02 July 2009

It Turns Out He Can Write

Shaun Tan is best known in the US for The Arrival, his wordless picture book in comics form. His Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of surreal vignettes told, for the most part, in a more traditional illustrated-book format. There are a couple of spreads with art and text mixed together, but more often we see narrative prose matched with full-page illustration.

Almost like a real picture book, one might say. Except that the reading level is higher, and the sensibility much higher, probably even adult. Yes, most of the vignettes include a child's point of view and are perfectly readable, but I suspect it requires more perspective to appreciate them fully.

Tan's illustrations come in a variety of styles--some color, some grayscale or sepia; some sketchy and others rendered in detail; some heavy with lines and cross-hatching, others painted in splots of color. Yet they share a common visual style that links them to The Arrival.

Similarly, Tan's prose has hallmarks that extend through most of these pieces. Even though some of the anecdotes take place at specific times and others are general descriptions of Life (or How It Used to Be), they share a sense of absolutes. Such words as "always," "never," and "everyone" appear a lot.

We don't get a chance to know many individual characters; the pieces are too short, and I also feel a sense of distance or disconnect between people on top of the surrealism. But we do get a sense of this suburban society--or is it societies? In other words, we do get a sense of everyone.

To my tastes, nothing in the book surpasses the first two vignettes, "The Water Buffalo" and "Eric." But all together Tales from Outer Suburbia adds up to an experience as well as a book.

[ADDENDUM: And it turns out Tan can speak, too. But I need time to tune into his Australian accent. Graphic Novel Reporter is featuring three videos of Tan drawing and talking about the friendly creature from The Arrival. At least I think that's what he's talking about.]

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