In the introduction to her own Alice’s Wonderland: A Visual Journey through Lewis Carroll's Mad, Mad World, Catherine Nichols writes that Lewis Carroll’s Alice books are “the most widely quoted texts after Shakespeare and The Bible.” I was taken aback by that bold declaration at first. Then I considered a pop culture wonderland in which John Lennon declares himself the walrus, Batman battles a Mad Hatter, and Grace Slick tells us to go ask Alice, and needed no more convincing. That little girl who took a confounding, shape-shifting romp through a rather unpleasant fantasyland has been climbing through our collective consciousness for 149 years now. One year before that, Carroll presented Alice’s Adventures under Ground to its inspiration, Alice Liddell, as a personal gift, so this year actually marks her 150th birthday.
Naturally, Nichols’ discusses the fateful boat trip in which the artist formerly known as Charles Dodgson helped a restless girl pass the time with fantastical stories in which she played the lead role, but by page 22 of Alice’s Wonderland, we’ve pretty much passed the origin tales and moved on to the book’s main focuses: lavish images and how Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass have endured for a century and a half despite being a pair of books pretty resistant to satisfying adaptation. Nichols touches on the pantomimes and stage plays (one being a musical in which Meryl Streep played a 17-year old Alice!) and TV shows and animated, live-action, and pornographic films that attempted to bring Carroll’s world to life. She also gets into the curiouser and curiouser board games, video games, theme restaurants and theme park rides, tattoos, and toys that have taken Alice further and further from her literary roots.
If the text seems to sprint by a bit, the images will stop to you in your tracks. John Tenniel’s original artwork has inspired countless other artists, some of whom illustrated future editions of Carroll’s books (Peter Blake! Salvador Dalí! Max Ernst! Ralph Steadman! Yow!), and others who used it as inspiration for fashion, fine art, head posters, comic books, and amusement park rides. You may end up looking like a Wonderland resident because the variety of Wondernalia vividly presented throughout Alice’s Wonderland will pop your eyes out.
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