Shaun Tan's new book 'Creature' is a collection of his artwork and essays Shaun Tan's illustrations run the emotional gamut, from oddly whimsical to deeply introspective. Tan is best known for his graphic novel The Arrival and his Oscar-winning short film The Lost Thing.

Shaun Tan's curious creatures are just looking for companionship

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The idea of needing to belong to something can be overrated as far as Shaun Tan is concerned. Tan is an artist and writer whose work has earned a cult following. He's best known for his graphic novel "The Arrival" and the Academy Award-winning short film "The Lost Thing." NPR's Elizabeth Blair spoke with Tan about his new book, "Creature," a collection of his art that spans nearly 25 years.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Shaun Tan's creatures are made of a little bit of everything, stuff from nature and your kitchen - a toaster with horns, a bird-like beast with one eye, a mechanical-looking bug towing a giant strawberry. Some of them are fierce, but a lot of them are playful and cuddly.

SHAUN TAN: I've always been interested in the strange creature as a companion; not as an adversary or antagonist or a threat or something even scary and mysterious but as the person sitting next to you.

BLAIR: In Shaun Tan's graphic novel "The Lost Thing," a boy walks on a beach collecting bottle caps. He sees a huge, red creature, like a metal pot with crab claws. Nobody else seems to even notice it, but the boy is curious.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOST THING")

TIM MINCHIN: (As Narrator) Turned out to be really friendly, and I played with the thing for most of the afternoon.

BLAIR: The book was turned into a short film narrated by Australian Actor Tim Minchin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOST THING")

MINCHIN: (As Narrator) As the hours slouched by, it seemed less and less likely that anyone was coming to take the thing home. Soon, there was no denying the unhappy truth. It was lost.

BLAIR: The boy tries to help the lost thing find its home.

TAN: The question for me was always, why is he engaging with this creature? Why is he so worried about where it belongs? And where does that question of belonging lead him?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LOST THING")

MINCHIN: (As Narrator) I decided to hide the thing in our back shed, at least until I could figure out what to do next. I mean, I couldn't just leave it wandering the streets.

BLAIR: Tan's new collection includes a lot of the original sketches from "The Lost Thing." It was his first book. At the time, he was a freelance illustrator but wanted to do his own work.

TAN: It kind of tapped into something I was feeling at the time in my mid-20s, a sense of wanting to be creative but not quite sure where I belonged and what the meaning of my work was. And the story ended up being about all those things, about what do you do with meaningless work and is that OK? And I've come to realize it is OK (laughter). I've made a career out of it.

BLAIR: Tan doesn't think his creatures are meaningless anymore - just the opposite. He says he's figured out something serious to say with them. Eventually, the boy in "The Lost Thing" understands that the creature might not belong anywhere, and that's OK.

TAN: When someone says that in order to belong you need to be this sort of thing or you need to fulfill these certain requirements, well, it's going down a very bad road. And you see that happening all over the world. And it also is the basis for a lot of needless disagreement between people.

BLAIR: Tan's graphic novel "The Arrival" is also about belonging and dislocation. It follows a man emigrating to a country that has both humans and creatures.

TAN: I'm interested in what you do when you encounter something that's really, really strange and unfamiliar. And how we respond to that, whether it's with fear, evasion or curiosity and maybe even love, is really quite telling.

BLAIR: Shaun Tan's new collection is called "Creature: Paintings, Drawings, And Reflections."

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NATHANIEL DREW X TOM FOX'S "REVERIE")

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