Graphic Novels (& Shaun Tan)
A clash between the super normal and fantasy
In a controversial decision in 2008, Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret — a 533-page graphic novel that seems part film script, part story board — won the American Library Association’s Caldecott Award, a prize normally reserved for a children’s picture book. The more appropriate prize, some argued, was the Michael L. Printz Award, ALA’s honor for a young-adult offering. Indeed, the precedent had been established the year before when the Printz Award had gone to Gene Yang for his graphic novel, the comic-book-like American Born Chinese.
This controversy points to a notable fact: Graphic novels are aimed at adolescents. While some bookstores mistakenly mix graphic novels and picture books, their real audience is not found among tots in love with Goodnight Moon, but teens keen on manga. Selznick and Yang are among the top artists working in this genre. At the top of the top, to my way of thinking, is Shaun Tan.
The public first took notice of Tan when The Arrival was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Book in 2007. The book itself looks like a beat-up suitcase, and it “reads” like an old photo album with its series of finely penciled pictures that resemble old snapshots. What is remarkable is that there is no text whatsoever; the reader must fill in the gaps between the pictures to comprehend the story being told. Tan, himself, provided the best summary of the story:
“The Arrival” is a migrant story told as a series of wordless images that might seem to come from a long forgotten time. 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.
What doesn’t come across in this summary is that the features of the “immigrant experience” — unfamiliar food, language difficulties, homesickness, separation, loss of status, comic misunderstandings, and the like — are graphically conveyed by means of surreal effects: the landscape of Tan’s foreign city sports odd teepee-like structures, the vegetables are gnarly and unrecognizable tubers, unprecedented pets beg for attention, and the language of the place (written in a script as confusing to us as it is to the book’s immigrant) seems extraterrestrial. To be sure, this world seems partly familiar: an odd variation upon turn-of-the-century New York and immigrant-thronged Ellis Island. On the other hand, the alienness the immigrant feels is conveyed by bizarre features more common to the hallucinatory stories of Franz Kafka and the fantastical paintings of Hieronymous Bosch.
This feeling of being “a stranger in a strange land” is, in fact, Tan’s preferred sensibility, a kind of acuteness which makes him attentive to the everyday. On his part, Tan has said that the immigrant in The Arrival probably reflects his discomfort growing up in Western Australia where he was “half-Chinese at a time when this was fairly unusual.” But he has also said that such alienness is a reflection of adolescence itself. And here can be found an explanation of Tan’s appeal among the graphic novel’s special demographic. Here, too, is an entrance to his newest book.
Tan’s Tales From Outer Suburbia presents a clash between the super normal and fantasy. This is the signature note of adolescence in our own time: where costumed young goths stride down suburban sidewalks, where the blankness of tract homes and their normative lawns provide only a staging area for extraordinary video-game fantasies and cinematic dreams of distant kingdoms, cosmic and colorful beyond the banal circumstances that give rise to them. If this is the flavor of contemporary adolescence, then Tim Burton aptly captured it in his terrific film “Edward Scissorhands.”
Welcome, then, to Tan’s Outer Suburbs, his Twilight Zone, where a Japanese guy dressed in an old diving suit knocks at a neighbor’s door and where a car is stopped in the countryside not by a herd of sheep, but by a flock of wind-up penguins. Here, every household has its own intercontinental ballistic missile; and when a guy beats his dog to death, the other dogs in the vicinity assemble and burn his house down. And as for holidays? In late August, folks climb their roofs and place their favorite possession under the TV aerial; then at midnight, along comes a blind reindeer who tenderly carries those beloved objects away. In these sixteen illustrated short stories, magic happens to ordinary people.
The wordless The Arrival showed that Tan was a visual genius. Who would have ever thought that he could write, too? But that’s the case. Tales From Outer Suburbia is full of well-crafted stories that suggest Tan’s place at the top of the world of graphic novels is entirely deserved.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (February 2010). For an extended discussion of Selznick’s new graphic novel, see my review of “Wonderstruck” for the San Diego Union Tribune.
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