Rating:Alice in Comicland suffers from a problem that in itself sounds very Carrollian in nature: in being two things at once it succeeds in being neither. A collection of “golden age” Alice-themed comics, Alice in Comicland is too casual to serve as a reference and yet too faithfully niche to entertain on graphic design impact alone. This compromise of intent is apparent in the two essays that serve as introduction. Mark Burstein, president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, supplies an academic yet accessible history of early Alice appearances in cartoons and comics, even footnoting several references in his brief eight page (counting the space for reproduced illustrations) introduction. In it, he mentions his own compendium, Pictures and Conversations: Lewis Carroll in the Comics: An Annotated International Bibliography, in which over 500 comic books are indexed. This begs the question: Is Alice in Comicland the complete collection of early 20th century Alice-related comics, or simply a jumble of material from the time period? (I still don’t know the answer to that, which is why it’s frustrating.)
Comics historian Craig Yoe also gives a contextual overview, providing some biographical information about some of the more obscure artists/authors represented here while qualifying that identification isn’t always an easy task, as many early works went unsigned and uncredited (whether by choice or publishers’ executive fiat). Yoe’s expertise is somewhat diminished by his exclamatory, har-dee-har writing style – it is particularly dissonant considering the scholarly tone of Burstein’s preceding essay.
The comics are reprinted in their entireties and even for those not in-the-know, some of the inclusions will be familiar. Pogo creator Walt Kelly has two entries: “Glory,” a retelling of Alice’s encounter with Humpty Dumpty, crosses Tenniel-inspired black and white illustration with Kelly’s own signature style; “Mother’s Gooseberry Rinds” sees Albert doing a dramatic reading of “Jabberwocky” with some interference from Pogo himself. In others, you’ll find Superman, a Bugs Bunny lookalike, Archie in drag, the Peanuts gang with a Cheshire Snoopy in tow and an unflattering illustration of Alice as a proto-Alfred E. Neuman. Some of the lesser-known works portray Alice as a red-haired bobbysoxer, a sadistic terror wreaking havoc through Wonderland or a passenger atop a flying (tea) saucer. This multitude of styles and iterations is better emphasized on the illustrated endpapers, a mosaic of isolated images from the disparate works. The novelty of these far-flung treatments is lost in the body of the book itself, as there is no apparent organization to the entries (i.e. chronological, thematic, alphabetical), nor is there any sort of curation blurbing that orients the reader to the original material as it comes.
The experience of Alice in Comicland is more or less like reading a stack of vintage Alice comics one after the other. This can be disappointing or good enough depending on your relative devotion to Carrolliana and/or golden age comics. The cover of Alice in Comicland shows a Tenniel-era Alice drawing back a curtain to reveal a mid-century halftone-dotted doppelganger in cut-out. We’re kind of stuck there too, able to look at the alternate universes but falling short of the propulsion required to go much further than that.