Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Alice in Sunderland

I first came across Bryan Talbot as the author and artist of the Grandville graphic novels, about Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard (who is a badger - one of the influences on the stories is the Rupert Bear Annuals).

Alice in Sunderland is rather different. It starts with the idea that Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell (who was the real Alice in Wonderland) are just as firmly associated with Sunderland and the surrounding area as they are with Oxford. As Bryan Talbot puts forward the evidence for this, based on a book by Michael Bute called A Town Like Alice's, he also tells the story of the Sunderland Empire theatre, which is where the story opens. This is, among other things, the place where Sid James of the Carry On films died on stage during a play, and Sid as a ghost turns up to make comments on the action throughout the book. I'd known about Sid James' death, but not that it had happened there. I was also aware, through a blog about Victorian life I came across some time ago (I think it was Cats Meat Shop), of the disaster in which nearly two hundred children at a Christmas show were killed in a crush caused partly by badly designed doors - and that happened at the Sunderland Empire, too.

But that's only a small portion of what the book contains. It also takes in the entire history of Sunderland back to prehistoric times, including local heroes like Jack Crawford, the Hero of Camperdown (a sailor in Nelson's navy - done in the style of the Boys Own comic). Doctor Who passes through - the first police boxes were made in Sunderland, and the ancient rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle-upon-Tyne is explained.
There are white rabbits, and rabbit holes, and the building of Sunderland docks, and - all human life, almost. He also manages to cover the history of comics, the history of his own house, Jack the Ripper (who never came to Sunderland, as far as anyone knows), the Corn Laws, the legend of the Lambton Worm - and manages to include his own views on fascism and immigration (he's against the first and in favour of the second).
In fact, immigration is something of a theme throughout the book, as he chronicles all the different peoples who have come to Sunderland to settle, all the way from Roman times to the present.

It's the sort of rich mixture that cannot be taken in completely on one reading - and the artwork is fantastic as well, in a variety of styles, including photography.
And one little extra pleasure for me is that the acknowledgements at the end of the book mention someone I know - he consulted Edward Wakeling, who is a renowned expert on Alice, and who comes into the shop where I work regularly.

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