The One Man Show
Now here, my friends, is a book for which too much is never quite enough.
On one level, that won’t come as too much of a surprise to seasoned readers of writer/artist Bryan Talbot, certainly not those who picked up the official Luther Arkwright cd-rom just for the pleasure of plowing through all 60,000+ words of annotations for Heart of Empire - Talbot is undoubtedly an extremely well-read, studiously thorough creator, and he’s not shy about kneading so much of his research into his books that they seem ready to pop and spatter factoids and correlations. Who can forget the endless litany of alternate history updates that filled the panel gutters in The Adventures of Luther Arkwright? You find the best things in the gutter sometimes.
I don’t know what Luther Arkwright fans will make of this one. Same goes for admirers of Talbot’s far gentler, Beatrix Potter-infused The Tale of One Bad Rat. I imagine some of them will be bored out of their skulls. Others will be merely puzzled. And some of that will be a symptom of marketing - I really don’t think it’s been made all that clear what this book actually is, certainly not by US publisher Dark Horse. They’ve put out a very fine-looking edition, at the enormously reasonable price of $29.95 for an oversized hardcover 328-page graphic novel in full-color. But what the hell’s in those pages?
Alice in Sunderland is, fundamentally, a playful comics-format treatise on the English region of Sunderland, and the lives of author Lewis Carroll and child muse Alice Liddell, and whatever things circling or tangentially connecting to those topics happen to wander into Talbot’s mind. The book's historical scope stretches back to three hundred million years ago, and leaps forward to incorporate bits of recent history that happened to spring up over the course of the story’s creation. It affects the manner of improvisation, as if Talbot is simply sewing facts together as he goes along -- despite well over half a decade’s work having gone into the tome -- yet when at the end he confesses that he’s simply forgotten about a plot strand he’d incorporated back at the beginning and now has no way to resolve it, you somehow believe him.
The prevailing tone is that of an emphatic, if disorganized lecture, prone to occasional restatement, and packed with non-linear darting from date to date and tangents that constantly threaten to seize total control of the book. I do believe the book was originally meant to be serialized, and it does have a few pages that seem like logical chapter breaks, although there are no chapters in the book itself. It is the very incarnation of ‘unruly,’ though some might favor ‘self-indulgent’ or ‘in tragic need of editing.’
But then there is the execution, which constantly seems to act as an inoculation against such claims. Pay attention now.
The book is structured as a variety show performance being held at the (actual) Sunderland Empire, a famed theatre. The lead performer, who is actually called the Performer, is Talbot himself. He’s performing before an audience of exactly one, the Plebian, who is also Talbot himself (oh, something tells me the author has anticipated charges of self-indulgence!). All of these bits are done in b&w line art, but the vast majority of the book is accomplished through digital collage, mixing up a vast array of photographs, period items, original color and b&w drawings, vintage art pieces of every style and form, and all manner of other appropriate things, the whole then plastered with words delivered straight to the reader (and Talbot-the-audience) by either the Performer or his history-traveling alter ego, the Pilgrim (yes, also Talbot again). The result in an extremely dense read, a varied one, a long one -- if you’re itching for a comics purchase that will give you hours and hours of reading, this will be a solid choice -- and an occasionally taxing one, even for someone like me who’s copasetic with the subject matter.
And that’s yet another thing that Talbot is keenly aware of, as his ‘show’ is constantly interrupted by all sorts of problems, from his audience falling asleep or talking on the cell phone, to the recurring presence of the lecherous ghost of British character actor and comedian Sidney James (who literally died onstage at the Empire in 1976), to pervading moments of self-reflection and autobiography. Talbot gets wistful about growing old, and sews in threads about his beloved grandmother and his home. He relates little stories relating to his time in comics -- did you know a 'Mr. Arkwright' was present as both a gift-giver at Alice Liddell's wedding and a wreath-layer Lewis Carroll's funeral? -- and introduces several of his friends and research collaborators into the book as characters.
At one point, on page 182, the comic slams to a halt as Talbot wakes up in his bed at home, having apparently dreamed everything gone before, and proceeds to have a fumetti-style attack of the nerves as he agonizes about spending years of his life on this comic, only to be soothed by the sudden appearance of Scott McCloud’s visual avatar from Understanding Comics (obviously a keen influence on this book). Other portions delve into outright formal analysis - there's an absorbing stretch of six pages where Talbot (literally) breaks down a pair of prints by William Hogarth, splitting depicted events into panels, drawing out visual guidelines, and pointing out symbols and tiny bits of telling detail. How in hell the book has gotten to that place is beside the point.
Needless to say, things get very self-referential - the opening pages see the book evolve from thumbnails to pencil roughs to inks, as sure a sign of interrogation of the form creeping in wait as any. Talbot also occasionally shifts his storytelling to mimic popular styles of comics throughout the years - there’s the requisite EC horror homage, a little tribute to Hergé’s clear line, and evocations of Viz and The Beano (including a special guest page scripted by veteran cartoonist Leo Baxendale). The real showstopper among these pieces is an 18-page recounting of the Legend of the Lambton Worm, gorgeously rendered in full-blown two-fisted rip-snorting b&w action style, yet subtly reconfigured into a parable of yearning for secure boundaries between good and evil in a gray human world, and the sad implications of reliance on such mythic clarities. There’s no doubt that Talbot has lost little of his aptitude for fantastic drama or sly critique, and the story’s positioning near the final stretch of the book seems primed to perk the reader up for the remainder of Talbot’s lecture.
So what of the lecture itself? What of the grand effect? The book as a whole often seems inclined toward a sort of psychogeography, Iain Sinclair by way of Alan Moore, though Talbot’s scope is far too sprawling and his vision not quite acute enough for much of that impact to hold. Rather, Talbot seems to cherish his selected concept of himself as host, entertainer, and audience, and proceeds to toss all sorts of stuff around for the amusement and fascination of… certainly himself, and presumably the reading audience who are constantly placed in the position of seeing through Talbot-the-audience’s eyes. Bits of the saga do prove enamoring, even moving, especially when Talbot manages to fix himself on the wistful particulars of Alice's and Carroll's lives; a clear theme of human life's briefness before the swell of time emerges, and Talbot does a decent job of carrying that across, perhaps because it's the sort of thing that'll most likely benefit from a rambling, free-associative more-more-more presentation.
And there is much room for novelty and interest in that, as Talbot in endlessly self-aware and good-humored, and compellingly willing to knock down any boundary separating the act of comics storytelling from the creation of the story itself, always shattering chronology and scenery and the security of the ‘narrator’ and whatever expectations might be present. There’s even a great fake ending, with Talbot clutching the flag and delivering an impassioned ‘moral’ to the story about how we’re all brothers and sisters in this crazy world, followed by a second fake ending, involving dragons and fireworks and song and dance and music hall star George Formby, followed by the real ending, which cheerfully puts everything in its proper perspective.
Yet Alice in Sunderland is so loose and wide-ranging, so uncompromising in its pursuit of fresh connections between historical figures (by the end it seems everyone in British history has had some sort of bond with the Liddell family) and cross-references with this and that and therefore, it's almost inevitable that the reader feels suffocated under a mound of stuff. Talbot's fevered correlations are impressive, and intoxicating at times, but they are also just as distancing as one might expect from a book so stacked with looking glass games of how it and its author are composed. With some self-focused books, the reader can be drawn in with the author's own reflections, and gain a deeper understanding. With Talbot's, you can look on in wonder and admiration, but always as seated in the audience, the author alone on stage with his chess pieces and addressing himself out beyond the pit.
There's nothing fatal about that. This is a unique book, a sometimes dazzling one, so long as you know what you're getting into. And do know you're going down Talbot's rabbit hole, and his Wonderland obeys only his capricious rules. You merely see the cake marked Eat Me, and await whatever conclusion.