Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 31

The Arrival

by Shaun Tan
Genre notes: wordless, immigrants
Pages: 128
ISBN: 0734406940 (Amazon)

The immigrant experience isn’t the kind of monolithic thing that can actually be described using definite articles like “the.” It’s not as if every immigrant’s entry into a new culture follows a singular, well-trod path. The circumstances of each individual’s introduction to and incorporation into a new national heritage are as diverse and variegated as the expatriated themselves. Still, there are certain commonalities that often crop up in every new experience — every immigrating instance — whether moving from one nation to another or simply moving from L.A. to Seattle. Or taking a new job or attending a new school.

What Shaun Tan does in The Arrival — and does marvelously — is propose a cross-section of these immigrant experiences in such a way that even the reader who has never breached his own comfort zone might empathize. Tan offers to involve the curious into an experience that is confusing, disorienting, and alienating. That is, Tan wants to make us all immigrants for the space of his book. And he succeeds wildly.

The Arrival follows the experiences of a man who leaves his wife and daughter behind in order to pave a new path and new fortune for them in a land brimming with possibilities. He’s abandoned a country beset by grave ills but his road through his new home is anything but smooth. He does not speak the language, does not recognize the customs, and misses his family terribly. He is a man lost and Tan pulls the reader into his experience first by making the book silent, cutting all dialogue or narration. Then, mounting on this already sturdy platform of alienation, Tan introduces a world filled with bizarre contraptions, foods, sciences, and rituals — and then asks us shuffle along with his protagonist. It’s wondrous and frustrating all at once. We feel for the poor immigrant because if it’s hard on us (outside the book with no investment greater than personal interest), then it’s exponentially more difficult for him, with his wife and child and their survival on the line.

Silent comics have long struck me as a gimmick. None of the wordless comics I'd read seemed to use silence to any narratively purposeful end and in none of those cases was the story magnified by its lack of words. The Arrival is the first work I’ve read in which silence is essential to the experience. Tan uses the absence of dialogue, narrative balloons, or sound effects to propel his story and any verbal addition would doubtlessly hinder his purpose.

The Arrival is one of the very best comics experiences I’ve ever encountered and is well worth your time.

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