Pluralistic: Weinersmith and Boulet's "Bea Wolf"(24 Jun 2024)

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The Firstsecond cover for 'Bea Wolf.'

Weinersmith and Boulet's "Bea Wolf" (permalink)

Bea Wolf is Zach Weinersmith and Boulet's ferociously amazingly great illustrated kids' graphic novel adaptation of the Old English epic poem, which inspired Tolkien, who helped bring it to popularity after it had languished in obscurity for centuries:

Boy is this a wildly improbable artifact. Weinersmith and Boulet set themselves the task of bringing a Germanic heroic saga from more than a thousand years ago to modern children, while preserving the meter and the linguistic and literary tropes of the original. And they did it!

There are some changes, of course. Grendel – the boss monster that both Beowulf and Bea Wulf must defeat – is no longer obsessed with decapitating his foes and stealing their heads. In Bea Wulf, Grendel is a monstrously grown up and boring adult who watches cable news and flosses twice per day, and when he defeats the kids whose destruction he is bent upon, he does so by turning them into boring adults, too.

And Bea Wulf – and the kings that do battle with Grendel – are not interested in the gold and jewels that the kings of Beowulf hoard. In Bea Wulf, the treasure is toys, chocolate, soda, candy, food without fiber, television shows without redeeming educational content, water balloons, nerf swords and spears, and other stuff beloved of kids and hated by parents.

That substitution is key to transposing the thousand-year-old adult epic Beowulf for enjoyment by small children in the 21st century. After all, what makes Beowulf so epic is the sense that it is set in a time in which a primal valor still reigned, but it is narrated for an audience that has been tamed and domesticated. Beowulf makes you long for a never-was time of fierce and unwavering bravery. Bea Wulf beautifully conjures the years of early childhood when you and the kids in your group had your own little sealed-off world, which grownups could barely perceive and never understand.

Growing up, after all, is a process of repeating things that are brave the first time you do them, over and over again, until they become banal. That's what "coming of age" really boils down to: the slow and relentless transformation of the mythic, the epic, and the unknowable and unknown into the tame, the explained, the mastered. When you're just mastering balance and coordination, the playground climber is a challenge out of legend. A couple years later, it's just something you climb.

The correspondences between the leaching away of magic lamented in Beowulf and experienced by all of us as we grow out of childhood are obvious in hindsight and surprising and beautiful and bittersweet when you encounter them in Bea Wolf.

This effect owes a large debt to Boulet's stupendous artwork. Boulet brings a vibe rarely seen in American kids' illustration, owing quite a lot to France's bande dessinée tradition. Of course, this is a Firstsecond book, and they established themselves as an exciting and fresh kids' publisher in the USA nearly 20 years ago by bringing some of Europe's finest comics to an American audience for the first time. You can get a sense of Boulet's darker-than-average, unabashedly anarchic illustrations here:

The utter brilliance of Bea Wulf is as much due to the things it preserves from the original epic as it is to the updates and changes. Weinersmith has kept the Old English tradition of alliteration, right from the earliest passages, with celebrations of heroes like "Tanya, treat-taker, terror of Halloween, her costume-cache vast, sieging kin and neighbor, draining full candy-bins, fearing not the fate of her teeth. Ten thousand treats she took. That was a fine Tuesday."

Weinersmith also preserves the kennings – the elaborate figurative compound phrases that replace nouns – that turn ordinary names and places into epithets at you have to riddle out, like calling a river "the sliding sea."

These literary devices, rarely seen today, are extremely powerful, and they conjure up the force and mystique that has kept Beowulf in our current literary discourse for more than a millennium. They also make this a super fun book to read aloud.

When Jim Henson was first conceiving of Sesame Street, he made a point of designing it to have jokes and riffs that would appeal to adults, even if some of the nuance would be lost on kids. He did this because he wanted to make art that adults and kids could enjoy together, both because that would give adults a chance to help kids actively explore the ideas on-screen, but also because it would bring some magic into those adults' lives.

This is a very winning combination (not for nothing, it's also the original design brief for Disneyland). Weinersmith and Boulet have produced a first-rate work of adult and kid literature, both a perfect entree to Beowulf for anyone contemplating a dive into old English epic poetry, and a kids' book full of booger jokes and transgressive scenes of perfect mischief.

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