Sean Rubin’s Bolivar is half picture book, half graphic novel—and all good, clean fun. The 224-page hardcover children’s book will be published this month by Archaia.
Bolivar tells the tale of a dinosaur named Bolivar who lives quietly on New York City's Upper West Side. Dinosaurs may be extinct, but Bolivar definitely isn’t, and his fellow New Yorkers are so busy no one seems to notice his presence. And it's not like he’s a recluse. He visits the Met, hangs out in Central Park, shops on 72nd Street and Broadway and loves old bookstores. He minds his own business, until his neighbor, a girl with a camera and nose for a mystery, sniffs him out.
Before his work on Bolivar, Rubin provided illustrations for the late Brian Jacques’ popular Redwall series of fantasy novels. He is also a contributor to Archaia’s Eisner Award-winning Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard Vol. 1, an anthology of comics stories by acclaimed illustrators set in Dave Petersen’s Mouse Guard fantasy world. PW spoke with Rubin about the long gestation of this new hybrid work.
Why did you choose this hybrid format for Bolivar?
I originally imagined Bolivar as a 1200-word picture book. However, I was having difficulty generating interest in that manuscript. I was told it needed to be 800 words, but as I just couldn’t find a way to make it shorter, the only remaining option was to make it longer. The original picture book manuscript became the voiceover, and I started writing dialogue in between the text.
When I finished, I had two different versions of the same book—a picture book and a graphic novel. Once I started fiddling around with page layouts, I realized that the juxtaposition of the two formats created something interesting, especially regarding pacing. I also began to think of the voiceover as unreliable narration, so that the book invites you to compare what’s written in the voiceover to what’s being said by the characters and what’s being seen in the illustrations.
The voiceover is also written so that a less experienced reader can read it, while a parent or someone older can read the dialogue. While this was a happy accident caused by merging the two formats, readers have already told me they’ve enjoyed reading Bolivar aloud this way, which is amazing to hear.
How did you manage to fit a dinosaur into small spaces such as a New York deli?
Well, you got me. Bolivar’s exact size, and the exact way he squeezes through doors, is never completely resolved. I eventually came to treat this as a bit of a joke in the artwork. I decided that if the rest of the environment was depicted faithfully, the one, physically impossible dinosaur in all the illustrations could perhaps be forgiven.
That being said, I think you just hit on a great thing about illustration: it can be “true enough” without being completely bound to physics the way film or even animation is. You have to choose specific moments, so I can show Bolivar outside a store, and then I can show him inside a store. If I decide to skip the wonky, in-between parts, your imagination will fill the gap.
The book has a timeless feel, but we see both computers and rotary phones, and Sybil has a Polaroid camera. Why did you mix it up this way?
I wanted to create a setting that felt familiar without being rooted in a particular year, or even decade. A lot of the older technology used in Bolivar was still around, but being phased out, when I was a kid. My grandmother had a rotary phone, for example, while my uncle had just installed a modem on his IBM computer. The most important thing for me was to avoid including smartphones. The whole book could have easily been a commentary on technology usage (including my own), but people didn’t notice things even before we all got smartphones. Some human behavior is timeless.
Were you in New York when you drew Bolivar?
When I started drawing Bolivar, I was still living on the Upper West Side, so I spent a lot of time doing observational drawings and taking reference photography in my neighborhood and in Central Park. When I moved to Virginia, I still used these references, but I eventually found myself shifting to memory more and more. In the end, I really wasn’t remembering New York in the early 2010s; instead, I was working from memories of the city when I was kid. I tried to take advantage of this as much as possible. Much of the book is from the perspective of an eight-year-old, so I think my childhood memories helped me to empathize even more with Sybil.
Bolivar was originally supposed to be released several years ago. Why did it take so long to complete?
I admit the “supposed” publication date was optimistic—I had never done a book like this before, so I really didn’t know how long it would take. The book’s length—224 pages—and my fondness for crosshatching didn’t help. When I started illustrating Bolivar, I also didn’t know what the rest of my life was going to look like. At the time, I was a single guy in a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. I've moved four times since then, got married, and had two kids. It’s been an exciting five years, to say the least.
It was also supposed to be made into an animated film. Is that still in the works?
Like Bolivar, it isn’t extinct yet!