Monday, January 23, 2012

Boris's Words

In 2007 I had the great pleasure of co-directing (with my friend and colleague Jerry Hunt) an animated adaptation of Kate Banks's and Boris Kulikov's book Max's Words. In the book, Max's older brothers Benjamin and Karl collect stamps and coins, but they won't share their collections with Max. So Max decides to start a collection of his own: words. He cuts words out of magazines and newspapers. Stamp and coin collections can only grow bigger, but with a word collection Max soon finds he can make sentences and stories. Benjamin and Karl become interested, and all three brothers eventually find a way to share and get along. It's a lovely story, and Kulikov's illustrations greatly expand upon Banks's text.

The first time Max takes scissors to paper, Kulikov pictures him cutting into what is clearly a copy of The New York Times Book Review. The cover of the Book Review has a striking image of a face on a nail, the nail having been driven into the pavement. Kulikov also painted in some text: "Martin Amis's War On...". Curious, I Googled this phrase, and found the actual cover here. The featured review is of Martin Amis's book on Stalin, Koba the Dread. A trip to the library verified that this was a Book Review cover that Kulikov had painted himself, and Stalin's was the face on the nail. So it seemed a nice little self-referential joke: Kulikov painted Max hacking into one of his own illustrations.

But Kulikov returns to this cover once more at the very end of the book. The creativity and artistic expression that Max's word collection inspires have brought the brothers together, and as a final "The End" image Kulikov pictures them peering together through a massive round hole in the Book Review cover, the image of Stalin having been completely eradicated. It didn't seem too much of a stretch to think that the Russian-born Kulikov was making a statement about art (whether it be writing or drawing) being a liberating force against oppression. It's a theme that's certainly in the book's text, but it's made much richer through the illustrations. And I couldn't help but feel I had uncovered a little mystery, and a personal statement that had been hidden beneath the surface of the book. We did nothing in particular to emphasize this in our animated adaptation...but it was nice to know it was there.

A few years later I emailed Kulikov and asked him about it, and received a lovely reply:

It is so cool that you noticed that small detail with Stalin...Not so long before I started working on the book, I had done that cover for the paper, and I could not resist to add something funny and personal to the story. So, I decided to make fun of Koba and you felt it the right way, maybe even deeper than my intention was, and that is what makes art so special: a viewer can see and think it further than the artist.
Sometimes I include similar things to my other books, when I feel it fits. I know that only a few people could pay attention to or understand such details, but even if just one person, like you, could notice it -- it's worthy.
So, mystery solved! And in a highly gratifying way. It's always been one of my personal goals as an artist to "reward a second viewing" by putting in details that the audience probably won't notice the first time around. If nothing else, it creates a richer world for the characters to live in. It seems to be a running thread in my last few posts here, so take a deep breath and say it with me: God is in the details!

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