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The Marvels: 06/22/16

The Marvels by Brian Selznick

The Marvels by Brian Selznick is the latest hybrid of wordless picture book and traditional novel. This time it follows young Joseph who in 1990 runs away from his boarding school to live with an uncle he's never met. While there, he uncovers the story of Billy Marvel, a boy he believes washed overboard from a ship only to be rescued and later starts a family of thespians.

As with The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstuck this is a huge book. Inside though, there's about four hundred pages of illustrations with no explanation, followed by a very short and slow to get started story, followed by another chunk of illustrations. The illustrations and text seem to be getting less and less integrated with each new volume and the over all contrapuntal narrative is suffering for this.

Eight years ago when Hugo was released, Selznick's dark sketches mimicking the old silent films of the frères Lumiere and, of course, Georges Méliès, were revolutionary. They were also the perfect way of telling a big piece of Hugo Cabret's story.

Wonderstruck also benefits from the Selznick's illustrations as they again stand in for silence, this time the silence of the world as perceived by the deaf characters.

The Marvels doesn't have as obvious a metaphor to require this hybridization of full page illustrations with text. Only until near the end of Joseph's story (the text part) is the point of the Marvels story revealed. This time, the illustrations are fictional. They are stand-ins for a series of drawings Uncle Albert has done, casting his lover in a heroic role.

As I've mentioned before, I generally dislike inclusions of work done by the fictional characters because whether they are done as illustrations, text, poetry, or something else, they very rarely are done in a style that matches the voice of that character. Basically they fail to be distinct from the author's narrator voice.

So it's just an amazing coincidence (cough cough) that Albert draws exactly like Brian Selznick even though his inspiration is a deeply personal one.

I'm also disappointed that there seems to be no growth in Selznick's art. He settled upon something that works in Hugo, adapted it slightly for Wonderstruck and did nothing further when creating the artwork for The Marvels. What was once revolutionary is now, stale. What should be fantastical depictions of Billy Marvel's misadventures at sea and his rise to fame back in London and his lasting legacy should be vibrant. These pictures should jump off the page.

But they don't. They are tied down to their pages by heavy cross hatching and dark gray borders. The strokes are all uniform. The lighting is all uniform. There is no drama and no fire (even when fire is portrayed).

Two stars

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