Review: Bryan Talbot’s ‘Alice in Sunderland’
Alice in Sunderland
Dark Horse Books, 2007, $29.95
Even for an artist as hard to pin down as Talbot, [[[Alice in Sunderland]]] is odd and unique: it’s one-half a local history of the town in northern England where Talbot lives now and one-half a popular history of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) and Alice in Wonderland. And then both of those halves are wrapped up in a metafictional package, since there are two narrators (the Pilgrim and the Performer, both of them Talbot) and one audience member witnessing this performance (the Plebian, who is also Talbot). To make things even more confusing, about half-way through the book Talbot breaks down and admits that Sunderland, the town he claims he lives in, doesn’t actually exist!
Except even that is a trick: Sunderland is a real town in the northeast of England, on the coast near Newcastle upon Tyne. And the various facts Talbot presents, about the history of Sunderland and of Alice, and the many connections between the two? Well, there’s an extensive list of sources in the backmatter, so I think they’re real. At least, most of them. I think.
Sunderland begins as a thumbnail sketch, then a penciled page, and finally a fully-rendered version of the same page: a man walks into the Sunderland Empire, a hundred-year-old theater. He’s the Plebian I mentioned before. Once he sits down in his seat – alone in the large hall – a man in a white rabbit mask steps out on stage and begins reciting some Shakespeare. This is the Performer; he’ll do about half of the talking in the book. The third person of our Talbot triumvirate shows up a few pages later: the Pilgrim, who walks around the city and surrounding areas to talk about various sites and events. (We also occasionally see the Pilgrim sitting at a drawing table, working on the art for this very book.)
That sets the pattern for the rest of the book, as the Pilgrim and the Performer speak interchangeably – with a speech often starting with one and ending with the other – while the Plebian interjects now and then to complain that the whole thing is too long, too talky, and too boring. (One thing he doesn’t complain about, though he could, is that Talbot’s connections are often very weak and coincidental – the very fact that a city has been around for nearly 2000 years gives great scope to pick and choose shiny facts that don’t necessarily add up to anything.)
The cultural context of Alice in Sunderland is inevitably deeply British. Soon after the story begins, two ghosts join the Plebian as an audience (though all three disappear for long stretches at a time). One of the ghosts is a legendary White Lady…and the other is low-brow British comic Sidney James, best known from the “Carry On” movies. Along the same lines, early-20th century comic icon George Formby also plays a large thematic role, but I only just recognized his name. Talbot has dug up a huge trove of facts, legends, and theories about his hometown and about Carroll’s life, and Sunderland skips back and forth between the two, often seeming to be eternally chasing the next shiny new idea, jumping on to some other story simply because it happened in the same place, or was only a few years later.
Alice in Sunderland is long and talky; the art is visually inventive and often stunning, but covered by many, many speech balloons and captions, as Talbot pours out all of his research. The end result is a lot like reading any local history: the author is clearly enthusiastic and good at research, but it’s less obvious that he can discern the difference between what’s important and what’s merely interesting. Sunderland is packed full of interesting, and that tends to obscure what might be important in it. I expect it will have a smaller audience here than it did in the UK, where it was recently nominated for the British Science Fiction Association’s Best Novel Award, a very rare honor for a graphic novel. (Let alone a book that isn’t, except for a thin veneer, fictional at all, and is in no sense a novel.) Being that it is an obsessive book, it’s probably also a book for obsessives. Luckily, the world of comics is full of them.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.