Bryan Talbot Interview

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(WoW #294)

Creator Bryan Talbot is best know for the critically-acclaimed Adventures of Luther Arkwright and Tale of One Bad Rat. He returns this month with Alice in Sunderland, a new graphic novel from Dark Horse. Westfield's Roger Ash contacted Talbot to learn more about this project.

Westfield: You did Alice in Sunderland without having a publisher. What about this project fired your imagination so much that you did it this way?

Bryan Talbot: I actually did have a publisher for the first year's work on the book. I wouldn't have started a project this size without one. Unfortunately they ran into cash-flow problems and had to pull out. This left me with a choice as to whether to abandon it until I found a new publisher or to press on and complete the book, which I did.

Westfield: What can you tell us about the book?

Talbot: It's about storytelling, myth and history. It's not one story but dozens, all presented within the framework of a theatrical performance a night at an Edwardian palace of varieties called the Sunderland Empire. There's even an intermission in the middle and a grand finale. The life of Lewis Carroll and his muse, Alice Liddell, is one of the central themes, told in episodic sequences, though there are references to Alice throughout.

Westfield: Did you do a lot of research into Lewis Carroll before starting the project?

Talbot: It was like doing a bloody PhD! It's been the most heavily researched graphic novel I've done. I'd been wanting to do something on Alice for years and occasionally picked up books on the subject. When I moved to Sunderland about eight years ago and discovered that both Carroll and the Liddells had links to the city, I started researching it properly. There's a two-page list of source books at the end. Still, I wasn't trying to do an academic piece. The subtitle of the book is "An Entertainment" and that's what it's intended to be.

Westfield: You use different art styles throughout the book, one obviously based on the Alice illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. Why do this, and how did you decide which art style to use for a story?

Talbot: As the book is set in a palace of varieties, I figured that it should be a visual variety show. The artwork is a mixture of black and white ink line and pencil drawing, watercolour painting in monochrome and colour, collage and digitally manipulated photographic artwork. The layouts vary hugely from a conventional nine panel grid, and full page illustrations to multiple image pages, or metapanels, using original art collaged with old prints, documents and maps, as appropriate to each sequence. The stories themselves dictated the style. The section in the style of Tenniel is a three-page adaptation of Jabberwocky, which was written in Sunderland. The ghost story The Cauld Lad of Hylton cried out for a 1950s horror comic style. The tale of Jack Crawford, the Hero of Camperdown could be straight out of an old Boys' Own adventure comic, so I drew it like that. The longest single story, the eighteen-page retelling of The Legend of the Lambton Worm, Britain's most unique and complete dragon legend, is told in an Arts and Crafts book illustration style.

Westfield: Why did you decide to release this strictly as a graphic novel and not serialize it first?

Talbot: The book has a very tight structure, with threads weaving around the central narratives. Although it was proposed as such by the original publisher, I was always unhappy with the idea of serialisation. Everything ties together and seemingly throwaway lines and images circle round and come back. I'm sure people reading sections out of context would wonder just what the hell was going on. The thing only makes sense as a whole.

Westfield: Are there any other projects you're working on that you'd like to mention?

Talbot: I've nearly finished writing a prose book called Comic Book Legends. It's a small book, about 35 40,000 words recounting stories about comic creators, the often scurrilous anecdotes that get told late at night in a con pro bar: the urban legends of the comic industry - funny, outrageous or downright weird. I've just started looking for a publisher.

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Talbot: I'm very happy that Dark Horse is also reprinting The Adventures of Luther Arkwright in December, using the new digitally remastered files created for the Czech edition. For the first time, the artwork is clear as day, without blacks filling in and greys bleaching out. They're also reissuing the sequel Heart of Empire in March.