Alice in Sunderland: the weirdest graphic novel I've ever enjoyed

Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland is probably the single weirdest graphic novel I've ever enjoyed (there's weirder stuff out there, but it overshoots enjoyability). Talbot is a "Mackem" from the Sunderland region of England, and he is thoroughly steeped in the rich lore and history of the region, stretching all the way back to prehistory. He is also a giant, galluphing Alice in Wonderland nut (as am I), as well as an accomplished (near-legendary) comics creator. Alice in Sunderland is a skillful weaving-together of these disparate threads into a sprawling, meandering non-narrative about, well, Sunderland. And Alice. And Bryan Talbot.

Imagine sitting in a park in Sunderland, looking out at the ocean, and being approached by a guy who knows, basically, everything, and whose prodigious imagination enables him to draw connections between any two subjects, transitioning from Alice to the Crusades to JFK in just a few sprightly (if somewhat drunken) steps. That's the structure of Alice in Sunderland — a cobbeldy-wobbledy folk-tale/docent tour of several subjects that Talbot is absolutely obsessed with.

Like Alice in Wonderland, the structure of Talbot's book is dreamlike, with a "and this happened, then that happened" feeling, that nevertheless all seems to be part of a terribly urgent thesis that the author is trying earnestly to impart. Talbot half-seriously hints at a shadowy conspiracy to suppress the role of Sunderland and the Mackems in history — especially in the history of Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll. He repeatedly punctures the romantic story of Carroll composing Alice extemporaneously on a golden afternoon in a rowboat — and gets good licks in on several other Alice myths, including Carroll's purported pedophilia, Alice's mother's suspicion of him, and his shy, retiring nature.

The visuals in Alice in Sunderland are something else altogether. Talbot's book is a scrapbook of thousands of images sourced from every imaginable site — photos, tapestries, cartoons, posters, books, maps, brochures — strung together around a loose story about Talbot himself, addressing an impatient Mackem from the stage of a grand Victorian Vaudeville house. The look-and-feel of this book is somewhere between a madman's collage and a genius's towering remix.

This is not only the weirdest graphic novel I've ever enjoyed — it's also the most ambitious. Talbot's doing things here that I've never seen done before, and he's doing all of it, all at once.


See also: Alice in Sunderland review mashes up comic