HUGO’s BRIAN SELZNICK on THE MARVELS, And Mixing Graphic Novels & Prose

"The Marvels" preview
Credit: Scholastic Press
Credit: Scholastic Press

In the second part of our conversation with the author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which was adapted intot he film Hugo), Brian Selznick discusses how the use of silent comic book-type sequences in his newest novel, The Marvels, is different from its use in Hugo and Wonderstruck.

The author also delves some of his favorite current comic books, and whether he’d ever want to do a full-on graphic novel free of prose.

Newsarama: Brian, one thing I wanted to talk about is how with The Marvels, you front-load the story with the graphic novel portion. That plays a specific role in the narrative, but I was curious if that was something you consciously thought of when you sat down and laid out the story.

Brian Selznick: With each of these – Hugo, Wonderstruck, The Marvels – they began with trying to understand what purpose the drawings were going to serve in the narrative and in the structure of the book itself.

Hugo’s pictures grew out of the idea that it’s a story about the cinema, so I wanted an experience that was cinematic within the pages of the book. With Wonderstruck, the story grew out of the structural concept of having the words and the pictures tell two separate stories, and have the story told in pictures be relevant to a character who was deaf, and pictures are what she sees. The pictures are designed to parallel what a deaf person’s visual experience of the world might be.

For The Marvels, as I was putting  together the narrative and figuring what the story was going to be about, the idea of having 400 pages of pictures open the book, which cover 150 years and five generations in this family of actors before we get to the year 1900 and end on this cliffhanger, then cut to the next 200 pages, which are all text and tell a story that takes place 90 years later and follow a boy who seems related to the family we were following, and we follow him as he finds this connection himself.

So having the book open with these 400 pages – they cast a shadow over the next 200 pages as this boy discovers the story we’ve already experienced, and he discovers this story for himself. For the reader, those pictures form a kind of collective memory. They’re serving a different purpose than they did in Wonderstruck, which in turn served a different purpose than the pictures did in Hugo

And this idea that the pictures become a kind of memory, first for the reader, and then for the characters in the book itself, seemed like an interesting thing to try to explore.

Credit: Scholastic Press

Nrama: Have you ever thought of doing a full-length novel that would be nothing but pictures, like a full graphic novel?

Selznick: That’s interesting. It’s definitely crossed my mind. When I was doing the picture sequences in Hugo, which are usually action sequences, because I was definitely taking away text that – I wrote most of the narrative first, then took out chunks of text and replaced them with pictures for the action sequences – what I was drawing were sequences where I could get across the ideas through drawing, rather than written text.

So while I was doing this, I was aware that our instincts as readers is to move through pictures more quickly than text. Text forces us to slow down.

Credit: Scholastic Press

Nrama: Sorry to interrupt, but I had made a note to tell you this before we started the interview – this is probably the fastest I’ve ever read a 600-page book.

Selsnick: [laughs] Yes, it’s possible to read a 600-page book in essentially one sitting. One long sitting, but it’s possible!

And I was aware that, because we as readers tend to feel like once we look at a picture, we’ve understood it and can move on, whereas with text, by its very nature, you are forced to look at every word. Every letter is part of a word; every word is part of a sentence; every sentence is part of a paragraph; every paragraph is part of a page; and so on.

Credit: Scholastic Press

With a graphic novel, the words and the pictures interact with each other on the same page, where characters have speech bubbles, or thought balloons, or exposition. With text, we are forced to slow down on the images to read the full text.

In Hugo, I made the conscious decision that every image would be a double-page spread, a full bleed with no thought bubbles, no speech bubbles. It would just be the image, so it would be more in line with what’s in silent movies. And then you cut from the visual narrative to what would be a block of text in a silent movie, where you read a block of text, and then go back.

Again, in a graphic novel, your eye moves generally from upper-left to lower-right. A good graphic novelist will play with that, let the images move in different directions across the spread, but in general, your eye instinctively moves, as is the tradition of Western text, from upper-left to lower-right.

In Hugo, the pictures we speed through, and then you slow down for the sections of text. So I thought of the words as kind of a braking system that keep you from speeding down the hill too fast.

Credit: Scholastic Press

So, with The Marvels, by having [laughs] 400 pages of pictures, I was aware that the vehicle was going to pick up a lot of speed, and I was hoping that there would be enough detail in the drawings that you would have to pause and slow down – sometimes there’s text, like the character’s reading a newspaper, or writing a postcard or a letter, so there are things to read.

But in general, it’s all visual. And as you speed through the first 400 pages, you have the opportunity as readers once you hit that text section to go back and look again at certain parts and reread what’s there. But it’s the way your mind goes back and forth between the words and the pictures, and how it processes the words and the pictures, that I find particularly exciting.

So, the thought of making a book that is just pictures – for me, it would lose part of the excitement of thinking about that space between text and images. But then, if I think about what it would mean to do something closer to a traditional graphic novel, where I experiment with using language within the pictures themselves – that excites me.

But for these three books, Hugo, Wonderstruck and now The Marvels, what intrigued me was that they formed a kind of trilogy, and I had to find a way to make the single double-page spread work in many ways as I could, and interact in as many ways as possible with the text.

Credit: Scholastic Press

Nrama: I was curious if you enjoyed any graphic novels you’d like to talk about – ongoing comic books, longform, collections, webcomics, older or newer – and so on.

Selznick: Yeah, I’ve been pretty deep inside The Marvels, and haven’t gotten to read a lot recently. Though, I did come across Through the Woods by Emily Carroll –

Nrama: She’s fantastic.

Selznick: Oh my God! It’s so amazing! And the drawings are so beautiful – the use of the space itself, the way the pictures and the words interact, I feel like Emily really pushes the form in her work, and in this book in particular.

And it’s truly creepy, the stories and the way they all tie together, and the way she uses black space to represent emptiness, and the feeling of being alone and being scared. It really evokes all these very interesting emotional experiences, by experimental uses of the page itself. I really fell in love with that one.

Credit: Scholastic Press

Boxers and Saints by Gene Leun Yang was brilliantly structured and very moving, Here by Richard McGuire was a real tour de force of visual experimentation, and This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki was like a thrilling - though somewhat destabilizing - trip back to adolescence.

I also loved El Deafo by Cece Bell and was especially happy to see it, as well as This One Summer, recognized by the Newbery and Caldecott committees, respectively.

I don’t have much social media presence – I’m not online much, most of my drawings are done with pencil and paper and a magnifying glass, but when I’m online, it seems like designing thing specifically for the online experience is what would excite me the most, and how people are shifting their reading experiences onto various devices.

Credit: Scholastic Press

Too often, I feel like people just take books, and just put each page onto an e-reader and expect that to be the same experience of reading a book.

I’ve never allowed Hugo or Wonderstruck to be on e-readers before, but recently, I’ve been thinking about ideas of adaptation, and how to make things work for these various devices. So we’re finally releasing Hugo and Wonderstruck on e-readers for the first time, along with The Marvels.

But they’re adapted for these devices, to be specifically read on the Kindle or whatever. They’re the same text, the same pictures, but they’re laid out a little differently – the difference between turning the page versus swiping the page, and we wanted to reflect that.

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