Author Spotlight: Shaun Tan

Picture Books For Adults: The Whimsical Art of Shaun Tan

Tales from Outer Suburbia

Arthur A. Levine Books, Hardcover, 96 pp.
February 1, 2009

Today’s graphic novels are striving to prove to literati that they aren’t just kids’ stuff. By tackling adult themes and employing sophisticated art styles, writers and artists like Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean have shown us what lies beyond the superhero weekly; in doing so they have changed our perception of what graphic novels can be. The Australian artist and illustrator Shaun Tan has, in his own way, been involved in this movement for years—in the medium of picture books written for adults. Despite his considerable talent, he received little American attention until the publication of The Arrival in 2006, in part due to the notoriety of his new publisher, Arthur A. Levine Books (of the Harry Potter series). Major trade magazines such as Publishers Weekly marveled at this innovative and intricate work, going so far as to call it a “timeless stunner.” But Tan still remains a relatively minor name in graphic novels. With the American publication of Tales from Outer Suburbia, a collection of illustrated short fiction, that could all change.

Tan’s art combines intricate detail with incredible breadth of scope. Each image creates a world replete with bizarre machines, animals, ecologies, and other quirks that only become apparent upon re-reading. Combining a sophisticated voice with a child’s-eye perspective and an aesthetic sense equally at home in the heartwarming and the macabre, Tan’s work is unlike anything we’ve seen before. This may explain why he has enjoyed little notoriety in the graphic novel community—his work surpasses its form as he treads into newer, bolder territory. Tan’s picture books celebrate the timeless art of book design, a point especially valuable in an industry where content is beginning to be considered without regard to form. His books don’t contain art—they’re objects of art. They speak to the children in us, but with adult sensibilities. Nostalgic but innovative, they address the core of why we read: to capture a slice of the wonders of imagination that came so easily to us in childhood.

Tan’s work leans toward the darker side of our imaginations. His illustrations for The Viewer—a story by Gary Crew about a boy who finds a viewfinder that tells the sordid history of human violence—are dominated by an apocalyptic sense of dread. But since the protagonist is a naïve child, they become a sick joke only we’re in on. This combination of childlike innocence and dark themes characterizes much of Tan’s work. The Rabbits tells the classic story of colonialism on an island of rabbits conquered by wheel-footed imperials. The Lost Thing is about a boy who discovers a giant semi-mechanical crab without any clear purpose; as no one else can see the lost thing and the boy’s attempts to get it noticed are ignored, we’re forced to wonder who the really alienated character is. The Red Tree is a deeply affecting collection of images with dark, simple captions (such as “the world is a deaf machine” and “without sense or reason”). One of Tan’s best and boldest books, the illustrations are tied into a narrative by the constant presence of a lone girl wandering through dystopian landscapes. Tan’s closest American contemporary is Tim Burton, whose movies for grown-up-kids evoke the same dark feelings that linger through childhood. But Tan’s art accomplishes more with much less, and is a hell of a lot scarier.

These images draw their power from Tan’s incredible attention to detail and wild imagination, no more apparent than in The Arrival. The book poses as a collection of sepia-toned photographs. They images are finely etched pencil drawings that perfectly capture minute facial expressions and the grandeur of entire cities—if only photographs looked this good. Contrasting this realism is a city cast into shadow by flying dragons, gargantuan zeppelins, lizards with feathers, incomprehensible contraptions, and fruits with tails. Nothing replicates the awe-inspiring newness of the immigrant experience like this imagery, coupled with details like ideograms as unreadable to us as Tan’s nameless protagonist. Though for all its fabulism, The Arrival is told with great restraint. Images speak perfectly without the aid of story of captions, and while it will leave no reader unaffected by its poignancy, it’s not a sob story.

Tales from Outer Suburbia moves Tan into newer, lighter territory. It’s a collection of vignettes about the strangeness that lurks under the surface of banal suburban landscapes. Some of the stories are almost entirely text while others are almost all image. Tan plays with his aesthetics as much as he does literary forms: some stories take the form of rich, realistic pencil sketches while others exhibit a brighter color palette than found in other works. But Tan being Tan, these baby-blues and bubble-gum-pinks are used to shade intercontinental ballistic missiles dotting backyards in a satire on arms escalation.

Overall, Tales from Outer Suburbia has a more accessible, cartoony feel to it than most of his other books. This new art style shows just how multi-faceted Tan’s talent is: every form he picks up immediately becomes intensely evocative, rich with meaning and symbolism. Many of the stories opt for the mysterious and heartwarming over the dark and despairing; Tan’s bold social commentaries are well balanced by simple but heartwarming stories. This project is more playful and experimental than Tan’s previous efforts, and the results are rewarding to match. With Tales from Outer Suburbia, Tan takes the picture book—and graphic novels as a whole—into brand new territory. It’s rare to see an artist this playful with forms who also provides deeply satisfying art, but beyond any abstract talk, Tan’s art will leave every reader—children and nostalgic adults—touched.

In many ways, Tan represents everything modern graphic novel artists want: someone innovative and familiar with serious artistic talent and a literary imagination to match. His work may be difficult to classify, but there’s an easy solution to that problem: give these fantastic art books their own display shelf.

Max Falkowitz is a regular reviewer for the online journals Curled Up With A Good Book (curledup.com) and The Book Report (bookreporter.com). He studies Psychology at the University of Chicago.

Click on the thumbnails for full-size images

Images courtesy of Arthur A. Levine Books

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