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The Official Bryan Talbot fanpage / Alice in Sunderland homepage

A review of Alice in Sunderland
by Martin Charlton


By Martin Charlton. South Tyneside College reviewed for

"Let’s start by sorting the wheat from the chaff, shall we?

There are three obvious reasons to read Alice in Sunderland:

You’re from Sunderland (or there abouts)
You’re a fan of Lewis Carroll
you’re a fan of Bryan Talbot

I’ll nail my colours to the mast early here, and will say that I fall into categories 1 & 3, never having seen the appeal of Alice in Wonderland, personally.

What first strikes you when you pick up Alice is the sheer weight of the book. Hardback bound, beyond the dimensions of your usual graphic novel fare, this is clearly a sizable piece of work, deserving ‘reading’, rather than flicking through on the toilet. I’m sure you’ve all heard the back story of this – the sum of 6 years work, comparable to a PhD (and can I say, for the record, if Sunderland University don’t give him an honorary doctorate for this then it’s a crime).

Without giving away too much of the plot (although the only potential spoilers here would be ‘and then they closed the ship yards’), it’s hard to describe exactly what this book is all about, but I’ll try.

Every now and then, in every medium, a work comes along of such depth, of such clarity, so rich in meaning and resonance that it defines what that medium is capable of as a period of time, a period usually referred to as ‘post’ something or other, such as ‘post-Watchmen’, or ‘post-Nevermind’. If there is any justice, we are now entering the ‘post-Alice’ era of the graphic novel. A meditation and treatise on issues such as the human desire to progress, the British Class System, the void between actual and recorded history, the role of comics as historical documents (which, in a delightfully post-modern sense, Alice typifies), notions of nationality, ethnicity, culture, and almost every other facet of human existence, Alice strides above most historical books by suggesting not that history is ‘then’ and we are ‘now’, but by suggesting that we are in fact writing history as we go along, and that, like all great historical works, it suggests that our actions now, however inconsequential they may seem, may have greater implications for the future.

As an exemplar of comics as a visual medium, Alice again excels in almost every way, featuring more art styles than a decade’s worth of output from mainstream comics, Bryan Talbot adeptly adopts the art style suited best for the story he is telling, using a loose, dynamic, vividly coloured style for the invasion of the Vikings, for instance, but taking a more measured, restrained approach for the more ‘mundane’ elements of history. His use of his own image as avatar or guide through the history of Sunderland is also a deliberate masterstroke. As a story told through voice over this would feel like a 300+ page lecture, but with someone as amiable, knowledgeable and possessing of the everyman quality as Bryan Talbot, we’re in safe hands. A number of Bryan Talbots occur throughout the story, as Bryan plays narrator, guide and audience, all three positions he will have played at some point during the research & production of this work.

On a personal note, the book also uses photographs of the more contemporary Sunderland to illustrate the current climate within the city, a city still recovering from the legacy of the closure of its main industries in the 1980s. We cross the Wear Bridge, visit the Stadium of Light and go on a tour of the art which now occupies the regenerated areas of the town, providing homage to those industries’ legacies. Most touchingly are the men of steel, on the banks of the Wear, featureless sculptures of miners, trapped forever in their labour. As anyone from a mining community will attest to, these men were the real heroes of the working classes, the legitimate salt of the earth.

At no point, however, does the book simply become a nostalgic look back at the history of the North East, as Talbot relishes in breaking down false histories, be they concerned with Lewis Carroll or otherwise. One of the main aims of the book is to suggest that the origins of one of the most significant pieces of British fiction was in fact rooted in the North East, rather than the bourgeois setting of Oxford, but Talbot resists the temptation to fuel some elements of false history while discrediting others, much to his credit, but also nothing less than those familiar with his previous work would expect.

So where does this stand in the work of Bryan Talbot? On a shelf next to Luther Arkwright & The Tale of One Bad Rat, as well as his various works for 2000AD, the Sandman & Batman, bizarrely, it slots in very nicely. Alice’s two main themes are those of history (specifically how the past forms our current identity) & fiction (in all its intertextual, incestual nature), the first of which we can find in Talbot’s work on Arkwright Batman, Sandman & Memento, from prog 2002), the latter of which we see in Sandman, Bad Rat & Talbot’s work on Fables. As such, Alice is a distillation of all the things the make Bryan Talbot one of Britain’s most significant writers in any medium, his magnum opus in almost every way.

One word of warning, however, this book is almost too good, too compelling. I read it over two days, and while by no means did I take it all in first time, I do wish I’d savoured it slightly more, treating it like a gourmet meal rather than as an 'all-you-can-eat' gluttony fest.

After all of that, if you’re still thinking ‘why should I read a 300 page comic about Sunderland', let me assure you, it’s not actually about Sunderland. Just as all good science fiction uses the future to talk about the present, Talbot uses Sunderland to talk generally, encouraging us to look at the history of our own cultures (sort of like he’s saying ‘this is my truth, tell me yours’) and regions, finding the magic in the thing we walk past on our way to work every day. For instance, in Sunderland there’s the Wear Bridge and the Queen Alexandra Bridge. The Wear Bridge is the one in all the pictures of the area shown to the rest of the world, and in comparison, the other bridge is a dark, unspectacular hunk of metal hanging over the river between two of the less picturesque areas of the town. However, the little factoid that is given about this bridge means that I’ll never look at it in the same way again. It has history and significance now.

With that in mind, let me add a fourth reason to read this book:

If you’re anyone who lives anywhere.

That means you. Go and buy this book. Oh, and be prepared for the most glorious crescendo of a finale ever seen in comics.

Return to the Alice in Sunderland reviews page, or go back to the Alice in Sunderland homepage.


The design and content of this page and this entire website is copyright 1999, 2006 by James Robertson: all images are copyright 1999, 2006 by Bryan Talbot