Lost and Found contains three books that Australian author, artist and Oscar-winning filmmaker Shaun Tan originally published separately: The Red Tree, The Lost Thing (both written by Tan) and The Rabbits, with text by John Marsden.
Read more about graphic novels this week during Comic-Con San Diego with our Graphic Novels Roundup.
Because he worked on the books around the same time (1998-2001), Tan says, “They are invested with a lot of my preoccupations as a young author and illustrator.” He explained their connection as “something to do with the relationship between power and ignorance, inspiration and apathy, light and darkness—and constant ambiguity that passes the responsibility of finding meaning back to the reader.”
In The Red Tree, even though your compositions sometimes look bleak—with their earth-toned palette and seemingly sterile environment—there are always glimmers of warmth. What is it that attracts you to that juxtaposition?
I suppose that every work of art is a real balancing act. You’re dealing with a constant tension between opposites, beginning with the most obvious paradox—trying to represent reality by creating a fictional world. In the case of The Red Tree, there is another problem contained within this, the task of creating images of sadness and depression without actually being sad and depressing, and possibly distancing the reader.
In The Lost Thing, there’s a refrain, “Nobody else seemed to notice it was there. Too busy…, I guess.” The ending suggests that the boy hero, too, is in danger of ceasing to notice the important things, much like the people in your Tales from Outer Suburbia. All of your books ask people to pay attention. Why is that important?
I think that question gets right to the heart of books, reading and most other forms of communication really. A lot of the “darkness” in the world seems to occur when people stop being curious and believe that everything they know is exclusively correct—that all current knowledge must then be defended against change or revision.
Consider extreme fundamentalism, oppressive regimes, prejudice, racism, sexism and many other dangerous beliefs. What they all have in common is a strong aversion to considering alternative viewpoints. In fact, one might argue that this is a root cause of all corruption—any intellectual cul-de-sac that repels self-criticism.
All of us are vulnerable to this inclination, and it can begin with simply not noticing things, or failing to empathize with people, ideas or experiences that are unfamiliar. Children in particular probably recognize this as a peculiar failing of adults, given that children are constantly immersed in difference and novelty—the world is still so strange—and they know how arbitrary language, theory and meaning can be. I think it’s important that we hold on to those notions as we get older.
Is there a noticeable difference in your creative approach to illustration when you’re representing your own text versus creating images for someone else’s words, as you did with John Marsden’s The Rabbits?
It’s not terribly different actually. In the case of The Rabbits, I essentially “wrote” a new text to wrap around John’s concepts, a text made of pictures rather than words, something to do with an alien race, cultural misunderstanding and industry. When working on my own books, I always feel that the duality of narrative remains, that there is a story told in words and a rather different story told in pictures, the two working together in harmony.
My ideas as a writer are often different to my ideas as an illustrator, even on the same story. The Lost Thing did not have much sense of landscape when I initially wrote it, and I had no firm idea what the creature looked like or how it behaved. The Arrival was originally a 32-page picture book with a written text accompanying images—that was the original contract. I eventually decided to remove all text, and argued to expand the work to 128 pages. This is essentially why I prefer to only work on my own projects—there is a greater capacity for evolution.
Some of the strongest connections made in your books develop between humans and “other” beings. Is connection the important thing, whether between two humans, or humans and other living things?
I think that’s right, that “connection” itself is the most important thing—particularly relationships between people, things and environments that might at first seem difficult, due to problems of language, cultural blindness or conflicting interest. It’s spawned in part from my interest in science fiction, but more broadly than that, it comes from a deeper concern about how we as humans relate to non-human things—an environmental concern.
I often imagine we are living in a kind of “dark age” at the moment, in terms of the way that industrialization has consumed nature, instead of pursuing a more desirable co-evolution, where the interests of other animals, plants and ecological systems are considered. It’s an age of serious disconnection, abstraction and fractured spirit, which is as artistically interesting as it is worrying and ominous.
The world in The Arrival represents something of an alternative, a multicultural society in the broadest possible sense, where various creatures co-exist in a fairly organic-looking metropolis, and natural and artificial designs seem cross-pollinated. It’s not a perfect world, but at least the ideological premise here is one of pluralism, inclusion and mutual respect. Of course, The Rabbits presents an opposite scenario, where cultural chauvinism and disconnection leads to a general collapse, both of the natural world and the grand civilization that has rushed to conquer it.