Despite its droll title, Alice in Sunderland is not some slight cartoon parody of Lewis Carroll's famous tale. Among other things, it is a fresh retelling in the graphic novel form of the surprisingly interwoven stories of Carroll and his young muse, and of the city of Sunderland.
Shortly after the Wigan-born comics artist Bryan Talbot moved there, he became intrigued by the researches of local historian Michael Bute into Sunderland's links with Carroll - links which in Bute's and Talbot's view have been overshadowed by Oxford's claim on him. Equally intriguing are the area's close connections to the real Alice and her family, the Liddells. The more Talbot enquired, buoyed by Bute's further discoveries, the more complex and compelling his tapestry became.
Shrewdly, Talbot avoids turning this minefield of information into a worthy "educational" comic. Instead, he subtitles the book "an entertainment" and delivers this by structuring it as a highly theatrical performance on paper. On the front cover we follow a wide- eyed Alice into the plush, deep-red auditorium of the Sunderland Empire. Turning inside, we find a safety curtain fills both endpapers, ready to rise, while on the title page a weathered playbill trumpets the variety show to come. The whole production unfolds, freewheeling and wide-ranging, across 318 colour pages, with an intermission, a visit backstage, two finales and "numerous diversions and digressions".
The three principal actors are all personifications of Talbot. First in order of appearance, from Talbot's rough sketch through pencilled composition to finished drawing, is The Plebeian - plump, unshaven, surly, in leather jacket and jeans, impossible to impress, typical of the Empire's tough audience. Next, stepping through the curtain in a rabbit mask, is The Performer, an ageing classical actor in billowing white shirt, self-important, hammy, uptight. He is our master of ceremonies and joint narrator, mainly stage-bound but able to adopt assorted disguises such as Woody Allen, Sherlock Holmes or Groucho Marx.
The third cast member is The Pilgrim, or the writer-artist Bryan Talbot, creating the book we are reading and playing its other narrator. He is more free to stroll around Sunderland, once the world's biggest shipbuilding port, and far and wide through our past and present, meeting people real and imaginary from Her Majesty the Queen and George Formby to the Mad Hatter and Humpty Dumpty.
The comics medium seems ideally suited to this project of presenting both the passage and simultaneity of time. Unlike the flickerings of film, comics can fix panel after panel of different moments to be read, re-read and related to each other. Apply this to a whole book, and you have a way to convey these various interrelated histories as they ebb and flow through time.
On many pages, Talbot also experiments with a different, less rigid approach to the usual grids of panels. …