Alice in Sunderland

By: Bryan Talbot
Genre: history
Context: published as a big ol’ hardcover by Dark Horse in 2007

Another long book! I didn’t read this book until a couple years ago. I recall seeing a number of reviews saying that it would make the “Best Of” lists the year it came out, but I paged through it in a comic store and was turned off by all the computer effects used in making the many collages throughout the book. I also thought it was a remix of Alice in Wonderland coupled with a biography of Lewis Carroll.

When I finally did read it, I was working part time in a library and not doing much else, so I grabbed Alice almost only on the basis that it was a comic book and I had time to read comics. I was still a little turned off by the computer filters on a lot of the art (there are a number of pages online if you want to see what I’m talking about), but I think that’s just a personal quirk of my tastes that comes with growing to maturity alongside Photoshop. Talbot’s more traditional cartooning is present throughout the book and is as good as its ever been, and since the guy has collaborations with Neil Gaiman and Ed Brubaker under his belt, you can assume that’s pretty good.

I was very happy with what Alice was actually about. It’s sort of a remix of Lewis Carroll’s book in that someone goes on a phantasmagorical journey. It’s sort of a biography of Carroll himself. In its fullness, though, it’s really about the history of human encounters with outsiders and the stories we tell ourselves in order to understand that history and place ourselves in it.

Pretty big, right? Carroll’s place in it all is that both Oxford and Sunderland have “claimed” him as their own. In examining Sunderland’s influence on Carroll and his works, Talbot, a Sunderland resident, gets drawn into the web of Sunderland’s history. What he finds is that nothing ends up being purely Sunderland; everything comes from somewhere else, but nothing goes back out without being changed. From the Picts through the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans all the way to contemporary immigrants, the identity of a place gets built by the people who live and die there and the stories they leave behind.

Given this, Talbot’s collages are formally appropriate. His cartooning, already shifting chimerically from British boys’ adventure to Beano-style humor, is layered with and pasted over photographs and paintings. The experience of wandering through Talbot’s reconstructions of Sunderland throughout time is a uniquely comic experience, but its lessons on the building of truths and fictions are universal.

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