Meet Zach Weinersmith, the writer of Bea Wolf, a modern comedic retelling of the classic Beowulf epic.
Can you tell us what inspired you to write Bea Wolf?
It was really my daughter. She’s very smart, and so she does not often pay attention to me. We used to have these long car rides in the morning for preschool, and when she was about 4 I would do anything to try to have a conversation with her – ask about food, movies, toys, whatever. Her mind was always elsewhere. And then one day, as a joke, I started telling her this kids’ version of Beowulf, and she was just utterly enthralled. The moment we got in the car she would say “what happened next with Bea Wolf?” So, you see, I’d have to come up with something every day. When it went well, I’d go home afterward and write it down. Bit by bit, a full story began to emerge.
Tell us a little about what it was like to work in tandem with Boulet. Did the process look differently than when you work on comics?
Very different. Normally I illustrate my own stuff, but I just do not have the level of skill Boulet does, and I think that power was necessary to get this story across.
Also, very unusually for comic books, I gave almost no notes to him as he worked. In a typical comic book, the script is very specific, along the lines of “panel 1: upper left. Spiderman in mid-shot, looking perplexed.” But, for Bea Wolf? I just gave Boulet a poem, about 600 lines long, with maybe half a dozen notes. Then I let him fly. My belief is that when you’re working with someone of his caliber, you give them as much creative freedom as you dare. In this case, it paid off extravagantly.
What was your favorite part of the creation process?
Coming up with the right passage for a moment just gives me a lot of happiness. There is for example a scene where Bea has her standoff with Mr. Grindle and tells him to leave. He just looks her over and the line is “His soul was a snowbank unsledded, a snowcone unsweetened, a snowman unscarfed.” That’s nice because you get that “ssss” sound when talking about the bad guy, but it’s also nice because “unscarfed” calls to mind Frosty without his scarf! So it’s this nice blend of kid references, but they’re used to talk about a man who has no spirit inside him. I had a few passages that came together nicely like that, and that always feels good.
Though, I will add that equally delightful was receiving stacks of pages drawn from Boulet. My daughter and I would look over them and just gasp.
Do you have a favorite spread and if so, what is it?
Oh, that’s hard. I mean, the big page with monster drawings is really wonderful, as is the confrontation with Grindle. I think though if I had to pick one piece of art, it’s where Bea emerges from the lake having fought teens and monsters. The water spreads out behind her, and one reader of mine said he thought it looked like angel wings. It’s just a perfectly composed panel.
How do you hope this book will be used in classrooms and libraries?
Ideally an adult will shout it and kids will laugh and yell and wonder. It’s designed to be read aloud and to be more of an experience than a book where you have to understand every little thing.
More sub rosa, I’d love if it could serve as an entry point for kids into epic verse and perhaps poetry generally. I really tried to use the whole English language kit of tricks to make the words as enthralling as I could. If that part of the book speaks to a child at all, I hope it leaves a little bit of them hungry for more. In my experience, a lot of adults simply do not have the brain module for enjoying these beautiful old stories, and I see Bea Wolf, at its best, as an attempt to implant a love for verse in kids before it becomes hard to reach them.
You could of course also use Bea Wolf to teach Beowulf, but the original poem is absolutely not appropriate for small kids! That said, it could be fun for teens. For younger ones, I’d love to hear them doing alliterative verse. I tried it with my daughter and it’s just very natural for kids to play with alliteration, and also kennings. The fact that you have to make use of these weird poetic rules results in a delightful level of creativity, and in my experience kids love applying heroic epithets to themselves.
Tell us about a library, librarian or educator who made an impact on you as a child (or as an adult!).
Well, my dedication is written to one high school teacher and two professors of mine who taught me Beowulf! Mrs. Elizondo and Drs. O’Connor and Wachtel, respectively. I’m not sure I remember someone encouraging poetry in me when I was very young, but I can tell you about my favorite library. It’s the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. library at SJSU. It’s huge and the designers put little mysteries here and there to alleviate the natural dullness of a tall building meant for study – weird stone sinks, flights of metal butterflies, and other oddities. I spent a lot of time there teaching myself math and I still have fond memories of walking around to decompress and marvel at all the weird old books, especially down in the basement. Aren’t library basements the best place in the world?
What advice would you give to aspiring graphic novelists?
That’s tough – it’s a hard business to break into, and I suspect it’s getting ever harder due to the sheer level of talent these days. I think the best thing you can do is to meet peers who are at your level while making sure to read the very best graphic novels – the really moving literary stuff. With your peers, you’ll rise together and share opportunities, and reading the masters of the form helps you keep your eye on ambitious projects. It’s good to find the stuff that you love so much that it makes you angry and jealous and then to see what you can do to approach it.
Of course, there’s also a business side of things. A lot of artists don’t want to get their hands dirty, but especially at the beginning of your career, networking with people is valuable, as is self-promotion online, as is taking jobs that you don’t love, but which either pay the bills or get you farther in your career. There’s a balance to be struck between seeking money and being a capital-A artist, but the truth is that money is what buys you out of a day job, so you have time to do your great work. In my career, I’ve been able to get a fairly stable income writing comic strips, which allows me (perhaps compels me!) to do riskier weirder projects like Bea Wolf.
What was your favorite book when you were a young reader? Were you reading comics/graphic novels then, too?
I was more of a comic strip guy than a comic book guy! I was a huge geek for choose your own adventure novels as a kid, and although I remember liking Chinua Achebe and Margaret Atwood, I mostly didn’t get into books seriously until after high school. I think maybe my life was too good! Really, the best way to get into literature is to feel like you need a life raft from life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Zach Weinersmith is the creator of the popular webcomic SMBC, the creator of the nerd comedy show BAHFest, and the co-author of the New York Times bestselling popular science book, Soonish. He is the artist of First Second’s Open Borders and the writer of Bea Wolf, a modern comedic retelling of the classic Beowulf epic.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
By Zach Weinersmith; illustrated by Boulet
On Sale 3/21/2023
A modern middle-grade graphic novel retelling of Beowulf, featuring a gang of troublemaking kids who must defend their tree house from a fun-hating adult who can instantly turn children into grown-ups.
Listen! Hear a tale of mallow-munchers and warriors who answer candy’s clarion call!
Somewhere in a generic suburb stands Treeheart, a kid-forged sanctuary where generations of tireless tykes have spent their youths making merry, spilling soda, and staving off the shadow of adulthood. One day, these brave warriors find their fun cut short by their nefarious neighbor Grindle, who can no longer tolerate the sounds of mirth seeping into his joyless adult life.
As the guardian of gloom lays siege to Treeheart, scores of kids suddenly find themselves transformed into pimply teenagers and sullen adults! The survivors of the onslaught cry out for a savior—a warrior whose will is unbreakable and whose appetite for mischief is unbounded.
They call for Bea Wolf.