Imagine you live in Manhattan on West 78th Street and your neighbor is a dinosaur. The problem is, no one believes you. This is the premise for Bolivar, Sean Rubin’s debut graphic novel in which a large gray dinosaur living in New York speaks English, reads the New Yorker, orders corned beef sandwiches and visits museums, while everyone fails to notice him. That is, everyone except for an 8-year-old girl named Sybil.
Rubin, who grew up in New York, and moved to Charlottesville in 2014, says the idea for the story began with a gray, plastic dinosaur toy he had as a kid. Rubin’s cousin, photographer Edward Addeo, whom Rubin calls Uncle Eddie, “thought this thing was a riot.” Eddie named the dinosaur Bolivar and made up stories about his adventures. One day, in Eddie’s telling of it, Bolivar became the mayor of New York.
Then a teenager, Rubin was inspired to write what he thought would be a short children’s book, “mostly for the edification of my family.” What began as a Kafkaesque tale became a sort of ode to the oddities of New York. “The amount of things you see [in New York City] in a given day that you can’t quite process is really quite extraordinary,” he says. “I’ve always been charmed by that in some ways.” So he asked himself, “If there was a dinosaur living in Manhattan, what would be the entire context around that?”
After leaving New York, Rubin fleshed out the book during an artist residency at The Haven. (The residency program closed in 2015.) By the end of his residency, he had a first chapter with color illustrations and an outline for the rest of the book. The finished illustrations are incredibly detailed, and convey a great affection for New York. Throughout the book it is a kind of game to try to spot Bolivar—his tail disappearing around a corner, his reptilian hands holding a newspaper—as bustling New Yorkers fail to notice what readers, and Sybil, do.
When Sybil tries to convince her mother, teacher and classmates that Bolivar exists, she is met with skepticism. A lot of her character, Rubin says, stemmed from his own “frustrations of trying to establish a creative career.” But in the process of developing her character, she became an ordinary child. “Most children, I think, have a lot of difficulty getting adults to take them seriously,” says Rubin.
The tension in the story arises from the fact that the “two main characters have diametric motivations. Sybil wants to be understood and accepted. But she’s very conspicuous,” he says. Meanwhile, Bolivar “doesn’t want the pain and responsibility of notoriety.” When the attempt to fight an unjust parking ticket leads Bolivar to the mayor’s office, his anonymity slips away and he and Sybil must deal with the ramifications.
The book is dedicated to Uncle Eddie, Rubin says, to acknowledge “the fact that this came out of an imaginative world that he laid the first foundations of.” Even more than that, having a professional artist as a role model had a huge impact on Rubin. “It meant when you were like, ‘Hey, I want to do this,’ it wasn’t like, ‘You’re going to starve in an attic,’” he says. In fact, Rubin started illustrating at age 13 after meeting Brian Jacques, author of the Redwall fantasy novels, at a book signing. He showed Jacques some of his drawings and Jacques invited him to submit artwork for his website. That led to Rubin doing cover illustrations for audiobooks and interior illustrations for two books in the Redwall series, as well as for David Petersen’s Mouse Guard comic book series.
“If you want to do this kind of work, someone has to be okay with it,” Rubin says. For that, he thanks his parents, his wife and, of course, Uncle Eddie.