Shaun Tan

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Shaun Tan was born in 1974 and grew up in the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. He graduated from the University of WA in 1995 with joint honours in Fine Arts and English Literature, and currently works full time as a freelance artist and author, with collaborations with animation studios like Blue Sky Studios and Pixar. In 2001 he was named Best Artist at the World Fantasy Awards in Montreal.
Shaun Tan is the author of The Arrival, a «book in comic form» published by Scholastic. This silent project which has been four years in the making, follows an immigrant who has left his country to provide better tomorrows for his family. The following interview tries and brings light on the different approaches that led to the creation of this magnificent book, but also insights in the relation of the author to the (until recently) unfamiliar medium of comics.

Nicolas Verstappen : Your work focuses primarily on picture books for “older readers”, instead of the more usual picture books for children. How did you come to his more “mature” approach to illustrated books ? Was it hard to find a publisher (and an audience) for them ?

Shaun Tan : I was more or less invited by a publisher, Lothian Books in Melbourne / Australia (now Hachette Livres) who had started working on picture books for older readers around the mid-90s. I had been illustrating some horror stories for younger readers with Lothian, and was introduced to one of their writers, Gary Crew, also an academic with a strong interest in the history of illustrated literature for adults. He is a great proponent of the idea that picture books can still be a relevant artform for teenagers and adults, with a lot of unexplored visual sophistication. It seemed like a very natural idea for me, as I really began my illustration career working with adult science fiction stories, and so “picture books for older readers” seemed very similar to work I was already thinking about.

NV : With The Arrival, a picture book project progressively evolved into a comic book. You mention on your website the concept of “belonging” as the central theme of this book. Could you explain a little more the different ideas and thoughts that led you to this theme ?

ST : I almost never start with a theme in mind, so while the story has something to do with feelings of belonging (or not belonging), that emerged as an almost unconscious preoccupation, while I was busy focusing on more specific things like characters or landscapes.
In the case of The Arrival, many ideas for the book were inspired by old photographs of people and places than have long since passed away, and these have often been triggers for other paintings of mine. There is a sense of mystery already in historical records that has something to do with their distance and silence, so I need to work my imagination to build a lost world around these little fragments of memory. It’s almost as though the absence of information demands the creation of fiction to fill the void.

I suppose a lot of historical images of Western Australia where I grew up invariably have something to do with immigration, “pioneering” or settling, because the built landscape there is so new, and so much the product of people who have arrived very recently — in the last 200 years.
My mother’s family are from England and Ireland a few generations back, and my father is Malaysian Chinese, and that’s not so unusual today — almost all of my friends are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. My partner comes from Finland, and so her perspective on Australian culture is often a little outside of it, and very interesting.
As for myself, I’ve spent most of my life in once place, and in some ways The Arrival is something of a substitute migration for me, wondering what it must be like for so many others, both now and in the past.

NV : In The Arrival, the main character encounters other people who greet him nicely, and share with him the experience of emigration. There are no outwardly xenophobic characters, or even characters who would treat him as “not welcome” in their country. Why did you choose leave aside this (sad & difficult) aspect of emigration ?

ST : That’s an interesting question, because I did play with some “scenes” of hostility and racism in the earliest drafts if the book. I’m very sensitive to these issues, particularly through the experiences of my father who is Chinese, and living in a country (like many others) where immigration is a political issue plagued by misunderstanding and undercurrent racism.
I worked on some drawings of a group of clan-like figures, for instance, who appear in a street harassing some immigrants, which later blended into a sequence where the main character dreams of being swallowed by an enormous serpent. Narratively, this was ultimately too complicated, and I wanted the overall theme of the book to be much simpler, and more a vision of how things should be, rather than how they are.
I think that’s also a better way to combat xenophobia, by showing how inappropriate it is, particularly by adopting the point of view of a newly arrived immigrant.

Also, I think much of the “sadness” and “difficulty” for characters in my book has more to do with their past, and it is here that some ideas of xenophobia and ethnic conflict may be openly read into certain illustrations.
For instance the backstory of vacuum-incinerating, one-eyed giants destroying a town has a lot to do with Nazism and Communism (or any other intolerance given unrestrained expression). The scene of soldiers marching to war in matching hats also hints at civil unrest drawn along arbitrary ethnic lines.
So I think I diverted a lot of my thoughts about racism and conflict into those back-stories — these are worlds where things have gone very wrong. In the “New World” of the book, this has not happened, and perhaps that is because people here are more consciously exercising a philosophy of inclusion and pluralism, with so many different (and unknown) nationalities, objects, languages and animal-creatures living together out of shared necessity. Possibly they have learnt something from a troubled history.

NV : In his book Writing for Comics,[1] Alan Moore writes : “What is important is that the writer should have a clear picture of the imagined world in all its detail inside his or her head at all times […] The point is that once you have worked out the world its minute detail you are able to talk about with complete confidence in casual manner.” Was it your approach of the “retro-futuristic” world of The Arrival ? Has the visual and “cultural” conception of that world been a major part of your work on this book ?

ST : Yes, that’s true. I certainly subscribe to a kind of “iceberg” theory of world building, where the exposed part is only the tip of a much larger body of research, development and speculation.
I think to be an expert on anything, you need to know ten times as much as what you will actually use, and in creating an imaginary world, you do need the confidence to wield a pencil fairly intuitively, which means being already practised at whatever it is you are drawing.

For me, everything has to have some kind of logic, so that imaginary kitchen appliances or floating traffic highways do have some practical look to them, even though they are flights of fancy. Also, I’m wary of having too many stylistic elements so that the landscape looks like a carnival, so there tends to be repeating patterns and concepts : nests and boxes, for instance, or a kind of sunburst shape or radiating points that appears in nature as well as industrial architecture (I imagine it being some kind of energy source that the city has learnt to harness). Certain designs carry across buildings, fictional typography, trees and animal bodies, to give a sense of a specific place with natural laws.
The giant sculptures which appear in the landscape are also carefully developed, showing a reverence for boats, birds (who are migratory) and nurturing (eggs, bowls of food). The fact that most transport vehicles are able to levitate means that roads are primarily build for pedestrians and animals, and everything has developed in an organic fashion, rather than appearing to be centrally planned of too organised ; what we might expect of a place build on successive waves of new immigrants.

NV : To this complex and detailed universe, you oppose a very regular page layout. What made you decide on that system of regular panels for The Arrival ? Was it to keep the narration flowing ?

ST : Yes, as well as making it easier to draw ! I looked at several comics to assess which kinds of layout worked the best for me, and found that the more regular formats suited my style of drawing as well as being comfortable to look at. Daniel Clowes, for instance, uses very regular formats in graphic novels like Ghost World or Like a Velvet Glove… which read easily ; also quite complex narratives like Watchmen benefit from a simple grid structure.
It does seem to keep a steady pace and provide a minimum of distraction. I guess that is my main concern, to avoid too much distraction. I experimented with a more specifically “photo album” appearance with The Arrival, so each panel was an individual photo pasted or taped to a page, often irregular sizes, but that seemed to draw the eye away from the content of each image a little, so I kept it much simpler.

NV : What led you to the “photo album” concept and to the “photo-realistic” style of The Arrival ? Especially since a photo-realistic style can sometimes be a distraction of the reader, and graphic novels like Maus have shown that a simpler style can have a great impact (even if that led some people to believe that Maus was a fiction). Why this stylistic choice ?

ST : The question of style was probably the most difficult problem. It’s interesting that you say that a simpler style has greater impact (and possibly flexibility of interpretation or identification with protagonists), as this was exactly what I had also concluded from my own reading of many graphic novels.
I was particularly drawn to the style of Raymond Brigg’s simplified characters with rounded forms and dot-eyes, which were still able to possess the gravity of real people in real situations.
I actually spent about six months working on The Arrival in a simplified style, sort of half-way between realism and a cartoon. But it just wasn’t “clicking” for me in the sense that I felt the world was unconvincing. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking “wouldn’t it be great it everything in the book looked like a actual photographic postcards from this world” but the technical task of doing this seemed far too scary !

Eventually, I tried a more photographic style, using carefully shot video images as reference, and found that this was not only more convincing as a narrative, but actually more efficient as a means of producing consistent image frames (where clothing, lighting, character faces and so on were consistent).
I realised that the project I had in mind had more to do with silent film than picture books (my usual medium), and so I approached the story as a kind of movie. I actually filmed sequences using family and friends as actors, and created approximate “sets” (later transformed on the drawing table) from make-shift props and cardboard boxes.
For each page in the book I would storyboard a scene, organise shots for location and time of day, hunt for objects and appropriate clothes, discuss each scene with “actors”, film dozens of short sequences, isolate the best image frames and use these as the basis for each panel.
I also made small models of creatures and objects (like floating boats) which I could photograph for reference — light, shadow, texture, perspective, and merge them into scenes with landscapes and people.

If I’d figured out this way of working in the beginning, I would have saved myself a lot of time and prevented quite a few headaches ! This is often the case though with every book I’ve done ; I start out working in one style, and end up doing something quite different, according to the demands of the story, and it has to happen in an evolutionary way. The beginnings are always difficult for me, and momentum builds once I’ve solved stylistic problems.

NV : You’ve mentionned here a couple of graphic novels, but you say yourself you have never been a great reader of comics. How did you develop your relation with this medium ?

ST : I really didn’t read any comics until was introduced to artists like Robert Crumb and Daniel Clowes (Eightball) by a friend, and also started noticing that a lot of picture books crossed over into comics territory, such as books by Dave McKean (The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish) and Raymond Briggs (The Snowman, Where the Wind Blows).
I only really started reading graphic novels more closely, in my late twenties, when I began working on The Arrival and realised that my own work had more in common with that genre than with picture books.

NV : This is one of the reasons why you decided to read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. What did you get out of it ?

ST : A few things do come to mind when I am working on any kind of sequential art (in which case all picture books are essentially ‘comics’). I think I am like most artists in working intuitively, so that critical analysis often just enables you to articulate something that’s already known before learning any “theory”.
For instance, McCloud talks about the “gutter” or gap between panels, where action, time and relationship is imagined. As an illustrator, I instinctively work with these “gaps” ; whether between two pictures, or between words and pictures, so that their relationship is not simple or obvious.

Also, Understanding Comics allows me to look at my own work in a clearer context, where it fits into a spectrum of work and history, and as someone who is relatively unfamiliar with the comics culture. It also introduced me to other artists with similar (as well as completely different !) interests and concerns. I became particularly interested in the differences between Manga and western comics, and the Japanese preoccupation with “aspect to aspect” images, without action, to construct time and space.

NV : Was this project a silent book from the start ? What decided you on this choice ?

ST : Speechlessness seemed quite obvious from early on, although the initial drafts had some caption-like text added to it, taking the form of a memoir, photo album, or postcards sent home. Once I dispensed with words altogether, however, the path was clear : the book had to be completely silent in order to work, both aesthetically and intellectually.

I found that this absence of language also slowed down the flow of the narrative, and that is something I needed because the panels are quite detailed, and there’s really not very many of them given the scope of the story. Words would hurry things along too much, and also possibly interfere with an open interpretation — I realise that my own “explanation” of what’s happening in the illustrations is not always the most interesting ! Sometimes it’s better to let the reader imagine the captions or speech bubbles in their own personalised way.

One thing I’ve learnt as an illustrator over the years is that everyone sees a picture a little differently — especially young readers — and it’s best to facilitate this variation as much as possible, rather than try to correct it.

NV : It’s interesting that you see speechlessness as a way to slow down the narrative. For most of the readers, a silent book usually means a “quick read”. For me, the reason is that readers cannot read pictures as they read words. We’ve learned to write, to read, spelling and grammar since childhood, but nothing about art, or only in a self-thought way. It’s why I have the feeling that readers don’t decypher pictures as they would decypher words. Which means that art remains a space for freedom…

ST : I think pictures are a bit “wilder” in some ways, and I guess I’d express this myself as a kind of vagueness or ambiguity that can work in their favour. I think that even if you learn to “read” pictures — what some people refer to as “visual literacy” — the good ones are still a little mystifying, much like poetry. What works best in poetry is the part you can’t explain, and the same is true of imagery. Often when I’m drawing I will think “the meaning of this is too clear or obvious”, and then try to make it more complex by adding or removing something. Some pictures are like “signs” — they really illustrate a particular notion — and others are more like “poems”. I’m interested in both as a kind of balance between understanding and mystery, where the “signs” (such as a person staring at a map — a clear signifier) is there to support the “poetry” (the strange landscape around the person, or the creature sitting next to him — open to interpretation).

I guess the reason words “hurry” a reading for me is that they might be seen as a kind of explanation, that will narrow the field of possibility. One problem is that so much weight is given to the authority of words, as a kind of device that frames what we are seeing — we rarely challenge them, they seem less equivocal. They are also very linear and have an inherent “pace”, where you want to know what comes next quite insistently. Like now — you are compelled to read the next line straight after this one ! Pictures have a greater capacity to allow your eye to wander around laterally, go backwards and forwards as certain past or future details support each other, and also move quickly or slowly.

I think that people today are very visually literate readers, especially in our contemporary culture, and very fast, efficient and pretty smart. We are very good are recognising visual signs and “reading” them. I think something that is harder to develop is a sensibility, rather than a literacy, where you are looking for more mysterious patterns and relationships — more like a kind of “appreciation” than recognition. What makes art and illustration so interesting to me is that it makes you ask new and unexpected questions about what you are looking at, rather than simply making itself understood.

NV : On French forum BulleDair.com,[2] some participants where trying to find a soundtrack for The Arrival. I promised them I would ask you what music you would choose…

ST : I don’t really have too many thoughts about this, having spent so much time working in silence ! The book was recently dramatised as a one hour stage play for both children and adults, involving projections of the original illustrations, live actors and puppet-creatures, without any dialogue. The music composed for this was very effective, combining instruments and styles from a variety of countries, none of them specific.

NV : Are you considering starting other projects in the same sequential/picture book style ?

ST : I’m working on a new book of short stories, but it is not in the same sequential style. I really wanted to do something very different after spending so many years on these carefully organised sequences ! So the new book reverts back to a much simpler relationship of a page of writing here, and page with a picture there, and so on. The paintings for this one are also much less controlled, more stylised than realistic, which is actually my preferred way of painting. The style of The Arrival was in some ways not very natural for me, being quite photo-realistic — more things can go wrong than right !

I am currently also working on a short animated adaptation of an earlier picture book The Lost Thing, and this has many similarities to the visual language of The Arrival due to the very tight sequencing of storyboards, and a minimum of dialogue or voice-over. I was studying storyboarding, film and editing techniques while working on this short film and Arrival simultaneously, so they both fed into each other.

[Interview conducted through email in April 2007 for the tenth issue of XeroXed.]

Notes

  1. Alan Moore’s Writing for Comics (volume one), Alan Moore, Avatar Press, p.21.
  2. In the “Verdict panoramique de vos dernières lectures” topic.
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Entretien par en janvier 2008