Sean Rubin’s debut graphic novel, “Bolivar,” was painstakingly crafted over five years. With incredible attention to detail in every panel, his affection for the book’s setting truly shines through. The book was released to comic shops on Wednesday, with several signings and public events in the coming weeks. Despite his hectic schedule, we managed to correspond with the Brooklyn native about his artistic influences, how this piece evolved into a picture book/graphic novel hybrid and how New York City is the perfect place for the last living dinosaur to hide in plain sight.
I lived in Manhattan for three years when two of my kids were in grade school. “Bolivar” has been described as a “love letter to New York.” I absolutely have to concur. Did you start with the setting? Was this always going to be a piece about New York, and the story flowed from there? Or did the plot come first?
Sean Rubin: Originally, “Bolivar” was supposed to be a quick, absurdist children’s book about how the mayor of New York City woke up to realize he had transformed into a dinosaur. However, I soon realized that if there were actually a dinosaur in New York City, no one would notice it. I then started asking questions about the dinosaur: What did he eat? Did he like museums? In some ways, the plot came from following Bolivar and Sybil around New York to see what they would do.
You’ve really captured a wealth of specific detail. From the museum interiors to the brownstones to the fruit stands to the subway cars, everything is so lush and beautifully rendered, without being overly busy or superfluous. I’m curious about your process. Did you sketch or draw on location? Work from photographs? Work from memory? Or some combination of all?
SR: Thank you! It was really a combination of all the above. When the project started, I was still living on the Upper West Side, so I did take a lot of photographs and do a number of observational sketches. Eventually, I moved to Virginia, so I had to work exclusively from those references and from memory. One of the funny things about working from memory, I realized, is that I wasn’t really remembering New York in the early 2010s, when I lived there as an adult. Instead, a lot of the images in my head were from when I was a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s living in Brooklyn. I think this wound up working in my favor—in a way, being able to draw the city from these childhood memories helped me empathize with Sybil’s point of view.
Specific details on the museums and Central Park, especially, feel absolutely spot-on to me. How important was it to faithfully render such detail?
SR: I actually had an internal debate about this issue fairly often. New York is always changing—stores come and go, people come and go, buildings get razed and rebuilt, that sort of thing. I once heard someone say about New York, “It would be a great city if they ever finished it.” As a result, I had to accept that there is no truly definitive version of the city. This was both liberating and slightly terrifying, because it gave me license to draw anything in New York from any time period. Again, I would up concentrating on Manhattan as it was when I was a kid. Bolivar’s New York may not be totally accurate, but it’s probably exactly how you remember it.
New York City is one of the most written about and most visually documented places on earth. One of the things that popped into my mind while reading “Bolivar” was the book “How Little Lori Visited Times Square” by Amos Vogel, illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Knowing the sheer number – and quality – of other works about NYC, was it ever intimidating to offer up your own take? How did you balance working within your own personal style and aesthetic versus alluding to, if at all, the work of other creators?
SR: What an interesting question! The truth is probably that I was too absorbed in getting the project finished—the illustrations took over five years—to be worried about comparisons. The other truth is that, as a native New Yorker, some part of me probably assumes that every story should take place in New York, so what’s wrong with one more?
In all seriousness, the number and quality of New York-related art and stories was a huge boon for me in developing this project. Although I watched a number of movies that took place in the city as inspiration, the single biggest influence for this book is the artist Edward Hopper, whose paintings really capture urban isolation generally and New York specifically. Some spreads are direct homages to Hopper paintings, while in other places, I borrow from his palette or lighting style pretty liberally.
As I said, my kids were in grade school when I lived in Manhattan. Aside from Bolivar the dinosaur, the other main character is Sybil, the girl. What do you think are the key differences in a child’s perception of the city versus adults? What details do children notice that adults may overlook?
SR: Years ago—I was still a teenager at the time—I was taking a bus down Fifth Avenue after finishing up a short internship at a certain large art museum. I noticed a mother with two kids, and the kids were looking out the bus windows and animatedly pointing various things out to her. This caught my attention not only because they were the only two children on the bus, but also because they were the only people on the bus making a point of sharing their observations—or admitting they were noticing anything at all.
As you know, in New York, part of the way you create privacy and personal space is by pretending to ignore your surroundings. Kids, of course, haven’t really learned to do this yet. They still look, and stare, at people, and they’re more likely to call out things that are out of place or unusual, partially because they haven’t learned that adults consider it rude to do so. I already had the character of Bolivar in my head from the beginning of the project. But seeing this contrast on the bus that day—the kids hunting for something interesting, the adults with their noses in their books—is what first inspired the character of Sybil.
Switching a bit to the book’s structure and format, it’s not strictly a picture book or a graphic novel. Did it start one way or the other and then evolve into its current hybrid format? Or was the mixture of both styles always part of the plan?
SR: It definitely evolved. “Bolivar” was originally written as a 1200-word picture book. At the time, the children’s book editors I spoke to wanted it to be shorter—around 800 words, actually. I couldn’t shave those extra 400 words, so I decided to go in a different direction and make the book longer. The original 1200-word manuscript became the voiceover text, and I started adding in dialogue and comics panels. When I was done, I realized the combination was interesting. Instead of handling the voiceover the traditional comics way, in a rectangular box over certain panels, I could approach the project as though it were a traditional picture book—just one where the characters break rank and start talking over the narration.
Unfortunately, my kids are too old to sit on my lap and read this book aloud, but some of the locations are so vivid I can imagine kids, and even adults, pointing to the pictures and exclaiming: “I’ve been there!” or “That’s my neighborhood!” Did you write the book to be read and shared aloud?
SR: Yes! I hoped people would do this so I tried to make it a little easier for everyone to read and share, actually–especially readers new to comics. The speech balloons are all color-coded so you can figure out which character is speaking, and the book is divided into five chapters, all roughly the length of a “standard” picture book, so families can read it Monday-Friday if they want.
A number of people have asked me if I think the book could be performed, so we’re hoping to try that, too. We might do performances, with multiple readers, at some of our upcoming book signings, especially the one at Books of Wonder Uptown in New York, the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Finally, I won’t give away Bolivar’s favorite meal, but so many New Yorkers I know are foodies at heart, with that one specific food or one special meal from that one specific place that they crave above everything else. Was the choice for Bolivar automatic? Or did you debate between a few options? And for you, personally, what’s your one favorite food?
SR: Bolivar’s preferred food was automatic. It still feels so elemental to me. I honestly can’t remember making a creative choice around it. I think it just sort of fell in to the story, the way the best ideas often do.
Personally, however, my favorite food is bagels and lox. During New York Comic Con this year, I had the pleasure of eating at Russ and Daughters Café with my wife and a few friends. We ordered bagels with lox, sable, whitefish, and sturgeon, and fresh cream cheese, all served with a ripe tomato and red onion, a cup of coffee, and a chocolate egg cream. I love this food—I grew up with it, really—but this was the best version all of these things I’ve ever had. It was an amazing meal. It was the sort of meal that you randomly mention in an interview, weeks later.