Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Graphic Lit: Alice in Sunderland

Like a number of people, British cartoonist Bryan Talbot became enchanted with the world of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” at an early age.

“I can’t remember when I first read it, but there doesn’t seem to be a time when I can’t remember the [John] Tenniel illustrations,” he said during a recent phone interview.

In fact, Talbot, author of such critically acclaimed graphic novels as “The Tale of One Bad Rat” and “Heart of the Empire,” had been thinking about doing a comic about Carroll and the “Alice” books for a number of years, but had been unable to come up with a concept that worked.

It wasn’t until he and his wife moved to Sunderland, a large, northeastern city in Great Britain, nine years ago that Talbot discovered his hook.

“I found out when I moved here that not only Lewis Carroll had lots of links with the city and the surrounding area but also Alice Liddel, his supposed muse,” he said.

For example, Sunderland — which at one point had been one of the largest shipbuilding empires in the world — was where Carroll wrote “Jabberwocky.” It’s where he saw his first (stuffed) walrus, and his first biographer grew up here.

Discoveries like that led Talbot on an eight-year quest, the end result of which is “Alice in Sunderland,” an immense, sprawling, endlessly fascinating graphic novel that not only unveils the “truth” about the history of the Alice books, but weaves in a variety of facts, myths and generally captivating stories about the Sunderland area.

Although the book’s ultimate scope is much larger than the history of “Alice in Wonderland,” one of Talbot’s aims was to make clear that the image of the shy Oxford don creating the idea for the book during a summer’s row was a falsehood.

“I never say in the book there’s a conspiracy by Oxford scholars to ignore the northeastern roots of Wonderland, but there is a definite willful ignorance.” he said. “They’ve just ignored the northeast for all this time.”

Structured as a theatrical performance, “Sunderland” offers a dreamlike narrative structure, jumping from tangent to tangent in what seems like a stream of consciousness. One page will spin backward millions of years to the age of the dinosaurs only to skip ahead to medieval times and then to the modern world.

Along the way you learn about characters like the Venerable Bede (the father of English literature), music-hall comedian George Formby and, of course, Lewis Carroll.

Such constant see-sawing between centuries and threads would make for a difficult read in the hands of a less experienced artist, but Talbot keeps the reader from becoming overwhelmed or lost, filling the book with humor and fascinating trivia. (Did you know the light bulb wasn’t invented by Thomas Edison?)

“If there’s anything clever at all about this book it’s the actual structure that holds everything together,” Talbot said. “It should seem like stream of consciousness almost. Like dream logic, but underneath it all, there’s a rock-solid structure.”

The book took Talbot about three years to research and five years to write and draw. One particular homage to Jabberwocky took him three days just to ink.

Talbot himself appears in the book in a number of places. He’s not only the performer on stage, he’s also the “plebeian” or sole audience member watching the show (and offering snarky commentary), as well as the “pilgrim” who guides readers through the various settings and tourist spots.

“I thought, ‘Well if I’m telling all these stories ... it might as well be me performing them on the stage.’ ” he said.

The book incorporates a variety of media, combining pen and ink drawings with photos, old prints, computer illustrations and watercolors. Talbot even changes his style depending on where the book takes him, adopting a Tenniel-like atmosphere while adapting Jabberwocky or doing a homage to Tintin when relating a trip to Africa.

Talbot said he was concerned that the book might seem too British to an American audience, but he should not worry. Though Sunderland and Carroll might provide the book’s narrative drive, Talbot’s aims are much higher.

Ultimately, “Alice in Sunderland” is about not just history but myth-making and the power of storytelling. Heartwarming, thought-provoking and impossible to put down, “Alice in Sunderland” is a book that will stick with you long after you’ve finished it.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007



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