Alright, so you've seen Alice in Sunderland listed in numerous "Best of 2007" lists, and you're thinking, "What's so bleedin' special about this dang book anyway?" Well, I've finished the copy I got for Christmas, and I'm here to give you the skinny.
To start with, the book is NOT, as the title suggests, about the significance of Sunderland in the creation of Lewis Carroll's Alice books. Nor is it about Sunderland generally, or the Alice stories generally, or Lewis Carroll generally. Oh, don't get me wrong, there is PLENTY of information about all of that -- certainly more than in just about every other book specifically talking to any of those subjects -- but that's not what Alice in Sunderland is about. The book is about storytelling. Not just storytelling in comics and movies and novels, but storytelling in all its forms. How myths and legends begin, and how they evolve, and how they can be accepted as truth.
Superficially, a Punter heads into the Empire Theatre to watch the Performer talk about and show films describing how important Sunderland was to Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, and how the Alice books are in fact filled with references to Sunderland and it's inhabitants. The films shown provide a great deal of historical background and are hosted/narrated by a Pilgrim. (The Punter, Performer, and Pilgrim are all manifestations of author Bryan Talbot, by the way. Talbot also makes a few appearances as himself throughout the book in metatextual cameos.)
The 300+ pages are crammed with information, much of which is only tangentally related to the "real" story. Matt K noted here a few days ago some agitation on his part with number of times Talbot pulled a "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" to provide something approaching relevance for what otherwise might cause readers to question its inclusion. Personally, I rather enjoyed that aspect, though largely because I've had an interest in Lewis Carroll for many years and those almost random-seeming tangents were the only new pieces of factual information for me.
Talbot does do, I think, a very effective job in providing all of this information. There is so much, running on so many different levels, that trying to organize it all in a straightforward, logical manner for readers would be nearly impossible. Talbot seemed to recognize this and play that up with some decidedly non-linear storytelling. Which also works to the notion of following in Carroll's footsteps, and providing a sense of dreaming or something apart from reality. For those concerned, though, Talbot's language throughout the book is simple and easy-to-follow, which aids readers from getting too confused by the sidebars.
What I found really striking throughout the book, though, was the art. He meshes typical comic book line drawings with scans of old artwork and photographs, as well as modified photographs to great effect. He also adopts various styles of illustration -- occasionally even getting other artists to assist him -- to emphasize differences in how the content should be interpreted. Likewise, there's no adherence to a strict layout; some pages have "traditional" comic book gutters between panels, others feel more like collage. Strangely, though, these different artistic approaches -- like the tangental content itself -- seem to largely blend together. While it's certainly noticeable when Talbot changes styles, it's not disruptive to the overall flow. It's clearest here, I think, that Talbot is a consummate storyteller and knows well how to work in the sequential art format.
Beyond all that, though, the book is charming and sincere. Talbot doesn't hold himself up as a true authority on any subject he covers in the book, and admits his owns errors and lapses with self-doubt within the context of the book almost regularly. Despite casting himself as all of the primary characters, it comes across as a commentary on he speaks/debates with himself and not a result of ego. (Though, it must be said somewhat ironically, the Punter, Performer and Pilgrim could easily be seen as manifestations of Talbot's Id, Ego, and Super-Ego.)
Alice in Sunderland does not have a typical plot, which would be easily explainable. It does not have a real protagonist or antagonist. There're no spandex-clad superheroes, no aliens, no superheroines with gravitationally-challenged breasts. It does have excellent storytelling, excellent artwork, a wealth of information, and a generally insightful message. Well worth the price of admission in my book.