From Archaia (a division of Boom! Studios) comes BOLIVAR, a massive, immaculately detailed children’s book/graphic novel hybrid created by REDWALL illustrator Sean Rubin. BOLIVAR tells the story of a child named Sybil who notices that a dinosaur named Bolivar lives right next door to her New York City apartment. To her surprise, Sybil finds that nobody else notices Bolivar, even though he walks around in public all the time. She decides it’s her goal to prove to everyone that her neighbor really is a dinosaur. 

ComicsVerse was fortunate enough to snag an interview with the writer and artist behind BOLIVAR, Sean Rubin. 

The Interview

Bolivar
Image courtesy of Boom! Studios.

ComicsVerse (CV): So first off, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Sean Rubin (SR): I’m Sean Rubin, from Brooklyn. And I’ve been illustrating for about, oh, I’d say 17-18 years now. I actually started illustrating the REDWALL novels a while ago. I had done a couple of audio book covers, and I eventually did the interior illustrations for two of Brian Jacques novels before he passed.

SR: Right around then, David Petersen saw some of my work and said, “Hey, this is great, but have you ever considered doing comics?” And that surprised me. I hadn’t really been interested in doing comic books or graphic novels. I had been more interested in doing children’s book illustrations and novels, but I thought it was a good opportunity. So I took him up on it.

SR: I wound up contributing to the MOUSE GUARDS: LEGEND OF THE GUARD anthology in 2010. It was pretty well received and I really enjoyed doing it, so Petersen said, “Hey, if you any ideas, let us know. We’d love to work with you more.” And I said that seemed good to me. And I hoped that, if I did do something, that they would be able to pick it up.

SR: I think a few months later, I actually sent them a pitch for BOLIVAR (though I had been working on it for a while already), and they accepted it. Little did anyone know, it would take about five years to illustrate the thing.

A Background In Children’s Books

CV: What sparked your interested in children’s books in the first place?

SR: Oh, that’s a great question. Well, let me back that up a little. I think I was interested in illustration. I think that one of the main reasons I was interested in children’s books is because, when I thought about what it meant to be an illustrator, I just assumed at the time that it meant to be a children’s book illustrator.

SR: Illustration, at least in the United States, really sort of started in magazines. And to a lesser extent, newspapers. And then a lot of the really good people in the middle of the 20th century started doing children’s books.

10 Books To Read For #NationalYoungReadersDay

SR: So when you think of illustrators, a lot of people are going to start listing names like Maurice Sendak, Chris Van Allsburg. I was most familiar with what they call traditional publishing because I had come up through doing REDWALL books. So, to me, if you wanted to do this, this was what you were going to do.

SR: Since I was a little kid, I had always drawn characters from books. It didn’t really occur to me that people made a career out of doing that. But again, when the opportunity came up, it seemed like a really great thing to do. So I just had that in my head for the longest time.

SR: What’s really cool now is that a lot of people are moving between the two, with doing both comic books and children book illustrations. It’s also the case that exactly what is a comic book and what is a children’s book is becoming one more blur. BOLIVAR, of course, is intended to further that confusion.

BOLIVAR The Children’s Book

Bolivar
Image courtesy of Boom! Studios.

CV: That actually ties into one of my questions. Why the decision to mix the two media between children’s books and comics?

SR: Well, I don’t know if that was so much a decision as it was something that came about in the process of writing BOLIVAR.

SR: The book actually started its life as a 1200 word manuscript. It was supposed to be a pretty quick, somewhat farcical children’s book about a dinosaur that lived in New York City, but nobody noticed him. At first, it was a little bit like an Emperor’s New Clothes thing. It was intentionally a little repetitive, which is actually something that I think is still the case, especially in the second chapter. You know, he goes to this place. Nobody notices him. He goes to that place, nobody notices him. You could still kind of hear some of that.

SR: When I wrote this, I started shopping it around, and while editors liked the book, they were concerned that it was too long. And they recommended that I pare it down to around 800 words. I could not get it to 800 words. It wasn’t even the sort of thing where it’s like, “This is my vision.” I really tried to get it down to 800 words. But it just gutted the story.

BOLIVAR The Comic

SR: So I was thinking, ‘No one’s going to publish it at 1200 words. I guess it doesn’t matter if it were to be 1500 words or 3000 words.’ So I started adding to it, and what I wound up adding was character dialogue. I took the original manuscript, which is what became the voiceover text, typically in the black type over the white pages, but sometimes it’s over an illustration. And I used that as a voiceover, and then I started adding what the characters were saying in a given situation. Almost sort of speaking about what was going on within the story.

An Interview with WHAT IS IT? writer Nicole Hoang and artist Dustin Nguyen

SR: Once I did that, it actually ballooned into a 33 page manuscript. Actually, I had two versions of the same book existing in the same manuscript, with the children’s book in a sort of graphic novel. I looked at it and thought it would probably be interesting if you just left the children’s book part as is and, whenever you had the dialogue occurring, you would just break it into panels.

SR: I’m hardly the first person to do that. Maurice Sendak actually did stuff like that as early as IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, and it’s been done by other people too. I think maybe BOLIVAR stands out to some people because it just does this in an extremely brazen way. But that’s really where it came from. It was just two versions of the same book.

BOLIVAR The Hybrid

SR: I didn’t really want to do the whole comics voiceover thing, with the rectangular voiceover box. It just didn’t feel right for the story. I actually liked the fact that, the way it was designed, it called out the voiceover a little bit more. And then, it also creates some interesting moments for me as an illustrator. I actually really like books where the text and the illustrations don’t necessarily match. They have sort of a suggestive disagreement between what reality is.

SR: Of course, you have the voiceover. I see the voiceover as being unreliable to an extent. And the panels and the dialogue as being “real life.” So, that was fun to play with. It created some moments with pacing. If you had a white page with one line of text, and another page with six panels and all this stuff, it really causes you to speed up and slow down through the book. Which was something that was interesting to me when I was doing layouts.

The Dinosaur-In-The-Room

Bolivar
Image courtesy of Boom Studios.

CV: I really enjoyed BOLIVAR’s layouts and illustrations. And how you managed to hide the dinosaur in plain sight. Honestly, I don’t think I caught all the times he was there. What tactics did you use to hide this giant dinosaur-in-the-room, so to speak?

SR: Before college, I was thinking about art school. I ended up not going, but I did a number of portfolio reviews. There was this one professor at the Pratt Institute named Charles Gosselin. He’d been a real fixture in the Brooklyn and New York City illustration community for decades. After looking through my work, he said, “You have a horrible habit. Your compositions aren’t about anything. You leave the middle empty. You really need to do something about that.”

SR: That’s something I still struggle with. I’ll be working on some project, and at 1:00 am, I’ll realize that I left the middle empty and start erasing. If anything, this book was an excuse to not fight against that instinct.

SR: Because the compositions are purposely scattered, your eye doesn’t know where to fall. Instead of a problem, it worked as a way of misdirecting the viewer. So you’re drawn to the less narratively important activity. Sometimes, I make Bolivar’s color a little bit similar to the background, which helps. You can do things like that. You’ll have all the action in an illustration happening at the left or the top. While the readers are looking there, they miss what’s happening in the bottom.

SR: In art school, you get chewed out for that. But by drawing things this way, it actually made this particular book work. If I do it again in my next book, I’m probably just being lazy. So keep your eye on that.

Color In BOLIVAR

Bolivar
Image courtesy of Boom! Studios.

CV: Yeah, I noticed the ways that Bolivar blends himself into the background, particularly with his blue-gray color. What other choices did you make about color in the comic?

SR: I love talking about color. There were two major influences on the palette. And I tried to lay it out the way you do with an animated film, where we have color boards. It’s more of a green/red warm palette in the beginning, particularly when they’re in the Upper West Side neighborhood.

SR: The different locations in the second chapter vary. The City Hall is very antiseptic, so it’s sort of green/blue. And the Natural History Museum is sort of green and a little dark and foreboding because a certain conflict starts happening there. Then the final chapter is just sort of rainy and gray, but it eventually gives way to be a bit sunnier.

SR: So I laid all of that out and then started working on exactly how to organize the individual compositions according to color. In the beginning, I tended to gravitate towards a lot of green/red, partially because I was relying on some of Edward Hopper’s paintings as inspiration for how to depict the city.

SR: Hopper does a lot of paintings about urban isolation, which is perfect for BOLIVAR. It was an interesting thing to pull in, short of just doing a Nighthawks spread, which would have been going overboard. The thing that I wasn’t expecting was that a lot of the later choices were actually dictated by the characters. Which is not something I even realized could happen.

Characters Running The Show

SR: I had Sybil wearing a yellow sweater with a red dress, which is a bit of homage to MADELINE and ELOISE. And that’s because they used to do two-color printing in old children’s books. They would do a red screen print and then a yellow screen print. Then, when I did the mother, I purposely chose purple, because I thought that would be a good contrast to Sybil’s yellow. They’re complementary colors. It was a good way of saying that they kind of go together but they’re also opposites.

RAVINA THE WITCH? Review: Returning to Fairy Tales’ True Roots

SR: Those two are in a lot of the spreads, particularly in the middle of the book. So I was dealing with the yellow/purple color axis. A lot of people arrange compositions according to two complementary colors. Like I said, I did a lot of red/green in the beginning. But it became yellow/purple because I built whole spreads around Sybil and her mother.

SR: That’s a little tricky because yellow and purple are kind of Eastery. You don’t see a lot of yellow/purple. So I had to pull yellow down to ochre and the purple became like a purple-gray. And the funny thing is, those are actually dominant colors in Manhattan. I mean, if I said Manhattan is yellow, you’d go, “I don’t really see it. It’s more like gray and black and brown.” But there’s a lot of yellow in the city. Think of taxi cabs. Once I realized that, it became something easier to fiddle with.

SR: But yeah, these were character-driven color choices, since characters have minds of their own. Well, the best ones do. If you’re speaking for them, it usually means that they’re not saying anything interesting.

Bolivar’s Origins

CV: True. So how exactly did Bolivar get to modern day New York City in the first place?

SR: A couple of years ago, we did a free comic book page story about this. Sort of as a prologue. Bolivar’s parents immigrated, at some point, in the early 1900s from the old country. I don’t know where. I assume his apartment is rent-controlled. Also, I don’t know if that story is reliable, as usual. He hatched at some point in the 20th century. He’s just been living on West 78th Street for a really long time.

SR: He’s a more recent dinosaur. The last one, unfortunately. But there were other dinosaurs living more recently than anybody realized.

Hidden In Plain Sight

Bolivar
Image courtesy of Boom! Studios.

CV: Something interesting about Bolivar is that he worries people will notice he’s physically different. But they don’t, so he keeps passing by undetected. I related to that a lot because I have Tourette’s. When I’m out in public, I often worry about people’s reactions to my disability. But they usually assume I’m coughing or shivering or something. So in my own life, I’ve noticed the Bolivar phenomenon. Are there any instances in your own life that are similar?

SR: Part of conforming is pretending everybody else is conforming too. In NY, many things happen on any given train ride that break the mold. If you stop to think about them, you might say, “Oh, I’ve never seen that before. I can’t quite create a context for why that’s happening.” But it’s so frequent that the agreed-upon solution is to ignore everything.

SR: I spent a year as an artist-in-residence at a homeless shelter. Actually, I completed the first chapter of BOLIVAR there. The Acknowledgements go to Haven, a day shelter in Charlottesville, Virginia. Many homeless people juggle between wanting to be noticed and not wanting to be noticed. I mean, outright hiding. Finding some place that’s safe and warm, and not leaving much. Or trying to pass for someone who’s not homeless while going about their daily business.

SR: There’s people you’ll talk to who are homeless and you’d have no idea. Because they are going out of their way to not make it super obvious. That was in the back of my mind when I was working on the book. There isn’t a direct analogy between BOLIVAR and homelessness. But I think the phenomenon is like walking through an urban environment, and you’re supposed to pretend that some people aren’t there.

Acknowledging Difference

CV: At first, Sybil’s the only one who acknowledges differences. At different points in the comic, this is a good thing or a bad thing. But ultimately, her actions definitely do help Bolivar. What do you think that kids who are starting to notice differences in other people should know?

SR: Actually, I saw a write up in Women Write About Comics the other day, which explained this in a way that hadn’t even occurred to me. But I’ve been talking to people about it like this since. I think what Sybil realizes that’s different than what the adults realize is that difference can be about recognition without being about separation.

Intersectional Feminism in HELP US! GREAT WARRIOR

SR: It’s a privilege to grow up in a diverse community. You’re surrounded by so many people from other parts of the world, and who lived in other cultures, follow other religions, eat different food, and speak different languages. And we celebrate those things in a positive way. That’s important.

SR: I think it’s possible to celebrate the fact that Bolivar is a dinosaur without having to create some sort of reason to separate him from society. Of course, Sybil just wants to understand what’s going on. She wants to be recognized. Everybody ignores her for one reason. Everybody ignores Bolivar for another reason. Sybil wants to get recognition and pull Bolivar with her, whether he wants it or not. And that’s a scary thing for him.

Final Thoughts

CV: Finally, what do you hope that your readers, both young and old, can get out of this story in general?

SR: Well, I think most of us have something that we’re very hesitant to share with other people, because we don’t really know how they’re going to react to it. By and large, I think a lot of people are actually much more okay with these kind of things than we give them credit for. So BOLIVAR is an invitation to trust other people to be kind.

BOLIVAR came out on November 28th, 2017. You can find it here

Show ComicsVerse some Love! Leave a Reply!

Check Also

A ComicsVerse Christmas: BEHIND THE TREE: 10 Examples of Alternative Christmas Music

BEHIND THE TREE looks at alternatives for Christmas songs. Because we can only hear ‘Frost…