Shaun Tan’s The Arrival
Arthur A. Levine Books – Scholastic Books, 2006

The wordless images in The Arrival are often breath-taking, sometimes sad and always evocative. (You can see one of them here, on the author’s page.)

Tan says: “I see each book as an experiment in visual and written narrative, part of an ongoing exploration of this fascinating literary form.

The tale begins with the departure, a man on a journey, leaving loved ones behind.

At times it seems like something that a child could comfortably read.

At other times it seems to deal with themes that are too intricate for a child to absorb.

It is not a linear narrative; it reads like a mediation on exile, escape, identity, family, threat, fear, alienation, attack, vulnerability and security.

The sources of photographs that inspired the storyteller give a clue to the breadth of the story: an image of Ellis Island, one of a newsboy announcing the sinking of the Titanic, picture postcards of NY from the turn of the century, and photographs of street scenes from post-war Europe.

It has the feel of a tale that would one could revisit periodically and always take something new away from the reading of it.

Robert Sikoryak’s Masterpiece Comics
Drawn and Quarterly, 2009

From the moment that I spotted its larger-than-life cover, with the advertisement banner at the bottom that read “Coming soon: Virgil! Chaucer! Flaubert! And more! Watch for them at your newsstand or local library!”…I was all-a-chuckle.

The tales that are included are tales that most readers know, but not as they are presented by Robert Sikoryak.

They stretch back to the myth of Adam and Eve, only it appears here as Blond Eve. You’ll recognize the inspiration to be the cartoonish Chic Young, 1930s, comic-strip, featuring Blondie and Dagwood, the “housewife with golden curls and her tired-out husband”.

In discussing his work on this short narrative, Sikoryak states that in these Judeo-Christian scripture stories, characters juggle free will and duties to the creator like the “modern day harried husband conveys sandwich ingredients to his kitchen table”.

So, Blondie was the perfect casting choice. Obviously.

But what about “The Crypt of Brontë”?

Here the 1950s graphic horror narratives of Al Feldstein and Jack Davis inspired the retelling of the 1847 Gothic-inspired novel.

As Sikoryak says, these ”gruesome morality tales” emphasized wickedness (even when thwarted) over goodness (which was considered tedious).

All these delicious stories are told in 8 pages or less (there are many, many more), but the advertisements and supporting images are just as much fun.

I used to daydream about the possibilities of buying the Sea Monkeys advertised on the backs of my comic books when I was a girl, but if I only had known to daydream about collecting the entire series of Action Camus.

And then there is the ad-Pequod whaling ship featured in its full-page ad; it seats 1 kid and 1 cannibal and features harpoons that shoot (you can send payments by post but NY state residents must add 14 cent whaling tax).

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile
AbramsComics, 2010

I waited for months to borrow a copy of this from the library.

Not because there was so much demand, but because they took their sweet time ordering it for their collection (ironically).

And now I feel a little silly for having waited because this is a keeper; now I wish that I had simply bought my own copy the first time that someone recommended it.

As for real-life bookmobiles, I was only in one a couple of times as a girl, but I thought they were the best thing ever.

“The night bookmobile seemed larger from the inside – much larger. The lighting was subdued but pleasant. The whole place smelled of old, dry paper, with a little whiff of wet dog, which I like.”

My memories of the actual bookmobile were that it was actually smaller in there than it looked but, when it comes to other libraries, I agree that inside they do seem bigger.

Anyway, Alexandra’s bookmobile is hers. It’s personal. She finds all her favourite books in there. They all hold memories for her.

“My childhood: hours spent in airless classrooms, days home sick from school reading Nancy Drew, forbidden books read secretively late at night. Teenage years reading – trying to read – books I’d heard were important, Naked Lunch and The Fountainhead, Ulysses and Women in Love…”

The artwork is quite wonderful. Sometimes the perspective leaves the viewer with a very simple image, Alexandra and the Wiinebago in the night. Sometimes it is a very detailed close-up, with individual spines legible.

Things are not always neat and tidy and bordered. The stairs of the Winnebago might cut into the top corner of the neighbouring panel. A hand might extend from one panel outward to the reader, eclipsing part of a panel beneath.

Sometimes the narrative is incorporated into the image, sometimes it is set apart in an adjacent panel. The dialogue is hand-written and looks to be written with a stubby primer-school pencil.

It always has the feel of a story being told. It often has the feel of a story that I already know.

“I drank my tea and explored the farthest recesses of my collection. Each spine was an encapsulated memory, each book represented hours, days of pleasure, of immersion in words.”

Well you know how that is, don’t you.

Have you read any of these? Do you have other graphic works on your stack these days?