Sometimes, the best graphic novels are not graphic novels at all. By now, Ajit, who mans what is arguably the best bookshop this side of the Vindhyas, knows what I like and what I don’t. You won’t catch him proffering a new Murakami or Pynchon to me. A reissue of an old Ballard, maybe. And Chabon, most definitely.
A few years ago, at a time when I was reading only books with pictures (or graphic novels/comics to call them by their rightful name), Ajit preferred The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco. Now, like all engineers, I have been through an Eco phase, but I didn’t exactly feel like indulging in a strenuous mental workout figuring out Eco’s twisted allusions just then. “Take it,” said Ajit. “It’s the closest you’ll get to a graphic novel in prose.” I did, and it was.
Like The Mysterious Flame..., The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brain Selznick is not really a graphic novel, but that’s where the similarity stops. Selznick’s book is part prose and part illustrations done in a sequential storyboard kind of way.
What do I mean by storyboard?
Well, imagine a movie that opens with the shot of a crowded station. The camera pans the crowd from a distance and then closer up. It focuses on a boy. It follows him as he opens an iron grate set in a wall and slips into the hole it opens up.
Now, imagine a series of illustrations that do this.
That’s Selznick’s technique.
The story itself is a charming one about the early era of movies and French movie-maker Georges Méliès. Hugo is a little boy who lives literally inside the walls of a railway station. There’s a mystery in his life that he believes he can solve if he fixes a mechanical man (an automaton) in his possession. He does, and I am not going to give any more details away.
Selznick’s prose is easy and his illustrations are wonderful. They have a certain flip-fast-and-you-can-see-a-movie quality to them that I have only seen in the best manga, and those books were made for flipping.
The Invention... is a pleasant fantasy and I have a feeling that apart from adults, children will love it.
That feeling is further reinforced by the fact that Amazon has a combo deal going for people who buy it and Travels of Thelonious (The Fog Mound), a book that featured in this column not so long ago.
I anticipate a rush of books that seek to emulate Selznick’s effort. They have a tough act to live up to.
Write to Sukumar at email@example.com