The Pilgrim’s Progress
Eminent British comics writer and illustrator Bryan Talbot talks to Miles Fielder about how he merged surrealism, serendipity and Sunderland
North of England born and bred comics creator Bryan Talbot is credited with writing and illustrating the very first British graphic novel. The Adventures of Luther Arkwright is a science fantasy epic initially serialised in 1978 and first collected in book form in 1982. With an impressive career that spans British underground ‘comix’, the nation’s most commercially successful comic, 2000AD, and stints on DC Comics titles Hellblazer and Sandman, Talbot’s new graphic novel is something completely different.
Alice in Sunderland is a mammoth undertaking, examining in minute detail the history of the once great shipbuilding port and the life of Lewis Carroll, creator of Alice in Wonderland. It’s a multi-narrative, multi-media endeavour that also celebrates the nature of storytelling and how history and myth are formed and is as innovatively illustrated as anything we’ve seen in the medium to date, using various cartooning styles, painting, photo montage and archival documentation.
But why Alice and why Sunderland? ‘Basically, ‘cos I moved here,’ Talbot says down the line from Tyne and Wear, where the 55-year-old Wigan-born illustrator now lives. ‘And for 20 years I’ve been wanting to do something about Alice. The second comic I had published, Brainstorm Comix #2 in 1976, was an homage to Through the Looking Glass. I moved to Sunderland because my wife’s an academic and she got a job here, and I discovered the place has all these links to Lewis Carroll.’ These are detailed at length in the 320-page book, which, intriguingly and convincingly, argues the case for a conspiracy hatched by the academics at Oxford (where Carroll aka Charles Dodgson was a resident scholar) to maintain the myth that the Alice stories were conceived there and not in and around Sunderland. The narrative unfolds as a tour of the city, conducted by Talbot’s alter ego, the Pilgrim, and as a theatre show in which the author appears as Performer on the stage and Plebeian sitting in the stalls.
‘I’d also had the idea of using a theatrical performance as a frame for the story,’ Talbot says. ‘I’d only been in town for a few weeks and we went to the Sunderland Empire, a wonderful Edwardian palace of varieties. I thought: ‘Here’s the setting.’ And it’s really about storytelling. It’s presented as an imagined picture of Sunderland as I wasn’t interested in doing a realistic version. I was trying to do with pictures what prose writers do with words; what Peter Ackroyd does in his novels with London. Because comics use a combination of words and pictures, the medium’s very good at putting across a lot of complex information in a very simple and direct way.’
It took Talbot four years to complete Alice in Sunderland and Talbot’s next project is a book of anecdotes about comic creators entitled The Naked Artist. By way of example, Talbot launches into a story about the horror of finding himself sitting on a train with a madman who also happened to be his greatest fan. But that’s another story . . .
Alice in Sunderland is published by Jonathan Cape on Thu 5 Apr.