Book Club / Struggling to Be Understood

the-arrivalThe Arrival
By Shaun Tan






Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

When I started doing this London Graphic Novel Network Book Club thing one of the main ideas was to get more people using more libraries more often. (Yes – more libraries. Not just your local library. Because hey: different libraries have different books – and in London anyway: you don’t have to live in the borough to become a member of the library – so you know: just saying). But also hey – not just London but everywhere. Because: damn it – libraries are a force for good. And strange cool magical places. And not just because they’re a place to get free books from but even just because of the idea. I mean – shoot – if we lived in a world without libraries I’m not sure you’d get anywhere in trying to set them up today you know? (“Hey guys. I’ve got an idea! How about we open up a place where anyone could go and borrow books for free!” “Erm – how could we make money from that?” “Erm. Well. Hmmmmm…”).

(One of the other main ideas I thought to do this London Graphic Novel Network Book Club thing is because I thought it would be fun – natch)
So yeah – the idea was that we’d do the books that could be pretty much found in any library. So that – hopefully – you’d read about it here and then if you wanted to join the discussion: you’d go to your local library and get the book. And you know – libraries are judged by how many books they lend out. So: if you want your library to stay open: go and use it and borrow lots of books. 🙂

(Part of me wants to find a whole bunch of stats and findings and science and whatever that explains and puts into reasons just why libraries are so gosh darn good for yourself and for society and etc: but actually I just like how it is at the moment where I just feel like libraries are good deep down in my bones. In the same way that I know that hugs are good. Or eating nice food is good. And etc. You know – I don’t need to know much more than that – but hey: if you’ve got some nice “Libraries are good because” quotes or something you could punt over then please go right ahead….)

But oops: ok The Arrival (no – not the crappy Denis Villeneuve / Amy Adams film) is a comic that I’ve wanted to do for the Book Club for a while now. The main reasons why is that – well: it’s really fantastic for all sorts of reasons that hopefully we’ll get into. Plus: it’s about immigration and being an immigrate which erm – seems to be in the news a lot but never seems to be spoken about in a way that well – matches up with my life experiences (because – duh – immigration is a good thing and something we need more of and not less) but I think it’s good book because (is this just me?) but I think I have seen a copy of The Arrival in every single library I’ve ever been in. I mean – seriously: it seems like maybe it’s a requirement of a library being an official library or something: comply with health and safety standards, have a system to issue and discharge books – and have a copy of The Arrival somewhere (half the time in the children’s section / half the time with the graphic novels).

I mean – gosh – it makes total sense. Not wishing to be rude to all the other books out there – but The Arrival is probably the best looking book I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Just picking it up. It feels big and weighty and hefty. Like it full of something serious and old (there’s a part of me that feels like all books should be brown and slightly faded and worn around the edges: with the title in squiggly gold lettering). And then ooooh – that photo. The guy looking like he stepped from a dream of the 1950s and what the hell is that he’s looking at? (I think my first thought on seeing it the first time – Is that creature the arrival? Is it an alien invasion story? Oh cool! I like those!).

Except – oh. Ah. And this is the thing that been putting me off doing it for such a long while now (it was in the original list of books for the book club – but I’ve kept deferring it and deferring it) – is that well yeah: the Arrival doesn’t actually have any words (LOL). It’s the comics version of a silent film – but without even the handy title screens. And well yeah – I mean: I think I’m on record for saying how words are such a crutch when we try and talk about things (at the Barbican Comic Forum – when I ask people why they enjoyed a book – nine times out of ten they’ll just start regurgitating the story). And you know – I guess that’s to be expected. Words are easy to get a grip on and make things easy to talk about. But like that old cliche about how communication is mostly tone and body language – it misses out a lot. Mostly comics (and films) get reviewed and spoken out as if they were books. What’s focused on and spoken about it is what’s said and what the characters are like (I don’t know if this is true – but I’ve heard it said when 2001: A Space Odyssey first came out – critics didn’t know how to review it because they’d mostly be training to review plays and you can’t review 2001 like a play – because well – it’s not about the characters: it’s about other stuff).

So yeah: I’m interested to see how we manage.

One last thing I wanted to mention: I mean – something that happens a lot (it happened when we were talking about Ms Marvel) is saying “oh you know – it’s for kids” as an excuse for why something doesn’t have to be that good or that thought provoking or whatever. And well yeah: at the risk of being a hopeless idealist – its not really an idea that I subscribe to (maybe it’s because I don’t have any kids myself LOL). Because well yeah: like I said – a lot of the time you can find a copy of The Arrival in the kids section which feels my heart with hope. Because if kids get a taste for this kind of storytelling when they’re young – then who knows what kind of things they’ll be able to make when they’re older…

Hashtag hope for the future etc.

But hey – what do you think?

Twitter / Improvised Comics

Agreed, libraries are really cool places.

This is one of my favourite comics, I think it’s hands-down brilliant. Really excited to see it here, nice one 🙂 (And Shaun Tan is amazing in general, the breadth of his style – go and google the sculptures he used to illustrate Grimm’s for “The Singing Bones” – lovely stuff)
The Arrival contains a beautiful set of formal experiments in comics storytelling, but never lets them detract from the story:
– lack of words, as you’ve said. And, given the key story element of the difficulty of communicating in a foreign language, this is more than just a clever trick or a pose
– the five double pages describing the ocean crossing are a mini-essay in the representation of time and space in comics, zooming out of his porthole to show how big the ship is, then the tiny-ness of the ship against the ocean, then the passage of days in all the different skies
– the old factory worker’s story of his wartime experience is told pretty much using only his feet, for several pages. Again, that’s significant to the story.
– indicating the passage of a year before his family join him, by showing the lifecycle of the strange flower

and yet the formalism never seems forced, and doesn’t leap out and dominate the story, or draw you away from the emotional core into chin-stroking admiration of the cleverness. Streets ahead of Richard McGuire’s “Here”, for example, in that respect.

The quality of the illustrations is superb, and so is the detail of the world-building, used often to communicate the strangeness of the protagonists’ new home – everything from the Statue of Liberty replacement to the cutlery and at-table flamethrower, to the weird pets and vegetables.

And yes, the core message is timely as heck!

I’m sure there’s more that I’ve forgotten…

Did I mention that I quite like it ?! My 8-year old has discovered it recently, and likes to read it too.


I love this comic! It’s so beautiful, both visually and the whole story. It’s one of the first comics I read when I was getting into comics and it has really stayed with me. As well as the cleverness of no words and the masterful way he represents the passing of time as mentioned, what really impressed me was his ability to visually create something that looked foreign, without looking specifically say East Asian or South American or even going into sci-fi territory, which I think is a really impressively imaginative feat.
(Agree about the “Here” comment too – so much potential poorly realised)

I think it’s really rare to find a story that is so timeless and seems to transcend specific ideas about nationality/identity to create a story that is just so simple and so human. I think it was easy to relate to the main character even if you hadn’t been an immigrant yourself – like the part where he is struggling to be understood.

I also liked the visualisation of the thing he had to flee from, though my memory is a bit patchy – it was like a kind of scary shadow, monster like shadow over the city? Again it seemed to easily encompass the terror of whatever it was – whether it is war, persecution etc. – and so apply across the board, to many stories.

I liked the softness of the colour palette, it felt quite gentle and dreamlike.

Yay for libraries! The more kids and adults who read this the better, especially in these times :\


Hello Everyone,Apologies for lurking for some time on the list and not posting until now!

I love The Arrival! It is certainly one of my favourite comics, and an amazing work of art in itself, investigating at the stories, emotional states (hopes, dreams, fears) and experiences around immigration. As an immigrant to the UK, I felt that this book was particularly poignant, and certainly also extremely relevant for these times. Everyone should see it!

Likewise, libraries are incredible places – and not only for the stories and literature that they contain!

Barbican Comic Forum
Islington Comic Forum

Hmm I was really looking forward to this book because I love it, but now everyone said it is brilliant, and I think it’s brilliant… What’s left?

Well I can certainly ramble and I do have one nitpick, which is a bit ridiculous but I’m going to put it in anyway (in a few paragraphs).

So yes the lack of language and the weird alphabet is my very favourite thing, it puts us all in the position of the immigrant, and as I love reading, it’s very interesting to made to be illiterate (but not scary and horrible, like it would be in real life, as it’s only a story).

Then, the crazy weird implements, fruits etc, are at exactly the right pitch. They feel weird and odd and unmanageable (at first), but they don’t feel like they are gratuitously trying to be weird for the sake of weird, that’s just how you cook dinner in that country. Also isn’t it a thing to complain about people not knowing how to use the basics? “They just store coal in the bath”, “They just keep rabbits in the kitchen cupboards”. So here our protagonist is the one messing up using basic implements.

The thing the man was fleeing was a dragonesque shadow in a city. That part seemed very much 1940s Jews in Europe to me. I think the style of the houses and the clothing evoked that era to me (but maybe it was an actual dragon snacking on people, who knows).

I need to reread the bit about the passage of the boat, I didn’t notice that enough before (Or do I mean ‘reread’).

The stories of the other people who arrived before make for nice vignettes, a nice way to tell some extra short stories within the whole framework. Plus we can also realise how lucky we are to be living in a very peaceful period of human history (so far!).

This brings me to my pseudo criticism. The whole story is so heart warming and lovely, but compare it to, pretty much the same story, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. That was also the story of immigrants, coming to America, and as the Arrival clearly references Ellis Island I feel that justifies this comparison. So in The Jungle the poor family are exploited, cheated, robbed and end up loosing all their savings and having to work in terrible conditions in the meat packing industry. Upton Sinclair was aiming at the heart of the American public (make things better for immigrants) but hit their stomach (reform food and hygiene standards in the meat packing industry). In fact that was the only time food legislation came in without a terrible scandal (the scandal was people finding out about normal conditions).

So my ‘problem’ with the Arrival is that it’s just too darned nice. Nobody robs the man, nobody cheats him, he still seems to have all his fingers at the end.

On the other hand that’s also a good thing. This shows us what immigration can be. Also Shaun Tan is Australian and despite their very, very awful history with the Aborigines (and current problems), the immigration after the war, probably has been lovely and nice. Argh it’s so confusing when a people are nice and nasty at the same time, or different times. Like the Belgians in the Congo. Or the British, or the Americans, or the Spanish (when they first arrived in the US).

(By the way, apparently the American meat packing industry has regressed back to were it was a century ago, with plenty of feacal contamination of the meat, so when Americans always eat meat well done, it’s because they really have to,

So yes, go read the Arrival. It’s great!

Also libraries, they’re good too. I’m sure I already mentioned that being expected to give the book back after three weeks is great for decluttering. No need to decide how much you like the book, if you want a wall of books, if you should keep it so you can lend it to your friends, just return it and it will lend itself out to other people

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