I recently checked out this book at the library… The Arrival, by Australian artist Shaun Tan. I’d already read a couple of his children’s picture books, which explore subjects such as depression and lost, ignored things. I knew that he is willing to approach interesting and unique subject matter, and to render it in strikingly brilliant illustrations. So I’d been looking forward to this new book, and I’d read plenty of rave reviews about it.
Well, I must say that it is perhaps the most pure “graphic novel” that I’ve ever come across, as the story is told entirely in pictures. The only text you will see are the varieties of invented scripts that the protagonist encounters, and you are as clueless about their meaning as he is.
The story is that of a man leaving his family and country to travel to a better land, hoping to make a living for himself before having his family follow him. The wordless style helps to put the reader into the man’s shoes, mimicking the depth of confusion that any new immigrant can become plunged into.
Tan contrasts leisurely-paced square panels that detail the man’s experiences with vast, sweeping panoramas of the alien city life that he has to make his way through. Tan seems to be in his element when illustrating large industrial cityscapes, as he has shown in his past two picture books, The Lost Thing, and The Red Tree. However, here he also shows his talent at inventive organic matter, as we see a menagerie of strange pet animals that various city residents live with, and odd vegetables and plants that provide food or mark the passage of time.
In his more surreal creations, Tan seems to have an affinity to artists like Luigi Serafini and Jim Woodring. Serafini is an Italian who created perhaps the most amazing picture book ever, the encyclopedic Codex Serafinianus. Woodring is American, and is known for his Frank comics, as well as general surreal scariness (keep an eye on his blog for interesting tidbits). What I like about Tan’s book is that he seems to take the kind of creations you would see in Serafini or Woodring’s work, and deftly applies them to a story, anchoring them and making them a little bit more real.
I just can’t recommend this book enough, it’s brilliant. Despite there being no words, I found that I took a fair amount of time to read through the whole thing, because the illustrations are so rich in detail, so subtle in conveying emotion and mood.
You can find an excerpt, hosted by New York Magazine, here.