There have been and always will be books that intimidate your average everyday book reviewer. As someone who works primarily with children's literature, this doesn't happen to me all that often. After all, as much as I'd like to be overawed by the latest Junie B. Jones series title, it just ain't gonna happen. But encompassing the whole of literature written with children in mind means sometimes having to deal with books that only just barely touch on my sphere of experience. When I first heard of Bryan Talbot's graphic novel, "Alice in Sunderland," I had no idea what it was. Not really. A glance at the cover gives the reader some hints to the contents, but for your average everyday American the word "Sunderland" means nothing. It's a nonsense word. A play on "Wonderland" obviously, but beyond that we're without reference. Standing at an impressive 328 pages, the book is obviously publisher Dark Horse Comics' most ambitious project to date. Dense, intense, and without comparison, Talbot has constructed the ultimate love letter/tour guide to his home. The fact that it may have also inspired Lewis Carroll's best-known work? Almost a sidenote.
Step right up! Step right in! Take off your hats and coats and make yourself at home. A man walks into a theater for a performance unlike any other. Onstage, the rabbit mask-wearing lead performer begins to tell the story. But it's not the story of Alice in Wonderland or even Charles Dodgson, her creator. Rather it's the tale of a place. A little strip of land on the North Eastern side of the island of Britain. A location that has inspired so many heroes, stories, tales, and legends you'd be amazed to hear them all. But Talbot isn't going to concentrate on the biggest folktales of his region. Nothing so straightforward. Instead, the book leaps, glances, references, and side-steps around every possible connection Sunderland might have to the world of Alice. What's more, the very history of Britain itself is tied intricately into Sunderland's tale. At the heart of it all, however, is the story of Lewis Carroll. For every seemingly inconsequential tangent, Talbot continually and continuously ties Alice Liddell, muse to the great author, and Carroll to the land they belonged to. Part historical treatise, part series of Rosicrucian-like connections, Talbot is unafraid to absolutely stuff his book with as much information as humanly possible. The result is a ridiculous and magnificent ode to a too little appreciated region.
It might sound a tedious affair. Constant backing and forthing between the present and the past. History coming alive is meant to be boring, right? So what are we to do when an artist like Talbot bends over backwards, not only to fit everything in, but to violently and continually change his style so as to both retain our attention and show off his prowess? Care to hear Henry V's speech before Harfleur, Act III, Scene I, done in the style of Mad Magazine? A Jabberwocky poem via Tenniel (right down to the unisexual hero?). Bryan Talbot can tell the story of brave Jack Crawford like it was a boys adventure tale then turn around and present some pretty nasty Normans ala Jack Kirby. There's even a bit of D.C. horror, odes to Herge, and a visitation from god-amongst-comic-artists Scott McCloud. Tenniel and Hogarth may get their due praise, but let us too admire what Talbot has seen fit to sneak in here and there artistically.
But I love the little things about this book too. The central plot concerns a single attendee, treated to this magnificent show in the Empire Theater. Of course the performer, the viewer, and even the man giving the walking tour are all various rather handsome versions of Talbot himself. Still, you grow very attached to the man watching. You're touched by his continual love and interest in George Fornby, local boy made good, ukulele phenomenon, and general nice guy. It's history is what it is. Hearing that the current Queen of England is related by blood to Alice Liddell isn't just good fun. Talbot can then turn Her Majesty into the Red Queen and at the same time show the moment Queen Elizabeth unveiled Sunderland's ode to the Great Library of St. Peter's in 1993. No detail is so small that Talbot can't weave it into the text in some fashion.
I had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Talbot discuss this book at a conference held by the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. And let me tell you, it takes guts to stand before that kind of assemblage so to present a book on their beloved. From that talk, however, I learned all kinds of secrets about "Sunderland". The amount of Photoshop that has gone into some of these pages looks daunting at the outset. It's even more so when you hear how Talbot meticulously reconstructed some of his photographic scenes. The image of photographers taking pics of Alice at Columbia in her later years? Some of those fellows were lifted out of the original filmed production of "King Kong". That image of the Bayeux Tapestry? It took some wrangling to get to display even the replicated version held in the Reading Museum of Berkshire.
Not that the book is flawless. Sorry folks, but while Talbot may be a genius he is by no means perfect. He tends to bog down on the topics that are of the greatest interest to him and him alone. A walking tour thorough the public art of modern day Sunderland is cool to begin with but can't maintain the book's momentum after a while. Facts about Sunderland's shipbuilding and geography come across as akin to Melville's whaling portions of Moby-Dick. You feel obligated to read through them, but you get no pleasure from doing so. It's also funny to take into account what Talbot didn't include alongside what he did. He fails to speak on whether or not the Cheshire Cat's origins are also Sunderland-based (a notable absence, I feel). He doesn't mention, when discussing the Bayeux Tapestry (England's first graphic novel and compiled by "a single artist") that the creator was widely considered to be a woman. Sometimes watching the unmentioned becomes as fascinating as the mentioned.
Ah well. It's a remarkable affair just the same. For those readers willing to dedicate a couple days of their time to reading it through, "Alice in Sunderland" is one of the most rewarding reads. The convergence of graphic novel enthusiasts, Lewis Carroll advocates, and history majors is sweet indeed. An intimidating work in the best possible sense of the term.