A Wordless Masterpiece: The Arrival (2006)
Here in the Basement, it’s not all Joe Don Baker and Italian virility with a side of beer. On occasion, we come across an artistic, beautiful, and inspiring work that we feel deserves attention. The Arrival, written and illustrated by Shaun Tan, is a graphic novel that relies solely on images. And no, we have not reverted back to children’s books where the absence of words provides a mindless visual pleasure. Rather, the complex imagery of this stunning novel boils the narrative down, letting the artwork tell a grander story. Dealing with a bizarre, dubious and extraordinary journey of immigration Tan’s story brings the viewer through a shockingly emotional scenario. This is not a story of a specific immigration or immigrant; it traverses the reader through a truly foreign experience making the feeling of alienation and uncertainty universally identifiable.
The story begins with a man and his family in a poor pre-industrial city; eerie dragonlike shadows loom over the city giving an ominous tone to the depressed images. We follow the father as he migrates to a foreign country to find a better opportunity for his family. He plans to migrate, find a job, and send for his family to join him. The richness of the images tells a story far beyond the simple narrative. Everything in the new country the father immigrates to is foreign. The animals, plants, structures, living quarters and language distort any past or present notion of the world, as we know it. In essence, the pictures take elements of our world and mutate them to become alien in order to intensify the foreign experience. Tan turns everyday situations and items on their head to make the story both identifiable with any culture and alien to all cultures.
However, for those of us that have not experienced emigration, the novel does not fail in equating our unfamiliar experiences, such as starting a new job, to this wonderful story. Immediately, the comic establishes a familiar anxiety and mystique with the viewer creating suspense that keeps the pages turning. Nevertheless, to ease our anxiety, the story creates a familiarity with certain characters that bring us from beginning to end.
The Arrival accomplishes three crucial elements: character development, cohesive plot structure, and unrivaled creativity exclusively through the use of static images. Like a silent film, the montage of images tells an interactive story in which the reader fills in the gaps. Perhaps the biggest accomplishments of the graphic novel are its ability to tell a coherent story without words, and how it creates an experience unique to the readers own life. Its themes of alienation, confusion and anxiety are all brought to life through Tan’s amazing artistry. All of this is brought together by the heart and warmth of the book, the ending themes of society helping each new generation learn and grow shows a bright side to the human condition that more often than not goes unnoticed.