Grandville Bête Noire, By Bryan Talbot

Art history and SF, satire and fable: these multi-tasking graphic novels have it all.

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The Independent Culture

After long decades of French rule following Napoleon's triumphant invasion, the colony of Britain and its armed resistance has cast off the Gallic yoke to achieve a sort of independence. Still a restive cultural outpost of the French empire that spreads across Europe, Britain - after 23 years of autonomy - looks across the Channel in thrilled fascination. For the imperial heartland itself has risen up to oust the Napoleonic dynasty in a new French Revolution.

Now - as chatter on the "voicepipe" and messages through the "pneumail" suggest - a party of revolutionary democrats stands poised to win the first-ever free elections in France and its great metropolis, Paris or "Grandville". Yet a gang of bloated plutocrats, led by the monstrously rich Baron Krapaud, plots to thwart reform and restore the Napoleons. The animal elite has even recruited smart scientists from the despised human underclass - the "doughfaces" - to perfect the technology of automata (air- and steam-powered, like everything else in this parallel world) and use them to crush the masses.

Soon, leading Parisian artists of a democratic bent - first Gustave Corbeau, then Auguste Rodent - die mysterious deaths. London may still be an ex-colonial backwater, but it does sport the continent's most illustrious detective: Inspector LeBrock of the Cour D'Ecosse. In tandem with his trusty sidekick Sergeant Roderick Ratzi, he crosses the Manche to badger witnesses...

For the comics artist and graphic novelist Bryan Talbot, this has been a year of - richly merited - wonders. Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, the extraordinary joint memoir of James Joyce's family and that of his co-author (and wife) Mary M Talbot, has reached the shortlist of the Costa biography award. Meanwhile, the Grandville series - his deliriously clever, funny and allusive series of steampunk adventures set in (his words) "the hub of a globe-spanning French empire populated by talking animals" - now arrives at its third, almost ridiculously inventive episode. General readers - even those most resistant to graphic fiction - now have more reason than ever to plunge into the Talbot back-catalogue and discover a national treasure. The Wigan-born former artist for 2000AD and DC comics published one of the first home-grown graphic novels with The Adventures of Luther Arkwright, before giving poignant visual and verbal life to a story of abuse and its aftermath in the Beatrix Potter-inspired The Tale of One Bad Rat. Then, in 2007, he blended north-eastern history, Brechtian stagecraft and a sophisticated homage to Lewis Carroll into Alice in Sunderland - surely one of the most remarkable British books, in any genre, to appear over the past decade.

Although Grandville Bete Noire nods back in the direction of its two predecessors, new readers can - and will - happily start here. With his alternative history's enhanced-Victorian technology, Talbot recalls not only classic steampunk from the SF canon - books by Michael Moorcock, William Gibson or Tim Powers. He exploits the tweaked European past that underlies the entire genre. In both Keith Roberts's Pavane and Kingsley Amis's The Alteration, the failure of the Reformation and the unbroken dominance of Rome have sent later technical innovation down a non-electrical track. Talbot's Napoleonic world order has had a somewhat similar effect.

As for his anthropomorphic animals with their joyful, Joycean punning names, the style of the drawing bows to the literary bestiary: most obviously, Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Sharp-eyed readers may spot many other allusions, as when we see a tipsy Paddington Bear stagger past the London police HQ at Cour D'Ecosse. In this volume, Talbot's previous embrace of detective-fiction favourites - Conan Doyle's Holmes and Watson, but also Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey - now extends to the James Bond books. The villainous toad Krapaud (a warty mini-me on his lap) plays the Goldfinger role.

When it comes to Talbot's mastery of art history, from the Belle Epoque designs of his borders to the almost casual command of 19th-century Salon, Impressionist, Pre-Raphaelite and poster styles, it's enough to make a V&A curator go yellow-green with envy. Just one example: when we see the mechanical slaves dig up a road, the composition of the frame echoes in almost every detail Ford Madox Brown's radical allegory "Work". Indeed, the politics of painting has a vital role here.

The Parisian maestros who die violently believe in an art committed to social change. Whereas Krapaud and his henchmen finance a new wave of content-free abstract artists, led by a strutting cockerel who wants to "throw off the squalid shackles of realism". His name? What else: Jackson Pollo. In a note, Talbot cites both the CIA's projects to boost the post-war cult of abstract impressionism via lavish secret funding, and Nelson Rockefeller's destruction of a social-realist mural by Diego Rivera when, in 1934, its content outraged the magnate at his Center in New York.

Satire, pastiche, dystopia, genre-bending cultural history, a virtuoso palimpsest of styles: all this (and much more) in a comic book. Talbot's major fault, if he has one, lies in the prodigality of ideas that leaves nearly every spread as overstuffed with references as the drawing-room of a late-Victorian aesthete in the historical world that partners his fantastic version. Yet that sense of surfeit is a small price to play for the sheer ingenious delight on show in every frame and bubble. I particularly relished the transformation of meerkats - those price-comparison tarts of the British ad break - into thuggish mobs from the Kalahari.

At this Kindle-fired Christmas, Talbot - who sends up so many thought-balloons about the relation of culture to technology - has another part to play. You might just enjoy the Grandville books on a top-quality tablet (the standard e-reader would ruin them). All the same, there's something deeply poignant about the craft-enriched beauty of these printed volumes, in their way as much of a steam-age product as the outlandish gadgets envisioned within them. While you can, buy Talbot's majestically material books in tangible form, before - like those hi-tech pneumails - they vanish into history's thin air.