What’s Left Out : an Unreview

Shaun Tan, Dan Berry & Lorenzo Mattotti have produced amazing comic books with no words in them.  Rob Davies and Emily Carroll have used comics to tell stories that lack a conventional ending or closure. Shaun Tan (yes, he get’s around!) and Chris van Allsburg have written picture books that do away with conventional narrative structure altogether, but can still be read. And they’re all gripping, and amazing, and deep! And I’m going to unreview them, in pan-dimensional techni-colour, right here and now!!!

from “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan

Unreview (n)

  1. An article that discusses one or more published works of art, but whose primary aim is not to promote the works being discussed
  2. A made-up word coined by some work-shy blogging fop in the hope of sounding vaguely cool, interesting or hyperdimensional

So, today I want to talk about subtraction, and omission, that is, leaving out some tried-and-tested part of a story-telling formula in order to improve upon the story-telling. Along the way, I want to refer to a number of good comics that I’ve read recently, which might encourage you, the reader, to take a look at them. As the omni-potent all-seeing dictionary definition-o-tron says above, this is not a review of the books I’m looking at. Some are recent, and being actively marketed by their publishers at present. Some are not. If reading about them here encourages you to buy them, I’ll be delighted *, but my primary aim here is to pick away at the mechanics of storytelling, whether in comics or other media, like some sort of great mechanical crow with “mechanics of storytelling” written along it’s beak.

(* unless you buy them, hate them, and sink into a spiral of despair, ennui and destitution, in which case I’ll adopt a wistfully contrite air and shed little tears of subdued colour into my vintage/steampunk ink-well.)

So, without further ado, here’s a venn-diagram-of-contents depicting the books that were not left out of the Unreview entitled “What’s Left Out”!

(L to R : The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris van Allsburg, Carry Me by Dan Berry, The Red Tree by Shaun Tan,  Chimera by Lorenzo Mattotti, The Arrival by Shaun Tan, Through The Woods by Emily Carroll, The Motherless Oven by Rob Davies)

Rules are there to be (Observed and) Broken

There’s a tenet of creativity that the rules are there to be broken. Creativity knows no limits, and in the outer sphere of playfulness, brainstorming and bouncing ideas around, this rule is good.
There’s another tenet of creativity that in order to break the rules effectively, you must first understand how to play by the rules. Carefully choosing which limits to observe, and which to break, belongs to the next sphere in, of craftsmanship, diligence and patience. Being aware of both these spheres at once while creating, and treading a careful path between both, requires mastery. (Disclaimer – While I might presume myself capable of talking about this stuff, I’ll make no pretence of  being able to pull that off myself – I’m an absolute beginner, and these are partly notes to myself to help me in my big project of improvising a graphic novel out of 5GB of photos and video!)

from “The Motherless Oven” by Rob Davis

Here are two standard rules that the authors I’m looking at today have “broken”. One is technical, the other is about craft.

  1. In a comic book, the words and the pictures flow side by side, and much richness and ambiguity can be fostered by having the two streams touch tangentially, or glance off one another. Indeed, much of the unique richness of comics can derive from the interplay between the words and the pictures. Let’s call this one “Moore’s Law”, because it was explored a great deal by Alan Moore in the way he wrote Watchmen, at a time when few other writers were exploring this particular technique (and also, as you’ll know if you’re into computers, because it’s a really lousy pun).  
  2. In many stories, there’s an underlying character arc known as “The Hero’s Journey”, that provides an inherently satisfying narrative that speaks to some deep/primitive/cosmic part of us. The hero/ine struggles against external and internal antagonists, reaches a nadir, recovers and achieves a sense of closure. Joseph Campbell is widely attributed as being the inventor/discoverer of this pattern, based on his extensive knowledge of myths and legends around the world. George Lucas used it to shape “Star Wars”, attributing Campbell as a primary influence, and Hollywood’s been strip-mining it ever since. Sticking with the lame pun theme, let’s refer to this one as Campbell’s Condensed Plotline, with a nod to arch-iconoclast Andy Warhol. (Oh dear, I’m so sorry!)

Unrule 1 : Leave out the words

Rich, ambiguous meaning can be carried between the words and pictures, so does it follow that removing one of the streams entails a loss of richness? Not with the unruly creators that we’re looking at here. Mattotti, Tan, Berry and van Allsburg have produced a striking variety of works here that do away with words (mostly – Mattotti’s Chimera has a caption on the first page, and “The Red Tree” by Tan has a few words scattered about). If anything binds them together, it is the use of emotion, the expressiveness of pictures being used to communicate a gut-level experience. 
Chimera reads like a dark version of Disney’s Fantasia, I find it hard not to “read” it without imagining some sort of music. Goodness only knows what it’s about, beyond the communication of powerful emotional states, but there is a clear progression, and recognisable narrative passages, such as the coupling of the cloud people followed by a birth, and the flight of the rabbits from the bird of prey.
from Mattotti’s “Chimera”

Berry’s work, while much less overwhelming and alienating on the surface, treads a similar ground. The focus is on the emotional triangle between father, girl and dog, and characters age, change shape, size and even species, and the landscape becomes alive, a reflection of their mood.
from “Carry Me” by Dan Berry

Tan’s Red Tree is similar in using pictures, distortion and surrealism (and a few decidedly un-narrative words scattered obliquely here and there alongside the pictures) to describe an emotional arc. I’ve placed it in a “special” bubble in the Venn diagram with van Allsburgh’s book, because the two go much further than any of the other no-words books in doing away with narrative continuity. Yes, the Red Tree follows a path through hopelessness to hope, but there’s no explanation of how the central character progresses from one scene to another, whereas Carry Me and Chimera at least obey some form of continuity and motion.
from “The Red Tree” by Shaun Tan

So, is there a rule within the first unrule, then, that taking the words away lends itself to a depiction of emotional states and archetypal situations? If that’s the case, then Tan’s other book in this category, The Arrival, stands out by breaking this rule too. It’s by far the most cerebral of the lot – certainly it tells a strong emotional story (and several of the back-stories told by the immigrants are heart-wrenching), but the book also carries a strong political and moral message – a stark contrast to the utterly amoral forces of nature depicted in Chimera.
Isn’t it also interesting to note that the two books here that are most radical at the technical level are both marketed as childrens’ books rather than as graphic novels? I’ve written before about the Ghetto of modern comics – it’s always refreshing to take a look outside. 

Unrule 2 : Holding out for a Hero

So, onto the second rule, and Campbell’s rule of thumb for a satisfying story. Can a story be satisfying if it doesn’t end with the triumph of good over evil, however we choose to define those. Obviously, the standard action formula of “goodies” versus “baddies”, or the rom-com search for True Love set out Good and Evil in fairly straightforward terms, but even a more introspective narrative, such as the Red Tree, can follow this basic arc, with the antagonist being an internal characteristic, such as depression, that must be overcome. For all that it throws conventional narrative out of the window, the Red Tree provides us with a happy ending, as does The Arrival – the nuclear family, that most cherished, idealised, conservative form of modern society, are separated, and finally reunited in an uplifting ending.
So, onto the two other books – Carroll’s Through the Woods and Davis’ Motherless Oven. These use words and pictures together, solidly and well, but with relatively little technical innovation. Carroll’s emphasis is entirely on storytelling – ghost stories in this case – and the attention that she pays to her craft is evident. The stories are superb, original, and thoroughly frightening. One common ingredient running through them is the open-endedness. We find out what the neighbour is not, but not what he/it is. Underground, the (un)dead brother turns to look at us, and we don’t know what happens next. And so on. The reader is left to fill in the missing ending, exactly at the point at which they’re razzed up to the nines by what has gone before, and it absolutely works. I read most of these stories alone in the house after dark, and the only thing that has left me nearly as uneasy this past year was the unknown thing under the blanket in “Doctor Who” (which also worked because of what it didn’t show, and forced the reader to bring their own fears to the party).


It may be that Carroll is walking a well-trodden path here – the sudden, ambiguous ending is a relatively common trope in horror, and uncommon outside it. (I can only think of Michael Caine’s “The Italian Job”, Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds” and one of Christopher priest’s early novels – any other takers?) Nightmares often happen that way, stopping at the point of revelation, as the antagonist reveals itself. 
from Emily Carroll’s “Our Neighbor’s House” (in “Through the Woods”)

Completely off-topic, YA writer Michelle Paver completely gets this, in her “Spirit Walker” series of books. They are superb. Even my cat loved them, he likes to sit on me when I read, the better to absorb the pictures in my head. Whenever I picked up these books, he’d appear from nowhere, and stay! Just go and read them all now, I’ll sit in the corner gathering cobwebs until you’re done.
Back now? Ok.


The Motherless Oven is a different piece of work entirely. We’re set up, within a very surreal context, with a very recognisable set of archetypal characters, with teenage rebels on the run from a range of elderly authority figures. On the surface, it’s utterly bizarre, and that plays off beautifully with the comfort and familiarity of the teenage rebel/loner/misfit at the story’s emotional core.
(A brief aside here on two technical narrative devices employed here that do break new ground, very effectively. One is the Home Gazette recording device that regurgitates Scarper Lee’s inner thoughts, weaved in and out of the conventional voice-over narrative superbly. The other is the full page illustrations of “The Wheel” (a sort of mechanical TV show?!), with little stylised figures communicating strange mixtures of emotional states that seem to mirror the story in a very tangential way. Rather than playing off the words and pictures here, Davis plays off the representational pictures of the main narrative with a second, occasional stream of pictures, that mean something, but remain elusive.)
(A second brief aside – the “world-building” in The Motherless Oven is superb, mixing in the utterly bizarre with the absolutely recognisable – in the same breath as telling us that it’s raining knives, the narrator Scarper tells us that “biscuits are king”. The same is done by Tan in The Arrival, creating a world that is bizarre, but just recognisable enough to give us a frame of reference. And neither book goes to lengths to over-explain the oddness – the strangeness is everyday, and taken for granted by the inhabitants of it’s worlds, encouraging us to accept it too.)
So, getting back on track, Davis really pulled the rug out from under me at the end of the book by taking away the comforting sense of closure. By a gnat’s whisker, evil seems to triumph, and the remaining good guys, interestingly, are left without words – we can see them raging in the forest, but can no longer hear what they’re saying. I was gobsmacked, and left feeling very upset, in fact, after getting to the end of this book. I’ve had time to calm down since then, and think about why it ended the way it did, and how the choice to do it that way changes the shape of the story. Davis had a choice, as all artists do, to go one way or the other. He took the less obvious choice, and that triggers a reaction in the reader (me, in this case). What I do with that reaction is up to me, and it’s his job to anticipate the cumulative effect of the possible reactions to the various ingredients in the book. In this case, I think the ending is what is described as “a brave move”, and I salute him for taking it. The questions that it raises about the futility of Scarper’s struggle against his fate, and the source of Vera’s certainty and seeming control of the situation are good questions, and the kind that would be poorly served by the comforting sense of completeness that Campbell’s rules engender.

In summary, then…

The works that I’ve looked at here all break some of the rules by which we understand comics narrative. They work, because they do so carefully, observing enough of the other rules to keep the reader on track while they adjust to the difference, and, ultimately, because the rule-breaking is done in service to the story.

I’ll leave the final word to the Home Gazette:

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