Bea Wolf by Zach Weinersmith & Boulet

When I saw that a copy of this title hadn’t been included in the Hugo Voter’s Packet, I was ready to skip over it entirely. I’d heard good things about Bea Wolf elsewhere, and I’m always interested in what modern creators do with the classic Beowulf tale, but I wasn’t about to do anything to acquire a copy myself till I realized that this was published by one of my all-time favorite imprints. I will read anything First Second Books publishes, as I trust their taste implicitly.

And then when I saw that I could borrow this digitally from one of my local libraries, and read it in my browser instead of being forced to use the terminally dreadfully Adobe Digital Editions that so many other lenders prefer, I was exceptionally pleased. Over this past intensely busy weekend, I cracked open my digital copy whenever I was at my computer, and was deeply grateful for the Overdrive platform that automatically keeps my place in the book no matter how many times I had to close my browser and turn off my PC.

But what about the story itself? Frankly, reader, I was enthralled. I’ve previously drowsed through Seamus Heaney’s translation, and have Maria Dahvana Headley’s version tucked somewhere in the deep archives, waiting to be rescued from neglect. I know the Beowulf story, more or less, tho I’ve never found it as enthralling as J R R Tolkein did — and let’s face it, some of his own narrative choices prioritize linguistic nerdery over actual story, so his recommendations don’t carry the greatest weight with me. But in changing the setting from an old Scandinavian court of warriors to a contemporary neighborhood of kids, Zach Weinersmith has given this story a modern resonance that remains very much in conversation with the themes of the original.

I mean, let’s not pretend that the obsession with lineage and warfare from the original feels anything but immature in the 21st century. Having the protagonists thus be a kingdom of kids, detailing their diverse and meritocratic heritage, gives the story a grounding in our everyday reality even with the fanciful fillips of fantasy. Grendel has been reimagined as Mr Grindle, a neighbor with the ability to turn free and feral kids into deathly boring adolescents and adults with a mere touch. The original’s Mead Hall has become the coolest treehouse ever. When Mr Grindle threatens to ruin TreeHeart for good, the mighty hero who steps forth is none other than the geezer-brawling bride of battle from a neighboring suburb, erm, kingdom, Bea Wolf herself.

Even beyond this very clever contextualizing conceit, Mr Weinersmith’s word choices were utterly enthralling throughout. His poetry leans hard into bombast and braggadocio with wordplay and alliteration. The over-the-top quality of the writing perfectly fits the cast of characters and the situation. It’s a wonderful marriage of literary form and function: you could totally see these kids boasting about their accomplishments in a way that I personally would find tiresome from adults. And just as a thing of beauty on its own, divorced from story, the language is charming and clear even in its kenning.

The final stake through the heart of my antipathy to the original story was the incredible quality of the illustrations here. Boulet’s ability to mix the adorable with the macabre is outstanding, as he expertly brings Mr Weinersmith’s words to life with gorgeous black and white linework. So seamless is the bond between word and picture that I genuinely forgot that there were two separate people working on this.

The afterwords were also a marvel, especially Mr Weinersmith’s as he explained the genesis of both this book and the original Beowulf story in language easily accessible to its Middle Grade target audience. I really do hope he writes a sequel or two to this terrific book, with Mr Boulet’s incomparable illustrations accompanying. This was a super strong opening to the Hugo Awards 2024 Best Graphic Story category for me, and I’m very excited to dive into more.

Bea Wolf by Zach Weinersmith & Boulet was published March 21 2023 by First Second Books and is available from all good booksellers, including

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  1. […] so far, I’m going to have to rate it as lower than the also excellent but entirely standalone Bea Wolf on my Hugo 2024 […]

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