‘Of Animal and Man,’ William Proctor, University of Sunderland

Bryan Talbot & the Anthropomorphic Tradition in Comics

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Bryan Talbot is an architect of the sequential craft: gifted in the art of dialogue, narrative story-telling and world building, as well as a master of illustration and aesthetics, he is a true auteur in every sense of the word and well-regarded by many commentators as a pioneer in the field. In a career spanning three decades, Talbot has traversed the comic book landscape in a way unparalleled by many of his contemporaries; charting a map from the underground comics of the 1970s – through mainstream houses such as DC Comics – Legend of the Dark Knight and Sandman – to creator-owned material, Luther Arkwright, A Tale of One Bad Rat, Alice In Sunderland. And now, his most recent adventures involving the talking badger, Detective LeBrock of Scotland Yard, the anthropomorphic bane of scum and villainy patrolling the streets of Grandville, Talbot has re-situated the Parisian streets to his own steam-punk milieu. In December 2012, Talbot released the third entry in the series, Grandville Bête Noire with at least another two fully scripted (Grandville Noel, a Christmas tale, and an untitled fifth instalment). For the moment, at least, Bryan Talbot lives and breathes Grandville.

At a special public lecture series to celebrate the twentieth year of Northumbria University’s institutional upgrade, Talbot addressed an audience who dared brave the snow-furred streets of Newcastle to hear him speak about Grandville and the Anthropomorphic Tradition in comic books. Armed with nothing more than a beautifully designed slide show decorated with the aesthetics of comic books both old and new, Talbot invited us to join him on a ‘magical mystery tour’ across a history that extends across several centuries and features innumerable cultures and traditions. With panache and erudition, Bryan regaled the crowd for almost an hour without notes or prompts and one thing becomes inordinately clear: Talbot knows his subject, inside and out and performs the role of historian brilliantly.

One only need look at the spectacular graphic novel, Alice in Sunderland to recognise Talbot’s commitment to his subject. This is a work steeped in history and lore, painstakingly so. As a life-long resident of Sunderland, I was awe-struck by the level of depth and detail in Alice that taught me so much about the place of my birth and upbringing than that which I learned at school or in local literature. But more than that, Alice changed my mind about Sunderland in many ways as something to be proud of rather than embarrassed; for within the centre of Sunderland beats a fierce heart of tradition, myth and lore that Talbot deftly unearths as archaeologist, excavating the ruins of history and expertly detailing the shifting sands of time through the medium of the comic book. Simply put, it is a remarkable tour de force of sequential storytelling and a token of Talbot’s craftsmanship and ardour.

Employing what can only be described as an arduous research method, Talbot immersed himself in anthropomorphic history when preparing the first Grandville story. ‘There is nothing new about anthropomorphic characters,’ claims Talbot and offers examples to illustrate this: a 750,000 year-old cave painting in France depicting anthropomorphism; religious figures such as Ganesh, the Hindu Elephant God and the Greek God Zeus all possess animal characteristics (although Zeus turned into an animal to ‘get laid’ argues Talbot with a wry smile and his tongue rooted firmly in his cheek). In Ancient Egypt, Anubis (Jackal), and Horus (Falcon), for instance, are often depicted in art as human with animal heads; the Old Testament shows us an anthropomorphic snake in the Garden of Eden; and in West African and Caribbean folklore, the trickster God Anansi takes the form of a spider – and, in turn, influenced the Western version of Br’er Rabbit as African stories entered the American culture by way of the so-called slave trade. (Moreover, the ‘trickster Rabbit’ and the ‘trickster Coyote’ could very well be the archetypes behind such icons of popular Western culture such as Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote of the Road Runner cartoons.)

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According to Talbot, in all religions and mythologies, anthropomorphism has been a historical constant going back to the very beginnings of story-telling.

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The wealth of material henceforth is staggering – slide after slide of old comic books ranging from a 1782 broadsheet cartoon, The Loves of the Fox and the Badger, which satirised the political coalition between the liberals and conservatives as a ‘deal with the devil’; through Louis Wain, ‘the man who drew cats’ to Beatrix Potter’s The Fox and the Badger and many examples in between and beyond. ‘Has anyone heard of Teddy Tail,’ Talbot asks the audience and many, if not all of us, shake our heads in embarrassment. In an era before the merchandising blitzes of George Lucas and DC et al that we are all so familiar with, Teddy Tail was ‘a household name in the 1920s’ and featured in ‘dozens of spin-offs’ such as records that were broadcast on BBC radio, a syndicated comic strip in The Daily Mail and a multiplicity of ancillary products. Although not the first ‘furry newspaper cartoon hero’ – that accolade belongs to Tiger Tim (1904) – Teddy Tail was the first anthropomorphic character to feature on a daily basis.

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The overwhelming popularity of ‘Teddy Tail of the Daily Mail’, as he came to be known, led to multiple copies, facsimiles and variations; one of which we have all heard of: Rupert the Bear.

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For Talbot, Rupert the Bear is a key inspiration behind Grandville. By ‘doing Grandville’, Talbot claims, ‘I’m actually going back to my childhood’. Indeed, the first Grandville book features a murder in Nutwood, Rupert’s home town, and Talbot points out a beautifully illustrated scene where Rupert’s father can be seen mowing the lawn in the background.

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And there are many more so-called ‘easter eggs’ for the intertextual detectives among us who enjoy wandering the fictional wilderness in search of references, puns and pastiche. (My personal favourite is in Grandville: Bete Noire, where we see a drunken Paddington Bear walking in the street).

Bryan Talbot is clearly enjoying himself with Grandville.

I must point out, however, that I haven’t done justice – not by a long shot – to the sprawling history lesson narrated by Talbot on the evening in question. I haven’t mentioned the T.M Coolidge advertisements; Billy Brock’s Schooldays; Crazy Cat By George Ferryman (which was seen a ‘high art’ in the States); Usagi Yojimbo (simply ‘Rabbit Bodyguard’); Omaha: The Cat Dancer (which Talbot describes as anthropomorphic ‘porn’); Bone; Blacksad; Mouseguard; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Maus; Hip Flask (to name a select few).

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Nor have I detailed the many ‘easter eggs’ and in-jokes that Talbot guides us through by way of an intertextual tour. I will say this, however: you will need considerable acumen to uncover them all. Call it ‘The Talbot Challenge’. Do you think you have what it takes? Personally, I admit defeat and look forward to Bryan pointing more out to me so I can revel in the brilliance whilst silently castigating myself for failing so monumentally. I almost want Talbot to leave Grandville be for a moment and commit himself to more research that will enlighten and illuminate as he did that cold, snowy night in Newcastle. For now, however, I turn to my beaten copies of Luther Arkwright and re-enter the world – or, rather, multiverse – that Talbot built.

ABOUT

William Proctor is a PhD candidate at the University of Sunderland, Centre for Research in Media and Cultural Studies where he teaches  Film, Media and Cultural Studies. He is working on his thesis titled Beginning Again: The Reboot Phenomenon in Film, Comic Books and Television and he has published articles on the film reboot (Regeneration and Rebirth: Anatomy of the Film Franchise Reboot), the comic book reboot (Beginning Again: The Reboot Phenomenon in Comic Books  and Film) and has a chapter in the forthcoming collected edition Fan Phenomena: Batman (edited by Liam Burke). He is currently working on mapping fan reactions to the Disney takeover of Lucasfilm which will be published in a special fan studies edition of Participations in May 2012. William’s next project about The Walking Dead TV series will be published in a new edited collection by Lexington (edited by Carlen Lavigne) titled Remake TV. Additionally, he is organizing a two-day international conference to be hosted by the University of Sunderland on April 3rd and 4th 2012 (Adventures in Textuality: Adaptation Studies in the 21st Century) which includes key-note speakers Will Brooker, Jonathan Gray, Bryan Talbot and Christine Geraghty.

FREE ACCESS TO PEER-REVIEWED ARTICLES BY WILLIAM PROCTOR:

Regeneration and Rebirth: Anatomy of the Franchise Reboot: http://www.scope.nottingham.ac.uk/February_2012/proctor.pdf

Beginning Again: The Reboot Phenomenon in Comic Books and Film: http://scan.net.au/scan/journal/display.php?journal_id=163