“The Arrival” by Shaun Tan is a powerful achievement in pure visual storytelling. It strips away one of the major components of the graphic novel (the words themselves) and is able to tell the story of a man who immigrates to a new country to build a better life for his family. Every page is a testament to the power of juxtaposition of images in telling a story. From the very first page the reader is presented with nine separate illustrations that, on their own, seem like a random collection of pictures: a paper bird, a clock, a child’s drawing. But when placed one after the other you are able to effortlessly get a sense of a morning routine. Tan lets the images speak for themselves and it’s astounding to see how much information can come across with simple objects. There are also plenty of pages where actions are shown in a more step-by-step fashion. To me, these illustrations felt like slowly going through a flipbook. The movement on these pages almost comes to life like an animation.
While reading the story it took a little while for me to fully grasp the meaning of all the abstract elements in the novel. But looking back it’s rather genius on Tan’s part that he makes the reader feel this way early on in the book because it puts you in the shoes of the main character. You go from the relatable, natural world of his homeland to this chaotic, foreign, and at times disturbing new country. The novel illustrates the uneasy feeling of being in a foreign country where everything from food, language, customs, and currency are completely different from what you’re used to. By the time I got half way through the novel I started to get accustomed to this strange world and slowly understood what all these surreal monsters and objects stood for which is the same journey the main character follows.
The art in the novel is beautifully executed with an interesting blend of realistically rendered people surrounded by bizarre elements. Subtle color shifts in the panels indicate a change in tone, mood, or even flashbacks. The novel also uses the negative space in the page for storytelling as well. Some panels are framed as if they are old photographs or pages in a journal to represent people’s memories. Every aspect of this novel is used to convey something specific to the reader and it’s truly inspiring to see that all of this information can be absorbed without a single word.