By Aaron Renier
208 pages, color
Published by First Second Books
Aaron Renier’s debut graphic novel, Spiral-Bound (Top Secret Summer), was a strong splash by the cartoonist; I remember being almost instantly impressed at how strong he was able to convey a sense of adventure and fun into both his script an art. It’s been a long time coming, but his new book The Unsinkable Walker Bean is here. The end result? It’s a book with so many different ideas and concepts that it feels like Renier almost doesn’t have room for them all.
Walker Bean is a young man whose grandfather has fed him stories of adventure on the seas his whole life, but those stories have finally come home to roost when a skull that dooms those who look into its eyes seeking knowledge puts Walker’s grandfather on death’s door. It’s a simple, easy enough hook for the rest of the book; it opens with the story of the two sea monsters who created the wall of cursed skulls, then brings it back around to something that affects our main character. From there, though, Renier’s story expands at an extremely rapid pace. We’re introduced not only to characters in Walker’s home town, but an entire ship of pirates. For the first quarter of the book, new characters, objects, and ideas are thrown into the mix with great abandon, and there are parts when I started to wonder if I was missing a page here and there.
Fortunately, that’s a problem which soon subsides. Once Renier’s script slows down, the pacing feels much more natural and lets the ideas breathe and feel natural. I appreciate that Renier didn’t waste any time in getting things rolling in The Unsinkable Walker Bean, but it’s the second half of the book in particular that sold me on the title. That’s where everything starts to pay off with monsters, mysterious artifacts, and crazy inventions left and right. Walker’s schemes and plans to stop the pirates and get hold of the skull once again are beautiful and intricate, and a spin-off book titled Walker Bean’s Crazy Ideas would be an instant purchase for me.
I also liked how, once the book slowed down, we see Walker’s friendships slowly form throughout The Unsinkable Walker Bean. They’re not instant, and don’t have any moments where characters turn to one another and say, “Let’s be friends!” In other words, they develop over time and feel natural; seeing Walker slowly gain the trust of people on the ship and have them eventually willing to go to bat for him is one of the high points of the book.
The one unsurprising thing about The Unsinkable Walker Bean is Renier’s art, which is even more intricate and detailed than I remember. There’s a moment early on where Walker flees into his grandfather’s old water tower project, and the inside is a teenage boy’s dream come true. Massive bookshelves, ancient tribal masks on the walls, stuffed hammerhead sharks and narwhals hanging from the ceiling, new inventions scattered across the floor… It’s like every great adventure story has been compressed into a single hideout. Renier’s lush drawings, with Alec Longstreth’s rich colors, make The Unsinkable Walker Bean burst to life. Even drawings that are similar in concept to earlier ideas we’ve seen from Renier (the shipboard garden reminds me a lot of the apartment roof garden Renier created for his story in Papercutter #1) seem more vibrant and fully realized here. When massive sea creatures rise up out of the ocean to attack, or Walker’s ideas to change the way the ship move come to life, I found it more riveting than a lot of summer movies I’ve seen this year.
The Unsinkable Walker Bean started off with a lot going on, perhaps a little too much in places. But before long, the book solidifies into a thoroughly enjoyable adventure. There are some elements of the story that are never really explained, and at this point I’m unsure if I want to see them addressed in the promised Volume 2, or if I think leaving them up in the air is the better option. Either way, though, I’m looking forward to reading a lot more about Walker Bean. The Unsinkable Walker Bean is a series I want to read for many years to come.