When I was about 9 years old, one of my school Creative Writing assignments was to compose a strange or spooky story. From the moment this was announced by my Year 5 teacher, Mrs Orlovac, I knew I was in my element, having a knack for writing and a wild imagination that had always made me a firm class favourite. (What can I say? I was an irritating suck-up as a child.) At home that evening, I scribbled down a tense and twisty narrative of ghosts and goblins, elves and fairies, drawing on the weird and wonderful elements of favourite childhood stories.
When Mrs Orlovac returned my masterpiece to me, having been marked, I felt a nasty jolt that I hadn’t received another gold star in my best subject. She explained that although the bulk of my story had been the best in the class, the ending had let it down: it is, apparently, a poor story-writing technique and ‘the easy way out’ to end with the main character waking up to find the whole experience has been nothing more than a strange dream. I was stunned. What would happen, I thought with terror, when people realised that The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland – my favourite childhood stories – were no good? Would they be thrown onto the rubbish heap simply because they ended in ‘and it had all been a dream’?
Anecdotes aside, it is my turbulent relationship with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland that piqued my interest Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland – that, and the fact that I have always, always, always wanted to read(?) a graphic novel but have had, previously, no idea where to start. Is it cheating to include what some people see as a ‘glorified comic strip’ in a literary challenge that focuses on ‘novels’? I don’t think so, but I’ll come on to that later.
As the title suggests, this book is set mostly in Sunderland in Tyne and Wear, a county that was formed in 1974 as an amalgamation of districts from bordering counties, such as Northumberland and Durham. In fact, Talbot never allows us to forget the location of his novel, for “we have to know exactly where we are. This is crucial” (9) – at the very beginning he uses several frames of his artwork to create a detailed map of the region, situating Sunderland in the North-East, the North-East in England, England in Europe and, zooming out even further, the Earth in the Universe.
Superficially, the story is concerned with reclaiming Lewis Carroll from Oxford – a city and a university which “jealously guards its ownership” (31) of its successful literary don – to his roots in the North-East, and Sunderland in particular, where, Talbot insists, Alice was created. Already, in the premise, the North-South divide is addressed. However, by way of gathering historical and personal evidence to achieve this feat, Talbot goes several steps further.
Digressions abound in this, Talbot’s very own Divine Comedy of Sunderland. Defining the plot is, in fact, difficult, for there is only a steady stream of fictional and factional details of the city’s religious birth, geological make-up, shipbuilding roots, industrial importance, parliamentary support, famous figures, iconic buildings, varied inhabitants, historic residences, natural wonders, literary characters, friends and enemies…Talbot blends absurdity with truth, myth with reality, histories official and unofficial, to create a written document, an epic, of Sunderland through the ages, to make up for its seeming insignificance in modern England, dilapidated ‘culture vacuum’ as it is now considered to be, cut off from political power. It is the history of a city, “of England in microcosm” (25), with a great deal of imagination thrown in.
Ultimately, Talbot channels Carroll’s “anti-establishment rebelliousness” (227) to criticise right-wing politicians’ exclusion of anyone outside the power-bubble, whether that is Mackems from the north of England (Thatcher sacrificed Sunderland’s shipbuilding station during the economic downturn of 1990, effectively snatching the city’s purpose from under its feet), or foreign immigrants (which, with our Celtic, Saxon and Viking roots, everyone in England can claim to be in some shape or form) who are constantly vilified and made to feel worthless. “The language of the press and opportunistic politicians legitimises prejudice” (295), Talbot argues, and “the extreme right appropriate this [union] flag as an emblem for a small-minded tribal concept of a mythological Britain that has never, nor will ever, exist” (298). If “there’s no such thing as a typical Mackem, just as there’s no typical Londoner or New Yorker” (61) then how can anyone possibly define what ‘typical Britishness’ is? I found myself clinging to this theme in the novel as something I too struggle to understand.
Indeed, by using the image of the flag at the end of 319 pages of intense cultural bombardment, Talbot highlights how ridiculous it is to have one symbol to represent all the different myths, legends, beliefs, facts, individuals, groups, literatures, traditions, and so on, that he has portrayed as part of English heritage, let alone those associated with Scotland or Wales that he has not addressed. He takes issue with a society that can ostracise part of its own, and forces us to question what is real and what we’ve been led to believe by said opportunistic politicians. His moral seems to be that we, British people as a unit, should take pride in what we see around us and appreciate the history of our cities and our country without excluding others from it.
Moving away from the content of Bryan Talbot’s work to concentrate more on how he delivers it, his artwork deserves a whole post of its own. As I said, I am far from a seasoned graphic novel-reader but, even to my untrained eyes, his artwork is phenomenal; this is not a book to be read but experienced. He mixes self-portraits with those of famous people and cultural icons; he blends photographs and newspaper cuttings with outline sketches; he plays with the use of old-fashioned illustrations to accompany the words of Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” and pictures Henry V as a pierced and tattooed thug through mocking the literal meaning of Shakespeare’s famous Harfleur speech; he combines Stone Age, Medieval, Victorian and modern frames on a single page. We, as the audience, are thrown backwards and forwards through time, spiralled down rabbit holes, blasted with vivid images and half-recognised faces so that we too seem to be part of Alice’s dream-world, only one based in Sunderland rather than Wonderland.
One element of his drawings I found particularly clever is the way many of them are crafted to appear unfinished, or shown to be in progress over several frames, as though Bryan Talbot’s story is unravelling faster than he can illustrate it. Despite the weight of history in this work, it is through techniques such as this – as well as always using language in the present tense, even when describing ancient events – that brings an incredible sense of pace to the separate stories and makes the whole thing feel very relevant to the present.
After all this, if we were still inclined to look down of graphic novels as “somehow sub-literate” (194) because of the fact that they contain pictures, Talbot offers an explicit defence of their craftsmanship, comparing comic strips to the colossal Bayeux Tapestry, woven to tell the step-by-step story of the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He encourages respect for the form in a very convincing way; after all, his work “makes you think […] an’ ain’t that what Art’s all about?” (292).
This graphic novel therefore deserves its place in this literary challenge in more ways than one; not only is it an incredible reading experience, but it also has a lot to offer on the subject of Englishness and Britishness, advising us how we can all debunk the myths and celebrate the facts (and vice versa), whilst also maintaining a flexible understanding of ‘truth’ which, after all, depends on individuals’ understanding and should never be taken for granted. That being said, sometimes the sheer detail of the history or geology was a little dry. It is perhaps a shallow comment considering the epic proportions of this book as a whole, but that is the only reason why I haven’t rated it higher than 4/5 stars. It’d be great to get your views on whether you agree or disagree!
Next week I’m reading Paul Torday’s The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall which has been recommended to me for County Durham, so pick up a copy and get reading with me!