Wednesday, February 16
The Unsinkable Walker Bean
First Second 2010
Pirates! Glowing skulls! Crustacean-y looking giant sea-witches! A man with eight legs (he keeps running away!)! Homing messages-in-a-bottle! Wait! What's this all about anyway!
I think the only real contentious moment I had while in grad school came from a faculty member who hated, more than anything in the world, when a story seemed to be as he put it "just one damn thing after another." He believed very strongly in the structure and craft of storytelling in ways so deep and rich, its like an ocean of pudding I can't quite tread. Not yet at least. But of all the things he taught about story I disagreed with him because I felt there was an alternative to the three-act Aristotlean model of storytelling, I felt it in my bones, and I thought it was a more organic story structure that grew from an accumulation of events. Eventually I calmed down. Until either I could define an alternative narrative structure or find a "one damn thing after another" story this was simply one of those areas of my education waiting to be discovered.
Reading The Unsinkable Walker Bean I initially had one of those dissociative moments where I wasn't quite sure what was happening in my head. Did I not get what was going on in the story? Had I missed a crucial piece of information? Or did this simply not make any sense to my internal story logic brainthink? When I am this confused I usually stop and pick the book up again a few days later, because that happens, sometimes you need a fresh approach.
The time off helped. I started in and this time I realized it wasn't me, it's the story. What kept me unable to gain any purchase on the story was the fact that there were characters, and action, and a story, and nothing for me, the reader, to hold onto. The Greeks understood that you could send Jason and the Argonauts on a journey of one damn thing happening after another but you have to root that story in something human, something emotional. Love. A longing for home. Truth. Beauty. Something. You can have giant statues come to life and fantastical creatures screeching and flying and rising from the deep, but you have to be vested in the human elements within the story. There has to be a character you would be willing to follow into battle, into the rocky straits, into the underworld and back. If you're willing, you'll take on any unstructured strand of an adventure because you believe the character will deliver you safely home.
So I guess by extraction you can guess my problems with The Incredible Walker Bean.
We open with a fable, a folk tale, a legend about how Atlantis was destroyed by a pair of mare-witch sisters, how they masticated their human enemies skulls into a wall that could help them see past, present, and future. With one bone from this wall a human would have the collective knowledge of the world and be able to find buried treasure and even Atlantis itself!
We pull back to find this tale being told to Walker Bean by his mutton-chopped grandfather who appears to be a Colonial Admiral. Jump ahead to the Admiral sick in bed, a ghastly green, with his son (Walker's father) berating the old man to sell off the possession that's created his condition: a bag containing a glowing green skull belonging to the mare-witch sister's wall! Walker waits until he can steal a moment alone where his grandfather implores Walker to return the skull to its home, where it belongs, and only then will he be healed. And so an adventure ensues.
There are pirates, and magical devices made from animated metals, and maps and secrets... and none of it means anything because we're not behind Walker. It may be his journey but he's doing it for his grandfather. Returning the skull may be the right thing to do, but it shouldn't have been taken in the first place, and the person who should set things to rights isn't our main character. What Walker is searching for he only pieces together as he goes, and while it seems certain he will learn much along the way there is a pervading sense that the story itself is formless and drifting. Changes in events and scenery pile up, one after another, without delivering a satisfactory conclusion to the episode. As the story drifts from one improbable fight, to rescue, to chase, to adventure, there's never a sense of resolution, never a moment where the reader wishes they were with Walker, or behind Walker, or cringing that Walker is about to make a huge mistake because we have nothing emotionally invested in him or his journey.
Which is too bad, because I think Renier has an interesting collection of story elements and twists at work here – even the improbable ones, like creating a canvas canopy with fake constellations to drape over the boat and misguide the sailors at night, or the elaborate alternate steering mechanisms built in the ship's hold – but they are in the service of themselves and not the story. Nothing deepens the emotional development of either Walker or the reader. And just as the book ought to start tying things together and building toward some sort of resolution it piles on more and more stuff.
Because this is only Book One?
No. No, no, no. I was so unsatisfied with the shear number of story threads unresolved and heaps of all-too-convenient coincidences of people, time, and place that I'm not going to care enough to reread this book in the future just to figure out what is happening in the next book. This is rule one of serial storytelling: each piece must stand on its own as a narrative and also fit within the whole.
And this is a HUGE problem I see among graphic novels these days. I think far too often there are stories that are serialized that don't justify their length and would do well to be contained within a single book. This has been true almost without exception of every serialized graphic novel I've encountered. There are, of course, exceptions. The eight-volume life of the Buddha as done my Osamu Tezuka works because each book can stand on its own while the whole provides a larger picture. Jeff Smith's Bone series treats each volume as an episode that picks up where the last book left off but delivers a cohesive narrative arc that builds and escalates the story on step toward its resolution. But Walker Bean charges off like a bee-stung dog in a crowded open market, careening from one thing to the next, disrupting business and up-turning fruit carts, before disappearing down the road with no one chasing after it.
And now I know what one-damn-thing-after-another storytelling looks – and feels – like.
The Unsinkable Walker Bean was a Cybils finalist this year, and I would have rather seen Calamity Jack or even The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future in its place.