ANTHROPOMORPHISM , Bryan Talbot reminds me, has a long, long history. “The oldest example of figurative art is the Lowenmensch found in a German cave. It is 40,000 years old.”
Carved from a woolly mammoth tusk, the Lowenmensch is a lion-headed figure of uncertain gender that stands 31 centimetres high. “They don’t know if it’s supposed to be a deity,” Talbot points out.
And it was just the first of many. Anthropomorphic creatures turn up in every world mythology, he adds. “The first chapter of the Bible has an anthropomorphic serpent in the Garden of Eden.
“You still get them today. You get advertisements with anthropomorphic rabbits in them.”
And you get them in a 600-page book featuring a headstrong badger-headed detective called LeBrock drawn by a cartoonist called Bryan Talbot.
In the same book you also get anthropomorphic rats, shellfish, toads and every other possible variant under the sun. There’s even a unicorn at one point. Oh, and the odd human.
Grandville is another name for an imaginary steampunk Paris of Talbot’s imagining. In this alternate universe Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo, France is the world’s greatest empire, and the UK is a relatively newly independent state still uncertain of its sovereignty.
Against this backdrop, LeBrock investigates a number of crimes that draw deeply on literary and cinematic antecedents. Here is the Hitchcockian suspense story, over there, a James Bond-style thriller. And if you are in the mood for a locked room mystery, look no further.
The result? Five page-turning ripping yarns full of sex, violence and talking animals, now gathered together into one huge collection, Grandville L’Integrale.
Indeed, the stories barrel along at such a speed that you might not notice at first quite how much political and social comment Talbot has slipped in along the way.
But really it is to be expected from a creator who has been making comic books since the early 1970s and who has as much as anyone has helped prove that comics are for readers of all ages
It was the generation before him, Talbot says, the creators of the underground comix of the 1960s, who reclaimed comics as an adult medium.
“And when I say reclaim, I do mean reclaim because all the comics produced from the 11th century … I tend to date them from the Bayeux Tapestry in this country … until 1890 when Comic Cuts was published, were for adults.”
Since the 1960s that domination of the medium by children’s comics has been rebalancing. And Talbot has been at the heart of that, first by producing his own SF comic strip Luther Arkwright in the 1970s and more recently collaborating with his wife Mary on a series of historical graphic novels which have explored feminist and socialist history and included the Costa Prize-winning Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, which was partly Mary’s own memoir, partly a biography of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia.
This morning Talbot is in the basement studio of the Sunderland house he and Mary have lived in for more than 20 years. It is 10.30am and Talbot is only just getting started on his working day. He will continue working until nine in the evening, something he does every day of the week.
That Stakhanovite work ethic explains why since 2009 he has managed to complete the five books that have now been gathered up in Grandville L’Integrale, as well as providing the art for the four graphic novels he has worked on with Mary, most recently Rain, which tackled climate change.
Reading Grandville L’Integrale is to be reminded of the sheer effort Talbot puts in. Over and above the physical effort of drawing each page – “It usually takes a day to pencil, a day to ink and for any computer clean-up and then another day colouring,” Talbot points out – the breadth of reference to be found in its pages, from fine art to comic book history and beyond, is remarkable.
Indeed, among the pleasures of the Grandville books are the “Easter eggs” to be found on nearly every page. It’s worth playing the spot the familiar face game. Is that Rupert the Bear on page 19? (It is.) Is that Tintin’s Snowy drifting off in an opium den?
It’s also an excuse to vent some of his childhood hatreds. Like turning Toad of Toad Hall from Wind in the Willows into one of the villains of the piece. “Yeah. I loved the story from when I was little, but I always hated Toad; a selfish, egotistical, duplicitous creature. So, I thought I’ll make him a Bond villain.”
Actually, I confess to him that when I read the Grandville books the first time around, I had taken them as pure entertainments, amuse-bouches for a creator who has tackled more serious themes such as child abuse (The Tale of One Bad Rat) and the psychogeography of Sunderland in the past. Rereading them, it has been chastening to realise how wrong I was.
“They are romps, but they are supposed to be thought-provoking as well,” he explains. “The only way to do anything good, I realised a long time ago, is to obsess about it. If I have an idea which I think is worth doing I force myself to obsess about it. I’m naturally very lazy.”
The Grandville books tackle the rise of right-wing populism, religious cults, terrorism and, inevitably, speciesism. Echoes of the Vietnam war, the rise of Nazism and the protests against the Iraq War are all to be found in its pages.
The depressing fact, Talbot suggests, is how timely much of this stuff remains.
“It’s like the 1930s again,” he notes mournfully. “The world is going further to the right.”
Talbot, born in 1952 in Wigan, was a teenager at the fag end of the 1960s and he clearly ingested some of that era’s utopian thinking.
“It was in the air. The age of Aquarius. Wars were going to finish and everything. So, it was … Disappointing. The world has been going to hell in a handcart since the 1960s.
“Do you remember Till Death Do Us Part where the central character Alf Garnett is a figure of ridicule?” he asks. “A working-class conservative, a racist, a sexist. It seems to me that we’ve become a nation of Alf Garnetts. The country seems to be populated by small-minded, mean-spirited bigots. It’s horrible.”
Does he see no reasons for optimism? “I don’t, no. The biggest problem at the moment is climate change which, unless it’s tackled … That’s it.”
As already mentioned, he and Mary have tackled the subject of climate change in their 2019 book Rain.
“Mary said if she wrote it now it would be a lot less optimistic.”
Perhaps in his own field he can afford to be a little hopeful. When he first approached mainstream publishers with the idea for The Tale of One Bad Rat, he says, his proposal was sent back to him by everyone, unopened in many cases.
How things have changed. The existence of a lush hardback collected edition of the Grandville is proof of that.
Grandville L’Integrale by Bryan Talbot is published by Jonathan Cape, £40