Almost home: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

Chris Van Allsburg, meet Shaun Tan. He’s your long-lost son.

In The Arrival, Tan’s drawing style shares Van Allsburg’s lush use of charcoal, otherworldly architecture and creature design, muted color palettes, and the slightly ethereal fuzziness around the edges of figures that evokes sepia-toned photographs. The unnamed city teems with bustling life and odd contraptions—it’s a rich, full world. In the big panoramic drawings, which sometimes form two-page spreads, the cityscape feels almost overstuffed. Tan’s cramming in every interesting idea, stylistic curlicue, and exacting detail that he can think of. Sometimes, he plays with the conventions of the page itself, drawing and designing pages that look crumpled and dusty, with fake creases, as if his panels and pages have been folded, pored over, and carried around in a back pocket or a beat-up salesman’s portmanteau.

Tan’s book is, however, a continuation of Van Allsburg’s aesthetics, not a mere aping of them. By making The Arrival a comic, he animates the elder artist’s vision. The book has propulsive motion—it feels less like still photographs than like deteriorated film stock from the silent era.

As with silent cinema, Tan dispenses with dialogue altogether. His unnamed protagonist—unnamed to the reader, anyway—moves from a unnamed city and country to a new land. It could be New York City; it could be Sydney (Tan’s Australian); it could be San Francisco; it could be any seaport anywhere in the world where immigrants come to make a new life for themselves. As he walks from his home to the docks, sad wife and daughter holding each of his hands, we see giant jet-black, spiky dragon tails slithering around the tenement neighborhood. It’s a two-page spread, alarming in its free-floating anxiety—we never see dragon heads, but we know they’re there—and its oppressiveness. Those tails look like tendrils, encasing and smothering the city. No wonder the family wants out.

The drawing doesn’t want us to believe the city actually swarms with giant dragons—in a later full-page spread, as the wife and daughter walk home to the now-empty house, the tails look like shadows and smoke, which doesn’t make them any less threatening. Rather, Tan’s using fantasy in the right way—as a bravura, overloaded way of conveying symbolically the urgency of real-world terrors and hopes. The family isn’t actually beset by dragons, but oppressive governments and societies sure feel monstrous.

Just before the sequence, the comic begins with a succession of quiet panels. Each shows, in close-up, an aspect of the home the protagonist is leaving behind. A half-full teacup, a child’s drawing of the family, a clock, a hat hanging on a nail. The next page shows, in a 3 x 3 grid sequence of the man picking up a framed portrait of the family, lovingly wrapping it, and packing it in a suitcase. The page’s final panel shows a feminine hand darting out to caress the protagonist’s hands. In two pages, Tan devotes enough to this everyday scene to establish it fully in our minds, to give it emotional resonance, to make it stick. Good thing—it gets reiterated, and tweaked, later on in the book.

Throughout, The Arrival merges the quotidian with the fantastical. The protagonist’s arrival in the new city shows off all kinds of whoppers—animals and insects that have never been seen in nature, taxis and buses that fly, appliances that are dazzling in their oddness, signs and newspaper headlines in a hieroglyphic language that exists only in Tan’s imagination, fashion styles that could be Oriental as imagined by a Martian. Tan draws it in the same Van Allsburg-influenced way, which means the most wondrous things and the most pedestrian items are all bewildering and fresh.

It’s a precise, economical way of rendering a newcomer’s experience in any unfamiliar country. It all looks almost normal; most of The Arrival’s comedy comes from the man’s attempts to work with new devices and appliances. He gradually adjusts by learning to trust people, including himself, as he rushes headlong into job searches, grocery-shopping with unfamiliar foodstuffs, and explorations of neighborhoods and markets. Each supporting character, human and animal, pulses with life and specificity. These immigrants, somewhat new to the place themselves, tell their own stories of how they got to the City. Do we believe that one man, a new and dear friend, escaped from a place where giant men roamed the night streets with huge vacuum cleaners, sucking up citizens? No—but we believe in the environment he creates with his words (which, of course, we don’t see). After all, the mood evoked in the drawings feels a lot like real-life night raids and horrible visions of Kristallnacht dance in our heads. An old survivor of a war—he lost his leg, his village, and his wife—limps with our man to a gentle, florid pastoral scene in which a wonderful-looking game is being played outdoors with immigrants. It looks like a cross between bocci, marbles, and chess—we only see the gameplay in glimpses, but it looks like something we would want to play for hours and hours. Our man talks to a woman on the bus who came to the City as a child slave, but still finds enough goodness in her to teach him how to ride the bus. Nearly every major character has a pet, a delicately rendered animal that’s new to the protagonist and our eyes, and these animals are vivid and personable.

Every character has personality. They might be intended as generalized creations that symbolically portray various immigrant experiences, but they are also concrete, specific people. The same goes for our man, who might be naïve but who is clearly no dope. He’s an origami master, and his letters home to his family become swans and herons before he puts them in the envelope. He learns quickly, and is charming enough to make friends quickly, too. His formal attire and quietness hide a playful streak revealed in his love of his newfound pet—the cutest weirdass animal ever, seen on the book’s cover—and in a glorious dinner amongst new friends.

The Arrival’s pace is gentle. Tan modulates beautifully between eye-popping expanses and close-ups, slowly crawling interactions and action sequences. His evocation of silent cinema—think of the hallucinatory nature of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but warmer and more benign—and eye for weirdness and detail makes the reader slow down. My eyes wouldn’t let go of pages for minutes at a time, even after I’d absorbed the action that took place. Each panel sustains and deserves deep attention. The Arrival is not just the protagonist’s, but Tan’s as well—with this comic, he’s emerged as a major cartoonist and crafted one of the year’s best graphic novels.

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RELATED: Billy Mernit offers a lovely appreciation of The Arrival as well. I wrote about Chris Van Allsburg here.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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2 Responses to Almost home: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival

  1. Wow! Your very evocative appreciation of this book almost makes me feel I’ve read it already. I’m a sucker for atmospheric visual tales, so you made me anxious to check out The Arrival.
    Great, eclectic blog you have here!

  2. Walter says:

    Peet, thanks for your kind words. It’s a lovely book.

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