Aaron Renier has just made a big splash with his new pirate-themed graphic novel for all ages, The Unsinkable Walker Bean from First Second Publishing. In it, young Walker Bean must honor his beloved grandfather by facing his fears and returning a pearl skull to its proper place…but finds himself caught up with a band of pirates and pursued by the terrifying Merwich sisters.
You can read an excerpt from the book here or get in the spirit with your very own Walker Bean pirate kit here. Filled with detailed drawings, tons of action and vivid colors by Alec Longstreth, Walker Bean has already earned acclaim from the likes of Caldecott-winner Brian Selznick (The Invention of Hugo Cabret) and Maurice Sendak, whom Renier is currently working with under a special fellowship.
Renier took time out from his busy schedule to talk with us in a special two-part interview about Walker Bean, what led to him creating the book and more. Strap on your eye patch, hoist high the Jolly Roger, and set sail for high adventure! Arrrr!
Newsrama: Aaron, For our readers, tell us about Walker Bean and his world in your own words.
Aaron Renier: It’s kind of based on the Golden Age of Pirates, but in my own interpretation. It’s set in the late 1700s, but in my own imagination of how that would be. I didn’t want it to be based in any one historical time period – I wanted it to feel like it had an air of history to it, but I didn’t want it to be a place where I was nailed down to being accurate in any way.Nrama: It kind of reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s film of Baron Munchausen – it draws from different areas of history, but it exists on its own terms.
Renier: Yeah, exactly. I wanted to make up cities, and not have to worry about states and countries. When I was a kid, the idea that my city was big enough for me – it took me a long time to understand the larger politics, but the idea of another city just felt so worldly to me.
So I wanted to have a story that took place in its own world, where each city was big enough for a story.
Nrama: And that’s an idea in a lot of fiction -- the enclosed society where the hero finds out how much larger the world is outside.
Renier: Right, and it’s about how there’s this cursed skull, and it all comes back to this story about the story people have been telling for a long time about the destruction of the city of Atlantis, and there’s an elaborate rumor of these witches who destroyed this city.
So one small detail of this story becomes a reality for the main characters, and that’s what sets things into motion – this pearl skull the witches created that cursed the grandfather, and it’s the burden of the main character, Walker, to return it to these witches who are the villainous characters who destroyed the city of Atlantis.
And it’s about the new characters he meets, and how they get through this adventure together.
Nrama: How did you develop the character of Walker Bean?
Renier: He’s based a lot on myself around that age. He sounds a lot like me, and does things like I do, like he’s always drawing. But there’s still a lot we have to learn about Walker.
Nrama: The relationship between Walker and his grandfather is very touching – how did you develop that?
Renier: I had a pretty good relationship with my grandfather, and it’s also based on relationships with teachers and mentors that I’ve had. Creative people, especially when they were older, were always really amazing to me as a kid.
When I was a kid, I went to this art camp where I grew up, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and there was this printmaker named Carlos Cortez. I took classes from him, and just having someone who was older and passionate about creative things was always really fascinating to me.
A lot of the older people in my life weren’t very creative – it was as if, as they grew older, that part of them ceased to exist. So it was really exciting for me when I saw that creativity in older people, and very encouraging.
So I wanted the grandfather to be like Walker in the future, not having given up on these ideas of fantastic monsters and inventions, and just going with it, and how important that is for someone who’s younger.
Nrama: How did the book come to be at First Second?
Renier: It was a long process. I originally had the book with another publisher, and it didn’t quite work so well – we weren’t on the same page with the book – so I was showing it around. I’d always been friendly with Mark Siegel – he’d talked to me on my first book, Spiral Bound, and we talked often, and so when I needed a place for this, it quickly found a home at First Second.
A lot of the book was already done. I just needed a new editor to work with, and after I showed Mark the book, it worked out really well.
Nrama: The colors by Alec Longstreth really add a lot to the story –
Renier: Yes, they do.
Nrama: How did he come on board for this story, and what was your collaboration like?
Renier: It’s a really interesting story. When I first moved to New York, I knew Alec from Portland, where we’d become friends by drawing together. He moved to New York about a year before I did, while I was talking with the first publisher for Walker Bean.
When I moved to NYC, I crashed on Alec’s couch, and told him about this pirate story I was working on, and how I hoped it was going to be in color, but that I wasn’t comfortable doing computer coloring myself. I knew it wasn’t what I do well.
So I had a meeting the next week, and Alec knew about it. It was around 8 in the morning and raining, and I was all dressed up, and out of the rain comes this really tall person running toward me in this giant raincoat. It was Alec Longstreth, and he had drawn up this plan for how he could conceivably color my book, even though he’d never done anything like that before.
I thought he was putting the cart before the horse, and it didn’t make any sense to me initially, because it was still so early in the process. But the meeting went well, and as I was leaving, I mentioned, “Oh, I have someone who thinks they can color it.”
There was never a question as to whether it was going to be colored, and whether it would be Alec. He did about 10 proposal pages, and that went really well. When we went over the final artwork, we went through some old children’s books I found at a thrift store that I was enamored with, and we chose art from those books for our palette.
Nrama: Which books were those?
Renier: They were mostly the endpapers of children’s encyclopedias. They had this kind of “It’s a Small World” Little Golden Book quality, sort of a Gustaf Tenggren kind of look, or Mary Blair from Disney.
So we picked the palette together. Once in a while Alec would think of things for a page and we’d talk about it, and then there were times we were up against a deadline and I’d color a page and Alec would recolor or edit it to make sure it looked like the rest of the book. He was always willing to change things, and it went the opposite way as well – I’d change things if Alec felt they should be changed.
Nrama: How did this collaboration affect how you approached your own work?
Renier: It was different working in color, because as I was working on the book, I would constantly wonder what Alec could do in color as I was working in black and white. There were times where, say, if the sky was dark, my natural way of working would be to make the sky black. If the sun was coming up or something, I wanted Alec to be able to depict that.
I learned a lot from that – by having more open linework, a sky that was on my page white with some indications of where the stars would be, and Alec coming in to make the sky look better. I learned things from that.
As I was inking the book, there were plenty of scenes where I had no idea how Alec would color it. For example, there’s a scene where the boat’s going over the rocks, and it’s kind of dizzying – I drove four or five panels by having these shaky, overlapping images, and as I scanned it in, I said to Alec, “Sorry I did this, but this is how the story is going.”
But then he came in with his own ideas of how to color it – it wasn’t collaboration so much in terms of planning things ahead of time as the sense of confidence I had in him. I was able to draw the way I felt comfortable with drawing. And having it in the back of my head that it wouldn’t be printed as a black-and-white book meant I didn’t have to make a scene dark in the inks – I could think of the scene in color.
Nrama: There’s a very open feel even to the darker scenes – like at the beginning in this frozen-over town.
Renier: Yeah. A lot of that had to do with my coming to this from Spiral Bound, where I felt like I was relying on a darker palette. I’m still learning as a cartoonist, and I think it showed even on the first page – the first panel is straight black, and by the third panel there’s these hints of white. And as the story goes on and on, I felt like I was learning about how to create depth with black and white.
With this book, I was still experimenting that way at the beginning, even though the book was in color – I was used to working in black and white. And the use of color really helped open this up, and I think on the next project, I’ll have an even better idea of how that works.
In Part 2, Renier talks about his influences, doing underwater scenes, the very creepy monsters that menace Walker Bean, and more.
Set sail with Aaron Renier and The Unsinkable Wlaker Bean in stores now.