Alice in Sunderland

Bryan Talbot is perhaps best known for his The Adventures of Luther Arkwright and The Tale of One Bad Rat graphic novels, and a particular Grovel favourite blast from the past, his illustration of Pat Mills’ Nemesis in 2000AD. So Talbot fans may automatically presume that Alice in Sunderland is some kind of reworking of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, as One Bad Rat blended child abuse with the works of Beatrix Potter. Like most of the work we’ve seen come from this talented writer and artist however, Alice in Sunderland is markedly different and probably not what you’d expect.

Alice in Sunderland - AliceAlice and Carroll play a big part in the book, but what Talbot is really trying to do is put Sunderland on the map. Although not a Sunderland native, he lives in the city and clearly adores it. So he uses the book to roll through a brief history of the region and its importance to British (and global) history, while simultaneously attempting to debunk the myth that Carroll did all his work on the Alice in Wonderland books while in Oxford – and in essence, that it was in fact the north of England that proved almost as great a muse to Carroll as Alice Liddell herself.

Alice in Sunderland - TalbotIf it sounds like a big task, we really haven’t explained the half of it: there’s also the fact that the book is narrated by three (no, actually make that four) different versions of Talbot’s persona, often simultaneously; that he also interweaves chunks of his own personal and family history; and that the awesome design of the book blends digital photos with pen and ink with historical documents and drawings – it’s a multimedia extravaganza. And running at over 300 pages, it’s no exaggeration to use the word ‘epic’ to describe its scale.

You can’t help feeling that something’s not right though and Talbot’s decision to append a loose epilogue doesn’t help, making it feel like a 300-page book that it was difficult to put a lid on. The work is an incredible journey through one-man’s outlook on all things Sunderland and Carroll, and it’s a fascinating piece of work, but subtitling it ‘An Entertainment’ might also be stretching things – the density of information means that even across 300 pages there’s a Gatling gun effect, as Talbot peppers us with round after round of Sunderland facts. To make up for this, he sets the piece in The Sunderland Empire and has one of his alter-egos play the story of Sunderland to another from the stage – this might make for entertainment in some eyes but it could probably also be described as an unusually styled lecture.

Those who share Talbot’s interests in the history of the north of England, the role it’s played in defining the culture of the western world and, in particular, the works of Lewis Carroll and Bryan Talbot, will be enthralled and captivated. I found that its interwoven concepts, while fascinating to digest, were complicated by the, well, complexity of the structure, as if this were a comic trying to hide, rather than replace, a less interesting to read text book. There’s no questioning Talbot’s artistry, skill, research or imagination, but this 300-page slab of text and images would have been more satisfying for this reader, if not for the writer, with a few less tangents and some stricter self-editing.

More books by Bryan Talbot:
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