Nov 17, 2007

Alice in Sunderland by Bryan Talbot

Alice in Sunderland is a non-fiction comic that connects the work of Lewis Carroll with Sunderland and the north east of England. Subtitled An Entertainment, the book opens with a man – the reader – entering the Sunderland Empire Theatre. There, the White Rabbit himself comes on stage, and our entertainment begins. We are taken on a journey that includes local legends, random facts of every sort, biographical information about Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell, and others, bits of history from pre-historic times to the 20th century, the history of comics from its precursors (like William Hogarth, according to Bryan Talbot) to the present day, a strong anti-racist message and an illustrated version of the poem Jabbercock, among other things.

That sounds like rather a lot, doesn’t it? The book’s main point is that while it is Oxford that is traditionally associated with Carroll and the Alice books, the author actually visited Sunderland quite often, and the areas’ landscapes and legends influenced his work.

Bryan Talbot tells us that Sunderland and the area surrounding it is rich in history and legend, battles, ghosts and dragons, heroes and villains, saints and sinners, and has more castles and ruined abbeys per square inch than any other place in the U.K. - a concentration of the stuff of story and myth. Reading this book certainly made me want to visit the area before I leave England.

But the book is about more than just Sunderland. It also explores Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired the fictional Alice. And while this has been done a thousand times in the past, this book is different, because it tells us from the start that nothing much is known about Charles Dodgson the man.

The hundreds of stories that circulate about him are the stuff of myth. They range from paedophilia accusations to Dodgson wanting to marry Alice but being turned out, not because of the age difference, but because of class differences, to the theory that Carroll or Dodgson was in fact Jack the Ripper(!). But the truth is that the author’s life has become almost as legendary as his books. I liked how this book managed to both discuss the myths and gather the few facts that are known to paint a human portrait of both Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell.

My favourite bit of the book was the retelling of “The Legend of the Lambton Worm”. This is a piece of folklore I wasn’t previously familiar with, and I really enjoyed it. I also learned that the legend inspired the graphic novel Rose by Jeff Smith and Charles Vess. I absolutely MUST read it now.

The book also includes mentions of Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Neil Gaiman, Dave Mckean, Marylin Manson, and John Lennon. It may seem difficult to join all of this together in a coherent manner, and well, that is the one shortcoming this book has. There isn’t actually a coherent thread putting everything together. But the book's surreal, dream-like mood can be intentional - it mirrors the Alice books, after all. However, in a book like this, it can set the reader's head spinning from so much information coming so fast. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this book a lot. But I had to read it in small doses. It took me much longer to read than comics normally do, because I had to slowly absorb all the information the book contains.

The book’s artwork is absolutely remarkable. It includes illustrations in every style you can imagine, photography, collages, etc. This is a very ambitious piece of work, and despite its shortcomings, I think it succeeds in doing what it set out to do. It offers a fascinating journey through history and myth, particularly that of an area you don’t often read about. Highly recommended.

Other Blog Reviews:
Nothing of Importance
Stuff as Dreams are Made On


  1. Wow! What's not to love about this one?? I've heard of this before but I've never read anything about it. I need to get this one. It sounds like all kinds of stuff I love reading about wrapped up into one comic! Very cool. Thanks for letting us know about it ;)

  2. I read this when it came out, and I agree. It was absolutely dizzying. I did it in two big sittings, which was probably a bad idea, but I just got so into it.

    When I finished it, I scoured the internet for A Town Like Alice's, the Michael Bute book that a lot of his information came from. It's hard to find! I'm excited to read it (even though it's been sitting on my shelf for half a year.)

  3. Chris: I think this one's right up your alley! I really had no idea what to expect when I picked it up. But, like you said, what's there not to love?

    Scott: I normally read comics in a single sitting, but with this one I just couldn't. I'd really like to read A Town Like Alice's! I hope I manage to find it.

  4. I keep seeing this and nearly getting it. It is such a beautiful book. I think I will put it on my christmas list, thanks for the review as I don't know anyone else has read it yet.

  5. Rhinoa: It IS a beautiful book. To add it to your Christmas list!

  6. Okay, I have to admit that I've never read a comic. Don't know why, just never have. But that's about to change! This book sounds absolutely fascinating! (And any book that's better read in small bits is a definite plus...since that's the only way I get to read anything these days!) Thanks Nymeth...I'm really, really excited about getting my hands on this. (You know, Amazon really ought to send you a slice of their profits!)

  7. I've been wondering about this one ever since I first saw it advertised in Previews. Great review that has me very intrigued. I'll have to be on the lookout for this one!

  8. Debi, I hate to be tempting you with more challenges, but you really should join Dewey's upcoming Graphic Novels challenge! :P This book would be perfect for it. I know a lot of people who have never read comics either, so you're not alone. I guess sometimes people forget that they are just like other kinds of books: there's a huge variety of them, so there's definitely something for everyone. I'm glad you're going to give them a try, though. I hope you enjoy this one!

    Carl: I think this one is definitely your kind of book!

  9. the artwork is incredible - just the amount of variation and detail! very cool.

  10. Ohhh, I will be definitely checking this one out! I took a class my last year as an undergrad solely focused on Lewis Carroll, so I've read most of his works and a few biographies. Such an interesting and misunderstood man... Fascinating review!!


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