I’ve learned through the years that you should be cautious about meeting people you admire — great artists whose work speaks to you on a profound level rarely live up to the persona you’ve constructed for them in your mind’s eye. There’s bound to be some kind of disappointment or disillusionment. So, I did not know what to expect when I took a long train trip out to Sunderland a few summers ago to meet Bryan Talbot, the remarkable comics artist and storyteller, who has been credited with producing some of the first graphic novels to emerge from the British comics scene. Thanks to a mutual friend, Billy Proctor, I had been invited to visit Talbot and his wife, Mary, a feminist linguist and cultural theorist, in their home, mostly to make contact, since I had plans (still do, alas) to write an essay about Alice in Sunderland as part of a larger project on comics and material culture.
As it happens, the day I arrived was also a day when documentary filmmaker Russell Wall was shooting a segment for a feature length film, The Graphic Novel Man, he was coproducing with James Guy. If there’s a risk of meeting your heroes, there’s also some of the same risk attached to seeing their lives and world depicted through a documentary. In this case, though, there is no disappointment.
I have had several other chances to interact with Talbot over the past few years, and each encounter has been more enchanting than the last. The Graphic Novel Man, which was released this summer, similarly, brings a smile to my face because it captures some much of what makes Talbot a wonderful, charming man and a risk-taking artist who is continuing to push himself and his medium to the breaking point.
My goal today is to offer an appreciation of The Graphic Novel Man, which you can purchase and download at Vimeo and should. But it can not also escape being an appreciation of Talbot’s contributions to the art of graphic storytelling.
Early on, Dez Skinn characterizes Talbot as the “David Bowie of comics,” describing his shape-shifting capacity: Talbot adjusts his style to the demands of different kinds of stories and has worked across the full spectrum of British comics — from early work in the underground comics through commercial work on The Sandman or Batman through to his more mature works, the Luther Arkwright saga, A Tale of One Bad Rat, Alice in Sunderland, the Grandville series, and A Dotter in Her Father’s Eyes. Taking Talbot’s virtuosity as a starting point, The Graphic Novel Man surveys his work, offering expert commentary from his contemporaries, and from time to time, giving us a chance to really focus on the complex choices he makes in the construction of any given page.
This is where Graphic Novel Man shines: It comes from a rich tradition of work by British documentarians on the visual arts, in which the viewer is assumed to be at once curious and intelligent, capable of learning to see the world through the eyes of the particular artist, and willing to pay attention to technique. So, across the film, we learn about how Talbot took influences from 1960s cinema, especially the work of Sam Peckinpah and Nicholas Roeg, in order to restructure our experience of time and focus our attention on the ethics and politics of violence. Or Neil Gaiman shows us what Talbot brought to their collaboration on Sandman, stressing Talbot’s extensive research into the classical world, and the ways that this expertise influenced his use of light and shadow across a particular compelling segment.
Or we learn about the ways Talbot taps into the British “funny animal” tradition to inform the design of characters for his Grandville series and the ways that these books incorporate both broad puns and subtle visual jokes. Accompanying shorts take us into Talbot’s studio, where we get to watch him develop a page for Grandville and describe the choices he makes in its design. I’ve stood in that actual studio and seen other yet to be finished pages on his drawing board.
We learn about Talbot’s work from a broad array of his contemporaries including an introduction by science fiction writer Michael Moorcock and commentary by Neil Gaiman, Joe Sacco, Warren Ellis, Gilbert Shelton, Ian Rankin, Kim Newman, David Lloyd, Pat Mills, John Wagner, Charlie Adlard, Carlos Ezquerra, D’Israeli, Doug Braithwaite, Andy Diggle, Simon Fraser, Al Davison, Mary Talbot, Hunt Emerson, Paul Gravett, Mark Stafford, Dr. Mel Gibson, Lee Harris, Dan Charnley and yours truly.
A key theme running across the film is Talbot’s relationship to British culture — whether the stories and landscapes associated with Beatrice Potter that inform One Bad Rat or his life-long fascination with Victoriana, which led him to be a key influence on the emergence of Steampunk in the visual arts.
This focus on British history and culture is central to Alice in Sunderland, the work of his which spoke to me the most.
Reading Alice in Sunderland is an overwhelming experience — not simply because of its epic scale whether judged by its 300 plus page length or through its historical scope, which traces the history of a town in Northwest England from the Age of Reptiles and the era of St. Bede through to the present moment and shows how it has functioned as a crossroads for many of the cultural currents which have shaped British history. But, even on the level of the single page, Sunderland is overwhelming because of the way that Talbot has built it up primarily through techniques borrowed from photocomics and especially through the use of collage. Each page may feature dozens of images Talbot has collected from archives — old photographs, documents, woodcuts, carved marble, stained-glass windows, film stills, cartoons, and printed books, all jockeying for our attention, each conveying separate bits of information relevant to the historical narrative he is developing, but each gaining far greater meaning when situated within the book’s gestalt.
Talbot insists that he is a storyteller, not a historian, yet one can not help but be impressed by the vast amount of archival research informing this book, and Alice is significant as much on the level of its historiographical construction as it is on the level of its formal execution. At the center of this narrative, as its title might suggest, is the story of Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, who lived for a time in Sunderland and met Alice Liddell, his young muse, for whom his fairy story was dedicated. On the surface, the book can be read as an obsessive argument for the priority of Sunderland over Oxford as the site from which to understand the origins of Carroll’s Wonderland, yet in the process of making such claims, Talbot goes further, linking Alice and Carroll to a much broader array of stories (from ancient mythology to music hall comedy) which have sprung from the same geographic and cultural roots.
Sunderland, thus, is a project in radical intertextuality, forging links between dispersed narratives drawn from both history and fiction, mapping them onto a highly localized geography. For all of its historical expansiveness, the core structure of the book is a tour, walking up and down the streets of Sunderland, as Talbot points out various monuments and landmarks, linking them into the emerging narrative of British history. And on yet another meta-level, Talbot is trying to connect his own medium, comics, to a much broader history of artistic practices which combined words and pictures to construct narratives, including a consideration of Carroll’s relations with his illustrator John Tenniel, the Bayeux Tapestry, William Blake, and William Hogarth, as well as patches of many different comics genres.
Sunderland can best be described as a hypertext in printed form, and as such, it becomes often incomprehensible, impossible to grasp fully in a single or even multiple readings, and it is the immensity of its vision, more than anything else, which we carry away from us. The hypertext analogy is no accident since Talbot himself translated one of his earlier graphic novels, Heart of Empire, into a CD-ROM so that he could layer upon the page annotations which traced its intertextual roots. Like a conspiracy theory, everything is connected, yet for this very reason, it is impossible to fully exhaust the layers of allusions that shape this work. Such layers are only fully achievable in a graphic medium where, in this case, each picture speaks a thousand words. Unlike a conspiracy theorist, Talbot actively encourages our skepticism, encouraging us to question every statement, and at places, the artist seems to have a crisis of faith in his own project.
There’s a delightful segment in Graphic Novel Man describing how Talbot’s search for the ideal Victorian factory to use for a scene in one of the Grandville graphic novels led him around the world wide web and back again to a neighboring village. As this segment suggests, Talbot is a world-builder, someone who thinks through every element he puts on his page, and can speak about its larger implications for the society he is depicting. Yet, often, as he does so, he is drawing implicitly and often explicitly on references to the material world, places he has been, buildings he has entered, things that he owns, all of which give his drawings much of their particularity.
When I was interviewing Talbot, in the midst of a room whose walls are covered by all kinds of carved masks from around the world, he told me he was not “a collector” — simply “an accumulator” — and he pointed at one point to a cabinet of curiosity which figures in Alice, full of various pop culture icons and artifacts he had gathered through the years. Many of his books have the appeal of a cabinet of curiosities but the worlds are more systematically developed than this focus on random encounters might suggest. There is both rhyme and reason to the details he includes, and this film gives us a sense of what guides his pen.
The film ends with a focus on Dotter in Her Father’s Eyes, itself a remarkable collaboration. Bryan challenged Mary to write her own graphic novel, using as its starting point her troubled relationship with her father, a noted Joyce scholar; Dotter extends outward to incorporate a second narrative — that of Joyce’s equally problematic relationship with his own daughter, Lucia. The words come from Mary, the images from Bryan, but working together pushed the artist to develop yet another visual style, one softer, more intimate, than any we have seen before. There are few examples in graphic storytelling of husband and wife collaborations on this level — the complex conversation in Dirty Laundry between R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb comes to mind. There’s a similar fascination here in watching husband and wife work through this story together, sometimes correcting each other’s memories. Bryan appears throughout the book as a character, not always a totally sympathetic one.
Graphic Novel Man, by contrast, is very much Bryan Talbot’s story, a great tribute to a artist who has always refused to rest on his laurels, who rejected the easy path towards commercial success. Mary descibes her husband’s routine of doing a page a day, no matter what, yet also tells us that he sometimes finds himself so engaged with adding extra details that he fails to meet those goals, too much a craftsman for his own good. Graphic Novel Man is attentive to the work that came on Bryan’s slower days, when he broke with his own production regime, in order to spend as much time as he needed to fully realize a particularly detailed page, because his sense of professionalism, his artistic vision, demanded it. Such pages are pure gifts to the reader and often represent moments of virtuosity for the artist.
If you love comics, you owe it to yourself to discover Talbot’s work, and one of the best ways to do so is to watch Graphic Novel Man.