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Frank Viva’s novel take on the picture book

Memories of a childhood spent at Point Aconi on the East Coast inspired Frank Viva to craft a graphic novel about a boy sent away for the summer.

Memories of a childhood spent at Point Aconi on the East Coast inspired Frank Viva to craft a graphic novel about a boy sent away for the summer.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

With Sea Change, a graphic novel in the truest sense, author and designer Frank Viva blurs the lines between written word and illustration. The book was inspired by childhood memories, and as Mark Medley finds out, it’s a new turn for a man whose creativity appears boundless

Point Aconi is a small, rural community on the tip of Boularderie Island, off the eastern coast of Cape Breton. According to the 2011 census, its population stands at 144 people, although it was a bit larger when Frank Viva used to visit as a kid. The acclaimed Toronto designer and picture-book author was “a pampered city kid” when he was sent there, alone, for the first time when he was about nine years old, and spent the next several summers there, living in “a little square clapboard house” with his great-uncle Purvis, a commercial fisherman, helping to haul-in lobster traps and jig cod.

“I have vivid memories of going in and out from the wharf in the boat, and looking at the sea bottom and seeing all kinds of things – I saw sunken boats, I saw skate fish, and things like that. It just seemed all magical to me.

“It was a very different world than Toronto,” he says. “It opened up my imagination.”

The cover of his new book, Sea Change, shows a boy standing at the edge of a pier, glancing down apprehensively at the waves breaking below. His most personal work to date, Sea Change represents an equally perilous leap for Viva. Sea Change is a part middle-grade novel, part picture book – a true graphic novel. It is unlike anything else in bookstores and unlike anything Viva has done before. The question, then, looking at the book’s cover, isn’t whether the boy will jump. It’s whether readers will follow suit.

‘Concrete poetry’

Sea Change tells the story of Eliot Dionisi, a shy 12-year-old boy whose parents exile him for the summer to Point Aconi, where he’s to stay with his great-uncle, Earl, “a pirate of a man” complete with a gold tooth and faded tattoos, and where his friends are convinced he’ll be eaten by a shark or a Yeti.

“I didn’t fight it like Eliot, to be honest with you,” says Viva, sitting in his home in Toronto on a recent afternoon, white wine in hand. “It was wonderful. I got inserted into a gaggle of kids, and slipped into it really, really easily, made lifetime friendships. Went swimming everyday, went picking blueberries, and got to know my extended family.”

Viva, a burly, soft-spoken 59-year-old, says he’d been mulling over various threads of the story for several years, but admits he remained hesitant about the project. “I, frankly, thought I was sticking my neck way out even trying something like this. But Françoise encouraged me.”

That would be Françoise Mouly, the long-time art editor at The New Yorker (to which Viva contributes regularly) and publisher of Toon Books, which is releasing Sea Change in the United States. She was in town in 2013 for the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, during which time Viva “pulled Françoise aside and showed her just the beginning – I think I maybe had one chapter and a little bit of illustration. And I tried to describe what I was trying to do with the typography and the illustration. She said: ‘Let’s do it.’ That was that.”

Mouly recalls things a bit differently: “I wasn’t 100 per cent sure I was the best possible home for this book.”

“He did a book that’s quite unique in the sense that it doesn’t underestimate its readers,” she adds. “The reader’s intelligence is acknowledged in terms of deciphering the concrete poetry of the words, as well as the emotional upheaval of being sent away for the summer and growing up.”

“Concrete poetry” is probably the best way to describe Sea Change. Words seemlessly transform into illustrations as they are read: sentences become fishing line floating in the sea; are poured into cups of tea or spit out like chewing tobacco; crystalize into a spider’s web; change into a weeping face; waft into the air like smoke; angle into a staircase; and, in one of the most affecting passages I’ve encountered in any book this year, become the stars in the night sky.

“I wanted to do a book that combined, in a somewhat intimate or unique way, illustration, words and design,” Viva says. “It has a sort of comic book quality to it, but almost as though in some imaginary time, long ago, comic books hadn’t been invented but somebody had the idea of combining text and illustration in a book. It’s like it could be a fake artifact from another era.”

Viva was “totally into old Marvel comics when [he] was a kid,” and Sea Change, rather than described as a coming-of-age tale, might be considered Eliot’s origin story, of sorts. It’s also a novel about the desire for time to stand still – for things to remain as they are, or as they once were. (One of the novel’s main conflicts involves a coal company wanting to open a mine in the community, a fate that befell the real-life Point Aconi.) At the same time he was starting the book, Viva was dealing with the declining health of his own parents; his father, Frank Viva Sr., passed away in 2014, and his death spurred Viva on to finish the book. “My father’s passing and my mom being in a nursing home, I think that certainly fed into the book in some way that probably I couldn’t distill,” he says. “One of the things I was looking forward to, and I did do, was read the book to my mom in the nursing home. That kind of reawakened a whole bunch of stuff that she’d forgotten.”

Sea Change is dedicated to her.

A recent portrait of Frank Viva.

A recent portrait of Frank Viva.

Jorge Colombo photo

‘Unlike anything I’d seen’

Viva & Co., his branding and design agency, is located on the fifth floor of a mid-rise just off Yonge Street, near the old north Toronto railway station. He’s been in this space for 16 years, first as part of Viva Dolan Communications and Design, with the Toronto writer and editor Doug Dolan, and then, when the partnership dissolved in 2008, opening up his own shop, where he currently serves as managing director. It’s a cramped space, filled, on this afternoon, with the majority of the firm’s nine employees, and shelves packed with catalogues, posters and packaging they’ve produced for their clients, which range from French cookware company Le Creuset to travel company Butterfield & Robinson, for whom Viva designed a book, Slowing Down to See the World, which was published earlier this year. “Creative latitude is the main thing we look for,” he says of his studio’s philosophy. “Rather than iterating stuff that’s already been done, we [want to] bring some creativity to the table.”

Viva was born in Toronto, and grew up in the city’s north end, around Lawrence and Keele. “It was a bit WASP-y, so, being an Italian family, we were a little different.” His father worked in a rubber factory and then as a janitor, while his mother was a senior manager at Bell Canada who, after she retired, became a clown; her business card, bearing the name Barbo the Clown, “was one of the first cards I ever designed,” Viva says, proudly. “I found the perfect font.”

“Both my parents are from Cape Breton, and they high-tailed it to Toronto in the late forties,” he says. “Blew town, basically. There was trouble. My mom was pregnant and they were not married. So they ended up here and knew nobody. They got married on Christmas Eve, shortly after they arrived here.”

He took a year off after high school, during which time he helped produce two issues of a National Lampoon-esque underground comic called Berford Seaman’s Flabby Thighs and Butter, and then attended the Ontario College of Art, spending his last two years at the school’s now-closed New York campus, where the focus was on experimental art. There was “no supervision,” he says, and the students were mostly left to work on their own.

After graduation Viva found himself back in his parents’ basement. He worked a series of odd jobs – at a sign shop, at a “crappy graphic design studio,” a gig with the noted design guru and art director Carmen Dunjko, and then a run with the legendary graphic designer Robert Burns – before co-founding Viva Dolan in 1992. During this time, Viva and his wife, Julia, a lawyer who currently works with Legal Aid Ontario, had two daughters: Camille and Mia, who is following in her father’s footsteps and attending OCAD.

“I first started wanting to do picture books when my daughters were quite young, because I was enjoying reading them,” he says. “I thought it would be wonderful if I could get a picture book published while they were still young enough to share with them that way. But it just didn’t work out. I tried three or four books before there was any interest.”

His first picture book, Along a Long Road, was published in 2011; inspired by his love of cycling, it was named a New York Times best illustrated children’s book and a finalist for the Governor-General’s Literary Award, among other accolades.

“I was surprised to find out that [he] was Canadian,” says Tara Walker, publisher of Tundra Books, which is releasing Sea Change in Canada. “The sensibility was so different from the other picture books that I’d seen being published at that time. It was so sleek and stylized. We have amazing picture-book illustrators in Canada, but this was just really unlike anything I’d seen.”

It was followed by A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse, Viva’s first collaboration with Toon Books, as well as Young Frank, Architect, and Young Charlotte, Filmmaker, collaborations with the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His most recent picture book, Outstanding in the Rain, came out last year.

“He’s really upping his game with every pencil stroke,” says his long-time editor, Susan Rich, who acquired Along a Long Road. “He’s a man who learns the rules of the craft and instantly turns them on their head.”

‘I feel a little burnt out at the moment’

For the past two decades, Viva has lived on a leafy street in Toronto’s Hoggs Hollow neighbourhood. His house, a modernist gem designed by Irving Grossman for Joseph Berman, one of the founders of Cadillac Fairview, sits at the bottom of a ravine; all angles and light; it is the kind of house in which you imagine Frank Viva living.

Sitting at the family computer, whose desktop is cluttered with so many folders and icons it looks like a lost Pollock, he pulls up the New Yorker cover he’s currently working on, a scene of children swimming in the ocean that looks suspiciously like a deleted scene from Sea Change.

“Yeah,” he says, smiling. “I’m trying to get the book in there a little bit.”

Since 2011, Viva has published six picture books, plus the Butterfield & Robinson book, plus Sea Change, not to mention the dozen New Yorker covers since his first – of a man on a bicycle – graced the cover of the Jan. 18, 2010, issue. He’s working on a third book for the MOMA, and is designing and illustrating a biography of Keith Haringfor Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He agrees this pace is unsustainable. “I feel a little burnt out at the moment. I don’t know how long I can keep doing it.”

Although he swears he will slow down, eventually, he has been “tinkering” on a novel for adults tentatively called The Typographer’s Tale. “It’s about an old man who was a typographer, whose world, just because of changes in technology, has gone out from underneath him. And he’s got some form of dementia.” He compares it to A Christmas Carol in that the man is visited by the spirits of three typographers from the past.

“He’s been very good at coming up with new challenges,” Mouly says. Whatever he does next, she hopes Viva “continues to do a little bit of everything and surprise us all. It’s not easy when you’re as wide-ranging as Frank is. I hope that happens. That success will not lock him into one of his many incarnations.”

In any case, she adds, she’s glad he got Sea Change out of the way.

“He was ready to take the plunge. I think it paid off.”


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Drawing with… Frank Viva shared his creative process during the making of Outstanding in the Rain

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