A Cornucopia of Cliché

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The Arrival by Shaun Tan is the most overrated comic of the past year. Published more or less simultaneously in several languages, it seems to have received unanimously positive, bordering on rave, criticism since it came out — from the mainstream press as well as the comics cognoscenti. To cap things off, it was awarded the Book of the Year-award at Angoulême. Yet, it is little more than a big fat sap sandwich.

Its shortcomings are nothing new. Rather, they seem almost endemic to the modernist tradition of the socially engaged, silent picture-narrative that it naturally fits into. The mostly woodcut stories of artists like Lynd Ward, Otto Nückel and Eric Drooker that with a few outstanding exceptions — Frans Masereel, Palle Nielsen — equate the stark contrast of their graphic medium with their ethos and thrive on the bathetic.

The Arrival is a typical example of what often happens when a professional illustrator and concept artist tries his hand at storytelling. The book is a series of would-be impressive set pieces masking a simplistic, impersonal story. To be sure, Tan has a gift for the grand and has clearly put a lot of thought into his world-building. The level of detail and consistency that he has applied to the design of the different environments described in the book is impressive (this is his transferable skill after all). And it has obviously taken a lot of work to meticulously render all this in pencil, to tint it into variable tones of sepia, and to tastefully wither it in Photoshop. A lot of work.

Make no mistake, there are striking images here — the one of giants hoovering up churchgoers has justifiably been amongst the most reproduced — but the second look is less rewarding. Tan seems to subscribe to the antique notion, derived from Euclidian geometry, that everything in the world is reducible to the simple shapes of the cone, the cylinder, and the sphere. But he appears to take it, not as the projection of ideal forms on the natural world, but as a literal principle of design. So we have lots of geometric shapes here, and they look like they were folded from paper. There is very little weight to anything in this world, and even less depth. It is egalitarian and ephemeral in rendering, and for all the pencil hatching, lacking in the patina that would make it believable.

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Much worse, however, is the overbearingly sentimental tone of the book, which permeates not only the narrative, but the very fabric of its world. Its “universal” theme — immigration and belonging — is presented as a journey from chaos to utopia. We follow a man fleeing the spectre of calamity in the old country to a land of milk and honey beyond the far horizon. We experience his wonder of this brave new world and are meant to rejoice with him as he sends for his family to share in his newfound happiness.

Now, there is nothing wrong with taking an idealist approach to the theme — the utopia is a time-honoured device in art for the examination of the ways of the imperfect world we live in. The problem here is that Tan seems to expect us to follow in the tracks of a protagonist who is a complete cipher, and whose emotions are postulated rather than brought to life. Again, there is nothing wrong with employing archetypes, open to reader-identification, in this kind of story, but it can surely be done in a more involving way than it is here.

An example, close to hand because of the book’s obvious connection to silent film, is Charlie Chaplin’s immigration narratives. Similarly sentimental in outlook, Chaplin makes us share in the emotions of his characters, because he makes us care. He brings them to life by showing us their fallibility, their quirks, by describing their loves and struggles and by placing them in situations where they have to make important choices. All Tan’s cardboard-cutout manages is to marvel (probably at why he did not immigrate sooner).

The reader will be forgiven for hoping for a Huxleyan subtext that clearly is not there in the groomed scraggyness of the people the protagonist encounters on his way. Presented in all their multi-ethnic immigrant glory, the faces of these gruffly beautiful people appear chronically lit up at their deliverance from tribulation. And it does not help that every character is so obviously photo-referenced and therefore contributes to the narrative a starchy quality to go with the sap. Also, anything beyond the most generic of facial expressions seems to elude the otherwise technically accomplished draughtsman. This, perhaps more than anything, hinders any human insight he might have from coming across in his characters.

Down to its component parts, The Arrival thus works on the level of cliché. Pretty — even alluring, evidently — but shallow.

Shaun Tan, The Arrival, Hodder’s Children’s Books, London 2007. 128 pages, colour. £14.99. Many other national editions. More info at Shaun Tan’s website. And check out this interview with Tan, at du9.

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