Tales from Outer Suburbia is the latest book from uber-talented artist Shaun Tan, following his wordless graphic novel, The Arrival. Tan is not really an experimental cartoonist – these are highly satisfying books that don’t really feel like they’re pushing formalist boundaries and yet his two books each refuse to stay within the expectations of the "graphic novel" format. I’m not sure Scott McCloud would concede that either one is actually a comic!
Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of short stories — they generally are text stories with illustrations rather than comics ("Make Your Own Pet" and "Distant Rain" are the closest in form to "comics"). As an object — as a complete package of words, pictures in the form you hold in your hands — this is beautiful. Tan (and whatever input and assistance he received from Arthur Levine Books), in assembling this precise object containing his stories, has crafted an enthralling experience that really captivates you and your imagination from the start. It’s conceivable you could recreate that experience on the web but it would have to be a website that provided a similarly beautiful and coherent packaging of the stories.
The stories are full of magic and while they are somewhat grounded in "surburbia" they really possess their own rules of logic and geography. I think my favorite story is "Eric" which is nominally about an exchange student who lives briefly with a family and leaves a wonderful present to his host family upon leaving. But in reading the story there are all kinds of ideas to explore (particularly if you are reading the story with it’s likely target audience of young adults) from just what "Eric" is supposed to represent (he is after all a tiny stick figure with a leaf-shaped head) to the true value of the present that Eric leaves (small forgettable objects turned into items of beauty). Both the story and its images do stick with you – it’s a wonderful bit of storytelling.
Other stories in the collection struck me similarly: "Broken Toys" for example left so many wonderful questions to puzzle over; "Grandpa’s Story" strikes a perfect note of fantastic but possible (grounded within the context of the listening children somewhere between the desire to believe and the cynicism of future adulthood); and "The Water Buffalo", which opens the book, is such a short, cute story, but also sort of a wonderful bit about childhood itself.
It’s a marvelous book and after finishing it I just had to follow it up by reading his previous book, The Arrival. There’s something absolutely pure about the way Tan has taken elements of the immigration experience (large parts of it seemingly from the history of arrivals to the United States) and by placing them in a fantastical environment (I suppose one could say a science fiction setting although such distinctions don’t seem very important in what is ultimately more poetry than prose) without words created something more concentrated in its feeling than any simple re-telling grounded in real life. In the context of this story, the decision by Tan to craft this graphic novel entirely without text is far from a gimmick — it’s clearly a decision that serves this story extraordinairely well. It helps to heighten and make universal the overwhelmingly strange experience of leaving home for a new land.
Again in this book, Tan creates a wonderful object that from the cover to the structure of the story itself, reveals incredible thoughtfulness and inventive and rewarding choices on his part. I really enjoyed this book and it does demonstrate for me that there clearly is a place for books in the future of comics, where the creator can not just create a great comic, but extend that creation to everything about the physical object itself.
Note: The publisher provided a free copy to ComixTalk for review purposes.