Ross Robertson talks to the man who has created a graphic novel detailing Alice's links with Wearside
THE surreal subterranean world of Alice in Wonderland is only slightly more intriguing than Bryan Talbot's basement studio in the quiet, leafy street in Sunderland.
From his easel, Bryan, 52, one of the world's most famous graphic novelists, has brought to life some of the biggest names in comics, including Batman and Judge Dredd – as well as many of his own characters and stories.
But since he moved to St Bede's Terrace, Sunderland, from Preston in the 1990s, much of Bryan's time has been taken up with one of his biggest obsessions – his fascination with the history of Wearside and, in particular, its links with Alice in Wonderland.
His book, Alice in Sunderland, due out in April, is a sprawling exploration of the history of the city, featuring a cast of thousands of historical figures which Bryan, appearing as a character, meets as he explores the topic.
"I was really impressed by the incredibly rich history of Sunderland. It goes back to Roman times, then you get to the Dark Ages and the Venerable Bede. The place just a mile away from here was the cradle of the English nation and the term and concept of Englishness – it's incredible," he said.
But it is Lewis Carrol's visits to Wearside and the area's inspiration for the legendary story of Alice in Wonderland that was the biggest draw for Bryan.
"For about 20 years I wanted to do something around Alice, and when I moved here with my wife nine years ago I discovered Sunderland has all these links with Alice and Lewis Carrol – and that was the start point," he said.
"I'd also had an idea for a while to do a comic that's like a theatrical performance.
"And again, I'd been here for about two months and I went to the Sunderland Empire to see something and there's this wonderful Edwardian palace of varieties and I thought: 'Well, here's the setting.'"
"So the two things just came together."
The book has taken Bryan almost six years to write and draw, with a list of source books stretching across two pages of small-print and each page painstakingly crafted.
"Rather than asking how many pages I do in a day, it's more like how many days it takes me to do a page.
"I know a lot of pages are done on computer and a lot of people think that must make it quicker.
"But I find it's the opposite, because with a computer you can go right in in detail so you can find yourself spending hours cleaning up little bits of pixels here and there which no one's ever going to see when it's printed," he said.
"To do a graphic novel you've really got to be obsessed about something while you're working on it.
"I'm not obsessive in other aspects of my life, but when it comes to the books I really obsess about them.
"I keep saying it's like doing a PhD. I was researching it for several years before I started writing the actual book."
Alice in Sunderland will be a magnet for Sunderland's numerous history fanatics, Alice in Wonderland buffs and Bryan's thousands of fans around the world.
But the writer said that, above all, his main aim with the book was to be entertaining, enjoyable and funny.
"The subtitle on the front is 'an entertainment' and I think that's what I was trying to do, to create an imaginative and enjoyable read.
"And because it's set in a palace of varieties it's like a variety show, so that the different styles on the drawings and the differences of the comic story telling techniques changes according to the themes of the story.
"It's not an academic book – it's a really fun book. Parts of it are really funny.
"It's all based around a theatrical performance – there's even an interval in the middle where you can go to the bar and a big finale at the end."
As well as the historical characters such as the Venerable Bede and, of course, Lewis Carroll, more modern figures, including Chris Mullin MP and former Echo journalist Patrick Lavelle, shows his interest in Sunderland present as well as Sunderland past.
Bryan said: "I think Sunderland's at an interesting point. It's at a point where it's really starting to regenerate after the old industries have died and the new ones are building up again."
Sunderland's 'links' with Wonderland
COULD Spotty's Hole at Roker be the inspiration for the underground setting of Alice in Wonderland – or could it have been Alice's Well at Cox Green?
And while we're at it, was the white rabbit (always running late) inspired by the wildlife of Bunny Hill, which, in Carroll's time, was teeming with rabbits?
There are many apparently obvious possibilities for how Wearside inspired Lewis Carroll's literary masterpiece.
"There's this Oxford myth that he was an Oxford don and spent all his life there and never wrote anywhere else. But it's a complete myth," said Mr Talbot.
"He had vacations that used to last half the year and for many, many years he used to spend half his vacations between his family home on the borders of County Durham and Yorkshire, and Whitburn, where his uncle and cousins lived."
He added: "Jabberwocky, the most famous nonsense poem in the English language, was written in a family verse-making game at Whitburn."
Other links to the city include the coats' of arms on the front of Hylton Castle being the inspiration for the chess game and the Lambton Worm being the true identity of the jabberwocky.
Even the title of Alice in Wonderland is thought to be a play on the word Sunderland.
One of the most popular legends is that the Walrus and the Carpenter poem was set on Seaburn beach and the characters were based on Carroll's encounters in Sunderland.
And Mr Talbot agrees.
"There are two different legends there. One is that he met a carpenter on Whitburn beach and they sat down and had a chat," he said.
"The other is that the museum is where Lewis Carroll saw his first walrus – there is a stuffed walrus there and there's a statue in Mowbray Park of the walrus."
Some critics of the walrus theory say it was not possible that this is where Carroll got his inspiration from, as it was not donated to the museum until after the book was written.
But Mr Talbot thinks differently.
"The thing is, it was the first walrus that Carroll actually saw. It was not donated to the museum until after he wrote Alice in Wonderland, which has the walrus and the carpenter in it.
"But his uncle was the customs officer at the port and was friends with Captain Joseph Wiggins, who was the guy that brought the walrus from Siberia in the first place.
"So it is quite likely that Lewis Carroll would have seen it in his warehouse before it was donated to the museum.
"Captain Wiggins had storage facilities right next to Carroll's uncle's office."
He added: "I also think it's quite likely he developed the name 'Wonderland' from 'Sunderland.' He used to love word play and plays on words.
"It's not a great stretch of the imagination that he developed the title of the book from the name of the city.
"Also, the first person's opinion he got on the title was a Mackem: Tom Tyler, the editor of Punch magazine.
"It was Tyler that put him together with Sir John Tenniel, who did the illustrations. They were possibly the greatest double-act in literary history."
Was this little girl Alice?
LEWIS CARROLL is the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an academic, writer and mathematician.
Born on January 27, 1832, Dodgson, the son of a clergyman was the first of 11 children.
He was was born in in Warrington, Cheshire, but moved to Croft-on-Tees in north Yorkshire, when his father was made rector there.
This remained the family home for the next 25 years.
As a child he used to entertain himself with magic tricks, puppet shows and writing poems for homemade newspapers.
Dodgson, who suffered from a stammer, studied at Rugby School and then at Christ Church College, Oxford, remaining there as a lecturer in mathematics.
As well as teaching, he was a proficient photographer, an inventor, and author.
His most famous writings include Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass as well as the poems "The Hunting of the Snark" and "Jabberwocky".
During his long university holidays, the academic would spend a lot of time visiting his uncle and cousins in Whitburn and other relations in Southwick.
It is these trips that are believed to have inspired a lot of his work.
While at Oxford, Lewis Carroll became good friends with the Dean of Christchurch – Henry Liddell, originally from Boldon.
Carroll became close friends with Liddell's wife, Lorina, and their children, particularly the three sisters: Lorina, Edith and Alice Liddell – whose cousins he met while staying in Whitburn.
The children were the subject of Carroll's photography and he also used to take them on rowing trips.
On one expedition, on July 4, 1862, he invented the outline of a story that Alice Lidell loved so much she begged him to write it down.
Eventually Carroll presented her with a handwritten manuscript entitled Alice's Adventures Under Ground in November 1864.
Encouraged by the children's enthusiasm and that of his friend and mentor, George MacDonald, Dodgson decided to publish his tale, and asked Sir John Tenniel to do the illustrations.
The overwhelming success of the first Alice book changed the writer's life as his fame spread around the world.
In 1872, a sequel – Through the Looking-Glass – was published.
Although Carroll himself later denied the fictional character of Alice was based on any real child, it is widely believed his "little heroine" is derived from Alice Liddell.
There is an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking Glass which seems to prove this is correct – reading down, taking the first letter of each line spells out Alice's name in full.
Dodgson died at the age of 64 in at his sisters' home in Guildford on January 14, 1898 of pneumonia after a bout of flu.
He is buried in Guildford at the Mount Cemetery.
The first edition copy of Alice's Adventures Under Ground, was sold at Christie's to a private collector on January 26, 2006, for £4,800 by the Duke of Gloucester to pay for his father's death duties.
Theories undermine 'Oxford conspiracy'
WHILE writing Alice in Sunderland, Bryan Talbot recruited the help of Wearside scholar Michael Bute, who is writing his masters degree thesis on Lewis Carroll and the North East.
Michael, 62, originally from the East End and who now works in Saudi Arabia, became fascinated by the story when he discovered that Carroll, its author, was a regular visitor to Wearside.
Though Michael had never been particularly interested in Alice in Wonderland before, he became passionate about the subject and what he calls the "Oxford conspiracy" to cover up its links with Wearside.
In 1998 Michael released a book called A Town Like Alice's, which put forward the theory that Carroll spent his long summer holidays visiting Wearside when he would have had the most time to write.
Michael promises that his masters thesis will expand on his book and put forward new evidence and theories to strongly link Alice in Wonderland with Wearside.
Bryan said: "When I arrived in Sunderland and started discovering these links with Lewis Carrol and Alice I was desperate to read something about it and his book – A Town Like Alice's – was out.
"And that was great because all the prior research had been done.
"Mick's got an encyclopedic
knowledge of Sunderland's history and Carroll's family – and he's been great.
"I got in touch with him and he's been a consultant on the book all the time I've been working on it."
Michael features as a character in Bryan's book and will be launching a reprinted version of his own, A Town Like Alice's, to sit on the shelf with Alice in Sunderland.
* Alice in Sunderland, published by Jonathan Cape, is released next week priced £16.99.
Bryan Talbot will be signing copies at Waterstones in The Bridges this Saturday from 1pm to 4pm.
He will also be giving a Powerpoint talk on comic storytelling techniques at Sunderland University's St Peter's Campus on Wednesday, March 28, at 6pm, in Room 007 of the Prospect Building. Entry is free.
An exhibition featuring pages from the book is on display at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary art in city library on Fawcett Street until April 13.