Shiny Shelf

Alice in Sunderland

By Mark Clapham on 06 May 2007

The best description I can come up with for Bryan Talbot’s graphic novel ‘Alice in Sunderland’ is that it’s a sort of illustrated lecture or visual essay (although I’m loathe to use either phrase, as it makes the book sound horribly dry, which it isn’t). Presented as a show at the Sunderland Empire, narrated by varied versions of Talbot himself, it’s part local history, partly a recounting of the story of Lewis Carroll and the ‘Alice’ phenomenon, partly a history of British comics and partly a memoir.

Hmmmm. That doesn’t sound too enticing, does it? I’m not doing a very good job of selling this, am I?

Perhaps I should emphasise that the subtitle of the book is ‘an entertainment’, and that the theatrical approach Talbot adopts involves using the tactics of the music hall to keep an audience enthralled, not letting any one act stay on stage long enough to let the audience get bored. To this end Talbot cleverly switches tracks every few pages, often switching narrators and artistic techniques at the same time. The various threads of information – Sunderland, Carroll, comics, the author – interweave and interlink through the course of the book in a clever and engaging way.

All this jumping around is done in a dazzlingly Carrollian style, stepping up and down through various realities – the narrative moving in and out of a screen on stage, from the performance and out into the real world, shifts between levels of perception, waking and dreaming. Talbot’s main stylistic conceit is to have his lead characters – primarily versions of himself, presenting and watching the performance, but other people, real and imagined, do appear – illustrated in stark black and white against colourful photographic backdrops. The narrators change, age, costume and shape between panels to emphasise certain points.

Talbot shows himself to be as capable of transformation as his metamorphosing narrator, his linework transforming from his normal style, familiar from the ‘Luther Arkwright’ books, into other genre of comic book art, from Boys Own papers to the children’s humour comics of more recent years. Each page of these is perfect pastiche, Talbot as adept at imitating the ‘Beano’ as creating beautifully rendered photoshop images.

While there are contributions from others – a page written by Leo Baxendale, an interview with local authors – this is very much a one-man show and all the better for it. This is a personal book about the author’s home, his preoccupations in half a century of life and how they are deeply, often surprisingly, connected. Talbot’s wit and passion for the subject matter is infectious, and gives the book an engaging, human side. Very few comics or graphic novels – and this is very much the latter, which is not to diminish comics but just to emphasise the acheivement of creating a longform work on this scale – dare to be so personal, to put the author and his concerns front and centre while never drifting into self-indulgence or narcissistic rambling.

‘Alice in Sunderland’ is a substantial landmark in the history of the British graphic novel, a serious but always entertaining book about how our short lives tie together down the centuries, swarming around the longer narratives of art and history. Carroll’s ‘Wonderland’ is a single work that has and will live long beyond it’s creator, but it in itself was influenced by, and continues to influence, the smaller stories of ordinary lives. It should be bought by anyone with an interest in and passion for the comics form, who wants to see comics advance as a medium and fulfil their vast potential.

So, comic book critics and message board pundits, bemoaning the state of the medium step right up and put your money where your gobby mouth is – it’ll be worth your while, you’ll be informed and entranced and surprised and, yes, entertained.

No monies return’d.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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