The Arrival by Shaun Tan

07/10/08, Oxford Forum

When I mentioned to a friend recently that I was working on a graphic novel, she asked me innocently, ‘What’s a graphic novel? A book with lots of sex?’ The alternative, more traditional, term, ‘comics’ or ‘cartoons’, would have been immediately comprehensible but that would have created a much more limited horizon of expectations, despite the fact that some of the greatest examples of the genre are neither comic nor cartoony in the sense of superheroes or Mickey Mouse. In fact, graphic novels have pulled away from the world of comics and cartoons and started its own life in a way we can see as distinct from, even antithetical to, strip cartoons. A quick working definition we could begin with would be, ‘a story told in pictures and words arranged in panels on the page’. It’s not an incontrovertibly accurate definition, there are major exceptions to the rule, but it’ll do.

In a recent review of Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury’s Great British Comics, Michel Faber wrote, ‘In Britain, comics were always regarded as lowbrow fun for children, no more exalted than crisps or sweeties. […] Gravett and Stanbury are well aware of the limitations and missed opportunities that have contributed to the comparative low esteem in which British comics are held’. Faber is stating what has become a critical orthodoxy: it is undeniable that cutting-edge work in graphic novels is being done elsewhere, with notions of the form and its examples in this country still mostly following the paradigms of essentially flippant and repetitive works such as Viz and the Beano. But the form is witnessing an amazing efflorescence and seems capable of articulating everything, from autobiography (David B’s Epileptic, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis books, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home) to fiction (Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World and David Boring), from political reportage (Joe Sacco’s Palestine) to travelogue (Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang and Shenzhen), from thriller (Igort’s 5 is the Perfect Number) to factual investigation (The Illustrated 9/11 Commission Report).

The Arrival by Australian artist Shaun Tan is a wordless graphic novel: the story is told entirely through pictures. The phenomenon is not as rare as one might think: the Swiss graphic novelist, Thomas Ott, most notably, has made a name for himself with his terrifying, wordless masterpieces of horror such as Cinema Panopticum and Dead End. The Arrival couldn’t be more different thematically: out of the story of a nameless protagonist leaving his native land to set up life in a new country, one that appears to be welcoming to immigrants and exiles, where countless others like him have started all over again, Tan has created a book of such surpassing beauty that it stabs you with a kind of euphoric agony.

The plot unfolds lucidly but the absence of words makes for a different kind of meaning altogether, at once holding together clarity and a fecund ambiguity; it is as if a mediating interpretive pane of glass on to reality, that of language, has suddenly been slid down and we can read the world of the book directly. It begins with a moving leavetaking – our hero leaves behind his wife and their young daughter – but look closely at the reason for departure in figure 1 and you’ll find that it remains polyvalent like a line of poetry. What is that unnamed terror that haunts the city? What are those giant spiky tails that have enmeshed the houses and the very sky above them in their coils? Throughout the book, Tan imbues his images with the kind of laser-sharp particularity that is the domain of visuals at the same time as an indeterminacy that is the province of poetry. So while the sea-passage to the new land is marked by a breathtakingly beautiful series of cloud formations, a metaphor made literal picture, the end of the journey, in its image of the ship’s deck full of huddled masses of migrants (see figure 2), has the documentary clarity of an archival record of immigration history or of a still from Italian neo-realist cinema. (Indeed, Tan acknowledges both Ellis Island Immigration Museum and Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves in the ‘Artist’s Note’ at the end of the book).

It is immediately after this that the book reveals its beating heart: it is about the enigma of arrival, an experience that Tan prises open and lays out its core on his beautiful pages in all its alienating, baffling, terrifying qualia. The great European filmmaker, Michael Haneke, once said that the history of Europe, or indeed of the world, in the 21st century is going to be characterized overwhelmingly by the mass migration of peoples, by movement, displacement, radical juxtapositions of conflicting cultures. Tan turns his artist’s eye and hand to similar questions: what constitutes the immigrant experience? What does it mean to leave everything behind, uproot oneself and start a new life in a country amidst strangers, who speak a strange language, follow strange customs, where there are no friends, no family? Notice that entire spectrum of emotions he catches, once again with photographic realism, on the face of the hero at the immigration desk (figure 3): bafflement, irritation, incomprehension, frustration, exhaustion … one could add several more to that complex. Welcome to the new world.

And the world that Tan has designed catches, with the numinous exactness of poetry, the timbre and lineaments of this experience of extreme strangeness, extreme unfamiliarity. For what he has created is nothing short of an entire new world, a new cosmography even, like Milton’s, down to the last detail of the birds in the sky, the strange fruits on the table, the animals on the streets and the general fauna, the orthographics of the new, unknown tongue, the architecture, the vehicles of transport, the highways, the urbanscape. Everything is radically defamiliarised and, therefore, utterly true to the subjectivity of the newcomer. Look at that flock of birds (figure 4) our protagonist looks up at from the deck of his ship (they recur several times in the course of the book). Flying fish or finny birds? The friendly animal that becomes his pet familiar could be something out of a corner of a teeming Bosch painting, half-reptile, half smiley shark.

God really is in the details in this world; take, for example, the means of transport: one is a flying boat, another a winged balloon-box. See, I’m running out of descriptive categories to talk about it because he has minted such a new reality that our words can only approximate its particulars. And look at that astonishing cityscape (figure 5), with its brooding, winged bird-god, the smokestacks with their plumes of smoke, the flying boat, the sci-fi landscape … from what delirious dream has Tan dredged up this world? Bosch comes to mind again, and the best of Giorgio de Chirico, but these are just echoes; the world is all Tan’s own. Much of the experience of reading the book is like watching a long, perfectly-formed dream-poem unscroll over the pages. To paraphrase Bergman on Tarkovsky, he moves around, with perfect ease and majesty, in a dream-world the key to which others have been searching all their lives.

There are other aspects of the immigrant experience that make their way into the narrative: seeking rented accommodation, looking for a job, getting a toehold in the unskilled labour market, the kindness and hospitality of strangers and other assimilated migrants, brief stories of escape and survival from the past lives of others. They gather the cumulative force of what historians call the ‘thickness of evidence’ and give the book its depth and truth. When you take into account the fact that Tan’s father, Bing Tan, was a Chinese-Malaysian immigrant to Australia (the book is dedicated to his parents) and note carefully how the front and back endpapers of The Arrival are a series of (drawn) passport-sized ‘photographs’ of a huge world of nationalities and ethnicities, the book swims into a different view: it is not just a graphic novel but also a testament, a record of truth.

Above all, there is the visual feel of the book itself, the quality of its sepia-tinted images, the simulation, in most of its panels, of the look of crumpled pages and dog-eared corners, of letters foxed and spored with rust, as if they have been part of a cache of old papers, photos and letters discovered at the bottom of a trunk that has been in the family for several generations: private records of the first arrival to the country where his descendants are now its citizens. Perhaps the words graphic truth catches the book’s essence more than the term graphic novel.

It was Burke who defined the beautiful as that which satisfies certain aesthetic criteria but the sublime as something that inspires us with awe, with wonder, with fear, even. It might be the most overused and abused word in reviewing but The Arrival is a sublime masterpiece. I’ll say it again: a masterpiece.