Shaun Tan’s The Arrival is a highly acclaimed graphic novel about immigration. There are no words in this graphic novel, allowing Tan to rely entirely on images to reveal the doubts and conflicts that his characters face. On his website, Tan explains that
In ‘The Arrival’, the absence of any written description also plants the reader more firmly in the shoes of an immigrant character. There is no guidance as to how the images might be interpreted, and we must ourselves search for meaning and seek familiarity in a world where such things are either scarce or concealed
Tan’s approach makes for a remarkably inclusive reading experience. Every reader is invited to empathize with the emotions that play across our unnamed hero’s face, particularly as he boards a ship without his wife and daughter to make a life for them in the new world. Without specific descriptions to guide our interpretation, it is difficult not to recall our own feelings of loss and uncertainty and imagine how we would face the many unknowns involved in immigrating to a foreign country.
Although The Arrival is distinguished by its many stylistic subtleties, the most memorable aspect of Tan’s story may be his imaginative depiction of the “new world.” If urban myths have taught us anything, it’s that we let our imaginations run wild when faced with uncertainty and mystery. Over time, we learn to repress that urge to romanticize the unknown, perhaps because we also simplify the complexity of other cultures during this process. Here, Tan takes the mystery of a new world and truly sets his imagination free, creating a fantastic world that is daunting, complex, and wonderful.
I was particularly impressed by the way in which Tan represents the violence and conflict that has, unfortunately, been a motivating factor for so many immigrants to leave their homes. Again, the scope of Tan’s vision is truly impressive. Each land has its own history, its own fashion, and its own architecture. Each land has its own problems and offers unique challenges and joys. We follow our hero as he explores this new country. Though often intimidated by the unknown, he is admirably determined to establish himself.
For SFF readers, The Arrival offers a powerful experience. It is possible to look at this story as an allegory of immigration to America. Our hero’s arrival on an island, where he is interrogated after waiting in line, particularly recalls Ellis Island. However, the power of Tan’s work is such that readers will themselves feel as though they are migrating into a new world, and isn’t that what SFF readers are looking for?
Many recommend Alan Moore‘s The Watchmen and Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series as examples of what the graphic novel is capable of. Perhaps we should also consider Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It is every bit as unique and powerful a creation.