seem to be merely adding some interesting detail to the history of the Grandville universe but which are woven back into the later narrative with great deftness, and also managing to layer in some elements which comment on topical modern concerns, not least the alarming growth of right-wing extremism and xenophobia across Europe and the way both religious and political leaders can use whipping up hatred of one group and playing on exaggerated fears to manipulate many into supporting actions they would never otherwise countenance (which even in this alternative reality includes some iconography, uniforms and rhetoric that look chillingly familiar, a reminder of where this sort of ‘hunger politics’ leads to). And then the cream and cherries on top of some beautifully done references, executed with a much lighter – and more effective – hand than some of the references dropped into later LOEG books, for example, including, appropriately enough given the nature of this story and the Apollo character, some religious allusions, such as a Last Supper scene.

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And again without going into to much in the way of potentially spoiler-territory details, there’s also a deeply satisfying feeling, especially in the latter third of the book, of the events of this book and the preceding three contributing to some major events which feel like they will be bearing down in the future on LeBrock, a very pleasurable feeling of everything coming nicely together into a larger story and sequence of events. We also get some fascinating glimpses into the history of the universe Grandville exists in, with Talbot, not for the first time, making a nice odd to some Moorcockian ideas of realities. Both of these elements of greater events building and the increased detail of this alternate, Steampunk, animal–dominated world seriously add to the depth and feel of not just this book, but the entire series so far. The art is, as you would expect, superb – I’ve already noted some of the wonderful close-ups Talbot executes of the characters and their expressions, while the cityscape of Grandville, this Steampunk Paris, remains as visually ravishing as ever, while on the smaller scale there is some fantastic layering effects – breath misting in the cold of a winter’s day, snow flakes falling – which contribute to giving an almost three dimensional feel to some panels, a true feeling of depth, be it a small street scene of characters talking in a snowy street or a huge splash page of dashing action as Lebrock leaps from an explosion. Adventure, conspiracy, hidden histories, religious and political plots, the dangers of intolerance, some comedy, some romance, heroics… Really, what more can you ask for? Simply superb, the finest Grandville yet – I read this twice, back to back on a train journey, I feel like another read and also like having a nice re-read through the first three volumes again too. Lose yourself in it.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Alt-history steampunk adventure: Clockwerx

Clockwerx,
Jean-Baptiste Hostache, Jason Henderson, Tony Salvaggio, Izu
Humanoids

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Wapping Harbour, London, 1899, when the city was still one of the greatest ports in the world and the Thames a sea of masts. But something is not right in the docks of London – as three workers make their way through night-time streets they are accosted by an enormous mechanical figure, which retreats with one of them after the intervention of a mysterious man who is stalking the nocturnal streets. Our hero turns out to be a former police detective, framed and disgraced, investigating the rash of disappearances in the area of the docks. Meanwhile a fiery young engineer, Molly Vane, and her crew struggle on a steamship caught in a dreadful storm, threatening their precious cargo of ‘Clocks’ (clockwork robotic devices operated by a pilot) and their lives. They save the ship but at the cost of some lives and Molly’s left arm, before limping into the docks at London, just as our mystery man, Matt Thurow, takes a job as a docker to continue his investigations. When he narrowly averts a disaster in the unloading of the Clocks he comes to the attention of Molly and we know it won’t be long before their paths converge.

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So the stage is set for a classic reluctant team-up, as Molly’s renegade machinists recruit Matt into their ranks. He’s reluctant at first, but when he discovers that Molly stole her Clocks from Lord Oak and his associates Matt is convinced to throw in his lot with them – Oak, he is sure, is behind his unfair disgrace, having set him up for a financial embarrassment that ruined his career in the Yard and which also lead to the incident that has left his sister in a coma ever since. The quick-tempered Molly has taken the Clocks she once worked on for Oak after discovering he and a shadowy international cabal plans to use them and a rare mineral, Lucifernum, found in rare meteorite deposits, as the ultimate power source, the combination of enormous mechanical devices and intense energy source giving them pretty much irresistible power over any nation on Earth.

Some elements such as the reluctantly forced together partners (complete with growing romantic interest) and the wrongfully disgraced copper out to clear his name and get revenge are pretty familiar tropes, but handled well and the characters quickly grow on you. Besides, they are there mostly to set up a cracking Steampunk science fiction adventure yarn in this alternate-history Britain, drawing on elements of classic 19th century Boy’s Own adventure tales (appropriately enough given the setting) with Steampunk elements. The story cracks along at a good pace, with plenty of peril for our intrepid heroes, who soon find that the vanished workers, Matt’s framing and the ulterior plans for the Clocks Molly created (then stole) are all related. In time-honoured tradition the odds are against them, but they’re going to try and save the day regardless.

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Accompanying this tale though is Hostache’s artwork, which is simply glorious in places. Hostache seems equally adept at close up, intimate moments focussing on the character’s expressions as he is at depicting major scenes. And oh boy are some of those major scenes simply gorgeous to behold, be it night over the docks of Victorian London, the Thames and rooftops shimmering in silver moonlight, or scenes with the huge Clocks, lovingly detailed pieces of imaginary Victorian tech, like Steampunk versions of the giant manned mechas so beloved of Japanese science fiction comics (and used to spectacular effect in the recent Pacific Rim film).

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The intricate detail of the Steampunk machinery and the beautifully rendered Victorian cityscapes will delight those who loved Bryan Talbot’s lavish artwork in his Grandville series, and indeed I think Clockwerx would make a good companion to that series on your shelves. This really is beautiful art and fabulous creations that you just want to pore over and drink in, all framed around a classic adventure yarn. I’m also pleased to see a female lead character who, like Adele Blanc-Sec, is in there for her own ingenuity, bravery and resolve, not as some impossibly physiqued eye candy, and even after her accidental maiming and loss of an arm Molly remains the real driving force of events throughout, the equal of any of the men here (and their superior when it comes to her mechanical skills). A cracking, beautifully illustrated adventure in the best European comics tradition and a real pleasure to read.

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Review: Porcelain

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Porcelain: a Gothic Fairy Tale

Benjamin Read, Chris Wildgoose

Improper Books

I had my first glimpse of Porcelain towards the end of last year when Improper Books’ Matt Gibbs was kind enough to give us a sneak-peek ahead of the teaser pages they were taking to last November’s Thought Bubble. There are some works where I get an instant vibe – call it the bookseller’s tingle – that tells me even before I start that a book or comic is going to be good, and that instinct rarely misleads me. And after a good wait, when I finally got to read the entire book I was pleased to see that instinct was still sharp, because this is good work. Better than good work, it’s utterly beautiful, a delightful concoction that partakes of Victorian novels, elements of the industrial revolution’s real history, the fantastical fairy tale (and even elements of Bluebeard and perhaps Little Orphan Annie) and a very elegant form of Steampunk, all woven through a tale which is by turns mysterious, charming, touching and frightening.

We begin, as any good Victorian drama probably should, in the cold, snow-bound city with a group of ragamuffin street urchins. Overseen – and indeed brutally bullied by – Belle, they are braving the curfew in order to spy out opportunities for a little light larceny. The imposing gates and wall of a large estate promise a rich, tempting target within, but none of the children are willing to go in, because they believe an evil wizard lives inside the mansion. Eventually our young heroine is forced up and over the wall against her will – as it turns out, fortunately for her, since the small band she was with are brutally apprehended by the constabulary just moments later, and thieves, the constable delights in telling them, swing for their sins…

(pages here (c) Benjamin Read and Chris Wildgoose, published Improper Books, click for the larger versions)

Inside though there are still perils for our little heroine; as she descends a large, twisted tree, winter-bare, into the snowy garden beyond the walls there are eyes watching her, glowing, red eyes. Suddenly two gleaming white beasts emerge from the snowy darkness – but not flesh and blood beasts, no common guard dogs these. Instead they are gleaming white porcelain, some form of clever automata. But like a fleshly guard dog they are dangerous and set on protecting their master from intruders – luckily he spots the girl and halts them just in time. Understandably irked by this intrusion into his grounds this very large, bearded man demands an explanation. When she puts on an attempt at a posh accent and asks oh-so innocently, oh isn’t this where the ball is being held? I must be lost… At this point the man laughs and the ice is broken. In a more amicable manner he agrees to see her out, no harm done, but when the shabbily dressed child almost faints in the cold he realises she is tired and malnourished; picking her up in his huge arms he carries her inside for warmth and food.

And so the scene is set for a tale that mixes warm charm with hints of the dangerous and unspoken. The ‘wizard’ is in fact an engineer who creates the ‘porcelains’, which just like the ‘creamware’ of Josiah Wedgwood are all the rage. Except where Wedgwood perfected porcelain tableware to royal standards our rotund engineer crafts delicate porcelain mannequins which can think and move – his household has no other human being in it, just a staff of these delicately white, mostly silent automata. He alone can make them walk and act (and in a few cases talk), and he can scarcely keep up with the demand – which has made him very wealthy. And yet he sits alone in his vast mansion under the weight of a secret sadness, until the girl comes. Realising she has no real family to return to and only the cold street to live on, he asks her to stay. Both need to get used to being in a relationship – having a roof over her head and someone to care for her is new for our untrusting street child, while our wizard has to get used to caring for a child, which involves far more than simply clothing and feeding her. She slowly starts to trust and love, his clearly once generous heart is reminded that it too can love again, and it’s a very sweet sequence as two lost souls find reason for being by caring for each other.

It has been winter within these walls forever it seems. You have brought summer back to my life and this is my thank you. Happy birthday, sweet child.”

Of course if all went on as sweetly as this we’d have a shorter and more sugary tale. But anyone who knows their fairy tales – or even their Dickens – will know that something is going to happen, that part of the girl’s past (she and the engineer are never specifically named, deliberately) will come back, and there is the question of why an eligible and kind-hearted, wealthy man is living alone with only his automata for company. We know he had a wife, but what happened? He shows her the whole mansion, gardens and even his workshop (where he begins at her insistence to train her in his delicate arts), but one locked chamber in his porcelain workshop is forever off-limits to her, and as with the tale of Bluebeard the reader wonders what is really in there and worries that curiosity may eventually drive our little heroine to look where she shouldn’t. And then there is the question of the porcelains themselves…

It is to the great credit of Benjamin and Chris that what may seem to be a nice fairytale, semi Steampunk take on the Little Orphan Annie meets Bluebeard tale, proves to be much more. While it certainly partakes of those other stories it crafts its own distinctive path and is its own beast, taking in some remarkable twists along the way, which I won’t spoil here. It’s an utterly beautiful piece of work, a charming yet sometimes disturbing and scary tale – and a fairy tale should be scary as well as magical, it’s part of their raison d’etre – which boasts some truly gorgeous comics artwork by Chris (some of the scenes demand you stop reading the tale for a moment and just drink in the art, the magical porcelain garden splash page is simply wonderful).

It can be enchanting and magical (a special birthday present crafted by the engineer is wondrous), it takes in elements of the fairy tale and Gothic and Victorian novel, mixes the uplifting with the disturbing, but really, at its core its about that aching, deep need to care for someone and to be cared for and the way that enriches our lives beyond all measure; it’s about a daughter who needs a father and a father who needs a child. This is one of those books you will keep coming back to, the sort you will find yourself recommending to others and picking out as a present to friends, and without a doubt one of the most beautiful graphic novels of the year.

The wonderful adventures of Morgan M. Morgansen

I love these two short films with Lexy Hulme and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a delightful mixture of live action, montage and animation to create a whimsical, charming, turn of the century, semi steampunk feel to them, with lovely little references to early magical moments in cinema like Melies’ Voyage Dans la Lune, with a voice over that uses Lewis Carroll levels of silliness and cleverness combined. Wonderful. (via Tor)