Shaun Tan: Tales from Outer Suburbia
published in Australia by Allen&Unwin,
I do not understand the paradox of Shaun Tan. In a country with no tradition, and subsequently little undestanding, of illustrated books, from comics to picture books, Shaun Tan, who is essentially a creator of both, is revered as a national treasure. From the brouhaha that followed the publication of The Arrival in 2006, which went on to win every award available to a book, you would think that Tan had single-handedly discovered the graphic novel. And yet, while among the awards was the Angouleme International Comic Festival Prize for Best Comic Book, in Australia Tan was being awarded mainly as a children’s novelist and picture book artist, and many a visually-ungifted person was suggesting that keeping the hues of an entire page consistent, in order to achieve consistency of mood, was Shaun Tan’s ground-breaking invention, and loudly wondered what this new genre, this wordless book in which action was moved by – gasp! – images, was going to be called.
My hazarded guess would be that, while Australia seems to have inherited a healthy tradition of books for children from England, image still seems to be viewed as something suspicious, lascivious, out of control. As we are collectively descending into a willful misunderstanding of childhood, sentimentalised, idealised and fantasised into a fairy-tale for adults, children’s books have become part of this sacred area of life, in which we all strive to protect the untouchable purity of childhood. The double-edged fascination with Shaun Tan’s work seems to derive from a complex mixture of total charmedness with his work, usually interpreted as complex and imaginative children’s stories (rather than complex allegories for adults, which they could easily be), thus taking part in the holy battle against the McDonaldization of our children, and high incompetence in all things pictorial, adding a dash of blind reverie to the healthy respect. Whichever way, Tan enjoys a status that no other maker of images in this country currently has. The joy we derive from reading his beautifully crafted, and exquisitely printed books comes hand in hand with a moral uprightness that no other popular artist seems to beat.
It is, thus, commonly understood that Tan’s work stands apart from every book currently in existence: that The Arrival is not a graphic novel, The Lost Thing not a picture book, Tales from Outer Suburbia not a collection of illustrated stories. Why, with such adoration ready to be showered on one artist, Australia doesn’t have a healthier graphic publishing industry, is a mystery yet to be resolved. For now, though, Tan has achieved the stature that allows him to create as he wishes, and is using his freedom well.
Tales from Outer Suburbia is a slender book of great quality: fifteen short stories, ranging from traditional illustrated stories to two-panel illustrations with words. Tan dives head-on into the coherently, convincedly magical realm of childhood, recreating the solidity of all the beliefs children stick to whilst unable to prove. Treating the paradoxes of this outlook with the same seriousness he applies to the juggle of paradoxical beliefs that we call the adult life, Tan creates a malleable, colourful and softly uncertain world. When the two brothers in Our expedition embark on a quest to find what’s beyond the last pages of their father’s street directory, the reader is as uncertain as they are as to whether the city simply ends with a clear cut. Equally, in Alert but not alarmed, government-prescribed ballistic missiles in every back yard are slowly painted, decorated and turned into bird houses; whether one kind of swarm intelligence is better than the other is entirely up to you to decide.
Meanwhile, the mysterious asocial, and alienatingly denatured yet inurbane world of the Australian outer suburbia is, in Tan’s book, as grim and exciting as in real life, scrubbed of sentimentality, yet enchantingly full of possibilities. The mysteries in the book are not in the forest, beyond the hill; they are not immediate, dark and scary. No, they are the mysteries inside the neighbouring houses (as in No other country), the unimaginable vast society beyond the suburb (as in The Amnesia Machine), or in the behaviour of the transitory, alien people that populate outer suburbia (from Broken Toys to Stick Figures). Tan’s interest in migration, deeply investigated in The Arrival, is present again. In the wonderfully observed Eric, an exchange student asks questions that “weren’t the kind of questions I had been expecting”, while his mother comforts the host boy by saying that “It’s a cultural thing”. Coming to terms with the world of adults is paralleled by the learning that inevitably accompanies immigration in No Other Country, or even, in Grandpa’s Story, marriage. Unlike the magic possibilities of the Victorian mansion, or the industrial city, the mysterious possibilities of outer suburbia are less a function of its crammed fullness than its vagueness.
Tan, who has graduated in both Fine Arts and Literature, has a knack with the words, but the brilliance of his work stems really from his mastery of visual story-telling. In Outer Suburbia, there is never a word used where an image would be better suited, and no image inserted at any point in the story that isn’t just right. In Distant Rain, a collage of words and small images, is a stuttering, rhythmic story that changes colour with mood, and breaks into a two-page ominous climax just before the words rain down and the cloud dissolves into a pink, quiet epilogue. The entire centre of Grandpa’s Story, the honeymoon adventures of the narrator’s grandparents, are given over to panel-large images, and every turn of the page in Eric was considered in the terms of the accumulation of new information.
Small and unpretentious, Tales from Outer Suburbia is no more a children’s book than an illustrated, say, book of recipes would be. It is a pretty, light and deceivingly innocuous-looking read, equal parts whimsical and wise.