Man, I wish I were from Sunderland. I would be so proud to have this beautiful book, this ode to Sunderland; its people; history; geography; its role in shaping Britain and being shaped in turn; and, most notably, its association with Lewis Carroll.
Sadly, I came to this book with only the vaguest awareness of Sunderland being somewhere in the North East. Luckily, there’s plenty in this gem of scholarship, artistry, and enthusiasm to make the reading of it an entirely enjoyable and worthwhile experience, even for those without Mackem roots.
Alice in Sunderland is a lengthy graphic novel (of sorts), fully of postmodern quirks, stylistic shifts, and fourth-wall breaking. Within its pages, the author (Bryan Talbot) takes multiple roles that shift and blur into one another. These avatars interact with each other and with characters (both real and mythical) from the city. Together, they create a complex dialogue about Carroll and Sunderland, explicating, enlightening, and espousing all sorts of obscure theories.
Bryan Talbot has done a lot of reading and synthesising to create this book. Some of the connections he makes seem a little on the tenuous side, and occasionally too much is made of things that are trivial or simple coincidences. Sometimes, too, there’s a sense of fascinating fact overload — after a while some names and dates and locations tend to become indistinguishable. Nonetheless, this is a fascinating book, not just for the light it sheds on its explicit subject matters (Carroll and Sunderland), but also for what we learn about a huge array of other topics on the multitudinous tangents and textual byroads that Talbot takes on the tortuous (but certainly not torturous) path to the book’s conclusion. Interested, as he is, in the medium’s history and its place in culture, one of these tangents consists of a little rant about the differentiation between medium and genre. Not exactly what one would expect from the title, but very much in keeping with the author’s wide-reaching approach…