Tales from Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan
Reviewed by Sarah Miller
Fragmented stories and captivating images are eloquently woven into Shaun Tan's newest book Tales from Outer Suburbia. Tan, known for his breadth of subject matters, ranging from political and social commentary to historically significant events, does not disappoint his readers with this collection of 15 vignettes, each drawing from the oddities of suburban life.
This book is a study of art. I found myself poring over the images, my eyes overcome by the various types of artistic elements and the vast amount of media used: acrylic, oil on paper, oil on wood, graphite and colored pencils, gesso, paper collage, ink, watercolor, ball-point pen, digital, scraperboard/scratchboard, gouache, photocopied text, pastel crayon.
The pictures are collections of images from Tan's sketchbook; as he explains on his website: "all of the stories in Suburbia are the products of 'homeless' sketchbook doodles and half-articulated ideas -- those that I have found especially intriguing, or accidentally poetic in some way."
And, they're more than mere images. The color palettes, line qualities, and choice of media bring an additional element of style that beautifully complements the tone of the stories, such as the use of harsh contoured lines in "Grandpa's Story," a fast-paced tale of a perilous journey. Tan also uses the art to portray a prominent message, such as in "Alert but Not Alarmed." The saturated oil paintings, bright and colorful, depict missiles placed in suburban backyards, each pointing to an unknown enemy from afar. This subtle juxtaposition challenges the reader to recognize the gravity of its symbolism.
In each story, Tan brings together little elements that create a whole, namely, the events in any suburban town -- assuming, of course, your suburban town has a water buffalo that never speaks but always points you in the direction of your question's answer. Reminiscent of Edward Gorey's writing, the vignettes are whimsical yet profound. Each is a window into the author's subconscious and, yes, sometimes they leave you scratching your head. Tan explains, "the stories and illustrations feel very removed from anything real. I think each story is galvanized by that difference or tension, trying to bring reality and fantasy together, in a way that feels honest and correct -- at least as a faithful 'parallel world.'"
The stories, raw and disjointed at times, mimic the feel of the artist's sketchbook doodles, but each finds its path in the end, often embodying social and political messages. "Eric" is the story of a foreign exchange student, seemingly from another planet, who asks questions the host does not expect, such as, why are sink drains shaped like a flower? This observation reminds us to take note of our surroundings, from time to time, to gain the perspective of a stranger from another land.
The Story and the Art
Together the stories and the art form a bridge between the fantastic world and the real world. Tan encapsulates every element of art and design into his stories, down to the layout. For example, "The Amnesia Machine" is arranged like a two-page spread in a newspaper. "Make Your Own Pet," on the other hand, is a cut-and-paste collage, filled with notebook paper and differing handwriting. Other stories have a traditional layout with text on one side, picture on the other.