Bea Wolf. Written by Zach Weinersmith. Art by Boulet. First Second, ISBN 9781250776297, 2023. US$19.99. 256 pages, hardcover.
Bea Wolf is brought to you by the same team that did the illustrated book Augie and the Green Knight some years back: Zach Weinersmith and Boulet. It's a graphically sumptuous retelling of Beowulf as a battle between rowdy, joyous kids and tedious, joy-sapping adults. Its proper soundtrack would be the number, "I Won't Grow Up," from the 1954 musical Peter Pan. That is, Bea Wolf assumes a world where kiddom is matter of keeping adulthood at bay.
This raises the question of whether kids really want to continue being kids forever (a common fantasy among adults) or whether they want to, you know, gain more agency and autonomy in their lives. Bea Wolf has its cake and gobbles it too, depicting kids who have plenty of agency, of a fierce, ass-kicking kind, yet remain very much kids: big-eyed, neotenic, button-cute, and round. They're ruthless in claiming a certain kind of childhood: the kind that is all about performing irresponsibility, about waywardness, wildness, messiness, junk food binges, rude joke-telling, and wearing your underwear on your head. Their Grendel is "Mr. Grindle," a neighborhood Gradgrind who specializes in cleaning up, sanitizing, and disciplining, and in aging children with his deadly, withering touch. Of course, the kids have to fight him. Bea Wolf, then, is a celebration of childhood's anarchic side, even though, oddly, it features a kid "kingdom" with rulers and dynasties and national heroes. The "monster," in this case, is adulthood, and heroism consists of resisting it. There's a touch of Roald Dahl in all of this, and of course Peter Pan, and quite a bit else besides: familiar stuff.
So, Bea Wolf is an elaborate, prolonged joke. Really, it's a bit of a soufflé, the sort of thing that needs to stay light and airy if it's going to work at all. Heaviness, ponderousness, would be deadly. The thing is, spoofing Beowulf usually does involve some heavy lifting. The language is technical and hard to ape; the world evoked is remote and strange. This is esoteric stuff by current children's book standards. Happily, Bea Wolf finds smart 21st-century analogs for the poem's beasts and heroes, and stays light enough to elicit chuckles from start to finish. I even laughed aloud at several points, early and late, which is unusual for me when reading a long comic.
Part of what makes this work — for me, it may be the biggest part — is that Weinersmith is very good at parodying the "voice" of Beowulf: the rugged prosody, loping parataxis, alliterative phrasing, and vivid kennings of the old Old English. I mean, he does this hilariously well, from the start:
The book has a firm voice, full of flavor, that stays the course despite the odd moment of deflation or comic anachronism (e.g., "Dawn rose, like a jerk"). Sometimes the verse rises to truly affecting poetry, like Bea's great last line on this page:
Another thing that makes all this work — and I confess, this is what drew me to the book in the first place — is the cartooning of Boulet (Gilles Roussel). Boulet draws up a storm, makes the risible setting believable (enough), and transforms cliched, doll-like children into ferocious heroes. His digital renderings (drawn on iPad via Procreate) mimic the look of pencil and charcoal and brush, with, at times, a texturing so dense as to recall scratchboard — yet somehow he manages to maintain the necessary lightness and energy. Every spread is different, and many are quite elaborate. Layouts are dynamic, grids are avoided, and frame lines are using sparingly, so that each page-turn brings up another compositional treat. Man, he's good.
In all, Bea Wolf is a charming book that may appeal most to lit nerd adults and the children who share their pleasures. Reading it feels a bit like playing an adult-centered but kid-styled game (Unstable Unicorns, maybe?). I dug it, and, er, I Iive in that kind of household. So, yay!