Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Wordless World: Shaun Tan’s Approach to the Silent Graphic Novel

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Catharine Charlesworth, to our group.

Opening Shaun Tan’s The Arrival feels like cracking the spine on an old, treasured photo album. Both written and illustrated by the Australian artist, the entire book looks as if aged by time and travel: from the cover, with its seemingly-tattered binding and leathery texture to the washed-out sepia tones of the illustrations. This motif is entirely appropriate, as The Arrival reflects on immigration, of the wonder and confusion of making a new life in a foreign land. The narrative follows a nameless protagonist: a young father, who leaves his wife and daughter in their monster-ridden homeland to travel overseas in search of work, in hopes of making enough money to bring his family to live with him. The Arrival tells a classic immigrant story, and Tan’s design choices help him to convey it in a way that appears both familiar and fantastical.

Unlike most graphic novels, The Arrival tells its story entirely in illustrations. A wordless graphic novel, it contains no speech bubbles, no textual narration – no real written language of any sort. Because of this, the characters lack – in the traditional sense – any explicit internal dialogue or distinctive voice. Yet Tan has done this intentionally. His lack of detailed personality makes Tan’s hero a sort of Everyman: a character onto whom the audience can project their own experiences of immigration and transnationalism. The story at the heart of The Arrival has been told before, in many different tongues. To make this fantastical version accessible to cultures worldwide, Tan tells it in the transcendent language of images. The only written “words” in the book are in a made-up alphabet. These represent, rather than any particular phrases, the idea of writing, and its ability to baffle, humble, and alienate one who does not understand it.

Tan’s choice of format tests the boundaries of the print comic medium. The Arrival either sinks or swims based on the strength of its artistic direction: its pictures have to tell the entire story, without relying on words for clarification or supplementation of meaning. Yet Tan pulls this off beautifully, wielding various visual techniques to bring the reader into his world.

The most striking of these for me is Tan’s use of colour, which he applies with incredible subtlety. At first glance, the book appears fairly monochromatic, with most of the illustrations done in sepia tones. Yet as the book progresses, I found that the colour scheme actually shifts in subtle ways, with some pages done in cold, hopeless grays, while others are drawn in warmer tones. The panels step from the cool green of spring to the warm yellow of summer, from the red and brown of fall to the blue and grey of winter. This gradient, when combined with illustrations of moment-to-moment changes in a plant’s life cycle, produce the illusion of passing time and emphasize the cold that descends upon Tan’s fantasy world. He later uses both changing clouds and the monotonous repetition of an assembly line, these images evoking sound and movement without the need for textual buttressing. Rather than using abstract symbols to convey the emotions of his characters, Tan relies on simple, universal aspects of body language and facial expression, and changes the colour and texture of the outside world to reflect his character’s inner states.

Tan renders his figures in a realistic style, giving most of his characters distinctive features. He displays his skill at portraiture in the lining of the book, with a series of “passport photos” of men and women from various cultures, using a slightly different hue for each panel. Although they are not characters in the novel, these faces are meant to evoke in the reader a memory of real individuals, emphasizing from the outset the universal nature of The Arrival’s story. The exception to this is the protagonist, whose face is nondescript and who dresses in a plain, Western-style suit and hat, with no real embellishment or detail. Thus the hero takes on the role of any immigrant father, allowing the reader to cast the hero as someone they know or have heard of, and putting a greater emphasis on the story rather than the specific person. As comic artist and author Scott McCloud argues (Understanding Comics, 1993), “if who I am matters less, maybe what I say will matter more.”

Tan’s style places these familiar people in a visually alien world; yet while his human characters are certainly stylized, it would be a stretch to call them “cartoon-y.” The mysterious plants and animals that populate Tan’s fictionalized world, however, appear quite abstract and impossible – yet a unity of shading, colouring and texture has them fit in seamlessly beside his realistic humans. Their fantastical design appears quite alien at the beginning of the book, but as the story progresses, I – like the protagonist – grow accustomed to this new world’s quirks and enchanted by its magic.

By combining muted colours, soft outlines and natural lighting, Tan makes his fictional country both real and familiar yet still foreign and fantastic. His repeated use of panel grids emphasize the day-to-day, moment-to-moment struggles faced by his immigrant protagonist, while remaining visually reminiscent of the careful layout of a family photo album. By illustrating textured pages and borders, meant to evoke worn photographs and powerful memories, Tan stresses the age-old nature of his narrative, finding unique ways to mark changes in time and perspective. Contrasting small details with massive landscapes and the mundane with the impossible, Tan evokes feelings of fear, of longing, of wonder and of joy, all by simply showing rather than telling.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently interning in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

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