Coinciding with the release of Bryan Talbot’s much talked-about “Alice in Sunderland,” London’s Cartoon Museum is holding an exhibition of Talbot’s original art and sketches from the book. Running from April 5 to July 1, 2007, “Alice in Sunderland: The Exhibition” explores the creation of the elaborate 320-page graphic novel and sheds light on its wide-reaching historical influences.
After viewing a slideshow of images from “Alice,” visitors are welcomed into the gallery by a cheerfully terrifying White Rabbit. The exhibition itself focuses on several sequences from the book, including the Henry V episode, the fable of the Lambton Worm, and the history of immigrants in Sunderland. The original art includes many sketches (most inked) and several watercolor illustrations which Talbot later manipulated on computer to produce the finished art. It was fascinating to see the source materials side-by-side with completed digital prints. In many instances, the original pieces contained panels that were then spread across several pages in the final book, interspersed with photographs and other bits of art. It may have been educational, though, to see artwork from the more intermediate stages, if such exists as physical objects.
The exhibition’s wall text explains and elaborates the stories shown in the art and provides captions for the unlettered pages. The labels discuss the significance of Henry V’s charge into the breach and offers a brief comparison of Shakespeare’s version of events to other historical sources. In the center case, featuring a Lewis Carroll sequence, the wall text describes the original “Alice” author’s life and his relationship with the young Liddell sisters on whom the “Wonderland” books are based. Including such biographical information on a label, which exists outside the art itself, is helpful in filling in details that may not have been pertinent to Talbot’s work, but are nevertheless significant in examining a writer’s life. Similarly, the exhibition includes details on the cultural history of Sunderland to bridge gaps between the “Alice” pages presented and provide a context for Talbot’s book.
Presenting the pages thematically also provides another reading of “Alice in Sunderland,” one that’s considerably more linear than the version presented in the book. Seeing all of the Henry V pages together, and all of the Lewis Carroll pages, etc., allows these stories to be read for their own sake, apart from “Alice’s” larger, weaving narrative. These simpler, straight forward stories would make decent comics in themselves, but seeing them set apart makes their amalgamation in Talbot’s book all the more impressive and exciting.
The Cartoon Museum makes excellent use of its small gallery space, displaying just enough art to fully explore “Alice in Sunderland’s” many themes. There is also a showcase of other books that have made use of Carroll’s Alice, and some of Talbot’s research materials. It would have been nice to include some of the photographs, playbills, and other knick-knacks used in the digital collages, as well as an animation showing how the book came together, as these are likely points of interest for those drawn in to the book’s strange beauty.
“Alice in Sunderland: The Exhibition” is on through July 1st at the Cartoon Museum , near the British Museum in London.