The Unsinkable Walker Bean
Written and Illustrated by Aaron Renier
First Second; $13.99
As popular as pirates are, you’d think there’d be more comics featuring them. Certainly there’ve been some good ones over the years. Isaac the Pirate and Polly and the Pirates immediately come to mind, but the most recent of those is more than two years old. And even then, that’s not a lot of pirate comics for a time when Jack Sparrow was the hottest thing going at the box office. Since then, there’s been what? Boom! did a nice one-shot called Pirate Tales about four years ago and there was also Galveston, a pirate-Western mash-up by the same publisher, in 2008. That’s not a lot, but maybe I’m missing some. Let me know in the comments. It’s hard to believe that we haven’t even had a licensed Pirates of the Caribbean comic yet (outside of some short stories in the old Disney Adventures Magazine). That sounds like a no-brainer.
One reason for the shortage of pirate comics may be that it’s damn hard, apparently, to write an original pirate story. I interviewed Chuck Dixon about it back when he was promoting CrossGen’s El Cazador. When I asked him how we end up with so many bad pirate stories, he said that the problem is not having a story in the first place, but relying on a string of clichés and hoping that’ll suffice. As anyone who’s seen Cutthroat Island or that Walter Matthau movie will tell you, that’s true. You need a lot more than just peg legs, buried treasure, and a character who talks like Robert Newton.
Aaron Renier’s doing his part though. The Unsinkable Walker Bean is as original as it is swashbuckling and adventurous. It’s the story of a young boy named Walker Bean who’s never been to sea, but comes from an ocean-faring family. In fact, his father and grandfather both serve in the navy of the fictional country they belong to.
The world of Walker Bean closely resembles ours (and you’ll certainly recognize the oceans and land masses – if not the names – on its map), but since it’s not really ours the story has a cool feeling that anything can happen at any time. If the giant lobster-witches at the bottom of the Atlantic want to rise up and destroy civilization…well then, they bloody well can without factual history’s being able to deny them. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The story kicks off when Walker’s grandfather returns from sea with a mystical skull, stolen from the lobster-witches who now want it back. The skull grants special insight to anyone who looks into it, but it also makes them fatally sick unless the viewer has blood “as thick” as the witches’ (what that means is a mystery for Walker to figure out). Unfortunately, Walker’s grandfather has looked and will die unless Walker can return the skull to the deep ocean trench where the witches live. Preferably before the witches come looking for it, trashing everything in their path.
Complicating matters is Walker’s own dad who doesn’t believe the legends about the skull and only sees money to be made from it. And of course the pirates who learn about the artifact and also want it. Walker’s journey leads him all over the world, surviving on his wits and the ever-shifting alliances he’s forced to make with the various parties who covet the skull. It’s a great page-turner of a story, charmingly told with fantastic art.
Renier’s expressive linework drew me into Walker’s world and the details in it kept me there. There’s a double-page spread that I must have spent fifteen minutes studying all by itself. In it, Walker is being shown around a new town by a friend and Renier unfolds it like one of those Family Circus strips where Billy and Dolly explore the entire neighborhood on their way home from the park. As I traced Walker’s path, I was amazed at the stories I encountered along the way. In the space of two pages I found a barefoot pirate waving merrily to the whore he’d just spent the night with, a well-dressed busker playing the violin, a young man crying deeply over some unnamed loss, a murder about to happen, naked children playing in a Poseidon-shaped fountain, a rooftop chase and gunfight, a killer game of hide-and-seek, and more shoppers, vendors, and lovers than you can shake a belaying pin at. There was literally a story around every corner and I wished that Renier was able to tell them all. Or not, since I had a great time making them up myself. The spread was as packed as a Where’s Waldo page. Which reminds me that yes, I even found Waldo too.
Now I’ve got the itch for more like this. Renier promises at least one more volume and I hope for even more beyond that. In the meantime, I need to dig up some others. Pierre Mac Orlan and David B’s The Littlest Pirate King and Drew Weing’s Set to Sea have been on my Wish List since they were announced and Brigid just mentioned Scott Christian Sava’s Gary the Pirate earlier today. What else am I missing?