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The Unsinkable Walker Bean
posted October 20, 2010
Aaron Renier, Alec Longstreth
First Second, softcover, 208 pages, 2010, $13.99
9781596434530 (ISBN13) 1596434538 (ISBN10)
It's hard to discern exactly why Aaron Renier's The Unsinkable Walker Bean
breaks with recent trends in Young Adult comics, including some of the high-profile efforts of its publisher, First Second. It exists within classic children's adventure terrain, the pirate story, and its narrative is constructed along the lines of many a story of its type: the soft, almost-spoiled protagonist that finds his way, and a sense of self-worth, through an experience that might conceivably kill them. It may be that for all that Walker Bean
works out of established traditions, it doesn't offer up a high-concept hook as a way to unite those factors into something market-friendly. I can't really describe it in one sentence at all, despite have read it two or three times. It's not a take
on classic kids' literature; it's something that works out of those same traditions.
Putting yourself in such lofty company means you have to actually do the work that shows you belong, and that's Walker Bean
's other distinguishing characteristic: it exhibits a number of old-fashioned craft values, and its execution resists easy payoffs for a more satisfying, even trustworthy tone. The narrative moves only as quickly as is necessary to tell its protagonist's story, and that tale is not exactly a friendly place for the child. In fact, during some of the more adventurous moments, he's all but shunted off to the side. Renier does a fine job of presenting his hero's progression in character in a way that doesn't feel as if he's sprouted unearned characteristics for the sake of facilitating a specific scene in the narrative. He avoids at all times wringing a certain kind of formulaic satisfaction from his plot.
Perhaps most importantly, the fantastic elements Walker Bean encounters are ugly and idiosyncratically designed, much more memorable for that attention to detail than the signifying designs one gets in a lot of similar work. There's also a great deal of texture to the world depicted, including a sense of individuality to the background characters that roam about actually literally keeping the enterprise afloat while our hero and his friends work out their problems in the foreground, a sense of purpose and continuity to their activities that could have been faked but isn't. I wished for more poetry, more piercing, cliche-busting moments of truth. In addition at times Renier's stylized way of depicting action and human figures in motion took me out of the story where an artist with a more classically rendered style might have kept me engaged. Still, I thought this an entertaining book for a certain kind of kid and one that evinced an integrity of purpose throughout. It's sea-worthy.