Given how dark some of Shaun Tan’s work can be, it comes as a pleasant surprise when meeting him to find that he is so warm and charming, happy, it seems, to be interviewed. That he is also thoughtful and considerate is less of a surprise, given the depth and humanity that pervades so much of his output – be it in picture book form, graphic novel, film animation, original drawing, or sculpture. Tan, born in Western Australia in 1974 and now a resident of Melbourne, is author of acclaimed picture books such as The Red Tree, The Lost Thing, Tales from Outer Suburbia and The Rules of Summer, as well as the graphic novel, The Arrival. He is also well known for his work in film, winning an Oscar for a short animation version of The Lost Thing in 2011, and acting as a concept artist for other films, including Pixar’s Wall-E. In 2011 he won the international Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for his contribution to children’s literature.
Tan is in London for a book signing at the Illustration Cupboard, a beautiful gallery close to Piccadilly, hosting an exhibition and sale of his original artwork. Interviewing him in a small room at the top of the building, surrounded by his images, it almost feels as if I have been transported into the pages of one of his books. I am in a strange, off-kilter world, where his surrealist hand has created images which are at one and the same time familiar and removed, troubling and humane. It is not an unpleasant world, though. In fact, it is quite the opposite. And perhaps that comes from the sense of calm that I feel when surrounded by his work. The calm is an effect of the ‘quietness’ that Tan deliberately seeks to create in his illustrations. ‘If you look at this work here,’ he says, ‘it’s very much concerned with ideas of silence’. His characters are nearly always standing still and are often dwarfed by their surroundings. He has nothing against ‘dynamic pictures’, but feels that there is ‘something internally contradictory about superheroes leaping and so on – because they’re leaping but not leaping.’ The ‘quietness’ allows readers to dwell on Tan’s images for lengthy periods, to return to them again and again, discovering something new each time. To me, it gives them a literary quality, in that they are asking for contemplation, deliberately resisting an obvious single meaning. Perhaps this fits in with Tan’s academic background as an undergraduate student of Fine Arts and Literature. Certainly he talks about how the written word often demands depth and stillness and that he is reaching for the same effect with his drawing.
Tan is also keen for his images, like literary works, to resist absolute interpretation. I put to him that his images often unleash a shower of words within me, when I look at them, that they are like word-clouds waiting to burst. He enjoys the suggestion because it makes him ‘go right back and think what is a work of art? Is it a way of conveying a message?’ But he would rather the words did not always emerge, that the image remained as an image, pointing out that ‘there are a lot of paintings that I don’t enjoy seeing being written about, or even having titles, because they’re suddenly boxed in.’ He elaborates on my metaphor by explaining that ‘the relationship between word and image is fraught and that’s what I like about it, that there is that cloud that’s connecting them, but it’s very important that the cloud stays up in the air, that it doesn’t rain down and make puddles everywhere.’ To exemplify his point, he relates how a school student asked him what the message was in the final pages of The Rabbits, an allegorical fable about colonisation, written by Australian author John Marsden and illustrated by Tan. ‘I haven’t answered yet,’ he says, ‘because I need to find a way of explaining it to them, that there is no message, that you can’t transcribe this picture into a neat paragraph.’
For all that his images resist full interpretation, Tan’s work remains accessible on many levels, perhaps explaining its popularity with readers across all age groups. At all times he appears to be aware of the needs of the reader, and of his responsibility to engage as well as challenge. This comes across in his commitment to his craft as a storyteller, as well as an illustrator. While his work often begins as ‘almost blurry, anticipatory concepts, like a fuzzy dream’ it undergoes extensive reworking before completion. The Lost Thing, for example, a story about a boy who discovers a bizarre-looking creature while out collecting bottle tops at a beach, is set in a heavily industrialised, almost post-apocalyptic world, yet was initially set in ‘quite a pleasant suburban landscape’ before Tan ‘started to get rid of the trees and grass’ until ‘something clicked and it was almost perfect’. He talks about the need to take his readers on an ‘emotional journey’ and how he ‘moves drawings around like a jigsaw puzzle’ to achieve this, while checking to see ‘if they need any joining sections, or if something is emerging.’ He also aims for a degree of simplicity in what he is drawing, so that, while the pages of his books are often filled with detail, that detail could be stripped away without the importance of the central image being lost. ‘You could photocopy the work really badly and it would still survive,’ he says to explain this. ‘I think that’s almost a rule – it’s got still to be able to be read.’
The darkness in his books is perhaps also linked to his desire to engage readers. It is not something he necessarily seeks out. He laughs when I ask if it reflects his own character, adamant that it does not. He even admits to sometimes being ‘frustrated by how the books turn out’ in the sense that he does not always feels fully in control of what emerges. ‘I’ve been writing lately a lot of stories about animals,’ he says, ‘and I’m dismayed that so many are dark.’ He thinks that the darkness perhaps occurs because narratively it offers more of a sense of the universal, that ‘it’s almost like we agree more about what’s dark’ and that, as a writer, ‘you can turn up the volume more on the darkness’.
Nowhere is Tan’s commitment to his work more apparent than in the process by which he came to write The Arrival, a wordless graphic novel that tells the story of a man who leaves his family behind to migrate to a strange, foreign land on the other side of a vast ocean. It is an astonishing book, five years in the making, including two spent simply figuring out how it could be done. While his other books ‘evolved intuitively’, this one was ‘stylistically focused on learning from other people’s work’. He drew on Raymond Briggs’ books, ‘particularly The Snowman, which has a very similar format’, as well as graphic novelists such as Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes. He also learned about the craft of the graphic novel by studying Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics, a kind of meta-comic, explaining the graphic form through the graphic form itself. Most importantly he learned from McCloud about ‘the gutter’, the space between panels, which is ‘almost more important than the panels themselves’. This enabled Tan to ‘cut everything down to the minimum’, something of a relief given that he ‘didn’t want to spend the rest of my life drawing this thing’.
The Arrival still very much carries Tan’s instinct for what works. Initially, he followed McCloud’s advice that characters should have simplified faces to allow readers to identify with them. So his figures in early drafts were highly stylised, with dots for eyes. It is hard to imagine the book being nearly as effective as it is had Tan not chosen to switch to a photo-realist style of drawing, which ‘though it felt stylistically dodgy just worked’.
It is hard to categorise Shaun Tan’s work. It is certainly popular with children and widely used in schools for a variety of purposes, but his themes and the richness of his imagery also make him appeal to a wider, more adult readership. I’m still slightly taken aback when, in response to being asked how he would position himself, he says ‘if I had to pick, I would have to say science fiction and fantasy illustrator’. He explains that his first published illustrations, at about the age of 16, were for small press science-fiction magazines and that ‘when I go to something like the world fantasy convention and I talk to the other illustrators there I feel slightly more kinship’. He says that one of his lesser known books, The Bird King, a collection of sketches representing various aspects of the working process and not initially intended for publication, is particularly popular with this group and that ‘if I was buying one of my books this is the one I would buy’.
On reflection, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so taken aback. Tan’s work contains many of the tropes of the science fiction genre, in particular the way that he offers us a defamiliarised version of our actual world. Stylistically, he also acknowledges various science fiction influences, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and, in the dystopian elements of The Lost Thing, 1984. It is also a genre associated with obsession, and Tan readily admits to being obsessed with drawing and painting from the age of six: ‘This is the thing I like doing,’ he says modestly.
Tan feels a kinship with other groups too, ‘with fine artists, with film-makers and cartoonists and children’s book illustrators’. He behaves, he says, ‘like a magpie, picking bits from all of them’. I’m not so sure about the magpie analogy. I think that Tan’s work whatever the influences it bears, is so distinctive, so of itself, that it deserves a category all of its own. And if such a grand claim does not fit comfortably with Tan’s own modest demeanour, then perhaps the words he applies to Maurice Sendak’s ‘perfectly structured’ Where the Wild Things Are, which he often reads to his three year old daughter, can equally stand for his own work: ‘It’s a bit weird. It’s very honest’.
Andrew McCallum is Director of the English and Media Centre.
The Bird King, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-1-8487-7050-8, £14.99 hbk
The Lost Thing, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0-7344-1138-9, £9.99 pbk
The Arrival, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0-7344-1586-8, £10.99 pbk
The Rabbits, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0-7344-1136-5, £7.99 pbk
The Red Tree, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0-7344-1137-2, £7.99 pbk
Tales from Outer Suburbia, Templar Publishing, 978-1-8401-1313-6, £12.99 hbk
The Rules of Summer, Hodder Children’s Books, 978-0-7344-1067-2, £14.99 hbk