Tales From Outer Suburbia – take a walk through Shaun Tan’s magically surreal neighbourhood
by Shaun Tan
Where exactly does an illustrated children’s book become a comic or graphic novel? More and more I find myself picking up some gorgeous children’s book or other and finding it drifting towards what I’d define as comics. And that’s one of the reasons I picked up Shaun Tan’s Tales From Outer Surburbia. Another big reason is the guilt I feel that I’ve never actually read the Arrival, his stunningly good looking graphic novel released in 2006. I’m well aware of how lovely it is, I’m well aware of the story and I’ve thus far gotten as far as flicking through it, but for one reason or another I’ve never actually sat down and read the thing. That’s something I intend to rectify as soon as possible after reading and thoroughly enjoying Tales From outer Surburbia.
Tales From Outer Suburbia starts off as a collection of 15 prose short stories with illustrations, but it soon begins to adopt more and more aspects of comics. The pictures stop illustrating the story and quickly become integral to telling the story and at several points through the book the prose and the pictures combine splendidly. It’s not an illustrated children’s book, nor is it a comic. It’s somewhere in between.
But what Tales from Outer Suburbia undoubtedly isn’t is dull. It’s an incredibly imaginative and delightfully open ended style of children’s fiction. From the very start it’s a pure visual delight. Just take a look at the contents page for a start:
(Even the contents page is a lovely piece. Copyright © 2008 by Shaun Tan)
And once you get to the actual stories you begin to realise exactly what sort of tale Shaun Tan’s telling. These aren’t simple tales with clear cut and simple plots and characters, these are bizarre, weird and wonderfully surreal tales that encourage children and adults alike to imagine, to wonder and to dream. I read Tales From Outer Suburbia over the course of several nights to Molly, age 9 and after each of Shaun Tan’s weirdly wonderful pieces we’d pause and reflect on what we’d just read. Sometimes we’d look at each other, pause and wonder exactly what we’d just read, but there wasn’t a single story in this book that failed to grab our attention and made us wonder. Shaun’s Outer Suburbia is somewhere familiar yet alien, where the everyday meets the extraordinary. And we spend a great deal of time reflecting on what precisely the very down to earth reactions we have to some of the wonders that go on around us.
The entire idea of the book is pretty much encapsulated by the very first couple of pages. An everyday surburban scene; man, lawn, street and then a flight of fantasy rowing her way through midair down the middle of main street. That’s everything that Tales From Outer Suburbia is all about:
(More wonders, this time from the frontispiece. Copyright © 2008 by Shaun Tan)
Once past the opener, it’s into the surrealistic world of Shaun Tan’s suburbia: there are tales of strange deep sea divers found wandering the neighbourhood, a memory of a water buffalo who used to live in the vacant lot at the end of the street, the family who discovers an idyllic inner courtyard in their normal suburban house and possible solutions to the thorny problem of what to do when the government plants an ICBM in every garden in the neighbourhood. That gives you just a taste of the surrealist delights here. But Shaun Tan’s stories are so much more than fragments of weirdness, there’s a genuine heart and emotion to them all.
Of them all, Molly kept coming back to Eric, a sentimental tale of a strange little foreign exchange student (although exactly how foreign we’re never sure) who takes residence in the family’s pantry:
(“It must be a cultural thing,” said Mum. “As long as he is happy.” Eric makes himself at home. Copyright © 2008 by Shaun Tan)
The thing that makes Eric work ever so well, the thing that Molly really loved is the very foreign-ness of little Eric. Someone this small and this out of place either finds countless delight or deep terror in a completely alien environment of books, postage stamps, plug holes and countless other everyday things. This fascination with the mundane and the minutia of daily life rather frustrates the narrator, and he even admits at one point that he’s not even sure if Eric is happy with them or not. And then he leaves:
“Nevertheless, none of us could help but be bewildered by the way Eric left our home; a sudden departure early one morning, with little more than a wave and a polite goodbye.”
Throughout Eric Shaun Tan uses his visuals in the ways I’ve already described, using them to not only illustrate his prose, but using them as the story until the final double page spread where, instead of writing an ending and losing the glorious moment, Tan allows his pictures to tell us everything we need, bursting forth in glorious colour. It’s a marvellous and genuinely lovely end to a great story and it’s no wonder that Molly kept coming back to it. I’m not going to give it away, no matter how much I’d like to. Go and buy the book.
But just because we kept revisiting Eric, it should take nothing away from the rest of the tales on show here. The writing is just amazing, poetic stuff that inspires further thought into the meanings Tan is alluding to and the art is just beautifully varied throughout. My particular favourite is Distant Rain, wherein Tan muses on what actual happens to all of the poetry and love notes that people write but never let others see. Through pages of collage, full of cut up text and pictures we go on a flight of fancy with the collected assemblage of words and emotions rising higher and higher into the night sky until it falls back to earth, fragments appearing one morning all over backyards, laden with meaning and open to individual readings, much like every story in Outer Suburbia:
(The merging of words and pictures into a seamless whole in Tales From Outer Suburbia perfectly represented by Tan’s story Distant Rain. Copyright © 2008 by Shaun Tan)
Tales From Outer Suburbia is a book or a graphic novel that may be meant for older children perhaps but, like all the truly great children’s literature it can and does work perfectly for any adult lucky enough to read it. Magical moments of the extraordinary alongside the everyday and the wonder of both – what a book.