In Review: Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot

Alice in Sunderland - Cover LargeAlice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot
Published by Jonathan Cape in the UK and Dark Horse in the US

The Book: Sunderland! Thirteen hundred years ago, it was the greatest centre of learning in the whole of Christendom and the very cradle of English consciousness. In the time of Lewis Carroll it was the greatest shipbuilding port in the world. To this city that gave the world the electric light bulb, the stars and stripes, the millennium, the Liberty Ships and the greatest British dragon legend came Carroll in the years preceding his most famous book, Alice in Wonderland, and here are buried the roots of his surreal masterpiece. Enter the famous Edwardian palace of varieties, The Sunderland Empire, for a unique experience: an entertaining and epic meditation on myth, history and storytelling and decide for yourself — does Sunderland really exist?

From Bryan Talbot, the acclaimed creator of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and The Tale of One Bad Rat, comes Alice in Sunderland, a graphic novel unlike any other. Funny and poignant, thought-provoking and entertaining, traditional and experimental, whimsical and polemical, Alice in Sunderland is a heady cocktail of fact and fiction, a sumptuous and multi-layered journey that will leave you wondering about the magic that’s waiting to be unlocked in the place where you live.

A page from Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland, written by Leo Baxendale.

A page from Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland, written by Leo Baxendale.

The Review by Jeremy Briggs: Not so much a graphic novel as a feature length graphic documentary, Alice in Sunderland is the story of Lewis Carroll’s links with Sunderland and the North East of England intertwined with a history of the area and the notable places and people who have lived there throughout the centuries.

The style of this graphic novel is very much in the Channel 4/Discovery Channel form of documentary, with presenter talking to the camera as they walk through the locations that they are talking about, except here we have Bryan Talbot’s black and white version of himself walking through coloured North East landscapes rather than, say, Bettany Hughes walking through Mycenaean Crete.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a performer on the stage of the Sunderland Empire theatre relating the area’s Alice in Wonderland links to a solitary, and not entirely enthralled, audience member whilst occasionally being interrupted by the ghost of Sid James, who died on the theatre’s stage during a performance. The performer projects, for want of a better description, an outside broadcast onto the rear of the stage of a “pilgrim” walking through and talking about modern Sunderland before moving to the surrounding countryside. The outside sections are complemented by the Pilgrim interviewing local artists and the occasional voxpop from people in the street.

Both Performer and Pilgrim are Bryan Talbot, who is not afraid to intertwine some of his own history into the book with both passing references to his other works, such as Luther Arkwright. His friends, family and neighbours make appearances, as does his grandmother’s sideboard – which is not quite as bizarre as it might sound.

Those with an interest in history or in the area may find it more engrossing than others but with tangential references to people and events outside the main thrust of the narrative, it rarely gets bogged down in history lessons. Indeed the stories within the story, of the Lambton Worm or Jabberwocky or “pinning your colours to the mast”, are presented in different art styles making them a visual, as well as a narrative, breather to the main thrust of the book. Talbot’s love of his subject and interest in the area comes across well and overall he combines the often disparate subjects into one ongoing train of thought.

I bought my copy in Waterstone’s in Durham, only a few minutes walk from Durham Cathedral which is visited late on in the book by the Pilgrim, and it was sitting at Number One in their local book sales chart, no doubt helped by the signing session that Talbot had done for the shop.

Alice in Sunderland is a mammoth tome, requiring several sittings to read, and while at £17.99 it may not be the cheapest, at some 300 glossy, hard backed pages it is better value than Rebellion’s current batch of reprint books.

Perhaps the greatest complement for the book is how easy Talbot makes it seem, integrating the history and the locality into his densely scripted story and his various styles of art.

The credits point out that the book was created without the help of the Arts Council England (North East) yet I wonder how many other regions of the country will take a look at this book and consider the benefits of producing something similar.

Buy Alice in Sunderland from amazon.co.uk

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