The dividing line between comic books and graphic novels – for many – seems to lie in the question: “Would I show this to a kid?”
Maus, by Art Spiegelman, or When the Wind Blows, by Raymond Briggs, are astonishing reinventions of the art, claiming a space in literature that defies either category. Both opened up the creation of artworks that tell human stories; allowing emotion and empathy with the images to fill the space left by the absence of words.
Taking four years to research and produce, The Arrival stands alone – not just amongst graphic novels – but amongst all art. It is like stumbling across The Kiss by Auguste Renoir placed inconsequentially at the base of the stairs in London’s Tate Modern, or hearing Pachelbel’s Canon played in the midst of a mix of faded pop-songs.
Shaun Tan, at only 33, has taken the the world of picture books further than many, including such luminaries as Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (and you really must do yourself a favour and read The Wolves in the Walls to see how far the art has come).
Tan describes the book as follows:
“A man leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages. With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.”
And you are totally lost in this as well. Tan has created a surreal landscape, wordless and alien. Yet these are humans and the gestures and nuances are haunting, more so in that you can sense the frustration of being unable to be understood.
Tan has created a book that looks like an old sepia-toned scrap-book, filled with images that each tell their own story.
In one sequence, which is inspired by Ellis Island photographs taken during the period 1892 to 1954, the immigrant is subjected to a confusing and alienating arrivals process. Covered in squares of paper pinned to his clothes and carrying arcane symbols he tries to explain his presence and what he is fleeing.
Tan uses these sequences almost cinematographically, pulling away from his subject and exposing his remoteness and isolation.
Other immigrants offer their advice in the peculiar new land; and their stories. The “photographs” darken as their own tales of horror unfold, and then brighten as you realise that the escape has been worth it.
Each character is – Philip Pullman-like – accompanied by some bizarre creature. Our immigrant is “adopted” by a peculiar-looking cat-like tadpole which guides him through the city.
There are numerous vignettes, too many to mention, that are deeply emotional: his despairing search for work; his meeting with a group of work acquaintances to play a totally unfathomable game; his joy and run through the winter snow when his family finally arrives to join him.
My favourite is his being invited by a young family to dinner. Tan is the first artist I have seen to capture real laughter and human camaraderie. The dinner shared between new friends, the delight and joy in their faces, bodies and hands…
This is important stuff. Everyone, more or less, is an immigrant.
Too many nations have barricaded the doors against immigrants. The optimism with which these new arrivals enter a country are not shared.
Here, in Cape Town, Somali refugees are regularly attacked and murdered. One of my employees, a Zimbabwean – legally in the country – was picked up by police last week. He didn’t have his passport on him and was jailed for two days before his family were able to track him down and have him released. He was relatively lucky. Many “disappear” to a concentration camp near Johannesburg where immigrants are kept in an open cage, exposed and with only limited food and ablution facilities. There are families kept here. They have committed no crimes save that of fleeing despotism.
It is something that America, long the beneficiaries of the migration of the best that the world has to offer, should remember. No new wave of arrivals has ever been treated with much respect by their adoptive lands. Yet they are creative, ambitious and brave.
Tan’s book as a beautiful and poignant reminder of the hope that is within us all. Be sure, as well, to visit Tan’s web site for further images from his published works.