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Shaun Tan:

Strangers in Strange Lands

Shaun Tan is in town again on Monday August 27th for a very special Comica Conversation with Quentin Blake. Tickets are still available, but book now, as they are going fast - here’s the link for more details and how to book, and here’s my interview with Shaun.

Fasten your wingnuts, you’re in for a bumpy ride. When you enter the weird and wondrous worlds of half-Chinese Australian artist Shaun Tan, there’s no telling where he will take you. From his background in picture books, not always solely for children, he has diversified into animation and graphic novels. In his first solo story, The Lost Thing, a man tries to help a bizarre creature he befriends on the beach to find his own kind. Tan won an Oscar for its sublime animated adaptation last year. The Arrival, his poetic, dream-like fable without words about an immigrant’s experience of his baffling new homeland, brought him to the attention of comics readers and has been showered with awards, from Australia’s best children’s book to 2008’s Essential prize at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in France. Tan was in London for an exhibition at the Illustration Cupboard and the launch of Templar Books’ beautiful new sketchbook, The Bird King, at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, where we met for this conversation.

Paul Gravett:
You’re something of a novice to comics

Shaun Tan:
I came to comics from picture books. I was doing picture books and wanting to get more complex content and layout onto each page so I started subdividing the pages.

Thirty-two pages is the standard unit for picture books, which works for concise little fables, does it constrict?

Yes if you want sequences of action. Picture books are more like a slideshow of something happening. I found I was inadvertantly doing comics, especially when I started doing The Arrival. So I thought, “Gee, I better look at comics!”, because from a techincal point of view I didn’t know how to go from one panel to the next. So if someone is having a cup of tea, how do you do that?

That could run to a 100 pages!

Yeah, ideally I wanted it to be in one.

In The Arrival you’ve got sequential, multi-panelled pages and intense single images which are meant to be read and with sequences within them to decode.

That’s my picture book roots coming through.

I don’t know as much about picture books as comics and I am grateful to Sarah McIntyre here in the audience for alerting me to how much of an overlap and connection there is between picture books and comics. There are lots of connections - Raymond Briggs, Posy Simmonds for starters - though they are often kept apart in bookshops.

Comics readers discovered me late, in the same way I discovered comics late.

I think you’re building a mature relationship with comics without too many preconceived ideas. I think if you’d been immersed in them since childhood, perhaps you’d have had a system in place that would have been difficult to escape from?

Yeah I would have taken them for granted. But as it is, comics seemed quite a strange way of telling a story which is what intrigues me. My attraction to picture books was word-picture relationships and how pared down they can be and still make sense and also have these big gaps in between. The best comics maximise this relationship between language and image that’s not explanatory. They’re both doing different functions. It’s quite a natural extension, but that said I don’t feel like a comics artist.

I remember Raymond Briggs not being made welcome at the Society of Strip Illustration back in the Seventies. They didn’t see what he was doing a comics. He too felt restricted by the 32 page unit of picture books and of course ended up subdividing some pages of The Snowman, When The Wind Blows, and others into many small panels. I gather you discovered Briggs through The Snowman?

Yes The Snowman was a big influence on The Arrival. I was already going for wordlessness and subdividing the pages. And thinking who’d be interested in this story, this way of telling? I’d never seen The Snowman before, it had somehow escaped my childhood radar and I came across the 25th anniversary edition and I thought this is basically my book. It’s a story about a boy who builds a snowman who comes to life and enters the boy’s home and that’s the bit that fascinated me, where the snowman starts to be amazed by things like a detergent bottle, a refrigerator, a gas stove, for him this is all alien, domestic stuff and the boy takes great delight in showing him all these things. That was similar to a scene I’d thought of in my book where the immigrant first arrives in a room he’s rented and none of appliances make any sense. Water sprays out of the wrong place, there’s weird things in the cupboard, strange boiling pots on the floor, bowls on string hanging from the ceiling.

And the instructions are all there but it’s a language he can’t understand.

Yes it’s all crystal clear!

Of course, in a proper comics-friendly culture, they’d have used pictograms to explain everything, like an aircraft safety card, with no need for words.

Yeah that’s right.

This also reminds me of the scene in the super-modern kitchen from the Jacques Tati film, Mon Oncle.

Yes, I’ve seen that, with some kind of kitchen gadgets. His film Playtime is also one I think about often, a critique of modern architecture where everybody’s trapped in these corridors.

Speaking of Tati, did you see Sylvain Chomet’s animated feature The Illusionist?

Yes, about a week ago. I did like it. Very interesting for me from a professional point of view, because for some years there’s been discussion about adapting The Arrival as a feature film and the question of would that work. With The Illusionist I could see ways in which it works and ways it doesn’t. I really love Chomet’s work because of the wordlessness, even when he does have language it borders on gobblydegook. The content of what people say is not relevant, it’s the stylistic tone of the verbal expression. He’s almost reluctant to use words.

He wants to make it universal. What did you think didn’t work about The Illusionist and what are you cautious about adapting The Arrival?

I actually don’t think the Tati screenplay was that great. It might be blasphemous to say! I kinda wish Chomet has changed it and added more of his own ideas. Reverence can become problematic.

So you’d be happy to have changes made in The Arrival?

Absolutely. It’s mainly about concept and language and within that framework you can do anything. It would be that choice about which character’s world do I enter now? You can take any peripheral character in the story and open up the suitcase of their mind and expand it out into another eight pages. And that would have been a great book, where you could have done a hundred stories of different characters as they interact and little things trigger reminiscences about where they come from. But as it was, because I wanted to finish the book in my lifetime, I settled for three characters where we enter their minds and exit again. I am not sure whether something like that will work in the cinematic medium, which I think is a far more conventional medium and audiences have less tolerance for shifts in time and space perhaps.

And shifts in character. There are not many films that have multiple characters’ stories…

That’s right, there is something about film that has a fairly defined structure and sustained threads. You notice it when you’re missing it. Books are great because you don’t need that, they are totally subject to the interest level of the reader and the duration they are willing to invest in each picture and that is what I love about illustration. A picture like this can be five seconds long or an hour long, it depends.

Exactly, how long does any drawing or a comic last? As long as you want to look at it. So you’re more nervous about text in your books, where people will just read it and jump on to the next. It doesn’t stop people so much. You want to slow people down and make them really look at your pictures.

That’s why I got rid of text in The Arrival in the first place. I also realised it made sense because the character is illiterate. In the beginning, I wondered, how do I slow this down, it’s all going so fast. The moment you add words and captions, there’s a real gravity for a start. People look at them and they believe what the words are saying rather than interpreting them for themselves. That’s a problem. Also it’s got a set pace. Reading has a kind of kinetic flow. Pictures are more like a map. You can wander around them. There’s not a line as such, a beginning, middle and end. There’s actually a big problem when you add text to images. I’m still trying to resolve it. How do I get the two to work together? I don’t think they mix so well. When I read comics, I forget to look at the pictures sometimes. I’m embarrassed. The dialogue can be so gripping, you’re skipping around. I would love to work this size but it’s not practical., it’s a shame! I’d like to show this little five-page story called Eric originally published in Tales From Outer Suburbia. Eric is a foreign exchange student who comes to live with an Australian family. Not necessarily Australian, but in my mind I think about it as Australian suburbia. If you read the text in isolation, you’d get no idea of what Eric looks like and you’d probably assume he was Japanese or something.

He reminds me of the leaf out of The Red Tree.

Yeah very much so, he actually started as a sketch in my sketchbooks while I was on holiday. It was just a random thing. It started as a three-pointed crown and two dots for eyes, and I liked it because it’s semi-demonic. It’s difficult to come up with characters that don’t have associations. And this was one of these shapes where it’s just slipping in between or beyond associations. It’s not a demon, it’s not a cat, it’s not anything in particular. And I loved the fact that it’s really two-dimensional and the eyes are almost like holes and there’s no mouth which is a common thing for me. And I’d just written in the sketch the name Eric and for some reason I thought that was hilarious, and he had a little suitcase next to him. So often a story requires these elements that are totally unrelated and then there were these questions: is he going somewhere, has he just arrived? And then we did have a Brazilian student staying with us. We also had a Finnish house guest, a friend of my wife’s, who is Finnish.

This sounds like a Moomin story, the Moomins have people who move in and you can’t get rid of the guests!

This guy called Aki, an IT specialist from Helsinki, came to stay with us for two weeks. We set up a bedroom for him. In the Eric story, the exchange student prefers to sleep in the kitchen pantry, which is tolerated because the family want him to be comfortable. When Aki was staying with us, he would get on with his studies, bent over a book, reading intently, I could see him through the gap in the door. Whenever I am doing an illustration, no matter how fanciful it is, there is always some reference to something in my own life. Not to be autobiographical but because it helps me draw the picture. It helps you project emotion into the picture. It’s very difficult to just draw things without feeling.

So this character Eric asks questions about the world that can’t be answered by the host family. It’s like when we have visitors and they ask about my home town and I know almost nothing! It’s kind of embarrassing. That was Perth, I live in Melbourne now.

I used to wonder about things like this, I thought that drains looked like flowers! We took our guest Aki out on a lot of trips through Western Australia, as he doesn’t travel very often. Whenever you have someone visiting you, you struggle to find things to show them and you’re hoping they’ll be impressed. And with our Finnish guest, we weren’t sure if he was enjoying himself or not because he didn’t really say anything.

That’s somehow quite Finnish, isn’t it?

It is. It’s a common Finnish characteristic. It’s a common Australian characteristic too, laconic men. They feel lots of things, they just don’t express it. The one time he got very excited was when we asked if he’d like to visit the grave of Bon Scott, the lead singer of AC/DC in Fremantle cemetery and he said, ‘Hell, yes!’ We only thought of it because he was such a massive AC/DC fan, as many Finns are. 

You keep Eric’s facial expression very subtle here.

Yes, I’m really interested in minimal expression. Even Eric in this story is too anthropomorphic for me. As a child, my favourite character of all time, and maybe still is, is R2D2. He was the most expressive character in Star Wars, his head as a rotating hemisphere. There was something just about the visual design, you know his personality straight away and it’s a very particular personality. So The Lost Thing has doors all over its body just like R2D2 and that’s right, that’s probably where that comes from.

Eric also likes things that look a bit like him in some ways.

Yes, the family tolerate this, and take him to some exotic location and all he is interested in is a button on the ground. But the one thing they find very difficult is when he finally leaves and he never really says goodbye, this is like some cultural misunderstanding. It’s very similar to when Aki left us and there wasn’t a big goodbye. It was just, ‘Well, bye!’, he waved and walked off. We were at home after he left and we felt really depressed about the whole thing. Did he actually have a good time? Was he glad to get away from us? Maybe for him we were just constantly talking.

In Eric it’s only much later that the family go to the pantry where he spent the whole time living with them making a whole garden for them. Endings are usually the easiest part for me. The image came from my brother when we were kids. He used to grow crystals in an aquarium. He’d get these tanks of super-saturated solution and drop these crystals in and they’d grow into little trees in the dark. So that always fascinated me and it’s come through in this illustration subconsciously.

When we visited Aki about a year later in Helsinki, maybe he was more comfortable at home and speaking Finnish, but he was so animated about his trip to Western Australia and saying it was the best trip ever. Maybe he’d had time to think about it, whereas as the time the experiences were so new and overwhelming that he couldn’t respond properly. And I really identify with that, because I feel I’m exactly the same way. I’ve often been criticised by friends and family for being emotionally inexpressive when something happens. It takes me a long time to react. For me drawing is a way of retrieving emotions.

So you did this is last year!

The hardest thing ever is to draw like a child.

What if you draw with your other hand? What are you?

I’m right-handed, but it has nothing to do with co-ordination. It’s all about concept. Kids actually work on a really high conceptual level artistically in that they don’t do representational drawing, they draw in thoughts. So they draw the thought of a bird, not a bird. So it doesn’t matter where the eyes are. I remember pretty much every drawing I’ve ever done when I look at it. Not much else about my childhood. I was three years old when I did this.

Later at school I was into dinosaurs. The first book I ever bought when I was seven, using my life savings, was a book about dinosaurs that became my favourite book. I traced all the dinosaurs and by copying I learnt to draw a lot from this book. Partly it was the awareness that these things actually existed, it was unbelievable. My Dad was an architect so a lot of these drawings were done on his architectural paper using his architectural pens.

Did you used to watch him drawing?

Yeah, yeah, the first commercial job I ever had was at the age of seven drawing a palm tree on an architectural perspective drawing, like an elevation, and my Dad gave me twenty cents. I probably would have become an architect if my Dad wasn’t one already. I wanted to do something different. I was studying bio-technology at university. My best subjects in high school were physics and chemistry. I didn’t make even the top ten per cent in the state in art, which you’d think would be my best subject. Partly because I didn’t organise my portfolio so it was hard to assess my work. My whole student life I was torn between science or art. I ended up going into art because I didn’t understand it so much. It wasn’t so much the drawing talent. Science I understood, it’s an objective reality, an explanation of the world. Art was all about opinions and nebulous things like that and I loved going to galleries but I hated the fact that I hardly understood anything. It all confounded me. I wanted to know more about what drawing was good for and if I could make a living from it. My art education was all theoretical because I gave up on being a practising artist fairly early on, thinking I’d never be able to make a living out of it. I thought maybe I could be a writer of some sort, so I spent four years studying art criticism doing an arts degree.

So you were writing reviews of exhibitions, using art-speak language?

Yes, a lot of nonsense! But it’s good to get a handle on that. It was great to do. So whenever I start a project, I treat it as a research exercise. I don’t start sketching, I hit the library. Like with The Arrival, I didn’t start drawing anything, I thought immigration is an interesting subject. So I started compiling a filing cabinet full of notes, the way I would when I was doing my arts theses. I bring that academic discipline to all my illustrated books.

I was really into writing when I was twelve. This is quite a long book I wrote and my Mum helped me type it up, about surviving a Third World War. I was just starting to read science fiction then. I read the Tripod trilogy by John Christopher, that’s the first bit of sustained reading I did, a post-apocalyptic world. I was never a massive reader, I was very slow and still am. I got into science fiction through The Twilight Zone which used to screen very late on the old black-and-white TV. I was eleven. A big influence. And after that I went to the local library and asked a librarian what genre is The Twilight Zone and she said it was science fiction and gave me a bookmark with science fiction authors on it in alphabetical order. I only got as far a Ray Bradbury! I read Isaac Asimov, he was first, I read all those robot stories, I didn’t really get into those. I got to Bradbury and never really progressed much further than that! It’s only in hindsight looking at Tales From Outer Suburbia that I realise how Bradbury-esque it is. Throughout my teenage years I was writing these Bradbury-esque short stories, I had a whole file of them, I don’t know where they are now.

They could be a whole well-spring of new stories…

I don’t think so, I sent them to magazines and they were all rejected. Then I started attaching illustrations to my stories, hoping it would get the editor’s notice. I wasn’t really interested in illustration, I wanted to be a writer. And it backfired on me because they still rejected the stories but they got me to illustrate other people’s stories. And that’s pretty much how I became an illustrator. I became fascinated by it, and it is like being a writer but using pictures. Plus I get to work with all these great writers and they challenge me with their weird stories.

There are two strings to my work and my artistic development, one is illustration and science fiction, and the other is fine art studies. In what you see now these are starting to merge, but in the beginning they were very separate. So the whole time I was at university, I was doing drawings for magazines. I never told anybody at university about it. I was scared of the derogatory comments, because illustrator was a bad word at university. That was all about contemporary art, particularly conceptual art. Even drawing skill was a bit embarrassing. After university, I was unemployed and became a freelance illustrator full-time. I did political cartoons, some caricatures of Australian politicians. My first decently paid job was a children’s book by a science fiction writer and I got $2,000 for doing eight black-and-white drawings. I thought that was amazing, you can actually make money from this stuff. It was about a possessed cat. And after that I delivered everything on time and they gave me seven more books to do.

I started doing book covers and after a while they matched me up with some established writers to do children’s picture books. I never chose to do this work, it just came to me. If someone had said, twenty years ago, that I’d be working in children’s picture books - and I don’t really think I am, just that is the genre - I would have been shocked. How did that happen? I started to take illustration really seriously. Up to this point, I’d just been doing drawings for clients, you’re like a human PhotoShop programme. At least with books, I thought here’s an opportunity to inject some of my own ideas.

So you were meeting authors whose visions were stimulating to you?

Yes, I realised I wasn’t alone, specially through science fiction, there were other people who thought the same way. Because growing up in suburban Western Australia, I didn’t know anybody who did anything artistic.

Tales of Outer Suburbia seems to be laced with autobiographical feelings. Your drawings tap into real personal emotions that readers can also find some connections to. And in The Arrival this relates to your and your family’s experiences of being non-indigenous, living with no cultural background or history, how you felt rootless there. What was it like talking with your father about his emigration?

His stories were always so fragmented and micro-anecdotal, like most Dad’s stories! And really wandering. And his English is not that great. He’s quite a talkative guy but he’s not necessarily so articulate about things. And that in itself interested me. So when I did have early drafts of The Arrival and had text, the text was deliberately in a tone of English as a second language, a bit clumsy. You see that in The Lost Thing, The Red Tree, and where characters speak in Outer Suburbia, they are not eloquent but there are oceans of emotion underneath within everybody. Some people are good at opening the tap, it comes out. Others can’t, they have to do it in other ways. My father’s were always intimate little stories, about working in the wheatfield and owning a pet rabbit. Or another about being sick on the ship. Or once when he got accused of a crime because the culprit had been a Chinese-looking guy. The person making the accusation, it was eventually proven that they couldn’t differentiate between Chinese people and so my Dad was let off. These little stories made me realise that The Arrival had to be a very long book and involve intimate, anecdotal titbits. It wasn’t enough to just gloss over the immigrant’s journey in a broad conceptual way, you had to go in and have a scene about someone trying to buy a bus ticket or a little encounter with a pet. Which is a bit like my Dad and his rabbit. I guess my family has a big influence on my stories but I am not really aware of it.

My brother often appears as an undisclosed character, if it’s a collective pronoun as in ‘we’, I’m generally thinking it’s myself and my brother. My older brother is a geologist, two years older than me. We were like best friends. We didn’t have a big circle of other friends.

There is a certain isolation in many of your stories. You were telling me about a boy at school from Afghanistan who was even more isolated than you. In The Bird King, your new book being launched tonight, I was struck by a little sketch of ‘The Boy with the Sewn-On Cathead’, where you write, “A terrible accident that nobody wanted to talk about in a country no-one knew the name of, terrorised at school, always dragging a bag of something. We were told not to play with him so we didn’t.”

In hindsight I realise that must be what it’s about. I started with something very concrete, a drawing of a boy as if half his head has been cut off in some accident and in an emergency they’ve had tosew on a cat’s head so half his face is cat, because that was all that was available. And it happened in some Middle Eastern country. There was this kid at primary school. I grew up in a very Anglo area, a lot of children of English immigrants. I was very aware of that because I was half-Chinese. Nowadays there’s a real mix but back then in the late Seventies and early Eighties there just wasn’t. You were often the object of bullying but I managed to get around that through my drawing skill and my skill with language came early on from realising that I have to be a smart talker to get out of situations. I enjoyed putting other kids down actually, in quite an aggressive way. I was good at jokes and I wrote stories and made books, which went into the school library. The librarian put in the little paper slip so kids could borrow it, like a real book. Unfortunately, it does mean that a couple of early works of mine went missing! My first ever book, The Land Beneath The Sea, inspired by Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, fully illustrated, went missing. Really sad, I don’t know where it is.

Tell us about your collaboration on The Rabbits.

John Marsden had written a Orwellian tale about rabbits arriving in a land, told from the view of a nameless, undescribed native animal. This was the first time I became interested in very reductive texts. All this text was very challenging for me, and it didn’t change during the eight months I worked on the book. Normally there’s a bit of change as the illustrations inform the work, but here I had to work around it. My response was to extend his metaphor and create the weirdest possible landscape. I was very interested in the indigenous experience of first contact with Europeans and how bizarre that was. I can’t think of two cultures that were more ideologically unrelated.

The book was done for the Australian market but I was interested in universal storytelling and how it could relate to other countries. I did some research and realised that a lot of the stuff that happened in Australia has the same pattern of colonisation as other countries, including the taking away of children from parents. The first question is why illustrate a piece of text at all? Surely you have to add something. So for me it was adding a world that can’t be named. Illustrations can show things which you can’t describe in words. You have a phrase like ‘They ate our grass’, and this is illustrated with giant machines strip-mining the landscape. It was quite a controversial book because this was a very political topic in Australia at the time. Children taken away due to government policy. Because this is a picture book, a lot of people made the mistake that it was meant to be for young children and it seems very dogmatic. It was called racist propaganda and people were dismissive of it, but over time it found its intended audience of older readers. It started to be studied in schools. I’ve never worked in this style before or since, it owes something to the British cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, if you think of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the marching hammers, the hard edges, crisply outlined, strangely two-dimensional creatures.

A lot of those ideas filtered into my own stories. The Lost Thing was the first picture book I wrote myself. After The Rabbits eventually became a huge critical success, everyone was sending me these manuscripts about genocide and death. They really wanted to pigeon-hole me. And I wanted to do something really funny. So I wrote this story about a boy who finds this creature on the beach and takes it home. All my stories are about strangers arriving in a strange country and having cultural misunderstandings. It’s written in a tone exactly as I would speak if I was telling the story to my brother or a friend and the main character is me. I used to collect shells on the beach and bottle tops. The story started with beachcombing and then I set it in a post-ecological world, so you wouldn’t have shells on the beach, you’d have something else. It began as a text story without images. I didn’t think about the creature that much. It was more the idea of having a really important protagonist who is never named or described and seeing how that would play out. I was also looking for a classic children’s book structure but adapting it to an adult story. So somebody has a problem, they take it here, they take it there, different people offer advice but it’s not helpful and eventually you find a solution that’s not what you expected. It’s a great fable structure and you can put all sorts of weird stuff into that. We know the story already, that’s what is great. It’s still probably my favourite story that I’ve produced. And I am glad that Passion pictures chose to make it into an animated film. Of all my stories, this has everything that I have to say about the world in it. After I finished it, I wondered what can I do next, I’ve nothing left to say!

And you deservedly won an Oscar for it.

I was adapting the book into an animated film, around the same time as I was crossing over from picture books to comics.

You used multiple panels and captions in The Lost Thing book, so you were moving towards comics already.

Yes. On the film, I am not used to working collaboratively. I worked with a digital artist in Ediniburgh turning these drawings into three dimensions and building up a landscape, a huge project. It took ten years, a lot of that time spent making mistakes. And about three and a half years of it in actual production. It’s a fifteen-minute film but it felt like working on a feature. The producer kept saying we might as well make a feature, the number of objects we had to build.

I found The Red Tree deeply moving.

It is probably the most loved book, in Australia at least, that I’ve done. It’s used a lot by psychiatrists and psychologists which was a surprise to me. The flipside to creativity is a kind of depression that sometimes accompanies the act of doing this sort of work. You can end up quite depressed afterwards. Depression feels like such a wasteful experience, so I wanted to make something out of it. The Red Tree is not meant to be therapeutic. My publisher in Australia was very hesitant about it. I had to talk them round. It was really an artistic exercise. I said if you don’t do these as a book, I’ll do them as paintings and have an exhibition, because I thought it was a great subject. The pictures are much more painterly than my other work. I’d just finished The Lost Thing and I was starting to hate the fact that so much illustration is fussy. I wanted to bring my fine art interests back into my narrative interests.

In Sketches from a Nameless Land, the making of’ book about The Arrival, you show how you draw your panels out in pencil on separate pieces of paper, taped onto paper, and move the around like a jigsaw puzzle.

I rearrange them, yes.

Do you also make thumbnail layouts?

I do both, whatever gets the job done. Here’s a three-dimensional sketch of the little pet creature, which I did mostly for the lighting. When you’ve got curvy objects in different lighting conditions, it’s quite hard to predict where the shadows go.

That little animal reminds me of Bosch. So does the alien language in The Arrival work?

No! I never really do that sort of stuff. There’s nothing in my pictures that you can’t get as a completely uneducated person, that’s my goal. And partly it’s a reaction to my art studies. I was so sick of artists doing work that was dependent on people having a PhD. When I look at all the great art through history and all the great contemporary artists, like an Antony Gormley or Anish Kapoor, you can read a lot of theory but you can also look at it and it hits you in the heart and the head. There are no hidden messages in The Arrival and maybe that is one reason why it’s been so successful. People ask if I am a children’s illustrator or an adults’ illustrator. I just treat children as coming from a different culture to adults. If you can make a story work for a kid, then you’ve probably got a good story.

Working as a picture book illustrator, I was very mindful of publishers dealing in signatures of 16 pages and they are really reluctant to add more pages if they don’t have to. So even at 128 pages, I wanted another 16 pages for The Arrival and the publisher said no. I wouldn’t have changed the story substantially, but I would have added more double-page spreads because I wanted to slow it down even more, it was still too fast for me. Also I wanted to have some notes at the back, which due to the success of the book eventually became this second volume, Sketches From A Nameless Land. The Arrival has to be an artifact in itself. A book is a physical object first and foremost. I am very conscious that it is printed material. The distressed cover on The Arrival or making The Bird King look like a sketchbook.

(Question from the audience) The Arrival seems like a dream? Do dreams influence your work?

I often had very long dreams, like these epics, usually in the morning when I sleep in. If I could get those into a book, they would surpass anything I’ve ever done. I don’t keep a dream journal. The problem is that describing them is like pulling some colourful deep-sea creature out of the ocean and it goes grey and falls apart. I frustrates me that you can’t capture those dreams. It’s probably for the best, because they often make no sense whatsoever. But some do and they usually involve long journeys and complex social interactions and some overarching problem. So I wake up with a feeling of anxiety.

I am not interested in dreams per se, but I love the feeling of dreams and that feeling of being forced to interpret something that feels incredibly personal but you don’t understand it. I am amazed that all this stuff comes from me! I wanted The Arrival to feel like one long sustained dream. And it should show the experience of immigration is like a strange dream. And that history is a strange dream, because history does not exist, all we’ve got is the fossilised remnants of history in the present. We string them together in our minds as a dream-like narrative that’s not real. The form of The Arrival was a great way to cross through all those levels of dream, history, immigration and complete fantasy, and the fact that you know it is all drawings. Sometimes the drawings would look too realistic, too photographic, so I’d add lines so you can see that it’s fake.

Did you feel at all trapped by the art style you’d arrived at?

Yeah, absolutely. I experimented when secondary characters have their story, by making the media change. So their world is oil-painted. Or the story about the chimney sweep girl was meant to look like Gustave Doré engravings. And that was harder! But this felt too clever. I don’t want my work to look skilful, I want it so you don’t worry about that stuff and that you focus on the story. And the best way to do that was this photo-realistic style. I hated drawing in this style. I had avoided it, never used photographs, but for this story, I was setting up the shot is drawing. I threw out my digital camera and got a video camera and built some basic sets in my garage and another room in my house. I got some friends over, got them dressed up and said “Now here’s the story” and I’d storyboarded it and got them to just act it out. I started to put one hand up here and try posing people, but it looked so unnatural. The creature was just a bundle of rags tied up with string, for example. I explained the situation, and I filmed them and went through meticulously and found the best bits and reassembled it all, and then redrew the whole thing from scratch. And of course, some of the drawings are straight out of my head.

(Question from the audience) Could you talk about the sense of poetry in your work?

I do think in terms of poetrty without being aware of it. Illustrated fiction causes you to be really concise. So I write a lot, then I trim it down to about a half or a third, I am constantly economising. It comes from working to 32 pages all the time. It’s a great lesson for any creative person to take the shortest possible story you can write and cut it in half. So in this story in Outer Suburbia about the water buffalo, the image itself is poetic because it’s got very identifiable objects, the way poetry has very identifiable words, but the relationship between them is vague. What’s interesting in poetry is not the words, it’s the space around them. It’s the same with comics, it’s the gaps between the panels, that’s why comics are so much like poetry, because the most important parts are the negatives spaces. So I am aware too of getting as much negative space into the story as possible. I spend most of my time not inventing stuff but stripping it down so that there are gaps and my own interpretation of each image is removed. I have an idea of what the picture is about, the kind of mood, but everybody else’s idea is different, they’re not going to find my interpretation that edifying, so I get rid of it, and I just have the basic core elements that you can build you own story out of.

What is next from you?

I am working on another book. It’s quite developed now, I haven’t done any paintings for it, but I tell publishers yes, I’m working on it, in my mind. Most of the work happens when you’re not at the drawing table but when you’re washing dishes. A lot of my breakthroughs come in the shower, you stand there like a zombie and suddenly after a whole day of banging your head against the desk, you just get it. It’s really annoying. It’s a book about brothers and it’s returning directly to the relationship between me and my older brother and the power imbalance in that relationship. Each page has a different scene of weirdness going on, where the older brother is kind of in control of the situation and the younger brother doesn’t quite know what’s going on but very much wants to be involved. So there’s one scene where there’s a big buffet with empty dishes like everybody’s already eaten, and there’s one olive left on a big plate, and little brother is just reaching out to grab the olive, and the older brother is grabbing the back of his tuxedo and yanking him back to stop him. And meanwhile all the other guests, very well-dressed, are all turning to look. The lesson is, never eat the last olive at the party.

(Update: Shaun Tan’s new picture book Rules of Summer is published November 2013 by Hodder Children’s Books.)

Posted: August 17, 2012


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My Books

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Featured Books

Rules of Summer

The Bird King
& Other Sketches

Tales From
Outer Suburbia

The Arrival

Sketches From
A Nameless Land

The Lost Thing

The Rabbits

The Red Tree