Friday, July 8, 2011

The Arrival

Quick Overview:
Title: The Arrival
Author/Artist: Shaun Tan
Released: 2006
Official Website:
Pros: Beautiful art; heartwarming story; unique blend of fantasy and realism
Cons: ...Nope, I've got nothing

The Arrival was one of those incredibly lucky finds where you're browsing in a bookstore with no particular goal in mind and your hand is trailing noncommittally along the rows of spines and then you get this feeling and you pull out a book as if it's actually pulling you in and it turns out it's the book you were always meant to read. You know?

So, that doesn't actually happen that often, but in the case of The Arrival, that's really how it felt. I've gone on to read most of Shaun Tan's other works, and they've been a rich source of inspiration and joy. Thanks, Random Browsing Fairy. You done right by me.

The story: Ominous circumstances force a man to leave his family and homeland to make his way in a strange new country. Separated from everything he knows, he is suddenly immersed in an overwhelming and alien environment. He spends a year working and acclimating to his new home and eventually saves enough money for his wife and child to come join him.

The setting: The setting is what really sets this graphic novel apart. The world of The Arrival is a unique blend of the real and the surreal, reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch's bizarre scenes but also thoroughly original. The language is indecipherable, the food is strange-looking, the animals are fantastical creatures, the architecture is bizarre-- even the clocks are incomprehensible. True-to-life, everyday details inhabit these eerie and magical dreamscapes, lending them an essential solidity that gives the viewer a lifeline of familiarity to hang onto. By creating such a bizarre, alien world, Tan is able to convey what it feels like to be an immigrant to a totally unfamiliar land, but the realistic details and well-rounded people lend a humanity and a kindness that makes this a story about friendship, family, love and home, rather than, say, a bizarre thrill-ride through Wonka's acid tunnel — leading me to tag this post with the highly improbable combination of slice-of-life and surreal.

The characters: The strangeness of the setting is nicely balanced by the down-to-earth, authentic, sympathetic people that populate the world. Despite the lack of dialogue or narration, the characters shine through with vividness. Tan's sensitive treatment of facial expressions and body language gives you everything you need to know. In addition to the main character, we are also treated to the backstories of a few others that he meets, revealing the (consistently tragic and horrifying) circumstances that brought them to this new land of opportunity. You will feel very attached to the main character and his family by the end, and feel comforted that they are among friends.

The art: The illustrations were created entirely with pencil, although they have a charcoal-like softness to them. They are sepia-toned, so please note that although I tag this as "black and white," that's only to make it more easily searchable. The images have a rich, though subtle, variety of color. Crinkled, water-stained textures permeate the pages, making your brand-new book seem like a precious artifact from another era. This antique aesthetic was what drew me to the book initially. This book is a comprehensive experience. No detail is overlooked. The spine, cover, title page, even the barcode and copyright page are made to look aged and well-traveled. The amount of time and loving attention that went into every facet is obvious. You can easily spend hours examining this treasure trove of a book, and no matter how many times you revisit it, it will always reveal something new to you.

The writing: Just because this book has no words doesn't mean it has no writing! It was extensively planned and researched. Many immigration stories served as inspiration, drawn from Tan's family history and various other sources. I highly suggest that you visit Tan's website and read his thoughtful and elucidating comments on the book's development. Also, The Arrival exhibits that superb pacing that only results from careful planning.

The bottom line: This is an absolutely unique, deeply inspiring, and thoroughly heartwarming gem of a graphic novel.

Rating: Five stars

>> Visit Shaun Tan's website here! <<

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