Shaun Tan is an illustrator that did something that, while maybe not 100% original, I had genuinely never seen before. He released a graphic novel that told the story of a father immigrating to a new land to get a foothold for his family. Did I mention this novel, “The Arrival,” had no words or dialogue?

Copyright – Shaun Tan, also, did I mention this is one of my favorites?

Lost and Found

So, naturally, when I’m handed a collection of 3 of Tan’s other tales that had yet to be released in the U.S. until the time of this publication, I’m going to be on board. Inside “Lost and Found” are “The Red Tree,” “The Lost Thing,” and “The Rabbits,” the first two written and illustrated by Tan, the last illustrated by Tan and written by John Marsden.

All three tales tackle a few common themes, albeit through very different mediums. Social / societal apathy or complacency seems to be a big one, with “The Red Tree” tackling depression, “Lost and Found” taking place in a post-Industrial suburbian ‘dystopia’, and “The Rabbits” dealing with the conquering of Native peoples (in this instance, Australian Aboriginal tribes) by white settlers. Depression grips and keeps you from society, caught in a headlock of loneliness. The Lost Thing in “The Lost Thing” has no home to go to – it is perpetually lost, and no one around seems to notice nor care. In “The Rabbits,” well, we all know how the tale ended for Native American tribes here in the United States.

The stories themselves are short and quick-to-read, but the amount of thematic material packed in them makes them dense beyond expectation. With a little girl as his mascot, Tan tackles his own issues with depression in “The Red Tree” and attempts to make them palpable for those without depression to better understand. The ending of “The Lost Thing” is bittersweet, with the problem finding a resolution, but the narrator ultimately just becoming another cog in the Industrial complex. The ending of “The Rabbits” is left open to interpretation, but it isn’t hard to see the results of the still-open ending.

depressionCopyright – Shaun Tan

The Artwork

Shaun Tan is by far one of my favorite illustrators when it comes to graphic novels. Bar none, his pension for detail, different hues / tones with color, and ability to blend cartoony style with post-industrial dystopian settings is mind-bending. My only wish is that he would illustrate for horror comics. He would be a natural at it.

In “The Red Tree,” Tan uses grandiose settings and weather patterns to illustrate the feelings of depression The image to the right is one of many of them. Certain work doesn’t really need words to accompany it, it speaks totally for itself. In a clever turnaround (that I didn’t notice until I read about it later), each of the panels features a small red leaf – the symbol of hope in an otherwise daunting, scary, and sometimes empty existence.

The characters in “The Lost Thing” range from deliberately vapid, unremarkable, and flat, to cartoony and a bit odd. The protagonist and said Lost Thing in particular have a lot of personality (the red, tentacley thing in this picture is the Lost Thing) to differentiate them from the world that surrounds them: mass-produced, gray, extremely square / rectangular, and apathetic. As the tale continues, more Lost Things show up that all have extremely unique, kind of strange appearances: bright colors and tentacles are a good signifier of something lost. BUT I’ll go ahead and pull out the overused Tolkien bit of “Not all those who wander are lost…” You have to read it to get it. The ending bums me out, as the narrator falls into the background of apathy and the inevitable work-sleep-work cycle.

Out of the three tales, the artwork in “The Rabbits” to me holds the most weight. The Indigenous tribes are usually characterized by brighter colors, softer edges, and wide open space. The Rabbits, on the other hand, are extremely angular, often characterized by stark, desolate colors, and lonely frames.

The Verdict

Read it. Read it read it read it read it. I love Shaun Tan’s work from top to bottom, each of these tales is bite-sized but dense enough to not leave you wanting more. You can, and will re-read each of them to pick up on things you missed. Apparently, there’s a short animated film about “The Red Tree,” so my next plan is to go check that out. If it’s done even remotely in the art style of the graphic novel, I’ll be fanboying out so hard.

I’ve got no zinger to finish with, sooooo

Solus

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Comments
  1. So is your independent learning project focused on reading graphic novels? Sorry I don’t know, I’ve been trying to keep up with everyone but sometimes I fail! Anyways, I’ve never been a huge fan of graphic novels, but the ones you profile seem darkly beautiful and not your average book. If I ever pick up a graphic novel, it will probably be one of these!

    • jamcfarland says:

      My independent learning project is learning Chinese – there are other blog posts on it, but I don’t title them “INDEPENDENT LEARNING PROJECT” so they may be harder to find.
      This is for an independent Graphic Novels course I’m also taking with Dr. Ellington. These are great books if you’d be interested in giving graphic novels a try.

  2. Very interesting artwork, I think I would have a hard time understanding these novels!

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