By Martin Charlton.
South Tyneside College reviewed for 2000ADreview.co.uk
"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
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as historical documents (which, in a delightfully post-modern sense, Alice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.
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