The Arrival. By Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $19.99.
The Nightmare Factory. Based on stories by Thomas Ligotti. Fox Atomic/HarperCollins. $17.99.
When practitioners of a form start attempting stories that push the form’s boundaries, you know a certain level of maturity has been attained both by those working in the form and by the approach itself. The Arrival pushes the graphic novel farther than it has ever gone, and succeeds astonishingly well – without a single word. Shaun Tan’s gorgeous sepia-toned, oversize hardcover book is nothing less than an encapsulation of the immigrant experience – accomplished by making readers feel as confused and uncertain as immigrants to any land must feel upon arrival and while they learn their new nation’s customs. Just as words are absent from the book, it is difficult to find ones to describe it adequately. The inside front and back covers are filled with faces – 60 in all – that could be the visages of anyone, anywhere. The first page of the book looks like a passport page written in an indecipherable language. And then the story starts, as a man regretfully leaves his home city (over which there is the shadow of a huge dragon; but there is no dragon) and begins a trip on foot, by train and by steamship. The pages are marvelously varied: one two-page spread shows nothing but an enormous cloud and the ship sailing far below it, looking like a toy boat; another two-page spread is broken down into 24 separate panels, each telling a tiny part of the story. The nameless traveler eventually arrives in a city where everything is strange, from the bizarrely shaped buildings to the enormous statue of a standing birdlike figure with angel wings, holding an egg in its arms (yes, arms), to items that seem to be gigantic decorated dinner plates standing on edge. Bit by bit, by drawing pictures and enlisting the help of strangers (while dodging bits of light that seem to be dangerous, unless they’re not), the man finds a place to live (filled mostly with strangely curved pipes) and is “adopted” by an animal that looks like a small-dog-sized long-tailed whale crossed with a mouse and having a lizard’s tongue. The man searches for work, standing in front of tepees whose entrances are two-thirds of the way to the top, while ocean liners sail through the air and under arched bridges in the background. The strangeness goes on and on, unceasingly, but eventually the man does learn how to do menial labor and how to get food (such as a snakelike object with a gourd for a “head”). He encounters people who tell him their own stories, always without words, such as the ex-soldier who fought against robe-wearing giants wielding enormous vacuum cleaners and flashing death rays from their eyes. Strangeness is everywhere, with everyone, but the essential underlying humanity of people comes through again and again, until at long last the man brings his family to him and starts teaching them about their odd new home – so they in turn can help others. The Arrival goes on a touch too long and becomes a tad repetitious (in stories, not art), but it is a magnificent achievement, and one of the best graphic novels yet created by anyone.
The Nightmare Factory, although also very fine, is not at this level – partly because Thomas Ligotti’s words let the reader envision even greater horrors than the illustrators of his tales can draw. Ligotti writes effective horror fiction – just how effective is made clear by the introductions he provides to each of the four tales in this graphic novel. Unfortunately, the writers, or adapters, of Ligotti’s stories are not at his level. Stuart Moore distills “The Last Feast of Harlequin” and “Dream of a Mannikin” rather effectively; Joe Harris is somewhat less adept in “Dr. Locrian’s Asylum” and “Teatro Grottesco.” The artists of the four stories – Colleen Doran, Ben Templesmith, Ted McKeever and Michael Gaydos, respectively – have widely varying styles; the combination makes the book very visually attractive. Doran has a noir approach, Templesmith a shaded one in which everything seems to be seen through mist, McKeever an angular one in which all faces and bodies are elongated, and Gaydos one that combines realism with touches of strangeness in colors and settings. But Ligotti excels at psychological horror, and the exact depiction in this book of the terrible things that happen to his protagonists renders the psychological elements less frightening – and robs the stories of coherence that they may only attain at the level of a terror dream. The Nightmare Factory deserves a strong (+++) rating for its many individually effective scenes from Ligotti’s stories; but in the end, it limits those tales by requiring readers to see them in only one way – the way of the adapter and artist – rather than in the many ways in which they can be visualized by someone who reads the originals.