Diving into the Suburbia: Shaun Tan’s magically realistic stories

Some may say graphic novels are a territory that’s only reserved for children. However, there is a writer that made me realise that graphic novels can speak to everyone’s hearts, young or old – the Australian illustrator Shaun Tan. If you have become a bit tired reading lengthy classic novels and want a moment of easy-reading, I recommend trying reading two of Tan’s amazing picture books, Tales from Outer Suburbia and Arrival.

Tales from Outer Suburbia is a series of short stories that are accompanied by Shaun Tan’s magically unique illustrations. All of the stories take place in the imaginary ‘Suburbia’ where small, strange things happen in people’s daily lives. The beginning story of the book is called ‘The Water Buffalo’, which is about a giant buffalo that sits in a patch of grass by the street every day. Although the reason the buffalo stays there is unknown, he is of great help to the passing pedestrians. Every time someone is lost – either literally or figuratively – he silently points to the ‘right direction’ and the people end up finding an answer to whatever that’s perplexing them. No one knows how the buffalo happens to know so much and so well about being lost – the only thing that the residents of Suburbia can do is being grateful that they have a constant shoulder to depend on when they’re burdened.

I’d have to say that my favourite of the stories is ‘Broken Toys’. In this story, two young boys spy upon a mysterious diver who wanders around town murmuring a Japanese word. The man always wears a mossy, antique diver’s suit and carries an old wooden horse in his hands, seeming to be looking for something. One day, the boys decide taking the man to an old lady in the neighbourhood that is known to be cruel to children, partly because they want to know how the lady would react to the man but also because she is the only one who can speak Japanese in the village. What happens when the man goes up to the lady’s doorstep surprises the boys in a bittersweet way.

Another story I enjoyed reading was ‘Alert but not Alarmed’. It is about how each house in the Suburbia is instructed to keep a missile in their backyard just in case they would one day have to protect themselves from a threat. However, since many days go by peacefully, the missiles lose meaning and the Suburbians decide to use the missiles to decorate their backyards, grow plants, or even to bake pizza. You might have noticed, but this story is quite an obvious allegory for the maintenance of peace and how it can sometimes be poignantly manifested in times of dormant danger.

Besides Tales from Outer Suberbia, I think Arrival is another masterpiece of Tan. In this book, the skilled writer-illustrator explores what it is like to start a life in a new country as an immigrant. One peculiar thing about this book is that it is completely wordless – you need to follow the plot of the story only through the illustrations. However, this is what makes Arrival such an ingenious book about immigration. Because none of the readers can understand the language of the imaginary country in Arrival, they can experience the protagonist’s rough journey first-hand and feel as if they themselves are immigrating to a new place. Other elements of Tan’s illustration facilitate this experience – the kinds of fruit in the market, the stray animals on the streets, and modes of transportation are all imaginary. Consequently, readers are thrown into a completely unfamiliar realm and have to virtually figure out almost every element of life in a new homeland.


Image by Nong V on Unsplash

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