To begin on a personal note, I'm surprised that I didn't read The Arrival when it first came out, considering how celebrated a figure Shaun Tan is in Australia. I do remember making a perfunctory search for his works at a few Brisbane comic book stores before losing interest. Shows how much I know. In retrospect, Tan's book now seems almost a timely response to the wave of xenophobia then sweeping the country. This is far from a polemical work. Rather, Tan chooses to address the history of modern diasporas in broadly universal terms.
Shaun Tan came to the comics medium from the completely different tradition of children's book illustration. So he was a virtual unknown to most comic book fans despite significant mainstream recognition, especially in his home country of Australia. It also may not have helped with certain segments of comics fandom that the children's book illustrator's approach to narrative art emphasizes divergent aesthetic qualities from most comic book art. Tan's use of graphite to draw photorealistic images, reminiscent of Chris Van Allsburg, is unusual for comics. But such lavish rendering is not atypical in children's picture books.
One consequence of Tan's illustrative style is that it prevents him from utilizing many of the narrative conventions and iconography found in comics. But I suspect that Tan is either too unlearned or uninterested in those techniques to have taken full advantage of them anyway. Instead, Tan employs the virtuosity of his art to draw sepia-toned images that are strongly suggestive of old passports and faded photos of immigrants coming to the New World. This creates an impression that one is looking into someone's past. But the art also has a sensuous quality, not just as a found object, but also within the images themselves. At the story's beginning various household objects are seen in isolation through a series of small panels before the view pulls back to reveal a family of three packing them into a suitcase. The quiet poignancy of the domestic scene is cut short when the trio steps outside into city streets full of crumbling tenement buildings being menaced by enormous, dragon-like coils. These objects have a powerful literal presence within the panels. But both the coils and buildings simultaneously work as metaphors for the dire conditions that are forcing the family to flee to a better place. The surreal imagery works to a great extent because of Tan's detailed artwork.
The father's exodus grows increasingly fantastical. The first part of this book heavily references contemporary photos of immigrants traveling to and being processed at Ellis Island: from the cramped conditions of ships steerage; the New York style skyline; and the bureaucratic nightmare immigrants experienced when being processed by the government. But the promised land they finally enter looks like a combination of a 20th century metropolis, an abstract expressionist landscape, and a child's play-land, with a hint of Jim Woodring's "The Unifactor". Elevators and mailboxes are carried by balloons, birds look like origami fold-outs, people commute on flying boats, and family pets all look like eccentric cartoon animals. This is a wondrous and somewhat frightening utopia where people from other parts of the world have fled from tyranny, slavery, and war - truly a "New World".
While Tan's page layouts and panel compositions are conventional, he has an intuitive grasp of comics-style pacing. Small square panels portraying little details and nondescript actions carry the reader along until the view expands with the use of page spreads to include a larger tableaux. The uniform simplicity of his panel arrangements and the photorealism of his art are sometimes reminiscent of cinematic storyboards and the sequences of Eadweard Muybridge. I particularly liked how the characters communicate through subtle movements and small gestures instead of more typical over-the-top posturing. His narrative is assured, controlled, and easily accessible to the mainstream reader.
I mentioned at the beginning that The Arrival almost seems like a response to the widespread anti-immigrant sentiment of the time. However, Tan neither directly addresses the casual or institutionalized racism that immigrants experience in reality. The story is primarily an aspirational tale, and the overall mood is one of hope. Needless to say, this is one that mitigates some of the negative consequences of personal displacement. There is no fear and hate in the New World. There is just some culture shock, temporary unemployment, and the drudgery of working in menial factory-based assembly line production. This makes the story less than totally convincing to adult readers. Some will probably find it a naive fantasy. But in choosing to concentrate on the personal rather than the political, Tan focuses on the transformative nature of the immigrant experience - Every person is in search for something better for themselves and their loved ones. Is it wrong to want that? Conveying this message to today's younger audience may actually be a better answer than writing a more vitriolic work. Maybe...