Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment is a semi-historical account of Sunderland, England. In this nonlinear graphic novel, Talbot explores the relationship between Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s (1832-1898)fictional world of Wonderland and the real-life city of Sunderland by merging fiction, reality, and rumor. Dodgson is more commonly known as Lewis Carroll and, according to Talbot, spent much time in Sunderland- the apparent birthplace and inspiration for Carroll’s iconic masterpiece: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Published in 2007 by Dark Horse Comics, Alice in Sunderland features an illustrated version of Bryan Talbot as a tour guide who navigates the reader through moments in Carroll’s life, his fiction, British history, and important events in Sunderland. Though not completely academic or historic,Alice in Sunderland occasionally features supposition and inference in its depiction of certain events. The merging of reality and fiction is not exclusive to the plot of Alice in Sunderland, the visuals also follow this style. Talbot combines reprinted images from Carroll’s work, photographs of Sunderland, and illustrations interconnected with research, speculation, and thoughtful questions. The result is a mixed-media humorous journey through which the reader becomes more familiar with the understated city of Sunderland.
Similar to its namesake, Alice in Sunderland focuses on the fantastic, and is rich with theatricality- at times even literally. The graphic novel is framed by two interactions with the Sunderland Empire Theatre (an actual building) which blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, but does provide what the author’s tagline promises: entertainment. Much like how Carroll’s Wonderland plays with the concept of reality- so does Talbot’s graphic journey. Alice in Sunderland begins as a performance of sorts, with Talbot as both lecturer and participant. Then Talbot departs the physical realm of reality and takes a journey through time, talking with influential figures as both character and narrator. At one point, comic scholar Scott McCloud makes an appearance (as Scott McComics) to discuss comic theory with Talbot’s fictional doppelgänger. Thus, Alice in Sunderland experiments with both reality and genre. It contains elements of both fiction and nonfiction along with parody, fantasy, and even a musical number.
Though the main focus of Alice in Sunderland revolves around Lewis Carroll’s association with the city, the work is expansive and not limited to that small lens. The graphic novel acts as a love letter to the city of Sunderland, inciting readers to come and experience the place firsthand. Since Talbot’s themes revolve around acquiring knowledge, the questions of reality that permeate Alice in Sunderland can only be answered through firsthand experience.
— Michael Baker