Ooo…pretty – uh, I mean, The Arrival by Shaun Tan.

The Arrival - or "How My Jaw Dropped 547 Times"

So, how does one analyze comics? If you’ve been following me, you’ve mostly been getting the finished product – the results of reading, re-reading, and copious note-taking. But it occurs to me that I have not made this process particularly clear, and it is just as interesting as any analysis of how, for example, Superman’s famous costume marks an otherwise normal looking man as a stranger or an alien. And with this in mind, I present to you the pearl of the immigration comic, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival.

The Arrival is the story of a man who leaves his home and family in the quest of a better life in the land of Promise. We see as he struggles to adapt to this alien land, and those who help him along the way, until he finally earns up enough money to bring his family over with him. The story ends with his little girl helping a new immigrant find her way around the city, thus perpetuating the cycle.

Why is this comic so striking? It has no dialogue. No speech bubbles, no narration…in fact, the only text to be found at all within the story look like this:

Look’s like Wingdings, doesn’t it? It’s not supposed to be comprehensible, either to our protagonist or to us. It simulates what being in a strange land would truly be like – while many things are distantly recognizable, everything, from the houses, to the pets, to the letters on a newspaper feel alien to us.

So, how is the story of The Arrival conveyed, then? The art, of course.

Oh sweet-mother-of-chocolate, the art.

Look at it. This is one of the first scenes with our unnamed protagonist – where he bids adieu to his family for the Land of Promise. Notice the ominous shadow in the first picture, and then how it goes all Lovecraftian in the second one. In two pictures, we have all the reason we need for why this guy has left his homeland forever, and what’s better, it isn’t the tired argument of of history books, stories, and tedious novels. It is both horrifyingly distinct and open-ended, allowing for an entire range of immigrant-tales, while at the same time transcending many of them because holy-volcano-bakemeat, it looks like a dragon and the Angel of Death had a lovechild.

So the story is basically a series of hyper-realistic pictures detailing the exploits of the protagonist and of others he has met, or these striking background shots of the environments they inhabit.

Here we see the former kind, as the Protagonist explores his new home, wondering at the strange contraptions it contains. I especially like the last three panels, where you can see him trying to use a faucet that looks exactly like one of our own, only for the water to torrent out of some other arcane area.

And here we see his dinky apartment building lost in the sea of others, as an angel-like bird vaguely reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty presides over all in a sepia-toned theme of hope and promise.

Which brings me to the style. A quick glance at The Arrival made me think for a moment that I was looking at an old photo album. Compare these two…

…and tell me that Shaun Tan didn’t intend the resemblance. The photographic style might have been used for several reasons – nostalgia, perhaps, but I think the best one was to establish familiarity amongst the strangeness. That, even in a foreign land, far from home, we are all human, and being a stranger amongst strange surroundings is an essential part of the human experience. This is strange, because normally, when a comic book artist wants to establish familiarity with an audience, they use simplified figures – cartoons. Why? Scott McCloud asserts that it is because, while the mental images we have of other people might be rich and detailed like a photo, the ones we have of ourselves are typically much more simplistic, emphasizing the more important details of the face. Cartoonish would be the term. Here’s an illustration:

Thus, McCloud claims, comics allow for greater immersion simply because cartoons allow us to slip under the mask of the protagonist much more easily. What is interesting about The Arrival is the fact that it contradicts this claim by using ultra-detail as a way to convey feelings like familiarity and and different-ness that we, as human beings, sympathize with. Instead of identifying with the characters, and then the ideas, we first espouse the ideas and then the characters. Pretty cool.

Finally, we have color. At first, that doesn’t seem so important, since the comic is supposed to resemble a series of black and white photos, but when viewed closely, it is apparent that the author used things like contrast and even some color to play into what he was saying about the immigrant experience.

The dark and somber colors here reflect the hopelessness of a little girl as she realizes that she is not alone in her suffering, but is physically barred from interacting with any of the others.

While the reds here convey the destructive holocausts of a revolution…

…and the stark, alien deadness that follows in its heals.

While the lighter sepia conveys the happiness and joy in the Promised Land, where the literal shadows (compare the first panel of this one with the Cthullu of his native land) of our past give way to the hope of a new life.

Well, that’s about it. There are a few other things that can be analyzed on the visual side of comics – like how changes in time and space are conveyed and the like, but The Arrival does an excellent job showing how the visual side of comics can convey a message without the aid of dialogue.  It’s a message I think comics, both American and French, should take to heart if they want to be taken seriously as an art form.


  1. arcement says:

    This seems so intriguing. I think I need to revise my habit of perusing the archive of Calvin and Hobbes to include The Arrival in my comic to-do list. The incomprehensible text is bizarrely awesome.

  2. ISN’T IT?


    Yeah, The Arrival pretty much sums up a lot of what can be done with comic books, but isn’t more often than not. The art is more than just a means of story telling; it’s atmosphere. And, for someone like me, that’s 1/3 of what a book, comic, movie, cartoon – any medium – is, the other two being character and finally, plot.

    Anyways, I hope my entry didn’t spoil too much for you, in any case. I left out some of the immigrant stories, and I certainly couldn’t fit all of the spectacular art in that post. I know for a fact that Swem has a copy of it, so happy reading!