The epic story of Beowulf comes to life as never before in the incredible clash between a group of neighborhood children and one fun-hating neighbor in the graphic novel reimagining Bea Wolf from First Second comics.
The story of the ancient hero Beowulf battling monsters is a familiar one. Though at a glance, Bea Wolf appears to be a dramatically alternate telling, at the heart of this graphic novel the spirit of Beowulf’s legend lives on. For the children of a comfortable neighborhood, the mighty treehouse called Treeheart is a legendary place of feasting on junk food and freedom from the rules of adults. Passed from one child monarch to the next, the children maintain their riches of toys and sweets as they defend their borders against teens, adults, and responsibilities. It all threatens to fall apart when they draw the anger of a neighborhood adult named Grindle who wants to silence Treeheart once and for all. In this dire moment, a hero will rise. This is where the legend of Bea Wolf truly begins.
Told in epic verse, the ancient poem lives on in these pages, just with a few more fart jokes and modern references than were in the original. In place of all that gruesome death, Bea Wolf finds its tension in the struggle between youth and aging, between the freedom of childhood and the perceived dread of adulthood. The story is bursting with youth run rampant. Among other things, Beowulf is a story of mortality and Weinersmith reframes that in a way relatable and accessible for children who long to run free.
Bea Wolf also maintains some of the complexities of the original in other ways. Though the children are set up as the heroes of the narrative, there is a measure of recognition that Grindle/Grendel is just trying to live his own life in constantly-disrupted peace. Bea’s bosting is not diminished in this child form of the title character and there are shifting power struggles throughout, even as the children gorge themselves on candy and carve out their refuge from the larger world. As an introduction for young readers to Beowulf, Weinersmith follows up the story with readily accessible backmatter explaining the history and significance of Beowulf, providing a launch pad for further discussion and future learning.
Illustrated by French cartoonist Boulet, the art of Bea Wolf is a delight to look at. With cartoon stylings and fun energy, the visuals capture childhood in a larger-than-life fashion that perfectly fits the grandeur of the telling. At the same time, the pictures embrace the aesthetic of a medieval manuscript as well as the historical epic that inspired this volume. With chapter breaks, dramatic scenes of confrontation and revelry, and a keen understanding of what this reimagining is meant to be, Boulet brings together the best of ancient and modern illustrations to create Bea Wolf as a modern story of epic proportions. And with natural diversity woven throughout the various children that cross the pages, lots of children should have the chance to see themselves reflected across the story.
First Second lists Bea Wolf as being for ages 8-12, and this seems like an ideal audience. Even with the modern touches, the epic verse style of the writing may be a bit difficult for younger children to work through on their own. But for young readers willing to embrace an unfamiliar writing style, or for children sharing the book with older readers or educators, Bea Wolf is a lot of fun and has plenty of richness to delve into along the way. (There’s lots here to love for older readers on their own, as well.)
All in all, Bea Wolf is a highly successful reimagining of an ancient classic, making the story of Beowulf accessible and enjoyable to young readers without sacrificing the spirit of the original. It should make a great addition to any graphic novel collection for older children on up.
By Zach Weinersmith
Art by Boulet
Macmillan First Second, 2022
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11), Tween (10-13)
Creator Representation: French