The Unsinkable Walker Bean, by Aaron Renier

Posted by on September 21st, 2010 at 6:35 AM

The Unsinkable Walker Bean. Written and illustrated by Aaron Renier, colored by Alec Longstreth. New York: First Second, 2010. 200 pp.; $13.99 full-color paperback. ISBN: 978-1-59643-4530-0.

I remember picking up Spiral-Bound (2005) in a bookstore and wondering what the hell I was looking at. It was as if a middle-schooler had absent-mindedly deposited his or her 9.75 x 7.5 inch wide ruled notebook on a stack of trade paperbacks. The deliberately distressed cover sported a ferocious sea monster whose roughhewn lines could have been the work of a skilled eighth-grader. It was only when I tried to peal off the price sticker that I finally realized the cover was a hoax.

Spiral-Bound looks and feels as if it was written and drawn by one of its own anthropomorphic characters. It’s not just aimed at middle-schoolers, it’s of middle school. The book design works because the story itself is so deeply rooted in kid-land. It’s an elegant-looking tall tale that an energetic adolescent might have scrawled into a notebook over the course of a boring semester.

It seems likely that Aaron Renier looks back on his childhood with great fondness. He is almost certainly one of those people who vividly remembers who his friends were in fourth grade and what he liked to eat for lunch in seventh. That’s the impression, at least, that Spiral-Bound gives, and the same can be said of his second graphic novel, The Unsinkable Walker Bean, which similarly takes place in a world of fantasy and adventure where plucky youngsters save the day.

While Spiral-Bound was published in hardscrabble black-and-white by Top Shelf, this new Renier offering is full-color on glossy paper. First Second have even added gold-embossed script to the front cover. If Spiral-Bound exudes a do-it-yourself sensibility, The Unsinkable Walker Bean could be part of a promotional campaign for a forthcoming summer blockbuster.

Renier’s sophomore effort is set in a world of pirates, sea-witches and wooden sailing ships. It revolves around the struggles of three generations of Beans to explore the sea and find treasure. While grandfather Bean and his tousle-haired grandson, Walker, have their hearts firmly anchored in the right places, the middle Bean is a convention-minded navel officer whose avarice knows no bounds. Their adventures take them beyond charted waters and into the land of myth and legend. Along the way, they meet all manner of eccentric characters, and even make a few new friends.

While I remain a fan of Aaron Renier’s figure work and page compositions, the plotting is a bit frenetic and convoluted for my tastes. The secondary characters, especially the villains, are fun to look at, but Walker Bean and his grandfather are over-sentimentalized. Frankly, the grandson is a little too generic to serve as the hero for what should have been a truly offbeat adventure story. He’s the type of character that Hollywood execs favor so that the core audience has someone to identify with. Some readers may find him inspiring; I found him insipid. The fact that he invariably shouts, “huh? what’s going on?” whenever his life is in danger is too annoying for words. He may indeed resemble the book’s target audience but that is no reason to place him at the center of the story. It’s unfortunate that Walker is unsinkable; if he had drowned the more interesting secondary characters could have taken over.

That said, Alec Longstreth’s coloring nicely compliments Renier’s charming pencils and inks. Much of the action takes place at night, and Longstreth readily handles the challenge of vivifying shipwrecks, murky ports and storms at sea. There is a wealth of memorable fantasy imagery in these pages, and it is clear that First Second has gone the extra distance. In the event of a sequel, hopefully the dog or one of the sea-witches will take charge. There’s no reason why a castoff from the ABC Family channel should be at the center of a pirate yarn. It just doesn’t make any sense.

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