[This review comes from Loki Carbis, an Australian pop culture junkie, who cannot resist a good graphic novel. He lives at The Centre Cannot Hold on the web, and in his own imagination, among others.]
Somewhere right about the middle of Alice in Sunderland, Bryan Talbot shows himself beginning to lose faith in the project. It's large and complex and may not have an audience.
But then Scott McCloud appears to him in a vision, and reminds him that comics can be about anything. Reassured, Talbot continues to work on this comic which is not so much about anything, as about everything.
It's a fascinating work, one of the most ambitious things attempted in comics format since From Hell by a writer, and no less ambitious on the art side. Talbot blends photographs, woodcuts, and a range of other artworks along with his own drawing. It sounds like it shouldn't work, but Talbot pulls it off remarkably well, creating something that is part Kirby-collage, part J.H.Williams on Promethea, part something else entirely, and wholly Talbot's own. On one level, the book is a tribute to the possibilities opened to the comic form by Photoshop and other such digital manipulation. But if that's the only reason you're reading it, you've missed the point.
Quite simply, Alice in Sunderland is a tour de force. A sort of documentary in comic form, it investigates the life of Arthur Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll); the creation, plot and symbolism of Alice in Wonderland; Dodgon's relations with the real Alice's family; and in more general terms, the history of Sunderland and its place as a centre of art in the United Kingdom. Along the way, it shoots down more than one aspect of the legend of Lewis Carroll, leaving a more balanced portrait of the man and his art.
The book is largely told in first person by Talbot, who – in a variety of guises – leads the reader through all of these things in a wildly discursive monologue (or ocasionally a dialogue, when another living person appears), without ever losing sight of his intentions for the narrative. In the end, you're left with the impression that there's neither a word nor an image out of place. The book is both a serious work of history and an elaborate conjuror's trick, and very frequently both at once.
Alice in Sunderland is only available as a coffee table sized hardcover, its pages made from thick, high quality paper and printed in a kaleidoscopic range of colours. It's a little more expensive than most other graphic novels, but it's worth every cent.