(Published on a Thursday due to travel commitments...)
Shaun Tan's The Arrival was the publishing event of the year in 2007, one of the most breath-taking accomplishments I've encountered in the graphic novel form. (Read our interview with Tan.) Now he's back with Tales from Outer Suburbia, first published in Australia last year. It's a much different book and as quietly satisfying in its own way. With varying degrees of illustrative narrative, Tan weaves stories about beached ghost dugongs, foreign exchange students that look remarkably like leaf creatures carrying their belongings in peanut shells, alienated adults wandering neighborhoods in old-fashioned deep-sea diving gear, and a lovely two-page faux newspaper spread about an "Amnesia Machine," among other treasures. The quality and subtlety of both the black-and-white and color art reflects a deep understanding of how to use space. Nothing feels cluttered, everything feels balanced. And, in encountering Tan's written stories for the first time, I was pleased to find that text doesn't detract from his work. The Arrival gained its power from being mute, in a sense. But Tales from Outer Suburbia, while not as ambitious, achieves a pleasant balance between image and words. Even more fascinating to me is how Tan manages to capture the numinous in the mundane and insert the fantastical in ways that seem timeless and natural. In "The Nameless Holiday," Tan uses thumbnail illustrations to punctuate a short-short that ends:
What a remarkable, unnameable feeling it is, right at the moment of his leaping: something like sadness and regret, of suddenly wanting your gift back and held tight in your chest, knowing that you will certainly never see it again. And there there is the letting go as your muscles release, your lungs exhale, and the backwash of longing leaves behind this one image on the shore of memory: a huge reindeer on your roof, bowing down.
That unnameable feeling suffuses The Art of Suburbia, and confirms the wonderful, effortless nature of Shaun Tan's art.