Speechless: Commenting on “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan

Speechless. literally speechless. 

Not just because it is an exquisite piece of work, but because there is not a single word in it. 

“The Arrival” by Shaun Tan manages to capture the immigrant experience by creating a pictorial language in an odd, foreign, semi-futuristic place. Ingenious, and very stunning.

Having a silent novel does two things:

(1) Excluding the wording allows the images to speak for themselves.

Excerpts from my very first post: “Understanding Comics” by Scott McCloud captures it pretty well.

Understanding Comics:…

The beauty of comics has more to do with the individual than the artist really. The ‘blankness’ of any abstraction lets a person fill in details for themselves.

Filling in ‘reality’ gives off a sense of power; since in real life (reality) people are pretty powerless over their lives/environments.

The “realness” of comics does not matter, and the ‘un-realness’ is what makes it so enduring.

Obviously, Tan Understands Comics. 

Inaudible Language

Why exclude the wording…??

Probably because trying to assign words to immigration would adulterate the experience.

This series of inspections, and zooming in-and-out of minute details, creates a sense of confusion and obvious discomfort. The amount of papers is absolutely overwhelming, and the man communicating through hand signals just exacerbates the frustration of the experience.

(2) It Employs Two Major Components of Graphic Novels

Amplification through Simplification

The panels flow almost seamlessly. It is so detailed, yet so simple at the same time. Maybe the volume and size betray the detailing, since details are usually minute, but it is somehow detailed abstract. (God, I wish I knew how to put it!).  The simple furrowing of a brow here, a look over there, basically all gestures convey a clear emotion.


Iconic Imagery–Mostly Ellis Island

Overall, there is a very graceful flow to this comic, and it uses easily recognizable yet iconic imagery strewn throughout the confusion. This prevents anyone getting too lost while exploring the comic.


Human Kindness

Sometimes people are such bastards that we forget they can also show kindness.                   (yup, nothing much deeper to say. Just…stating facts).

This next picture brings the expression “taking home with you” to new heights. I never thought it was possible to capture homesickness, or nostalgia–but it is!


As an immigrant, I can attest that there are really no words to describe immigration. No words that truly capture culture shock. Sometimes words just fail to communicate, but pictures don’t have that same problem.

Tan has captured the purity of comics: pictures that evoke emotions and communicate effectively. He uses abstraction tastefully, and every sketch seems to have been painstaking thought out. This is just, overall, a really well done graphic novel.

While employing techniques straight out of “Understanding Comics,” Tan simultaneously succeeds in creating a very pure visual novel, and absorbing the audience into the immigrant experience.

This is one of the best and “most novel” graphic novels I have ever seen.



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