Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A silent Arrival

A couple weeks ago, just before reading Laika, I took the opportunity to pick up Shaun Tan's 2006 graphic novel The Arrival from the library.

Claire bought The Arrival as a gift for her cousin, who at the time was exploring her family's immigration from China, about a year ago. While it looked intriuging laying on our floor prior to the gift-giving, I never bothered to pick it up as I literally judged the book by its cover. The sepia-toned cover of a man looking at what appeared to be a small alien made me think of it as a sci-fi novel, and I avoided it. Mistake.

In the book, we follow an unnamed immigrant who begins a new life. He starts off saying goodbye to his family in what seems a familiar (perhaps Eastern European) land at the turn of the last century. As he crosses the ocean, we start to see a little bit of strangeness. His fellow passengers, for example, seem a motley bunch. They dress unusually (compared to our immigrant) and are not at all ethnically homogenous. As the ship approaches the new country, we see unusual, unidentifiable birds fly by. The ship comes into a port dominated by strange statues, wild architecture and populated by strangely dressed people of an indeterminate race. We follow the immigrant around in his explorations where even the alphabet is strange, where the food seems unusual and people keep what seem to be aliens as pets. We are as disoriented as the immigrant, and that's the point.

Oh yes, there's not a single written word in the book. The story is completely art-driven.

I caught on pretty quick to The Arrival's main twist: the fantastical creatures and landscapes are simply meant to represent a new immigrant's disorientation in a strange land. But that's fine, it's not meant to be a Sixth Sense-type reveal and I certainly don't think it's a spoiler to talk about it. The beauty in Tan's approach is that had the artist taken the straightforward approach of realistically showing an immigrant going about his business in 20th Century America or Australia, we wouldn't empathize as much with the protagonist because we wouldn't feel the same sense of disorientation the immigrant feels.

As for the other distinguishing feature of the book, silent comics have been around for decades. The first one I remember reading was 1986's Marvel Fanfare No. 29, a fun John Byrne Hulk story that had been pulled from the regular series due to Jim Shooter's editorial interference (despite continuing Byrne's underrated split-Hulk storyline and having a key appearance in the ongoing line-wide Scourge story). Marvel again went silent in December 2001, with "'Nuff Said!" -- a nearly line-wide run of silent comics named after Stan Lee's famous catchphrase. That event was a mixed bag, but did reveal some gems.

The trick works well in The Arrival. Tan's art, though it looks like it was sketched with charcoal, is crystal clear. Tan is a good storyteller, with a clear panel flow. Despite the intentionally unfamiliar surroundings and backgrounds, I never once had trouble following what was going on. The immigrant's adjustment to his new home, his search for work and his quest to reunite with his family are all well-documented despite nary a sound effect.

(Below: No words, no problem.)

The Arrival is a fine addition to one's graphic novel library. It has a unique style which combines both extreme realism and the fantastic, often in the same panel. Tan's work will appeal to anyone with an interest in the struggles of the immigrants which made up this country.

(Update: Aug. 28, 2009. Upon further reflection, I now recall that Marvel Fanfare 29 is not completly silent, it just includes long stretches of art without dialogue. The story is still notable, however, in that it is composed entirely of splash pages.)

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