Dancing with Deliberation Through the Magic Kingdom

The Arrival

Much is said by the cover alone. Of the two figures in the center, one is unadorned, the other whimsical. An impression of foreignness is given off, but both are realistic, and logically occupy the same space. The book will trade heavily in impressions, but its logic will bring some trouble.

This is unquestionably among the most honored books you're likely to find on the shelves right now. It just won the Fauve d'Or best comic prize at this year's Angoulême International Comics Festival. It's also received honors from the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards and the Children's Book Council of Australia, and has appeared on many 'best of' lists, sometimes at the top. The US edition, a handsome $19.99 hardcover, is published by Arthur A. Levine Books, a division of Scholastic.

The author is Shaun Tan, an Australian creator of picture books, political cartoons and animation concept art. His gift for dazzling visuals is evident on every page of this project, a wordless account of a man's experiences in the new world he's immigrated to, hoping to establish a home for his wife and daughter to later join him in. And I really do mean a new world.

It's a sturdy fantasy to behold. Tan works in pencil, in a heavy realist mode. His human characters are actually nearly photorealistic, and cleverly made to 'act' in a manner evoking silent film, where gesture and expression are vital. Tan furthers this theme through his use of monochrome 'tints,' even adding artificial damage to some images, which also suggests the crumbling photographs of a scrapbook. The weight of age rests on everything; all of the people, even the apple-cheeked kids, are ancestors.

As you've no doubt seen in previews somewhere, Tan also pairs his human figures up with a wide variety of fantastic symbols, all of them as tactile as a wall or a cat, sometimes layering and layering elements to the point of visual overload. These aren't all familiar symbols either; many are suggestive of moods, or evocative of broad feelings, as are the towering structures that dot the world.

So, when Tan's everyman leaves his house at the start of the book, we can readily see that his homeland is in acute distress. The high, slate walls of local buildings are sketched over with lines and cracks, rising up toward uneven roofs - these are rows of homes a (large) child could knock over. On top of that, spiny and black tendrils wrap and whoosh around the alleys, darting up and down. We see an arm, or the suggestion thereof, here and there; are they dragons? Maybe. Or they could be famine. Or war. Other horsemen too. But we trust they are bad, all details left for the back of the reader's head.

The new world the traveler arrives in is different; there are white balloons and odd little beasts, curved architectures and sun patterns, obscure technologies and unreadable writing. This, of course, forces the reader into the same awed, uncomprehending position as the immigrant. No worries, though - everyone in the new world is kind and helpful, and blind to race or creed. Our man encounters several other migrants, all of whom share their own tales of flight -- marching off to war only to lose a leg and a town, evading faceless giants that vacuum up churches and leave blank stones -- all while helping him to establish the new face in society, so that his family might come over and complete the cycle, by showing even newer people around.

This very simple story, and those very heavy images, are presented in an astonishingly controlled array of grids and splashes, timed out expertly into visual beats. I swear, you can dance to this book. There is probably a mathematical formula out there that will result in this book. It is airtight. Often, individual rows of panels dictate shifts in viewpoint, or content.

For example, Tan expends half the page above on establishing the arrival of a fleet of airboats. Their gentle approach is bolstered by the size of the sky, in which they seem to flutter like feathers, contrasted with the large human figures in the foreground. But the next row of panels render the people tiny, so as to present the moment-by-moment landing of one of the crafts, actually quite large. The final row again breaks focus to follow our man (and his wiggly pal) as he approaches and interacts with agents of the boat itself.

It's a basic one-two-three pace, although sometimes broken up into faster, alternating beats. Note the out-in-out-in perspectives of the below page, the darting viewpoints creating a sense of poking invasion on the body; the fourth row breaks the pattern, signaling the end of our man's physical examination, but still retaining the anxiety of his inability to understand the new world.

Other pages adopt different, but equally intuitive manners of expression. One double-page spread contains nothing but tiny images of shifting clouds, given alternating tints to convey the passage of time. Another spread depicts a single sprout bursting and mutating over four long rows, each one indicative of a season, with the sprout adopting seasonal characteristics to match. Patterns and page designs recur, so as to establish familiarity and contrast, and convey the immigrant's growing familiarity with his new home.

I was greatly impressed by how simple Tan's visual pacing was, and how much it did to render his layered images easy to digest. Tan's own notes on the project suggest that he's not very familiar with comics at large, and essentially broke his illustration approach down into simple applications of cinematographic principles to the page - this again feeds into the silent film motif, and explains the artist's flair for long pullbacks across panels. Tightly measured, of course. Accessibility seems the goal, and Tan succeeds richly; his fantasy images are never hampered by showy tricks or tortured arrangements, all the better to soak in those rich impressions.

But, at the same time, The Arrival is a seperate, more disquieting fantasy. Taken on a literary level, it is a fable of a society of friends, a melting pot of a strange, constant simmer. There is no exploitation beyond the grinding, perhaps automatic clank of industry, pictured as a characteristically large engine running in the back of a workshop. There is no racial strife, no homeland quarrel transplanted to new soil. All of the threat in this new world rises from misunderstandings: of commerce, language, fauna.

In contrast, the threats the drive people away from their original homes are immense. Godly. Seemingly beyond understanding. Even when young men march off to war, we are denied any glimpse of the other men, the ones that blast legs off before falling under bullets and bayonets. It is not a war; it is war. The former can be understood in human and political contexts. The latter is as good as a flying tendril, be it poverty, or a menacing giant, manned by pogrom. We don't see the men, though.

It's a fitting approach for conveying the impact of massive social or political or economic threats on individuals, even as it strips them of the awareness that many conceivably would have of their situations' contours. But my real concern is one of juxtaposition; by presenting the old world troubles as so mighty as to defy human understanding, then positing a new world bereft of obvious dangers that cannot be overcome through simple understanding, the book effectively eliminates the potential for progression.

The new world is a pure haven, with only conformity necessary to enjoy its fruits. But will that steaming engine ever scald or crunch a worker? Tan's pencils are too precisely furious to suggest that it won't, but I'm not left with the impression that his people could ever stop it. People don't do anything wrong. They are hopeful, yet ineffectual.

In that way, a weird charge of resignation jolted my ride through this smooth, well-tuned book. I don't fault its idealism, nor its narrative simplicity. Its visual power can't be denied. But that very power, that layered symbolism, proves as ominous as wonderful when read as a whole, a reading encouraged by the book's mechanics. It works in metaphor, yes; an editorial cartoon in this style would be one thing, but this is a book of pages, which serve to round an environment, and thus suggest the implications of that environment. It is a fable of hope, yet focused enough on small movements that the reader comes to think of the individual stones as well as the spires, and trips down the steet more than the street itself.

What a beautiful kindgom to be in, and what a shame to be faced, by implication, with only the chance for another escape when the icons come to snarl.