Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Alice In Sunderland - a diversion

While I'm mostly going to be talking on this blog about comics that are nothing more than disposable entertainment (NB - this is not a bad thing - an entertaining comic is a rare and precious joy these days) , I do also have a love of the comics form as an art-form, as well as a vehicle for delivery of superhero punch-ups, and I will do occasional posts, like this one, on comics that I think count as 'art'.

One of the most heartening things about the comics medium recently is that for the last few years there have been actual masterpieces being produced with quite astonishing regularity. This is not to say that the medium as a whole is in great shape - most superhero comics now are worse than they ever were, while many independent comics are just dull people talking about their dull lives, desperately promoted by The Comics Journal as art because the 'cartoonists' in question know who Elzie Segar is and don't like superheroes.

But the best stuff being produced in the medium is as good as anything in any medium, and if one were to look only at the cream, it would appear that we were in the midst of a true golden age in comics.

Last year, for example, saw the publication of Lost Girls, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's beautiful erotic work; the collection of A Disease Of Language, Eddie Campbell's adaptations of Moore's spoken word pieces; Campbell's The Fate Of The Artist, a fascinating essay in fictionalised autobiography; and Grant Morrison's astonishing Seven Soldiers, which may be the best superhero comic ever created. This along with a few works (Fun Home, American Born Chinese and Can't Get No for example) which I've not yet read but am assured are as good as those works. All these works are masterpieces in every sense of the word - complex, assured, intelligent, thought-provoking, formally innovative, moving and entertaining. At least one of them literally changed my life. When works like this are being created on a regular basis, there is no longer any need for the self-justification that still afflicts so many people when writing about comics.

The first definite masterpiece to have come to my attention this year is Bryan Talbot's Alice In Sunderland. I'm shamefully unfamilliar with Talbot's work other than the issues of Sandman he worked on (yes, I know, Luther Arkwright, seminal work in British comics history, just like Moorcock but better, taught Alan Moore everything he knew, etc. I'll get around to it soon...) but picked this up partly because of Talbot's reputation and partly because of the reviews it's been picking up around the blogosphere.

People have been saying it's the greatest graphic novel ever, and while it's not (Jaka's Story by Dave Sim and Gerhard is, and I'll fight anyone who says otherwise) it is certainly a contender for the top ten.

Alice In Sunderland is a discursive essay on a variety of subjects. It is 'about' Lewis Carroll and the history of the town of Sunderland, but these are just the hooks (albeit interesting ones) on which Talbot hangs his thoughts on a huge number of subjects.

This kind of gentle, meandering discourse, going off at a number of seeming tangents (while in fact being very tightly structured), is something that nonfiction comics are particularly suited to (I attempted it myself in my Dumb Angel project, which I still hope to finish one day...) , and one that seems to be increasingly popular - a couple of the works I mentioned above work this way. Let's hope we see more of these type of comics and fewer black and white stories about the epiphany of everyday life...

This review , done in the style of the comic itself, has been linked to by almost everyone, and with good reason - not only is it well done, it also sums up the critical consensus on the comic pretty precisely. Many people's first point of reference when talking about this book has been Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics (and its sequels Reinventing Comics and Making Comics), primarily because both share the device of a cartoon avatar of the comic's creator narrating the story to the audience (a similarity Talbot acknowledges in the comic itself with the appearance of "The Venerable Scott McComics-Expert!"). For this reason the relatively brief digressions into the history of comics (which pretty much follow the McCloud party line, actually) have been picked up on by several reviewers as one of the more important threads.

In fact, as Steve Flanagan's review linked above does note, the comic owes at least as much to the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd. What it reminded me of more than anything is Eddie Campbell's adaptations of Alan Moore's spoken-word pieces collected in A Disease Of Language. The use of the history of a small area as a microcosm of the history of civilisation, connecting that area to the lives of artists and the symbols those artists used, and then using that to state bigger, more general truths about the world, while using a collage of traditional art, found illustration, photography and computer manipulation to illustrate and comment on the text - in form (and in some of the examples chosen - Rosetti, Jack The Ripper, Washington's roots in the UK - in content too) this is almost identical to Moore and Campbell's work.

This is not to say, incidentally, that Talbot is consciously or otherwise copying this style from their work (though it would not make his comic any less of an acheivement if he were) - Talbot is an acknowledged influence on almost every comic creator to come from the UK and I'm not familliar enough with his stuff to know what elements in Moore and Campbell's work originated with him. I'm merely pointing it out as the most obvious frame of reference/point of comparison.

Talbot's work, of course, differs from Moore and Campbell's to a great extent. He is neither as good a writer as Moore nor as innovative an artist as Campbell. However, as he is both writer and artist, he is able to integrate the art much more tightly with the writing, making the art less of a commentary on the previously-existing text.

Talbot also has a much larger canvas to work on. At 320 pages, he can afford to take several pages to tell stories that appear at first to be peripheral to his larger points. He does comics adaptations of the story of the Lambton Worm, the Hartlepool Monkey, sections of Henry V, Jabberwocky, and gives over a page to veteran British kids' comic artist Leo Baxendale (leading to the credit "Additional material by Lewis Carroll, Leo Baxendale and Bill Shakespeare").

But all this is in service of a larger point, and it's one that can possibly best be summed up by the line "All we are, and all we seem/Is just a dream within a dream".

Early on in the proceedings, Talbot explains the Runyonesque present-tense narrative, showing a diagram of a light-cone, and saying

"Chronons, particles of time, each instant linked to the next, flow through the eternal present. The future and the past already exist and time is just an illusion caused by our limited perception. At least that' my understanding of the theory. I may be wrong but who cares? I couldn't give a rat's ass. What's absolutely certain is... History is happening right now. See... Right now I'm writing the script, typing these words. Right now, many months later, I'm drawing this picture to accompany them."

Reading the comic, I was struck a number of times by apparent synchronicities between throwaway details and my own experiences. For example, my songwriting partner Tilt and I do a semi-regular podcast, The National Pepcast . We have recently featured both the song "I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside" and a parody of the introduction to the old Shadow radio series. Both these feature briefly in the comic. More strangely for me though, I was unaware of the existence of George Formby Sr until Tilt played one of his recordings on a recent podcast. He, along with his more famous son, is one of the major figures cropping up in Alice (including a wonderful story - apparently Formby Sr had terrible tuberculosis, which he made part of his act, including his much-loved catchphrase "Ee, I'm coughin' summat champion toneet!").

There were a number of other fairly spooky coincidences in there, but of course I only noticed these because I'd been primed to by Talbot's stuff about time. Which is rather the point.

"Point of view is always something I consider with my work. Often I create three-dimensional images that are only visible if the viewer is standing in a specific place." - Colin Wilburn, quoted in Alice In Sunderland

Because what Alice In Sunderland is really concerned with is ideas. Why some ideas stick with us and others disappear. Why we remember Jack The Ripper but not Mary Ann Cotton, why Lewis Carroll chose that story told on that boat ride as the basis on which to hang all the ideas he'd had.

The thesis of the comic, never explicitly stated but very definitely there, is that we are all ideas. Talbot questions the very idea of the self - showing himself playing multiple parts at the same time, with different viewpoints. Rather than one individual, we are the product of a myriad different ideas from throughout history, and those ideas are still 'alive' as long as they affect our thoughts.

Very early on, Talbot tries to make us question everything we're reading, by telling us that one of the stories he tells will be made up. In a neat reversal of F For Fake, he later reveals that none of them were false - that he'd researched them all and they were all true. But he's made us doubt everything, and that's important. (In fact, at least one part of the comic is wrong. Talbot says "John Lennon dreams of his own murder. He documents it in the song #9 Dream". In fact, Lennon (a recurring character in the comic, due to his obsession with Alice) stated himself in an interview with David Scheff shortly before his death that #9 Dream wasn't a record of a real dream, but just something he made up out of whole cloth).

This is why the part at the end, whose relevance many have questioned, about tabloid hysteria whipping up hatred of immigrants, and about national identity, is absolutely relevant. Throughout the comic Talbot is telling us that the stories that last do because some people have chosen them to last, that people manipulate the truth to serve their own agendas, and that we must look very carefully at the sources of our assumptions, at our myths and the truth behind them.

The myth of the scrounging immigrant taking 'our' benefit money/council houses/women from the proud British race is a myth as much as that of the Lambton worm, or Sid James' cockney background, or Lewis Carroll's ascetic, shy, celibate clerical life. And like all those myths, you should look at who is promoting the myth, and what they stand to get from it, before letting it affect your life.

I can't myself vote in the council elections on Thursday in the UK due to a cock-up with my registration, but I've been campaigning and I urge any of you who can vote to do so. While I have no love at all for the current government, dissatisfaction with them may well lead to gains for the odious British National Party. Please, go out and vote for any candidate who you believe stands for an inclusive, open view of Britain, one that is not scared of people who wear veils, or who like to do things with people whose genitals are simillarly shaped to theirs, or of people who have a different coloured skin than yours.

Ideas live or die based on the people who promote them, and the idea of openness and tolerance is one that can quickly die off if it's not promoted. Do the right thing.

1 comment:

C.S. Barrios said...

Bob Shell - mentioned in the original Cosmic Trigger and facing serious charges in Southwestern Virginia - posted this on the web:

Looks like I have been "outed". As head of the O.T.O., I carry on, of course, the sacred obligations of the Templars and the Priory of Sion. Alternative history can be real, after all.

"Alice" is the false name used by one of the evil ones who seek to put out the light and plunge all humanity back into the darkness.