And it’s not as if he’s carved out some quiet little niche for himself. No. He is a one-man scorched earth policy, destroying all competition in his wake. We can only hang our heads in sombre resignation whenever he publishes a book.
Tales From Outer Suburbia is the latest self-esteem killer from Mr Tan, following on the heels of the stupidly spectacular, and prodigiously lauded The Arrival, published in 2007.
It is a collection of absurdist stories, accompanied by absurdist illustrations, and every last one of them is sublime, beautiful, charming, subversive, witty, idiosyncratic, and wildly inventive. Blah, blah, blah…
Shaun Tan is a visual polymath. Skilled, and I mean skilled, in all styles of illustration and in all types of media, including (if I’m not mistaken), the blood of lambs. Surely he sacrificed something to be in possession of such gifts, all of which are on full display in Tales From Outer Suburbia.
Take for instance, the story of Eric, a foreign exchange student. Typical Tan, this foreigner is from no place on earth. He is a tiny leaf-like creature with a curious curiosity for abandoned objects, and as it turns out, a talent for horticulture. The illustrations are in pencil, and as with The Arrival, they are anything but sketches. Each scene is a little masterpiece. I am especially fond of Eric the Leaf standing on the page of a book, trying very hard to suss out unfamiliar words. Also, the drawing of him eating a popcorn kernel at a movie theatre; the chair and the popcorn completely dwarfing the tiny, adorable alien.
As you flip through the book, the wealth of imagery is staggering.
The opening story is illustrated with a gorgeous painting (in oil, I think) of a giant water buffalo sitting in an empty lot, handing out advice to a small girl. She appears to be perfectly willing to accept advice from a water buffalo. Obviously, he is no stranger to her.
In Broken Toys, as well as Stick Figures, there is a kind of geometric order to the composition that is reminiscent of the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn. This influence, if indeed it is an influence, can also be seen in the use of slightly milky foreground colours layered over the dark ground of the canvas, giving the paintings a delicious, creamy finish. The striking black & white scratchboard illustration in The Nameless Holiday (featuring a ‘blind as a bat’ reindeer), is yet another example of Tan’s fluidity in different mediums.
Further to that point, Distant Rain is a collage of notes, each displaying a word or a drawing. What is revealed through these scraps of paper is the fate of discarded poems. And no, it’s not the landfill. This is a Shaun Tan creation, and not only is he a superb artist, he is also a superb writer. Fate travels unfamiliar pathways. Nothing is predictable.
Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collector’s book. It exists outside the realm of traditional children’s book publishing, and should not be given to those of a non-whimsical nature or anyone unwilling to take advice from a water buffalo. It is a thing to treasure on your shelf, along with the other Shaun Tan books that are somehow able to both bewitch and paralyze, like a taser gun but without the pants-wetting. Well, maybe a little pants-wetting.
Tales from Outer Suburbia Tundra Books 2008 ISBN: 978-0771084027 (hardcover)
The Arrival (Arthur A Levine Books, 2007) is one of the most remarkable picture books ever published. I will be reviewing this book at a later date, but I promise you, it is worth your loonies. Also, The Rabbits (Simply Read Books, 2003)
For an additional assault on your self-worth, check out Shaun’s delightful website