The best wordless comic I have ever enjoyed? Easily, hands down, without a doubt…
Shaun Tan, an artist and film maker from my very own Western Australia (my home for over 17 years), drew this extraordinary piece of work about an immigrant who makes the journey from his home country to a new land, obviously in search of a better life. He leaves behind his wife and daughter, and attempts to create a new home to live in, in the hopes that eventually his family can join him.
We watch him navigate the rigors of the immigration process and experience the confusion of making his way through an unfamiliar culture to find food, work, and a place to live. Along the way, he meets a variety of other characters, who have walked that road before him, each with their own stories to tell.
The art is beautifully presented in a sepia tone that draws to mind old photographs. The artist acknowledges that much of the story is inspired by the story of real migrants, and there are images which are clearly inspired by with parts clearly inspired by images real immigrants coming into the Unites States via Ellis Island (a very interesting place that is worth a look to any visitors of New York City).
The twist to all of this? Tan has basically invented the fictional, unnamed world that most of the story takes place in, and presents it almost like something out of a fantasy / science fiction environment. Nothing too crazy, but it’s a world that at first glance looks nightmarish – foreboding and creepy.
Everything throws us off. The language, the animals, the accommodation, the artwork, the modes of transportation, the kitchen utensils, the instruments, the food and the means for shopping for food…everything. Reading it for the first time filled me with a terrible sense of dread. I just felt like any minutes, something terrible was going to happen to this guy.
But the truth was that this world is not particularly scary at all, it’s just foreign. Or rather, we feel foreign as we explore it through our protagonist’s eyes. It’s an amazingly effective way of simulating the experience of entering into a new land and a new culture, which of course is what immigrant’s all experience. And just as he does, we get to become more and more comfortable with this strange environment, until it actually gets to feel like home.
I read this story to my children shortly after discovering it, if a wordless comic can be said to be “read”. I had to bypass only one or two images that were a bit scary – they were from the back-stories of some of the other migrants / refugees that the hero meets, and dealt with issues like war and genocide. My girls were completely engrossed by the tale, and enjoyed piecing together the story as it was revealed by the silent images. And in the process, they learned a thing or two about the experience of being an immigrant. Very apt, since their father, grand parents, and great grandparents were all immigrants or one sort or another (although of course my story of moving to Australia is not remotely as challenging or difficult as the story of The Arrival).
So a gripping story, a highly emotive read, with a strong sense of characterization…all without any words save the title. That’s quite an impressive achievement, I think, especially for a book I just happened to discover at the library originally (cool places, libraries. Get to try out books for free and stuff). This and comes highly recommended from me.