Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Singing Bones by Shaun Tan

I like to think I'm good at talking about narrative -- I was an editor for a long time, and have been deconstructing stories in my head since I learned those tools. I'm not necessarily right, or even in the right neighborhood, since no one ever is. But I'm usually plausible, which is what talking-about-narrative game aims for.

I don't have the similar tools for art, though. I do write about comics of various types here, but I don't pretend to have the chops to talk about art the way I can talk about story. And, sometimes, I get into something that's all art, or much purer art than narrative, and my usual lines of patter fail me.

So, hey! Here's Shaun Tan back again with a new book, The Singing Bones. Tan has previously done great books like the wordless The Arrival and the slightly more verbose The Lost Thing, working deep in that no-man's land between an illustrated book and a graphic novel. (The big distinctions: is the story broken into panels? Is the text and dialogue presented as balloons or captions?)

The Singing Bones is something else again: Tan has made small sculptures out of clay and papier-mache, cut and molded and painted, to illustrate iconically seventy-five tales from the Brothers Grimm. Each sculpture is photographed carefully, in an appropriate but minimalist environment, and presented on a full page, On the facing page is a scrap of Tan text, from that tale. (Also included in the book: Tan's thumbnails of all of the stories and an afterword, and introductory essays from Neil Gaiman and Jack Zipes.)

I can tell you that Tan's words are well-chosen and precise, one short paragraph for each image that crystallizes an important moment or theme or idea in each tale. And the sculptures are pleasing to the eyes, looking like the sacred artifacts of some previously-unknown civilization or the wares at the world's hippest craft fair. But I can't really go any farther than that -- critiquing the way Tan implies a story in a physical object is beyond me.

So this is a neat book, deeply quirky in the best way, and particularly interesting for those who like to think about standard stories and how they can be retold and reshaped. More than that, I'm not really qualified to say anything coherent.

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