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Chance visit to a comic legend

On a cold, spring morning, several years ago, I found myself walking along a particularly impressive, terraced street in Sunderland lined with magnificently kept 19th Century townhouses.

Daniel Thomson remembers a personal cultural highlight of 2007.

On a cold, spring morning, several years ago, I found myself walking along a particularly impressive, terraced street in Sunderland lined with magnificently kept 19th Century townhouses.

As I knocked on the doors, and asked the owners about property prices in the area for a rather mundane story I was working on at the time, I wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary.

But when one of the doors opened to reveal a man dressed all in black, who looked like he had just stepped off the set of the latest Batman movie, I knew my luck was about to change.

And when he told me his name was Bryan Talbot – it was instantly familiar.

But where had I heard it before? Thanks to a youth spent (or should that be misspent?) reading comic books, I quickly had the answer.

Bryan Talbot was a legendary comic genius who had made his name drawing the likes of Judge Dredd, 2000AD, Batman, and Hellblazer, before writing and illustrating his own award-winning creations such as Luther Arkwright.

He welcomed me into his home (no doubt pleased I knew of him and his work) and showed me around before our conversation quickly moved from house prices to comic books.

When he asked if I wanted to see his basement studio and take a look at what he was currently working on, I felt honoured.

I was even more taken aback when I saw what his new masterwork was – Alice in Sunderland.

Bryan explained how he had discovered Sunderland’s connections to Lewis Carroll and the real-life Alice after moving to the area and had been inspired to create a unique work of his own in response.

The pages he showed me looked incredible and I asked if he would be interested in doing an interview with me about his work when the book was ready for publication.

Bryan said he would be happy to do so and expected it to be finished within the year.

I left feeling privileged to have met Bryan and to have glimpsed his latest work-in-progress.

Three years passed, and although we exchanged the occasional email, I began to wonder if our interview would ever take place.

But in February this year I had a phone call from the man himself who revealed he had been putting the finishing touches to Alice in Sunderland all this time. It was ready and the first copy had already been printed.

A few days later I was holding it in my hands and had the pleasure of reading it from cover to cover.

It may have been three years since I first found out Bryan was working on Alice in Sunderland, but it was definitely worth the wait.

The book, a 320-page long graphic novel, takes the form of a dream documentary, which blends storytelling, history and myth.

It is not one story, but dozens, short and long, including the history of Sunderland and the story of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell.

The stories are told within the structure of an imaginary performance (with Bryan himself as a narrator and character) on the stage of the Sunderland Empire with incredible artwork composed of black and white, line, monochrome and colour, watercolour painting, collage, and digital artwork.

As soon as I had finished reading the book I knew it was not only a work of visionary genius, but also one of the greatest pieces of art inspired by the North-East.

It has gone on to become an incredible success and although Bryan himself has moved on to pastures new I think the region owes him a debt of gratitude.

As for me, I got my interview at last (which proved to be something of a turning point in own career) and I’ll never forget Bryan or how chance brought me to his door one frosty day.

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