An interview with the unsinkable Aaron Renier

At SPX this past weekend, First Second's Gina Gagliano told me that cartoonist Aaron Renier was headed up to Maurice Sendak's home after the convention, as he was one of four young illustrators who won a grant from the brand-new Sendak Fellowship, which, if I understood it correctly, gives aspiring artists the chance to meet, workshop and work on various projects for several weeks at Sendak's house, as well as soak up wisdom from the author of In the Night Kitchen.

It was hard for me to think of an all-ages cartoonist more deserving of such an opportunity. He came roaring out of the gate in 2007 with the anthropomorphic Spiral Bound, which showcased his deft ability at dealing with a large cast of characters and detailed environments and landscapes.  His new book from First Second, The Unsinkable Walker Bean, a rousing tale involving sea monsters, pirates, mysterious curses and a plucky, inventive youngster, should serve to cement his reputation and prove that Renier knows how to craft a sweeping, intricate, epic tale.

I sent Renier a list of questions (via Ms. Gagliano) about his new book that he was kind enough to respond to before he trucked off  somewhere where the wild things are and think about comics and children's books. It was much appreciated.

What was the impetus for Walker Bean? Where did you get the initial idea for the story and how did it develop over time?

The impetus for Walker Bean was the opportunity to propose a brand new story to a brand new publisher. I wasn't able to use my characters from my first book Spiral-Bound, so I wanted to think up something very different. Humans were the first big leap... and then I thought it'd be fun to try and do something resembling a period piece. I've always been interested in nautical adventures ever since I was very little, so the rest just seemed to form from there.

How long did it take you to complete the first volume?

From beginning to end on my drawing table, it took a little over two years to complete the first volume. The reason it took additionally long was due to a lot of editorial nonsense before I landed with my current publisher. Luckily I was able to get it to First Second, who has been a dream to work for. I'm also very grateful for the illustration work I got during that hiatus in the middle of Walker Bean. It financially got me through it, and now I also have the picture book An Anaconda Ate My Homework, and the Knights' Tales series by Gerald Morris with my name attached. I'm very proud to be a cartoonist and an illustrator.

There's a noticeable "to be continued" at the end of the book. How many volumes do you seen Walker Bean eventually becoming? Without giving anything away, what's your larger goal with this series?

My larger goal with the series is to explore the world I created as much as possible, both in time and space. I will probably always leave loose ends with the episodes of Walker Bean, because writing with the goal of answering all the questions feels unnatural to me. I know there will be questions left unanswered, but the larger story will always reach an end, and hopefully each volume will answer some questions left behind from another. I'd like there to be over three volumes. Four or five books would really let me explore what I want to explore.

While the story is obviously set in a fantasy world of sorts, the ships, costumes, etc., bear an obvious resemblance those of 18th century England. What sort of research did you do for this book? Did you always have an interest in fantasy/seafaring stories?

I did very little research. I like looking at costume books, but I often draw without the reference because what I come up with seems more interesting to me. I wanted to discredit myself from being any source of historical fiction as often as possible. I really like reading books, and watching movies that don't seem to belong to any one time. I've always loved fantasy and anything having something to do with the sea. I come from a family of boaters, and grew up next to and in my own private ocean, Lake Michigan.

Both Walker and your first book, Spiral Bound, involve a large cast of characters set in a very vivid, elaborately detailed world. What is it about this aspect of making comics that appeals to you? And who or what (if any) are your influences in this specific regard?

I can't think of any other way to work. I think if I was doing work that felt dull and lacking detail that I would just rather not be a cartoonist. I don't set out to build a world, I just set out to tell a story, and as I move through it, it's the details in the story that make me love it and want to explore it. Through those details it becomes what it becomes. As far as influence goes, the list is ever growing. I think my love of details comes from everything from 90s computer adventure games like Space Quest and Sam and Max Hit the Road, to Where's Waldo, and the Swiss Family Robinson's amazing treehouse. It's all about details for me.

You note in the end that you and colorist Alec Longstreth chose a very limited palette of colors for the book. Why? And how did you go about selecting those colors?

I really love limited color schemes. It brings it all together. I've done a few pieces through the years with just two or three colors and those seem so much more unified to me than using any and every color. We chose the colors from an old children's encyclopedia's endpapers, a very "It's a small world," '60s sort of image. It had been an object of my admiration for years and when it was decided the book was going to be full color it was my instant knee-jerk reaction to search through my books to find it. Alec did an amazing job. I really can't wait for him to color Walker Bean 2.

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