This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
The 2006 book The Arrival, by Australian cartoonist Shaun Tan, is typical of many ambitious graphic novels. It’s strikingly executed but thinly conceived. The protagonist is a young father who leaves his wife and daughter behind when he travels to another country in search of work. The appearance of him, his family, and their home suggests Europe during the first half of the twentieth century. But his destination brings to mind a New York City as reimagined by the great fantasy cartoonists Winsor McCay and Jim Woodring. Much of what the father encounters in the city is strange, confusing, and at times unnerving. He’s not in danger, though. It’s just an alien environment to which he has yet to become acclimated. The fantasy elements serve to make it alien to the reader as well. Tan’s obvious goal is to evoke the disorientation a traveler to a foreign country encounters, and in so doing elicit a greater sympathy for the immigrant experience. Unfortunately, there’s not much more to the story than this one idea. Possibly to compensate, Tan joins the conceptual slightness to a dense, flashy visual treatment. The story is wordless. It’s told entirely through the drawings, and Tan evokes the characters through their gestures and expressions. The panels are heavily detailed pencil renderings that are clearly intended to recall photographs. There’s no denying that Tan is a skillful draftsman and visual dramatist. But without a story that has the sophistication to complement the richness of the art, his work doesn’t amount to much beyond eye candy. The Arrival is far more a book to look at than to read.