Creating A Dinosaur And A City That Un-Sees Him – Sean Rubin On Bolivar

by Hannah Means Shannon

When I first encountered Bolivar, is was as a preview excerpt at Book Expo America from Boom! Studios, and I was immediately intrigued by the mixed format I found within the preview booklet. What I perceived was a finely and delicately drawn story about a dinosaur, the city who couldn’t see him, and the girl who could.

What I also perceived was an unusually fluid format for storytelling, meandering through prose, to picture book, and filtering down into comics panels before slipping into full page spreads. I came to the conclusion that whatever had prompted such experimentation would no doubt make a great introductory point to teach young readers about the comics medium and raise questions about storytelling and the ways in which we receive it.

Now, I’ve gotten the rewarding opportunity to ask author and illustrator Sean Rubin about his upcoming book Bolivar, arriving on November 22nd, 2017 and just where all that remarkable innovation comes from.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Hello Sean! I first came in contact with Bolivaras a substantial preview at Book Expo America last Spring, and honestly was so intrigued that I wrote about the preview online. It was immediately recognizable as a beautiful book with a lot of care and attention put into it.

But now I’ve learned that the book took over 5 years to complete and I’m only surprised that you managed to make it so consistent over such a long process. How did you originally conceive of it, and did the finished project differ at all from your original plans?

Sean Rubin: Hi Hannah! Thanks so much for taking the time to read Bolivar and for asking these great questions.

Bolivar was originally conceived as a 1200-word picture book. I was having trouble generating interest in that version of the project, because, at least at the time, picture books needed to be 800 words or less. For the life of me, I couldn’t shave those extra 400 words, so I thought I’d go in the other direction and make the book much longer instead. The original 1200-word manuscript became the voiceover text, and I began including dialogue and panel illustrations to accompany the full-page illustrations.

I actually started writing the manuscript 13 years ago, when I was 17 years old, and started the illustrations six years ago. Like many illustrators, I struggle with what I’ll call “style creep”—over the course of a long-term project, you start drawing things off-model, you get lazy about certain details, you just change as an artist and your art changes, too. Some readers love watching this develop over the course of a book or a comic series, but most artists I know have mixed feelings about it, at best.

To mitigate this problem in Bolivar, I simply drew the whole book in (mostly) random order. Most of the work was also done in fits and starts. I started the project living in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan as a single guy, and in the past five years, I moved three times, got married, had two kids, and now live in Virginia. I have very long-suffering editors, to say the least.

HMS: So, are you one of those artists who actually loves drawing architecture and backgrounds? There’s a lot of feeling in all that cross-hatching. I ask that only partly tongue-in-cheek, since it does seem like people either love or hate creating this level of detail. Or was this partly about loving New York City?

SR: In short, yes, I do love drawing buildings! It goes back a way, too. My high school sketchbooks were filled with drawings of buildings, so much so that when I applied to art school, at least one portfolio reviewer suggested I should become an architect. As it happened, I neither went to art school nor became an architect. I did study architectural theory in college, however, so clearly, I’ve got a thing for buildings.

And while I do love New York City, I also love drawing any complex environment. I have a weakness in my art—obvious to some—where my compositions are often “not about” anything—the center is devoid of figures, the eye doesn’t know where to rest, that sort of thing. The fun thing about Bolivar is that I didn’t have to fight against that tendency. I could draw busy streets and cluttered rooms and it worked in my favor, because every composition in the book is intended to be misdirection. I specifically don’t want you to notice the dinosaur.

HMS: Do you see yourself in the context of European art and illustration at all? It seems like your style would find many commonalities there. Are there any favorites in that arena who inspire you?

SR: Many of my older influences are from Europe. Albrecht Durer and the artists of the Italian Renaissance can teach you everything you need to know about line and crosshatching, and as you might have noticed, I love crosshatching. I spent a good chunk of my high school and college years traveling, visiting museums, and occasionally copying their work. It was an incredible education. I’m still struck dumb whenever I see a Leonardo drawing for the first time. Occupying the same space as his artwork is a spiritual experience in every sense of the word.

I think one of the wonderful things about illustration is that it has an especially rich American legacy. The history of American illustration encompasses artists with styles and careers as diverse as Howard Pyle, NC Wyeth, George Herriman, Jack Kirby, Maurice Sendak, Bill Watterson, and Charles Schultz, just to name a few. It’s truly an honor to work in a field that has been pioneered and inspired by these kinds of creators.

HMS: To you, what does a panel generally do in comics, and what did you want it to do as a device in Bolivar vs. the use of open pages?

SR: One of my editors, Stephen Christy, encouraged me to think of Bolivar in terms of jazz composition and improvisation. The panels have a faster tempo, while the open pages are both longer notes and slower music. In Bolivar, panels, open pages, and full-page illustrations became a way to control the pace and flow of the story.

Generally, the great thing about panels is that they’re an opportunity to see a scene from multiple angles, to focus on different characters, and to show the passage of time. This may seem obvious, but it’s still revolutionary in many respects. In traditional book illustration, artists were limited to picking one scene, and then one moment in that scene, and then complementing—interrupting the text with that image. With panels, images don’t just complement the text, they are the text.

HMS: I love the idea that “people don’t notice anything” is a central premise in Bolivar. Do you think that people only see what they expect to see in the world around them, and so generally fail to take part in the beauty and strangeness that is there? Why was this an important idea for you to convey to young readers, particularly?

SR: I’d like to turn this idea on its head a bit. As the reader (eventually) discovers, the voiceover is Sybil’s interpretation of the behavior of the adults around her…as such, I’m not sure her perspective is always reliable. While it’s possible most of the people in the story don’t notice Bolivar, it’s also possible they do notice him and choose to ignore him because, basically, who wants to deal with the cosmic ramifications of a dinosaur walking around the Upper West Side?

For adults, I think this is a (mostly) reasonable way of coping with the world—part of conforming is pretending everyone else is conforming, too. This is especially true in New York City, where everyone pretends to ignore everyone else as a way of creating personal space and privacy when there’s precious little of either. Maybe that person next to you on the subway is a dinosaur—but even if he is, it’s none of your business, and what can you do about it? You have to go home and make dinner.

Children don’t have these hang-ups yet. Children are often more observant than adults because they haven’t internalized that it’s rude to look at people, or rude to point out when something is amiss or unusual. So, I think kids often are more likely to see, or at least acknowledge, beauty and strangeness. Maybe Bolivar is a way for them to convey this important idea to their parents!

HMS: As someone who both wrote and drew the book, how did you handle that divide between writing and art duties? Were there scripts involved before the art, or more in reaction to the art you created?

In fact, there’s a substantial amount of text and a lot of interaction of contrasting points between the text and the images. How did you plan those elements?

SR: Comics is all about collaboration. I sometimes joke that, in this case, I just collaborated with previous versions of myself. The writer passed the buck to the penciller, who passed the buck to the colorist and letterer, until the book was finished. I was constantly living and working with decisions I had made weeks, months, sometimes years ago. The illustrator overruled the writer pretty frequently later in the process. Every now and again, I’d hit something that I’d written in the script and realize, two or three years later, that I’d much rather draw something else.

In terms of process, the graphic novel version of Bolivar started as a script with visual descriptions of the illustrations, but without panel breakdowns. When I sat down to actually lay out the panels, that process opened even more possibilities. It also compelled me to cut some content and or rework certain ideas.

One of the things that’s especially interesting to me about comics, and about illustration generally, is the mixing and merging of text and images. For Bolivar, I started to think about the voiceover as an unreliable narrative, so the book is always asking you to compare what’s written in the voiceover to what’s being said by the characters and what’s being seen in the pictures. In the end, the images, the text, and the relationship between the images and text all suggest a different perspective about what’s going on with the characters and the events in the story.

Some of this was definitely planned, but given the scope of the project, I was just as often taking advantage of opportunities as they popped up.

HMS: Can you tell us about how you settled on the color choices for Bolivar? There are soft, almost sepia-gray tones as a substantial accent in the book, and yet there are also very lively, popping colors, too? How do they contribute to the storytelling for you?

SR: I created a “color story” similar to the ones used on animated films, usually picking specific palettes to communicate different emotional tones. For example, Sybil’s neighborhood is very warm and sunny, and City Hall is very blue and almost antiseptic by contrast. To keep the color simple, I used a fairly old trick where you pick two complementary colors—a color axis—and build your palette from there. In the beginning of the book, there are a number of illustrations that are on a red-green axis, but eventually this gives way to a lot of purple-yellow axis pages.

Purple-yellow is a color combination I don’t normally choose, but I wound up using a lot in Bolivar for a simple reason—Sybil’s major color is yellow, and her mother’s major color is purple. Sybil was designed first, and the yellow (and red) was an actually an homage to Eloise and Madeline and the old, two-color printing processes you see in some of those books. You also don’t see much yellow in New York City, so Sybil really pops against the backgrounds. I decided Sybil’s mother would be really into purple, mostly because it’s the complement to yellow—like the characters, these colors go together but occupy opposite positions.

With these characters anchoring so many pages, the rest of my color choices followed. Purple and yellow can be pretty garish, so I found myself muting a lot of the shades to purple-grey and ochre-sepia. As it happens, I think purple-grey and ochre/sepia are dominant colors in Manhattan, so it all worked out. And, of course, Bolivar is green-grey so he can blend in.

HMS: How would you describe our central human character, Sybil, in terms of her personality and outlook on life? What do you think makes her personality interact well with Bolivar’s and brings them together?

SR: Sybil is very determined and persistent. It’s important for Sybil to be seen and heard and taken seriously, and she wants that for Bolivar as well, without bothering to consider what he wants—at least at first. One of the things I like about the characters is that Bolivar and Sybil have opposite motivations. Unlike Sybil, Bolivar just wants to continue living his life and following his routine unnoticed. Neither of their desires are wrong or unreasonable, they just can’t coexist in the same place without conflict. This conflict, and the need to resolve it, is ultimately what brings them together.

Sybil’s story is definitely based on so many kids’ frustrations of not being taken seriously by their parents or teachers, but I don’t think that that experience is unique to children. We all would like our perspective to be taken seriously by others, and in a world where it feels like everyone has already made up their minds, that acceptance is often hard to come by.

[A skyline sketch by Rubin]

HMS: There are so many scenes in this book that I recognize in New York that it really brings home the message that Bolivar loves New York City. How did you decide what scenes you absolutely had to include in this love letter?

SR: I recently had the privilege of showing a friend who had never been to New York around the city for the first time. About halfway through the day, we realized we were just trailing the characters in Bolivar—we even had breakfast at Zabar’s Café.

I think if you talk to any of the people I’ve dragged around the city over the years, they’d recognize the locations in the book from “Sean Rubin’s Tour of Manhattan,” including, of course, my beloved museums and grocery stores. While tourists visit these locations, too, they are primarily places that the people who live and work in New York City actually go to. These were my favorite places to go to when I lived and worked there, and now that I’ve moved away, they’re my favorite places to visit whenever I come back.

Thanks so much to Sean Rubin for such an extensive interview and insights into this tremendous project.

Bolivar is currently available for pre-order from Archaia, an imprint of Boom! Studios, and will ship on November 22nd, 2017.