But then, I'm biased.
I'm bringing a lot of baggage to this review as, more than any review I've ever written, it touches me where I live, literally, as that happens to be Sunderland for most of my 59 years. I'm also a librarian who works in Sunderland City Library and who was able to help Brian Talbot on two or three occasions. I'm also (among other things, none of them relevant here) a big comic fan.
(I thought of using the term `graphic novel', but why should I? Just because the world at large associates the word `comic' with kids doesn't mean I should pander to their ignorance.)
Also, I've never read the novel "Alice in Wonderland", though it's impossible to be ignorant of it.
So what I get from it isn't what a Carrollian scholar would get from it. Let's deal with the comics aspect of it first. Early on Talbot pointedly makes the structure clear (p.55 to be precise) when he talks about time -everything happens now. The narrative (if that's the correct word) slides easily between past and present as he delves into aspects of Sunderland's history and Lewis Carroll's life. He also invokes, much later (p.187), the blessed Scott McCloud who reminds him (Bryan Talbot) that comics can be about anything.
But what is "Alice in Sunderland" about?
Well, in some ways it's about comics itself (not `themselves'). Talbot is displaying the diversity of medium by adopting a variety of styles to illustrate a single story, that of the relationship between the book ("Alice") and the city (Sunderland) -straightforward comic illustration, pastiche, digitally altered photographs, collage and more; often all on the same page. In many ways, this is a triumph of style albeit not over content as both are blended seamlessly.
It's about Bryan Talbot himself. And, no, I'm not going to explain myself, you'll just have to read the damn thing.
It's about history, using Sunderland as metaphor, as a microsm of English history. Sunderland becomes a symbol of England's creativity, of social change, of its industry, its courage, its diversity. And Lewis Carroll and "Alice in Wonderland", though I'm less interested in those aspects.
What it is is an exuberant, often laugh out loud romp that surrealistically blends fact and fiction, realism and surrealism, meticulous historical research and wild speculation into a seamless whole that results in a comic, or graphic novel or story, like no other. This is a wild and crazy and hugely entertaining experiment in storytelling that succeeds on every level.
What I got from it is a love story between Bryan and Sunderland. Page after page is filled with familiar images. (I used to live round the corner from where he lives now. The last page depicts a street I've walked up many times with, unseen, Sunderland Minster to the right.) But what he's done is shown me my city in a new light and made me truly proud of it. Thank you, Bryan.
I just wonder what other people will make of the book.