The Arrival by Shaun Tan, an Australian illustrator, is the second standalone book to be featured in A kind of comic book life series, but, in all other ways it is a very different kind of story telling.
What makes this work particularly unusual is that it contains no depiction of spoken language from the characters; everything is told through the visuals alone. Many reviewers have compared it to a silent film, not every cell is there to tell an immediate story but adds to the feeling of watching something unfold, such as a sky changing whilst at sea to denote the passage of time or a plant passing through each stage of its growth depending on season.
The story, or stories as there is more to The Arrival than one character’s experiences, is based on the idea of what is it like to move to a new country where you don’t know the language as a native speaker, the particular customs or cultures and where you have no friends and family to help you acclimatise.
The opening scenes of The Arrival show a man preparing to leave his home. The careful packing of one last item, a family picture to take with him, after a breakfast meal. What is it that is driving his need to leave, particularly with a wife or partner and young daughter who will be remaining in this place? As you turn the pages you see one possible answer. What are the unfurling, spine-laden tentacles or vines that spread through the landscape of houses?
The early scenes of the book are inspired by recognisable experiences of immigration in late 18th to early 19th centuries. On arrival at a nameless city the fantastical emerges again more strongly. This is beautifully done, not just artistically but in the way it creates an emotional bond between reader and character. Where do I find a place to stay, what are these strange creatures people seem to carry, hold or have following them, how do I ask questions of the citizens, is that food I can eat or something else? These can be beautiful, gentle and funny encounters as well as confusing, painful and frightening. The unknown surrounds the reader as much as it does the nameless male character.
Each person in the new city the nameless man gets to know all have their own story and they are ones of war, enslavement, mass destruction. The city is revealed to, at least partly, contain a population of people who have been able to build new lives away from murder, oppression and genocide. But the horrors of those experiences are not what The Arrival is truly about, it is what comes after. It is the hope of something and somewhere better, the reality of a safe and stable place to live and work, a place that accepts. That is what suffuses the story and makes it an incredibly powerful one.
The artwork is graphite-drawn, with digital colouring that creates the look of a historical document from some other age and place and it is magnificent in detail and richness. As a reader you can spend hours pouring over the illustrations trying to figure out meaning or to suddenly notice something you didn’t see in quite the same way before.
More can be read about the background to The Arrival’s creation, and other illustrated works, at Shaun Tan’s website.