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Grandville vol 5: Force Majeure

Grandville vol 5: Force Majeure back

Bryan Talbot

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Page 45 Review by Stephen

"Keep clear of the badger: for he bites."

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 'The Sign Of The Four

"Terrific!" is a singularly British outburst of unequivocal approval triggered by a tremendous accomplishment or experience that is colossally good fun. And this is truly terrific!

Among the series' most vocal, high-profile fans are Ian Rankin and Philip Pullman.

FORCE MAJEURE is the fifth and final GRANDVILLE graphic novel from Bryan Talbot. Like his equally epic LUTHER ARKWRIGHT, it is steampunk in nature and scathing in its socio-political critiques; but its anthropomorphic execution allows for a great deal of fun and many a pun alongside the visual wit and dexterity that Talbot deploys in combining some of the beasts' aspects with those of fictional characters or real-life figures. In GRANDVILLE: NOEL, for example, we were presented with the hate-mongering, far-right religious leader and repugnant bigot Nicholas - a boss-eyed gryphon who looked just like Nick Griffin.

On a lighter note, here we have East End mob boss Stanley Cray (a crayfish, yes - and he had a twin) slapping down his deputy Chaz:

"Leave it out, Chaz, you bleedin' pilchard!"

Chaz is indeed a bipedal pilchard.

Similarly, the police informant is a (stool) pigeon, you'll briefly spy "Mutton" Jeff and I still haven't gotten over the first volume's appearance of Tintin's innocent and faithful hound Snowy making a cameo appearance as an opium addict.

Like Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, these books are ram-packed with such sly, hidden references to make you chortle upon discovery, from wall-hung paintings as straight forward as Hokusai's 'Great Wave' to a subtly satirical Stubbs and an elaborately recreated yet appositely altered version of Millais' 'Ophelia'. Top points if you spot a heavily disguised photographic portrait of Sir Winston Churchill. Strictly speaking - this being Victorian England - it's a daguerreotype, but since the setting is steampunk, Talbot has come up with "pneumail", "lumierescopes" and in place of public phone boxes there are street-side "voicepipes" to avail yourself of. Wait until you see the sort of fiendish arsenal which this less technologically evolved world's version of James Bond's Q invents for LeBrock!

It's a furious finale which will come at great personal cost for some of the cast - it is by far the most vicious in the series, so although the first four should be okay for most early teens I would strongly consider caution here - and for it Talbot has pulled out all the stops and many a late hour labouring over a fulsome 160 full-colour pages which took four 10-hour days each to complete... on top of the script. All unfinished threads from previous instalments are woven together and tied up by the end, along with several you'd never realised were still dangling. In addition, substantial chunks of LeBrock's, Billie's and ruthless, sadistic, crime-empire builder Tiberius Koenig's most formative years are finally divulged, informing both what has already happened and what will come to pass.

The foreshadowing is phenomenal.

For Detective Inspector Archie LeBrock the most cherished memories are the years he spent being mentored in observation, quick-thinking and ratiocination by Stamford Hawksmoor (now retired) a Holmesian figure played here to perfection by dear Basil Rathbone. We - and LeBrock's pregnant fiancée Billie - are treated to an entire murder mystery investigated in meticulous detail over dozens of pages from start to finish by the pair many moons ago, and not only is it as devious as the main event, it will prove vital to LeBrock's strategy in extricating himself from the nightmare scenario he soon finds himself trapped in, and confronting the overwhelming odds stacked against him.

At its heart lies this speech by Stamford, delivered with blazing eyes and impassioned eloquence on the subject of chess:

"It will train your mind in concentration, logical consequences and imaginative extrapolation - the ability to think ahead.
"Just imagine! You have to consider every single piece on the board before each and every move - and in as many moves in advance as you can.
"Whenever possible, you can force moves, put your opponent in a position of having no choice. That way you know what the next move is and can plan accordingly."

LeBrock learned his lessons well; unfortunately Tiberius Koenig, last seen vowing vengeance, plays precisely this way too. Precisely.

We begin late at night in an opulent, art nouveau restaurant called Les Fruits De Mer. It serves fish. No, really, I mean that in both senses: it serves fish to fish. The cooks and waiters are aquatic too. It's all a bit decadent, don't you think? Amongst the seafood on offer is lobster, being chowed-down on by other, elderly crustaceans, their pigmentation presented like liver spots.

The very first page is such an impressive eye-popper that you'll be pining for more A4 efforts but there's so much story for you here that there seriously isn't the room. Lobsters sit cramped in a tank, waiting to be boiled, their claws bound: predators suppressed into being prey; violence for now contained but with the threat of being unleashed.

A lobster's crusher claw can exert the same pressure as a dog's bite force, just under a half that of a Tyrannosaurus Rex's jaw...

Violence is immediately unleashed on Les Fruits De Mer from Gatling guns concealed in lorries drawing up on an empty street right outside its shell-shaped front windows, thousands of rounds shattering plate glass then tearing into fish-flesh. Health and Safety will be taking a dim view.

The restaurant belongs to Stanley Cray, four weeks out of prison; small iridescent plumes found at the crime scene suggest rival crime lord Harry Feather's kingfisher enforcers. Retaliation is inevitable, merciless, personal and swift, but something just doesn't stack up, including LeBrock's assignation to the case: he's too personally involved, for Stanley Cray's brother killed LeBrock's wife and witnessed the whole thing himself. Reporters somehow manage to evade the police cordon to witness a murderous LeBrock threatening Stanley Cray with retribution and by morning it's national front-page news.

Well, that's not something to get too ruffled about: LeBrock's upper-class Commander can smooth things over with the press's publishers - they all went to Eton together - if only LeBrock keeps a low profile for a day or two.

But so far all you've seen is but an opening, low-level gambit. Individual pieces are now in all the right places for someone to start making the more serious moves.

No one is above suspicions here: there are so many moles and rats that you'll never know who's playing whom. Even LeBrock's immediate superior, Chief Inspector Stoatson, has personal motives for bringing about LeBrock's downfall: he's well aware of how wretchedly feckless and incompetent he is, and was constantly humiliated by Hawksmoor in front of Archie during training. Much is made of class too, for no one is promoted above plod-level if unconnected, and in spite of his exceptional talent and success LeBrock was subjected to an extra, live, on-the-hoof observational and deductive examination by a board stacked with Brigadiers and other assorted aristocrats. It's designed to discredit and humiliate him, but you will punch the air when our working-class badger doesn't just pass with colours so flying they're positively stratospheric, but turns the tables with an alacrity and aplomb that is ingenious.

As well as enormously satisfying, this is all part of the foreshadowing that lends complete credibility to LeBrock's prowess in the present and the same can be said of Billie.

Speaking of our happy couple - due to be married this coming fortnight - notice how, although they're both badgers, their fur is markedly different in texture; hers smooth as silk, his coarser, more tufted and whiskered. That might even be a beard. He's aging a bit too, perhaps a little tired, his eyes more mellow in love.

It's easy to see how each page could require the equivalent of a full working week from pencils to inks and a digital painting process whose potentially unlimited elaboration could tempt a perfectionist like Talbot to stick at it for even longer. The background details, both line and colour, are frankly ridiculous - he does love his fine art and William Morris wallpaper, does Bryan.

On the other hand, he was brought up on Leo Baxendale cartoon comedy and even in the heat of the most dramatic action he is far from averse to some cross-eyed slapstick reminiscent, like the pun-tastic wordplay of Ronnie Barker.

The era is captured with notions of living in sin, closeted homosexuality and its discreet signals for preference and availability still flourishing today if you know your handkerchief dress-code. Then the age is given a steampunk spike with a background gas tower, albeit with a Victorian wrought-iron flourish. Such attention to detail!

More comedy comes in the form of Tiberius Koenig's contemplation of what would have happened had Napoleon not won the battle of Waterloo on page forty-two, right down to individual decisions that ensured that he did. (He didn't; he did here!) But perhaps the funniest of all jokes in this fond farewell is the recurrent appearance of easily intimidated and stuttering Byron Turbot, ghost-writer and hack of crime-fiction pap published as Sixty-Centime Dreadfuls.

"Why, don't you see? I could write yours! Just think! A whole series of Detective Inspector LeBrock stories! They make a lot of dosh, you know."
"Get out of it! Go on, sod off!"

Turbot scampers away, dignity in tatters, as LeBrock kicks him up the arse.

"Prat."

He's very persistent, though, is Turbot. He'll make something of himself one day, you'll see.

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