Even before you open this large-format graphic novel, your first take is absorbing the beauty of this hard-bound book. The cover appears something of a tattered leather-bound volume denoting the ravages of age or just heavy use. Here, we are introduced to the author’s first metaphor of the protagonist’s migrant experience. This character endures a familiar tale which can be added to the tome of personal experiences recounting an immigrant’s passage to a hopeful better life. The first direct communication of an old photograph embossed in the cover has our protagonist perplexed by a curious little animal he meets and thus we are welcomed into Shaun Tan’s fantastic tale.
Like any comic, we delve into the story purely visually. Any appearance of a lexicon in the story is unknown to our protagonist and even with our best interpretation, scarcely decipherable. We become dependent on the pacing and structure of images that Tan sometimes illustrates as sequential time-lapse photography. The story moves along like a silent film in a rthym employing a classical metaphor of time passing. This device focuses the reader deeper in concentration to what the mise en scène has to offer. There is much that is offered in “The Arrival”.
What may be a hinderace here in the states is that the book itself may be sequestered in the child or young-adult section, which would be a shame considering the magnitude of the story and Tan’s ability to engage it, similar in fashion to what Hayao Miyazaki does with his animated movies. This universal tale does and can speak to a great range of audiences because it isn’t limited to language that is spoken, but of a visual story-telling empathetic to the human experience. It would be well worth the time to engross yourself within the pages of this well-worn tale.
I contacted Mr. Tan about his book, which has received recognition from the Angoulême International Comics Festival as Best Comic Book and received the 2007 World Fanatsy Award for Best Artist.
Q: Was there any personal reason for you to tackle this story’s arc of immigration? I assume you were driven considering the undertaking of the research and also all the detail artistically achieved with the illustrations.
A: It just seemed like such a good story – that’s the main reason. Or rather a whole narrative universe, one that taps into the familiar bedrock of many family histories (including my own, which is Chinese, Malaysian, English, Irish and Australian). You rarely have to go too far to find a major story of transition or immigration in any individual’s background. And almost every great challenge you can imagine in a human life is evident in the story of someone moving to a new, unknown country, often without choice.
Not that I felt this was a monumental subject, or one that I could relate to directly as a middle-class suburban homebody. In fact, I tend not to feel ‘driven’ or ‘inspired’ until I’ve thought about a subject for a long time. Up until then I’m just acting on a vague intuition that an idea seems promising or interesting, and I follow this to see where it leads. There is often a turning point, when an idea or story begins to take on a life of it’s own and various parts click together – relations between style, structure, and lived experience – and the world on paper seems very real, like looking through a window. That feeling of an ‘alternative reality’ and trying to pin it down like a butterfly or dream is probably the main thing that keeps me so engaged, and able to spend so many months producing what might otherwise be incredibly tedious drawings.
I’m not very experienced actually in this form of sequential picture narrative – I’m used to having some words in the manner of conventional picture books, so I spent a fair amount of time looking at comics for guidance.
Q: I was caught unguarded with some of the scenes being somewhat sinister, but talking of immigration lends itself to a need of explanation in a story like this. Who’s is your intended audience for this book or who do you want this story to reach?
A: That’s a question I’m often asked, and the truth is that I don’t think about the audience too much, or at least those thoughts do not affect the structure and content of the work beyond inherent notions of ‘accessibility’. I would hope that this is a book that anybody would be able to enjoy. Very young children might possibly find some parts scary or disturbing, or difficult to understand, but over the years I’ve learnt not to worry about that too much – the worst that can happen is boredom. One good thing about books is that they are fairly ‘quiet’, they do not demand to be looked at, and it’s great when they are not actually pitched to a particular audience. My ideal reader is probably someone who is curious and prepared to bring a good deal of their own imaginative interpretation to the journey, regardless of age, background or existing knowledge about the subject.
Q: You have some characters and objects that make frequent appearance within some of your paintings and picture books such as a large-winged eagle that towers over the landscape, steamed-powered aerial ships or mechanized objects, and buildings that mimic the shapes of pottery or animals. Is there any intentional references to any of these?
A: Only partially intentional, they are more subconscious or simply stylistically comfortable things that I end up drawing repeatedly. Why that is so is a question that often intrigues me as much as anyone else. There are certain vague meanings or resonances with some elements, but nothing that I would call especially symbolic, and certainly nothing coded – more like it has the correct resonance. In The Arrival, I was drawing a lot of birds and bowl-shapes, and only realized halfway through that this felt right to me because of the associations with migration; how birds travel and nest, and bowls (and boats and eggs) were things which ferry valuables through space and time, empty vessels that needed to be filled. So I then emphasized those references a little more by giving them continuity throughout the book.
Q: Here’s more of a left-brain methodology question, what type of medium did you work in for The Arrival? Do you ever you use computer technology to produce a certain style or effect?
A: All of the images are hand-drawn using graphite pencil on cartridge paper: these were then scanned and colour and certain effects (stains, cracks, photographic burning and dodging) were added using Photoshop. This was really the first time that I had worked digitally on anything, and it took a long time to get a result that was subtle enough to work, to create something that looks like a cross between a drawing and an old photograph.
Q: I am sure any young aspiring artist would like to know what word of advice or knowledge you could pass on. What might you tell this person?
A: One bit of advice I heard from one writer was simply this: ‘finish!’ I thought that was pretty good! It’s important to try to finish any project that you start, even when it seems to go belly-up, which is actually a quite familiar feeling for every artist. Fear of failure is the biggest hindrance for most young artists.
My other advice, especially for illustrators, is to cast a wide net and seek out things that may not interest you at first. Read a lot of art history and theory, try many different kinds of painting and drawing, beyond what is immediately appealing (one thing art schools are good for). I’ve noticed a tendency towards introversion in the world of illustration, of trying to make something that looks like other illustrations and not pushing beyond those safe boundaries. To do anything original you need be quite experimental, really ask basic questions about what it means to draw and tell stories, what the relationship is to real life, especially your own life (the source of unique ideas).
Finally, expect a lot of failures, mishaps and hideous frustrations – but also a lot of serendipity and unexpected discoveries. My early drafts for paintings and stories always look a bit chaotic and incoherent, and very clumsy, but I accept this as normal. While I also often have lapses in confidence, I persevere through those until I reach a solution – and there almost always is a solution to any artistic problem. The ‘problem’ is just not being able to see what it is straight away – that’s where the hard work comes in, just sitting down and investing the hours.
“The Arrival” by Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine Books, 2009