Walker Bean’s grandfather is an admiral in the navy, and his father is a captain in the navy, so it’s probably safe to assume there’s some sea water in the young, bespectacled boy’s blood, but his head and heart are full of inventions, not adventures.
Not that he’s adverse to a good bed-time story, of course, like the legend of the all-knowing, cursed Atlantean skulls jealously guarded by two titanic sea witches, that his grandfather tells him of one night.
The story becomes real for the Bean clan when the grandfather encounters such a skull at sea and comes down with a potentially fatal illness—in order to free himself of the curse, the skull must be returned to its rightful owner, something Walker is tasked with doing, despite the wishes of his own father, who would rather exploit it.
That’s the basic plot of The Unsinkable Walker Bean (First Second), cartoonist Aaron Renier’s new all-ages adventure story, primed to be the first in a very welcome series.
In short order Walker stows away upon a pirate ship and makes a few allies his own age—a mysterious, savage pirate girl/gardener and a boy musician—while trying to navigate an adult world with various warring parties, all of whom have their sites set on the skull.
Renier, whose previous graphic novel work was the delightful Top Shelf-published Spiral-Bound (which was also all-ages, but more of a kids comic than a grown-up one), hits that ideal all-ages sweet spot here—it’s perfect for all age groups, with nothing to prevent kids from enjoying it and nothing to prevent adults from enjoying it.
The artwork is quite accomplished, Renier’s work reaching a whole new level from that evidenced in 2007’s Spiral-Bound. The characters are all human—well, mostly—as opposed to the cute, anthropomorphic animals from Spiral-Bound, and Renier’s character design seems influenced (if only by osmosis) by the work of some of the other First Second-published cartoonists, like Lewis Trondheim and Joan Sfar. In design—as well as shape, size and color—this volume resemble a European adventure album (Which is, of course, is certainly a good thing in this context).
Perhaps most importantly, Renier has built up a whole world here, one in which most of the players have their own conflicts and storylines simmering in the background of Bean’s, and while this particular adventure is concluded by the end of the volume, there are plenty of hints and suggestions of the next adventure…or the next half-dozen adventures.
I look forward to reading them, and seeing how Walker Bean is received by the world. Based solely on the work itself, The Unsinkable Walker Bean has every chance of being the next big thing.