Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Shaun Tan - The Arrival

I've mentioned before that I am a long-time comic fan. As young as five years old, I remember my father bringing home comics for me on a Saturday evening after a days work (usually titles such as the Beano, Dandy or Beezer). By the time I was 9 or 10 I was off to the newsagent every Saturday morning with my pocket money at the ready, eager for the latest editions of the large number of British comics available at that time (Whoopee, Whizzer and Chips, Buster, Monster Fun, Krazy etc etc). Not long after that I discovered superhero comics and added Spiderman, Batman, Hulk, Captain Britain and more to my ever expanding list.

Comics played such an important part in my childhood, and it saddens me that the great institution of the British comic is now all but dead. Pop into your local WH Smith's and you'll see dozens of comic titles, but they are all now TV related ones (Simpsons, Shaun the sheep, Sponge Bob, Thomas the Tank Engine etc). Although barely recognisable from their heydays, the Beano and Dandy are still there… just. Clinging on for dear life with an ever reducing readership (consisting mainly of adults keeping up their childhood addiction), but I fear the end is in sight for them both.

I'm sorry that my son won't have the thrill of those weekly titles containing the adventures of a dozen or more regular characters -- and what about those Christmas annuals?! Always top of my list for Santa every year! I still maintain it was comics that really got me excited about reading, and books.

Since my childhood, I think I've only ever had one big falling out with the comic medium -- the obligatory split around 16/17 years old, when you decide comics are for kids, "and I'm not a kid!". Ironically, visit any American comic book shop these days, and you'll notice an incredible amount of the titles on display are marked "for mature readers only" -- yup, even the comic book has now grown up (in America at least).

The sheer number of US comics is mind-boggling -- maybe 70 or 80 titles released every single week. By default a lot of these are mediocre to say the least, and my enthusiasm for comics does go up and down as a result. These days, superheroes are probably my least favourite type of comic, and I concentrate on real-life stories by the likes of Harvey Pekar, Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Joe Sacco, Terry Moore, Jeffrey Brown, Kyle Baker, The Hernandez Brothers, Alan Moore, Eddie Campbell etc, but these gems are few and far between.

I guess one criticism I have of the current comic industry is that it has all become a bit safe and formulaic. Enter Shaun Tan – a 34 year old Australian artist who for the last 10 or 12 years has been writing and drawing children's storybooks. He suddenly decides he'd like to try his hand at a graphic novel, despite having never even read one! Freed of the chains of comic book protocol, Tan has broken the mould and re-written the graphic novel formula. And never has the word 'graphic novel' been more apt too, as apart from its title -- The Arrival -- it contains not a single word of dialogue, yet it says more than any of the titles currently on the shelf. It's is a thought-provoking and moving story about immigration, and as there are no words, I can't say for sure the period the story is set in, however I'd guess it’s around the 1950s.

Starting in the homeland of the central character, you experience his anguish, as he makes a heart wrenching decision to leave his family, and go in search of a better life for them. Tan’s background in children's books means he has learnt to use pictures to describe stories, and he expertly conveys the oppression and fear that has gripped the country they are so desperate to flee. The character takes a boat to a foreign land, and this is where the book really comes into its own…. A number of reviews have described this book as 'surrealist', and whilst the drawings do take an odd slant at this point, the reason behind it is pure genius. Experiencing this new world (which I think may be New York, but I can't be sure) is confusing, lonely and scary to our man, and by using a surrealist style to draw this new city, its inhabitants and machinery, you actually get to experience these feelings too.

At one point, the central character needs to travel further afield, and in order to do so, is faced with a bizarre looking object full of leavers, dials and funnels. He stands completely perplexed by this alien machine, until a kind-hearted passer by operates the machine for him. This was the point where I first ‘got it’, as it instantly reminded me of foreign holidays where simple tasks like buying a bus or train ticket, suddenly become the most stressful situations imaginable! The book continues in this vein as our man struggles to find a place to stay, food and work. The story grips you from start to finish, as he desperately tries to carve out a future for his family.

With The Arrival, Shaun Tan has instantly created one of my all time favourite books (of any medium), and completely rejuvenated my interest in graphic novels a result. I’ve been through it maybe 15 times already, each time spotting something new. The artwork is without doubt the best I’ve ever seen in any comic\graphic novel, and the story brings out just about every emotion.

If you've always avoided comics, thinking they are 'low rent' or 'kids stuff', but you like great stories, great story telling and incredible artwork, this intelligent book is likely to change your opinion forever.

You can buy The Arrival here at Amazon, or just check out yet more glowing reviews!

Visit the Official Shaun Tan Website here



Anonymous said...

looks a winner piley. you could convert me yet.


Mondo said...

Now that's a post waiting to happen 'Whoopee, Whizzer and Chips, Buster, Monster Fun, Krazy' etc..

I'll read almost any ol' comics based shite ('Saga Of The Super Sons' anyone?)so this Tan chap may make a refreshing change from so much stodge and formula

rockmother said...

I might have to go and buy a job lot of Whizzer and Chips on ebay. I collect 60's and 70's Ladybird books and regularly foist them on my 6 year old - he loves them. So many kids comics/books now are really badly illustrated. The only comic I hated was La La La La la Look-In. Crap.

Anonymous said...

I loved Thursdays as a kid as this was the morning the newsagent would deliver the new radio and tv times which I would get up at the crack of dawn to scrutinise in search of films to watch and radio plays to listen to the following week. If I was lucky Spideman Comics Weekly would be tucked inside too and later on Planet of the Apes which was one of my obsessions too.

I also liked Krazy, monster fun and horror film magazines like House of Hammer and the banned Monster Mag which I now have a full set of as pdf files on dvd. Great times :)

Piley said...

thanks guys n gals... you nailed it PH, it was the thrill of getting each and every new issue. it would keep me quiet for hours reading and re-reading them.

Started buying the Beano again since I did this post, and it's actually a lot better than I thought it's be - still a few familiar characters too!

Anonymous said...

This one takes me back a bit. I remember rushing home from school Monday lunchtimes (carefully avoiding the cracks in the pavement of course) to have something to eat and a quick read of the latest edition of Beezer before heading off back to school. Biggest disappointment was discovering that the free gifts weren't for ever but just long enough to lure gullible youngsters like me in.

Anonymous said...

Having got a copy of Shaun Tan's "The Arrival", I would seriously recommend it. The artwork is superb, and you can spend as much time with the story as you like. But the more you look, the more you will receive.