The Bird King and other sketches is a collection of previously unseen drawings from the illustrator Shaun Tan’s private sketchbooks. From beginning to end – even including the covers, inside covers and title pages – this book is full of wonder and imagination. I love flicking through it; I see something new every time, even if I’ve seen that particular sketch before.
The book is split into four sections. Untold stories are sketches of imaginary and fantastical things. They draw you in, inviting you to create your own explanation for the characters and scenarios on the page – which include, among other things, a variety of mechanical creatures, astronaut-inspired creations, and giant creatures roaming in or flying over urban streets. All of the images, ranging from small but perfectly formed pencil sketches to full-page, full-colour creations, are wonderfully surreal and open up a million questions. In this way they work better as snapshots than if a longer narrative were formed from them.
The next section, Book, theatre and film, reveals the evolution of ideas for published works from initial sketches through rough storyboards and eventually to more fully-fledged character sketches and colour storyboards. Drawings from life is a selection of observational studies, including portraits and sketches of family, friends and pets, as well as urban and rural landscapes – a handful of which are beautiful double-page-spread landscapes, some incredibly detailed, others more abstract. The final section, Notebooks, is perhaps the most ‘raw’ collection in the book. It gathers together a selection of sketches from notebooks, mostly done with a ballpoint pen while travelling. Some are observational, while others are ‘doodles’ (although that word does not do them justice!). Many are accompanied by fascinating scrawled notes that reveal Tan’s thoughts at the time of drawing. Writing about these notebook drawings, Shaun Tan says:
“I did have reservations about including them in this book, as they are the antithesis of ‘publishable’ work to me: awkward, incoherent and unedited.”
I think what makes the sketches so powerful is precisely that imperfection – they were drawn privately, with no initial intention of putting them out there in the public sphere, and they have not been tinkered with or made ‘presentable’ for the purposes of this book. In that way, they are very genuine and uninhibited. You are reminded of this by some of the periphery of the pages – even some of the more refined sketches in the Untold stories section seem to have been done on the edge of some technical plans, for example. Whether this ‘scrap paper look’ was left in from the scans or artificially added in afterwards doesn’t really matter – the effect of peeking into someone’s genuine sketch book is unchanged, and along with little details like the handwritten page numbers and the scribbly background to the introductory pages, it makes the whole book a beautiful object in itself.
For a preamble of this review that went off on a tangent and covers a multitude of other things, see ‘On the discovery of Shaun Tan in a cyberspace sinkhole’.