At its most basic, history is storytelling. As a professional historian, however, I sometimes feel trapped by the conventions of my profession and the tastes of my peers. That's why I have a secret love for graphic novels and comics. The best artists fuse the simplicity of children's books with the complexity of adult literature. And one of my favorites is Shaun Tan, a Chinese-Australian raised in the suburbs of Perth. History, politics, science, and social commentary infuse his work, yet the worlds he invents are at once familiar and utterly strange. The Arrival is a wordless allegory about immigration. A man fleeing his destitute town encounters strange new languages and creatures in a new country across a vast ocean. Helped along the way by other refugees from violence and poverty, he creates a new home overseas. Tan's latest book, Tales from Outer Suburbia, is an anthology of short picture stories about bizarre visitors - a nut-sized foreign exchange student living in the pantry - and strange incidents - a wandering sea monster beached on a front lawn - in the most ordinary of places: a suburban neighborhood. Tan does what the best historians do: telling extraordinary stories about ordinary things. Besides, I can share his work with my children, too. They probably understand more than I do.
Posted February 09, 2010