Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tales from Outer Suburbia: I guess I haven't migrated far enough from the city

Elsewhere: I wrote about the season premiere of I Survived a Japanese Game Show at The Factual Opinion.

I linked to a cool Scott Morse comic the other day, and here's another awesome-looking one, called "Dawn of the Gearheads". I'm loving his Kirby style on these.

Speaking of Kirby, check out Tim Hensley's attempt to replicate the style of his photo-collages. Neat.

Here's a really interesting post about comics from North Korea. That's not something you see every day.

Finally, I talked about a Shawn Cheng minicomic last week and mentioned that I would like to read his "The Would-Be Bridegrooms", and now it's available to read online. How's that for service?

Tales from Outer Suburbia
By Shaun Tan

Shaun Tan blew a lot of people's minds (mine included) with his 2007 book The Arrival, a beautifully-illustrated wordless graphic novel that told a metaphorical story of immigration using a torrent of surreal imagery. And with this book, he's back in the land of the strange, although it's an illustrated book of prose stories rather than comics, and the metaphors are much less concrete. In fact, it's quite open to interpretation what exactly this book is about, which makes it about life and the human condition, one would suppose.

But it's still pretty fascinating nonetheless. Tan's skill at creating enchanting symbols extends from his art to his prose, as his short tales of odd goings-on (which don't seem odd at all to characters experiencing them) are full of weird but compelling ideas, like a foreign exchange student that looks like a six-inch-tall shadow, a guy in a deep-sea-diver suit wandering through a neighborhood, or a whale-like sea mammal called a dugong suddenly appearing on a bickering couple's lawn. And the pictures supporting these tales add an eerie air to everything, emphasizing the otherworldly nature of the setting while juxtaposing it with a sense of normality:

The best stories evoke familiar feelings that might be just beyond your grasp, like "Stick Figures" with its descriptions of odd, semi-natural beings composed of branches and sod that are omnipresent and accepted, or "No Other Country", in which a family discovers a magical "inner courtyard" in their house that seemingly opens into another dimension. Both of those might touch on the issues of immigration that Tan has raised before, but that's only one possible interpretation.

On the other hand, at least one story seems pretty obvious; "Grandpa's Story" is a wonderful allegory for relationships, with a patriarch telling his family about the journey he had to go on in order to get married; it's a touching, beautiful description of the obstacles a couple must face in order to build a life together, and it's supplemented by some of the prettiest imagery in the book:

A few other stories use some interesting methods of delivery, including "Distant Rain", which sees the words assembled from scraps of paper, an appropriate delivery method for a story about disposed, unread poems accumulating into a huge ball that eventually grows too large to stay together and breaks up, raining small bits of phraseology on everything. Or "The Amnesia Machine", which presents its tale of people being coerced into ignoring the important things in life through a barrage of Orwellian doublespeak as a newspaper article surrounded by bits of exactly that sort of jargon.

Yes, it's a gorgeous volume, and Tan's skill as both a writer and an illustrator are given a wonderful showcase here. I would like to see more comics from Tan in the future, but this will certainly do in a pinch. His complexly layered vignettes are very thought-provoking; even though this book will probably get shelved among younger-readers material, it's a great read for all ages.


  1. Getting this; nice piece Matthew.

    On a technical note, I had to swap over from IE to Firefox to read your blog (it has happened before), IE throws up a "cannot connect" notice despite the fact I can see the page, and then takes the page away.

  2. Thanks, Rod. I'll check into the IE issue and see what I can figure out.