Armored koalas, one-eyed house pets with reptilian tails, cardboard boxes that trot across the countryside: Australian artist Shaun Tan’s aliens are so appealing that he’s sometimes greeted by fans who’ve had his work turned into tattoos (which he’s fine with, incidentally). His best-known picture books – including The Arrival, Tales of Outer Suburbia, and The Lost Thing – explore otherworldly landscapes that look strangely like our own. The awards Tan has won cut a wide swath across artistic genres: the 2010 Hugo Science Fiction Best Artist award, the 2011 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award for children’s literature, and the 2011 Best Short Film (Animated) Academy award for the film adaptation of The Lost Thing. His newest title, The Bird King: An Artist’s Notebook, is an exhibition of rough work collected in a sketchbook-sized volume. PW caught up with Tan by phone as he passed through the Scholastic offices on the new book’s publication date.
Did you propose the idea of doing a sketchbook to your publisher, or did they propose it to you?
A bit of both, initially. In the world of comics it’s not so unusual for people to publish their working drawings. Sometimes they even appear at the back of the book for fans who want to see how the work came together.
I was going to put it together and hand it out as a limited edition. But as I went through it and started to organize it, it started to look like a book. I realized I would be at a loss to publish and distribute it myself. I approached a small Australian publisher and made a kind of deal with them – like, could you do it on the condition that I get some number of copies at cost. I didn’t expect it to be so well received! A lot of art students bought it and found it really interesting.
It’s a gift to be able to see the artwork in process. For kids who want to draw but who don’t know where to begin, it’s evidence that art isn’t perfect – that it starts out rough.
To me the process is the interesting part. The finished product is more like when you’ve finished a jigsaw puzzle. It’s become something else. It’s sorting through all the possibilities that’s the fun part. And the painful part!
It’s not all work from the studio. The last quarter of the book was drawn on plane trips. I get very creative when I’m trapped in a plane and I can’t do anything else. Some of the drawings just started by copying pictures out of the inflight magazines. Sometimes I write captions on the inflight magazines and then replace them in the seat pocket.
Was it difficult from a technical standpoint to ready the sketchbook for publication?
Not really. When you’re dealing with full color, it can be hard. The oil sketches are quite dense; I’m not a watercolor-y kind of painter. I usually start by painting on black and building up color from there, and that can be tricky to reproduce. The paper stock is coated stock, not matte, as the original book was in Australia. Some of those images were pretty dull. This is a nicer production.
And there’s no dust jacket.
I’d never even thought of a dust jacket! I wouldn’t really want a dust jacket because then it wouldn’t even be a sketchbook. The book is close to the size of the sketchbooks that I use. I didn’t want it to be a coffee table book. I wanted it to look friendly, as if to say, “You can do this, too.” In fact, when the book was originally published in Australia, the publisher produced a line of blank books to go along with it.
It sounds as if there’s a wider audience for this than you had anticipated.
The audience for comics has shifted dramatically. And the boundaries between books and fine arts have blurred. Maybe it’s the globalization of fine art through the Internet – it’s easy for certain groups to coalesce around a certain kind of work or medium.
I tend to be inspired more by comics than by other forms of illustration, like Chris Ware putting out a bunch of stuff in a box [Building Stories, 2012], and McSweeney’s – they represents some of that crossover.
You’ve written that the landscapes in your books that look so blank and anonymous are actually like those you grew up with in suburban Perth.
I think I often represent it in a more bland way than it actually is. It’s sort of a combination of where I grew up and these glimpses of American suburbs from the movies. I have a fascination with landscapes like that. There are people who live in places like that going out to their public library and reading books, and what they read can affect them quite deeply even though they might never say anything to anybody about it. I wanted them to be able to recognize their own houses.
I try to include as many people as possible, people who might not be served by conventional literature in a conventional way. When I was growing up a lot of books affected me, but I never wrote letters to the author or anything like that. I’m always mindful that there are probably a whole bunch of people reading my books like that, too.
I get a little bit weary of these cynical approaches from artists and intellectuals about suburbs – “Look at these blighted places!” It’s not necessarily like that for the people living in them. People are still as creative, and there’s a lot of creativity in those places.
What are you working on now?
There are a lot of unformed ideas – parts or ingredients looking for other ingredients, some that I’ve been thinking about for years. I’ve been working on a book about sibling conflict. That’s something that’s always interested me. I’m the younger of two brothers and I’ve always been aware of how that’s shaped my personality.
I’m interested in work which is just fragments. I’ve been trying to do a book a little bit like that. I like the feeling of discontinuity in a picture book and how powerful that can be. I just show a few scenes and let the reader do the work.
I’ve only got one desk and I only work on one project at a time. I have trouble dividing my attention. I often have dreams in which I’m living in a huge mansion and I’ll say, “Oh, I’ll go and work in the west wing,” and then I don’t have to clean up! But in real life, I find it’s better to work on one project at a time. It’s hard enough to be an artist and to have a normal life. I try to keep it simple.
The Bird King: An Artist's Notebook by Shaun Tan. Scholastic/Levine, $19.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-545-46513-7
For PW's review, click here.