Brian Selznick’s illustrated novels blend comic book-esque storytelling with classic prose, and his newest release might be the most experimental yet.
The Marvels opens with a 400 page silent graphic narrative about young Billy Marvel, whose shipwreck experience leads to his founding a dynasty of actors that stretch accross centuries. Seguing to prose, The Marvels then delves the adventures of a young boy named Joseph who stumbles onto the story of the Marvels, and comes to suspect he’s tied to them. But the answer isn’t what he – or anyone reading the book – would ever expect.
Selznick's unique take on mixing illustrations and long-form prose have won him awards and mainstream attention. His first novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, was adapted into the film Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese, which won five Academy Awards.
And his second, Wonderstruck which we talked to him about in 2011, was recently announced as a film.
The Marvels has already hit the top of the children’s best-seller list, and you can check out a trailer for the book, directed by Selznick himself, below.
Newsarama spoke with Selznick about The Marvels, the unique qualities of his books, whether he’d ever want to do a full-on graphic novel, and more. This is the first in a two-part interview.
Newsarama: Brian, Scholastic sent me a copy of The Marvels in advance of our interview and I read it, and it was a strange coincidence because I just took a William Shakespeare course over the summer, and it included plays like The Winter’s Tale, which are a major part of your story.
Brian Selznick: Oh, that’s great! Had you read The Winter’s Tale before?
Nrama: I saw a production years ago, but hadn’t read it – or the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Selznick: [laughs] I don’t know if you noticed, but I actually hid that stage direction in one of the drawings! There’s a scene where Oberon is kind of banishing Leo from the theater, and Leo is walking toward the door, and there’s a big “Exit” sign over the door, and then behind Leo is this weird carved clock with a bear on the clock, so if you read it left to right, it’s kind of “Exit, pursued by a bear.”
Nrama: In the class I took, they mentioned how more modern productions try to handle that – they showed a Royal Shakespeare Company production where Antigonous is literally swallowed by darkness, but it’s just not the same!
Selznick: No, it’s not! You need the bear!
I think I mentioned this when we talked before, but I was friends with Maurice Sendak. I remember visiting his house when he was working on his last book, My Brother’s Book. There’s this amazing moment where a character is swallowed by a polar bear, and later there’s a line like, “Even yon crickets shall not hear…”
But at the time, I hadn’t read The Winter’s Tale, and I later came into my love of it on my own. And it wasn’t until I was working on The Marvels that someone pointed out A Winter’s Tale was one of Maurice’s favorite plays, and that he had worked references of it into My Brother’s Book.
But we were never able to talk about that, because he’d died before I made any of these connections. Still,I was so happy to discover he’d had all those references to The Winter’s Tale in his own work as well.
Nrama: I was such a fan of Maurice’s, and regret that I never got the chance to interview him! Though he might have been more than I could handle.
Selznick: [laughs] He was definitely a lot! But he was one of those people who, whatever he said, it was interested. Being a fan and knowing his work, you’d have got along fine. I think he liked to play the curmudgeon, but he was a very sweet, very loving person.
Nrama: Here’s a comic book question – I wrote a whole series about the classic Captain Marvel series, and so I was wondering if “Billy Marvel” in your book was a reference to that.
Selznick: I’m embarrassed to say it’s not! The whole “Marvel” name is a reference to the New York stage actress Elizabeth Marvel. I’ve loved her work since I saw her on stage, and I needed a name for this family of stage actors, and I always thought she had an amazing last name.
But it wasn’t until a friend of mine was reading a draft of the story that I realized that was the same name as Marvel Comics, and then I did some research and saw that Captain Marvel, that whole family tree and Billy Marvel, there’s some resemblance to those characters, name-wise. But it’s a coincidence!
Nrama: Well, I saw in the back of the book that you dealt with a lot of very talented actors in putting this together, such as Harry Lloyd and Barbara Barrie…
Selznick: Yes, I was thinking about the idea of acting dynasties, and families where generation after generation of actors appear. I was thinking about the Barrymore family, from John Barrymore to Drew Barrymore, and the Redgraves, and so many families where the family tradition is to be on stage.
So it was so much fun to do that research, and then I found out about 19th-century actors such as Eleonora Duse and Henry Irving and Sarah Bernhardt, and trying to incorporate them into the story. The most fun was making up my own version of this acting dynasty that’s inspired by and based on all of these different people.
Nrama: What’s fun about this illustrated section is that there’s hints at all these different stories about the Marvels that we don’t get to see while their history is being recapped.
Selznick: Yeah, I think that was one of the challenges, and one of the most pleasing parts, trying to find the balance between the narrative that will move us through the history of this family, and then hinting at these larger stories.
And then of course, in the second half we hear a more fleshed-out part of some of these stories, some parts of the narrative the pictures didn’t get, but I wanted to set up that there was this family and all these larger stories going on around them, but all the adventures and mysteries they’re involved in are buried within the story that we’re following.
Nrama: Well, it’s always very intriguing to me, the idea of a lived-in world with a history, and all these stories we don’t get to see.
Selznick: That’s a lovely way to put it. A lived-in world.
You know, I don’t write fantasy books, but I feel like that sense of something being lived in, and also having coherent rules that make sense within that world, are the same whether it’s a very realistic, domestic story, or whether you’re creating a fantasy world with wizards or dragons – whatever it is, the place that’s being created needs to be believable, and the people who are living in it need to feel like they are of that world.
With my books, starting with The Invention of Hugo Cabret, one of my goals was to create stories that have the feel of the fantastic, without actually having any elements of the fantastic, beyond some very fortunate coincidences. These stories could happen in the world we live in, but there’s the hint of something heightened, something otherworldly happening.
In Hugo, there were hints of ghosts and other strange events that are, ultimately, explainable within the world we live in, but hopefully elevate the story and create the sense that there’s something larger going on.
And I tried for the same thing with Wonderstruck, and for The Marvels, that’s a very big part of it – there’s a character in the second half of the book who, while still being grounded very much in the gritty real world of London in 1990, has this uncanny moment where he thinks he’s fallen back in time.
To experience that is not impossible in our world! I experienced it when I visited Dennis Severs’ House, which as you know from reading the book, is kept as if it’s the 18th or 19th century, and there’s smells and sound effects and the temperature changes from room to room, and you feel as if the family is still keeping house there, and that sense the character Joseph has of having fallen through a crack in time – that’s how I felt when I was there.
Trying to create this world where these people are grounded, and where they live, and how they have these experiences, and how we can relate to it – that’s very much what I hoped to do.
In Part II: Selznick discusses the form of the graphic novel, the unique ways he’s tried to use visual narration in his different books, and some of his favorite current comic books.