by Johanna E.
“My picture books are essentially an attempt to subversively reimagine everyday experience,” Shaun Tan says about his own work (Haber 23). His graphic novel The Arrival (2006) is a clear example for Tan’s usage of fantastic element to reimagine everyday occurences. In The Arrival, we a re dealing with the reimagined everyday experience of a refugee, starting a life in a new place far from home. In six chapters the graphic novel tells the story of a man who has to immigrate to a different country and leave his wife and daughter behind because of the dangers facing the family in their home country. Eventually, his family follows him after he has found a place to live and a place to work. His experiences are told without words so that the storytelling relies entirely on the illustrations. The subversion of the very common immigration themes of feeling displaced and overwhelmed in the new situation is especially present because realistic elements are juxtaposed with fantastical elements to depict the migrant experience.
It becomes clear from the beginning that words are not necessary for Shaun Tan to convey the meaning of his story because the composition of panels, illustrations and icons makes it possible to be (almost) universally understood. This has the interesting effect that the story does not require anyone to either know English or any other language in particular. I liked this aspect of the story, especially because it reminded me of my own family member telling me about her migration story which was made a lot harder because of the language barrier and the loneliness that comes with that. The immigrant in the story also deals with language barriers as the new language system is completely foreign to him and it takes time until he is able to make sense of it. This is one of the reasons why the lack of words in the narrative works so well for an immigration story because understanding very often relies on knowing a certain language and the graphic novel removes this boundary for any of its potential readers. Additionally, using no words requires the reader to take a closer look at each and every panel and icon, which makes the reader engage with the illustrations more thoroughly.
The art style Shaun Tan uses is an interesting mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. Generally, the panels and icons are drawn in a very realistic way, meaning the main characters, the refugee and his family, look similar to the way they might look in an old photograph. The entire book reads like an old document that is put together as a remembrance for the migrant´s experiences. Furthermore, Shaun Tan often “zooms” in and out of his panels or focuses on hand gestures which has a very humanizing effect amidst the many fantastical elements. In many instances, Tan shows the main character´s hand movements to symbolize his inner feelings and turmoil, like when his hand flexes in pain because he has to leave his family or when he holds on tight to his suitcase on the journey. Some pages zoom away from the small gestures to the characters as tiny specks in a city full of fantastical monsters which emphasizes the danger they are surrounded by in their home country.
In contrast to the rather realistic icons and panels we also have the fantastical elements the main character encounters as soon as he arrives in the new place. The more he explores the city, the more fantastical the elements like food, the buildings, the transportation, or the language system become. These fantastical elements are juxtaposed with the realistic art style Shaun Tan uses for the illustrations. The unidentifiable food, the strange animals or the unreadable language represent the newness of the place where the main characters immigrated to and how difficult it is to find your way around at first. Because these elements are not specific to any real culture, every reader is confronted with this strangeness in the same way. You do not really know what to make of the elements at first but they become more familiar with every chapter which connects the reader and the refugee as neither knows what the fantastical elements mean at first.
One aspect concerning the realistic drawing of people reminded me of Scott McCloud´s discussion of comics and graphic novels as he states that “when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself” (McCloud 36). For Tan´s work that would mean the realistic drawing of faces makes it more difficult to relate to the character´s experiences as you have a specific face you are confronted with. However, Shaun Tan seems to have a different view on relatability when it comes to drawing realistically which I thought was interesting to compare. He states that “The absence of any written description in The Arrival seemed to place the reader more firmly in the shoes of an anonymous protagonist.” (Arizpe et al. 161). Therefore, there seems to be a difference in approach as McCloud highlights the importance of abstraction for relatability whereas Shaun Tan does create a realistic-looking character but, because the story is told without words, there is more room for interpretation as different readers might make different connections between panels according to their own backgrounds. Furthermore, I think that a lot of the relatability of his work comes from the magical elements, which are jarring for all readers alike, and act as stand-ins for real life experiences of learning a new language, or not understanding the food, animals, or cities. I think that generally, McCloud and Tan have the same idea in mind though, because ultimately both play with the illusion of engaging the readers to feel represented and see themselves in the comic or graphic novel, just through different techniques.
The importance of the lack of words, and the realism juxtaposed with the fantastical elements, is what the story lives off and what makes it compelling and new. There is a lot more you can say about The Arrival and the way meaning is constructed but for now, I think that the way the story is told is quite unique, especially in terms of the art style. This makes it possible for every kind of reader to connect with the story, especially people who have gone through similar experiences.
- Arizpe, Evelyn, Teresa Colomer, and Carmen Martinez-Roldain. Visual Journey Through Wordless Narratives: An International Inquiry with Immigrant Children and The Arrival. Bloomsbury Academic, 2014.
- Haber, Karen. Masters of Science Fiction and Fantasy Art: A Collection of the Most Inspiring Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Gaming Illustrators in the world. Rockport Publishers, 2011.
- McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1994.
- Tan, Shaun. The Arrival. Hodder Children´s Books, 2007.