Graphic novels are often an underrated artistic medium. Mere comic books given a fancy name to sound more serious, naysayers might say. Super hero pulp blended with a saccharine, undeveloped imagination. Not the stuff of serious thought-provoking art, which plumbs the depths of human experience.
This graphic novel proves that pictures do in fact say a thousand words. Tan relies on exquisitely drawn monochrome pictures tinged with a touch of gold to tell a story about an immigrant who leaves behind his wife and daughter to arrive in a new land of opportunity where balloons lift personal elevators, flowers look like origami suns, and airships fly across clouds that change their shape. Instead of words, Shaun Tan effectively tells his story through facial expressions, implied interactions between characters through a mixture of visual context and body language, and stunningly powerful imagery. The work captures the alienation and strangeness immigrants experienced when first arriving in America with ingenious use of the fantasy milieu.
Besides the main character’s story, the reader encounters many other immigrants who have stories to tell. These immigrants from other distant fantastical lands come for many reasons: to escape war, to find freedom from slavery, economic opportunities, and to flee genocide. In this regard, one of the most powerful scenes from the graphic novel involves a man who tells about how giants in radiation suits wielding humungous vacuums and spewing fire from the metal slits in their mouths eradicated his hometown; he only manages to escape the horrible suction of their giant vacuums by slipping into the sewers at the last minute. This image instantly conjures up the abominable actions of the Nazis.
In this new land, the newspapers, buildings, and food cartons abound with strange symbols that serve as the language for this new world. Although there are no English words or dialogue boxes like those found in your traditional comic book and graphic novel, the work reminds us of the importance of language in our everyday lives, which we so often take for granted. The language barrier proves to be one of the biggest hurdles this character faces when arriving in this new country, forcing the reader to share in the foreignness of this world through the strange symbols that we cannot decipher any better than he can. Despite this overwhelming feeling of disorder and strangeness, the reader cannot help but recognize the familiarity of the character’s emotions, which are no different than our emotions; the point being to emphasize that for all our differences we are all really the same. Even though it is fantastical in nature, Tan’s book shows the power of literature to highlight human experience, particularly the experience of immigrants arriving in a foreign land for the first time. I could see this not only being used in a literature course, but also in a history course to give students the “experience” of immigrant.