The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier has been on my radar since it came out in 2010. At a glance, it looks like it might be a little bit Harry Potter, a dash of Indiana Jones and a slice of Treasure Island. While those are all great references, after reading - devouring - this first book in what I hope will be a series, I can tell you that The Unsinkable Walker Bean is something even better than a mash-up of the aforementioned titles and characters. The Unsinkable Walker Bean is something new and wonderful and packed with an amazing amount of compelling characters, crazy inventions and creative imagination and superb artwork that makes this book feel old and new at the same time. I guess those are truly the qualities of an instant classic. If you need anyone else's opinion, there are quotes from Brian Selznick ("Be prepared. You're going to love it!"), Lane Smith ("Aaron's work makes me feel ten years old again.") and Jeff Smith ("So beautiful are the drawings, that I can smell the sea salt and feel the spray as giant creatures of the deep draw near the ocean's surface.") on the front and back of this wonderful book. And, as I always find when I look at the spine of a graphic novel I have just read and loved, this beautiful big book (it's almost as big as a traditional picture book!!) is published by the good folks at FirstSecond, home of many of the best graphic novels for kids, teens and adults.
When we first meet our (unlikely) hero, he is being regaled with stories of the sea by his grandfather, Admiral Bean. Two pages later, Walker is at the bedside of his beloved grandfather who is begging him to return a mysterious skull to a trench near the Mango Islands. Against the wishes of his father, Captain Bean and a strange Doctor who insists he knows how to cure the Admiral and what to do with the skull, Walker flees with the skull in the hope of saving the life of his grandfather.
Walker makes a quick stop at his grandfather's workshop where the two have been dreaming up (and creating) all sorts of crazy contraptions to retrieve a special box that the Admiral put together for Walker's first sea voyage.
However, before Walker can set off on his mission, a cloaked figure steals the sack with the skull in it out from under him. Walker gives chase, but the stranger sets sail before he can retrieve the skull. In a turn of events (and there are many in this action-filled story) Walker finds himself onboard his father's ship along with the strange Doctor, in fast pursuit of the thief.
Without giving away too much of this phenomenal story, I can tell you that another turn of events finds Walker as a stowaway on the very ship that the thief is aboard, which also happens to be a pirate ship. Walker is hidden and befriended by Shiv, a burgeoning inventor in his own right. When he is discovered by Genoa, Shiv's friend who is also an orphan who has been taken in by Captain Kodiak, his future seems rocky, especially since Genoa's loyalties seem to waver constantly.
The plot to The Unsinkable Walker Bean is rich with details and shot through with fantastic and sometimes complex story threads, creating a complete, fantastical world that glimmers with familiarity. Renier has devised a wonderful backstory that explains the origins of the mysterious skull that involves the lost city of Atlantis, evil merwitch sisters who were once beautiful, but deeply jealous, mermaids, and a sea chanty that proves to be reality and not myth and also might hold clues to Genoa's past and Walker's future. And, adding to this all are the brilliant touches that Renier adds to his story from the garden that Genoa tends on the deck of the ship to the truly creepy merwitches who threaten the sailors and the inventions that Walker and Shiv use to save the day. Renier is truly a gifted artist and storyteller and I can't wait for the next Walker Bean book to come out!
For a great interview with Aaron Renier visit Robot 6. For some images of an extremely cool window display for this book at Quimby's in Chicago, see below.
Finally, I want to mention another amazing FirstSecond graphic novel that I recently read and was deeply impressed by, Sailor Twain: The Mermaid of the Hudson by Mark Siegel. I won't be reviewing it here because, about halfway into it I realized that it is really an adult graphic novel, but, it's just so amazing that I need to share a bit about it here. Like Renier's book, mermaid sisters are at the heart of Siegel's book. This time, they are haunting sirens who's song cannot be outwitted. Or can it? The blurb for the book reads:
One hundred years ago. On the foggy Hudson River, a riverboat captain rescues an injured mermaid from the waters of the busiest port in the United States. A wildly popular—and notoriously reclusive—author makes a public debut. A French nobleman seeks a remedy for a curse. As three lives twine together and race to an unexpected collision, the mystery of the Mermaid of the Hudson deepens.
Siegel captures the time period perfectly and his characters are compelling. His artwork is especially entrancing, moving from moody grays that look as though they were done in charcoal to concise renderings of his characters who, at times look like caricatures. Themes of love and loss (and a few mild sex scenes) make this book for more mature audiences.
Source: Review Copy