Shaun Tan, writer/artist
Arthur A. Levine, 2006
128 pages, hardcover
(Before I begin the review, can you believe this book came out four years ago? I swear I thought I was a year at most behind this particular curve. But comics barrels headlong through its Golden Age and you have to run to keep up sometimes.)
Don’t let the sepiatones fool you. This fine, captivating wordless graphic novel re-strange-ifies the immigrant experience, shaking it free of elementary-school field-trip/filmstrip nostalgia and making it something scary and wonderful again. Taking place in a fantastical, almost Expressionist city filled with incomprehensible writing, bizarre architecture, and creatures that look like they evolved in a world where Jim Woodring’s Frank stories are the central creation myth, it powerfully conveys that traveling far from home, all alone, to a place you’ve never been before, where you know no one and don’t speak the language and aren’t even guaranteed a place to work or sleep, is extremely risky…but also worth the risk. I don’t think it had occurred to me how weighed down by cliche such narratives have become until I read The Arrival, but with each of Tan’s dreamlike or nightmarish twists on the pitfalls and miniature triumphs of his suit-wearing immigrant protagonist, I marveled anew both at his inventiveness, and at how effectively he burrows down through a million PBS documentaries to get to the core of emotion in each vignette.
Me being me, I was hit hardest by Tan’s depictions of the things that caused each character to flee his or her native country: representing persecution as faceless giants in hazmat suits, sucking people up with enormous vacuum cleaners; representing ruinous war as happy men in conical gnome hats happily marching out of a city, their feet crossing ever more harsh landscapes, giving way to a tableau of skeletal remains, and culminating in just one of the me, badly wounded, returning to a city that’s totally destroyed. But there’s cute business too, like our protagonist’s short, ill-fated stint putting up posters; and there’s genuine joy in seeing him slowly form the makings of a new community of friends with his neighbors and co-workers. Tan’s neo(magic)realist art is particularly good at the latter: He puts us in the place of the protagonist as his new friends directly address him, drawing us in with their gaze and gestures, as intimate as his massive splash pages and spreads are intimidating.
Perhaps the nicest thing I can say about what Tan does in The Arrival is that despite its provenance as a children’s book, he keeps the action on the knife’s edge, the danger of failure (or worse) radiating from our worried, harried hero at every turn. I really wondered whether things would work out for him or not. The effect is enveloping. I imagine this will make the eyeballs of little kids and parents who pick it up from the library melt out of their skulls, it’s so lush and lovely and fully conceived an act of visual worldbuilding. Well worth a read, a flip-through, and a read again.