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The term ‘visual literacy’ has been bandied about promiscuously in recent years with little consensus as to its meaning. What is clear however is that an ability to read visual text without the aid of words is an increasingly important skill.
Shaun Tan’s epic picture book creation was four years in the making. Dealing with the themes of relocation, alienation, ‘outsiderness’, Tan’s monochromatic drawing mixes familiar, photo-based iconography of mass migration with fantastic creatures and cityscapes to create a powerful other-worldliness. One can only marvel at the sustained density of the draughtsmanship and the author’s obsessive commitment to the project. There are parallels with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, in as much as both books deal with major issues of our times in inventive visual, sequential form. The absence of word text in The Arrival makes the silent resonance of the narrative all the more powerful. Even the incidental text – posters, signage and documents – appears in an alien, inscrutable language, heightening the empathy we feel with the isolation of the book’s central character.
A powerful, at times harrowing read, Tan’s creation is a major achievement.