Review by Frank Plowright
Aaron Renier’s previous graphic novel Spiral-Bound, was a whimsical gem, and much the applies to The Unsinkable Walker Bean, except this time Alex Longstreth supplies colour. Again, the intent is primarily to produce a story to delight and engage children, and the manner in which Renier captures the essence of childhood resilience and adventure appears almost effortless. It’s not, of course, but in children’s books illusion is all.
As was the case in Spiral-Bound, a myth is central to the story. This time it’s of two sisters, giant mer-witches who inhabit the ocean’s deepest trench and view the world through the fluorescent skulls of their victims stuck onto a wall. In a vague 18th century Walker Bean’s grandfather, an Admiral, locates a stolen skull in a junk shop, but possession of it poisons any owner, much in the manner of radiation, and they’re unlikely to be cured until it’s returned to the mer-witches. Walker undertakes to do so on the basis that his profit-minded father can’t be trusted to.
Structurally, this isn’t the most linear graphic novel you’ll ever read. In fact, at times it seems as if Renier is plotting by the seat of his pants, having conceived an idea, then diverting the narrative to include it. Elsewhere this could become frustrating and tiresome, but Renier is so boundlessly imaginative that temporarily sweeping the critical faculties under the rug is almost always repaid with some great piece of whimsy. Delights include a magical form of messaging, a garden aboard a ship and the loving bond between Bean and his grandfather.
The only person as inventive as Renier is Bean, whose plans for modifying ships, disguising the night sky and dealing with pirates are all ingenious. He’s an appealing lead character, resourceful and likeable in the Harry Potter style, and like Harry Potter he has a male and a female companion aboard the pirate ship where he spends most of the book. Rum characters complicating the scenario include a mysterious skittering doctor in a top hat, Bean’s appalling father, and the mer-witches themselves.
Renier’s busy cartooning is a delight, expressive and never sacrificing the storytelling children need. A deliberate choice was made to restrict the palette, and relying on 75 colours delivers a vibrancy often missing when the selection is increased. Every so often the story opens out into a ridiculously detailed full page or double page spread. A child could spend hours captivated by the market place scene on pages 72 and 73, and if they looked hard enough they’d even find Wally and Captain Haddock.
The only disappointing element is that The Unsinkable Walker Bean is but part one of the story, so not every mystery is revealed. While appreciating that work of this density requires time, 2010 was an age ago. This shouldn’t deter any prospective purchasers, though, as the 192 pages provided will keep children and adults alike entertained and enthralled.