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Graphic Novel Fridays: Shaun Tan's Tales from Outer Suburbia (On a Thursday)

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Detail from the endpapers for Tales from Outer Suburbia

(Published on a Thursday due to travel commitments...)

Shaun Tan's The Arrival was the publishing event of the year in 2007, one of the most breath-taking accomplishments I've encountered in the graphic novel form. (Read our interview with Tan.) Now he's back with Tales from Outer Suburbia, first published in Australia last year. It's a much different book and as quietly satisfying in its own way. With varying degrees of illustrative narrative, Tan weaves stories about beached ghost dugongs, foreign exchange students that look remarkably like leaf creatures carrying their belongings in peanut shells, alienated adults wandering neighborhoods in old-fashioned deep-sea diving gear, and a lovely two-page faux newspaper spread about an "Amnesia Machine," among other treasures. The quality and subtlety of both the black-and-white and color art reflects a deep understanding of how to use space. Nothing feels cluttered, everything feels balanced. And, in encountering Tan's written stories for the first time, I was pleased to find that text doesn't detract from his work. The Arrival gained its power from being mute, in a sense. But Tales from Outer Suburbia, while not as ambitious, achieves a pleasant balance between image and words. Even more fascinating to me is how Tan manages to capture the numinous in the mundane and insert the fantastical in ways that seem timeless and natural. In "The Nameless Holiday," Tan uses thumbnail illustrations to punctuate a short-short that ends:

What a remarkable, unnameable feeling it is, right at the moment of his leaping: something like sadness and regret, of suddenly wanting your gift back and held tight in your chest, knowing that you will certainly never see it again. And there there is the letting go as your muscles release, your lungs exhale, and the backwash of longing leaves behind this one image on the shore of memory: a huge reindeer on your roof, bowing down.

That unnameable feeling suffuses The Art of Suburbia, and confirms the wonderful, effortless nature of Shaun Tan's art.

Tales from outer

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I could only give it 3 stars because Mr. Tan unfortunately gives in to the all too seductive temptation to pontificate on subjects about which he is clueless or at least embarrassingly misinformed. Thus we get a cautionary (and illogical) tale about the nuclear arms race in 2009! (Psst! The Cold War is over! Perhaps before you were born!) In another he tells a cockamamie tale about a secret government amnesia machine, thus revealing his total ignorance of the Australian or United States forms of government (or both) while blissfully unaware that the REAL amnesia machine is arguably the politically biased to the point of outright dishonesty newspaper that deliberately misinforms for its own political purposes.

After this in-your-face idiocy my tolerance for being lectured to about the evils of hating the different or beating dogs to death was considerably lessened, since I was actually taught to do neither from a very young age.

Stick to turning dull drab suburbia into a place of myth and magic, Mr. Tan, and eschew politics...

at least until you get a clue.

I've only just started dipping into it, but it's a well-deserved Aurealis Award winner: http://www.aurealisawards.com/Winners.htm

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