In Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing, the first image in the book is a tram with working folks all dressed in the same browns. Flip to the next page, and a boy from that tram begins his story. I find him and his hobby peculiar. This boy, surrounded by rusty pipes, concrete skyscrapers, nonsensical ads, and suburbs of the same houses, collects bottle-tops, pieces of metal with brand names. As a kid, industrial jungles usually go unnoticed—until you see something out of the corner of your eye that doesn’t quite fit.
The Lost Thing is about a boy finding a lost thing—there’s no other way to describe it except as a giant red kettle with suction-less tentacles. He helps the thing find a home in the concrete world he lives in. Though the boy’s world is a painted surrealistic place of exactness, The Lost Thing and the lost thing represent the world that we live in today.
In reality, we are encouraged to be the same. The housing associations say that everyone’s lawns must be cut within five inches. Schools give the same reading lists they gave their students ten years ago. Bosses tell workers they’re doing good work when everyone’s doing the same work in Tokyo, Cancun, and Dallas. Even what we read, watch, and consume are part of a branding network run by the same corporations urging people to buy into sameness, whether it’s the New Adult genre, untalented hiphopsters, or the latest i-something.
The Lost Thing reminds us that we were all kids once. We didn’t worry about what was cool or “in”. We had strange hobbies, and we wanted to adopt anything with four legs. We also felt alienated at times. For kids feeling alienated, the signs were as easy to spot as the arrows in Tan’s story. If adults followed it, they’d reach the home of the problem. Tan is good at picking up the parts kids can understand when seeing alienation—a big red thing among complacent humans, squiggly arrows, and dreamlike creatures—and Tan is even better at hiding the parts for adults that say, “We’ve got a kid inside of us. When did we stop being ourselves and start sweeping things under the bureaucratic rug?”
Just like the bottle-tops the boy collects, adults forget that everyone and everything belongs somewhere. It seems strange, but similar to the boy, we don’t notice those lost things anymore, or maybe we’ve just stopped noticing them, what with us being too busy doing other “important” stuff in our industrial jungles.
How great is Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing? It inspired the 2002 sophomore album of Syney band, Lo-Tel. It was also adapted into a play by the Jigsaw Theatre Company in Australia and won an Oscar for the Best Short Animated Film in 2011.