Exclusive Interview: “Bea Wolf” Author Zach Weinersmith
The epic poem “Beowulf” has been adapted and reworked in numerous ways over the years. Neil Gaiman, for instance, not only cowrote the screenplay for the animated movie, but he also wrote his own poetic version, called “Bay Wolf” (from his collection Smoke And Mirrors), as well as a modernized novella titled The Monarch Of The Glenn (from his collection Fragile Things). And now writer Zach Weinersmith is retelling the tale — but with (and for) kids — in his new comic adaptation Bea Wolf (hardcover, Kindle). Though as he explains in the following email interview, he uses the word “kids” rather loosely.
Let’s start with the story. Who is Bea Wolf, and what is the story you’re telling in their eponymous comic book?
Bea Wolf is an extraordinarily powerful girl, one who also embodies a sort of cultural ideal that children have for themselves. She is strong, smart, she shares, she fights evil, tells the truth, plays games, eats candy, stays up late, is fearless. The story is really about a great place children build for themselves, but which is ruined by an adult. Bea Wolf shows up, embodying the greatness of kidhood, and thwarting the villain.
In coming up with the story, did you start with the name “Bea Wolf” or did you start with the idea of doing your own take on Beowulf?
I started with the idea of doing a Beowulf for kids. I’m an old English major, so it’s just part of my working knowledge. The original notion was to do a more cute / mocking version, but over time it evolved into its own thing. The main appeal to me is that I enjoy verse epic. And while most children used to be taught this stuff, and to enjoy it, it’s mostly gone now.
And how often, when telling someone about this book, did you start by saying, “It’s a retelling of Beowulf, but with Bea Arthur…”?
Ha, sorry, never.
Dang it. Anyway, Bea Wolf is set in modern times. Why did you decide to have it happen now as opposed to in the ’70s or the ’80s or the ’90s? Because it’s kind of giving me some serious Goonies / Stranger Things vibes?
That’s interesting. Well, the theory was that adults tend to want storybook kids to behave like it’s about 1890 or so: wooden toys, everyone lives in the woods, etc. This is an epic in an old style, but the goal was a modern feel, so it’s familiar to kids. So, the neighborhood isn’t particularly cute; it’s suburby, with powerlines. And the kids and adults are on their phones too much, and the kids want to play video games all day.
That said, we tried not to do any particular temporal cues, other than some of the video game stuff, I think this could easily be set anywhere from the 1940s or so to today.
You seemed surprised when I mentioned Goonies and Stranger Things. I’m guessing they weren’t influences on Bea Wolf…
Not particularly. I was really oriented around the original poem and other medieval sources. The closest thing I can think of (in terms of taking the idea of kidhood and elevating it to epic) is the TV show Pete And Pete, though that only occurred to me much later. The tone is largely derived from reading Old English books in translation, especially the ones put out by Dumbarton Oaks medieval library. If that reads like Goonies, I think it’s likely because there’s a shared idea of capturing the actual experience of being a kid by making it simultaneously goofy and dead serious.
So what other literary influences had the biggest impact on how you told this story?
In terms of the sound, Howell Chickering’s translation of Beowulf probably. There’s also a wonderful collection of essays called Teaching Beowulf In The Twenty-First Century that provides a lot of insight into what students react to, and how to think about the story.
In terms of the tone, I’m not sure I had a direct influence, but books like [Bill Watterson’s] Calvin & Hobbes, [Emmanuel Guilbert’s] Sardine Of Outer Space, [Astrid Lindgren’s] Pippi Longstocking, and maybe [L.M. Montgomery’s] Anne Of Green Gables are in there somewhere. There are also a number of borrowed lines from old poems, some of which are less obvious than others.
Now, like you, I have a last name that just screams to be made fun of. I feel your pain. So I have to ask: Did the teasing you got as a kid work its way into Bea Wolf at all, or did that not fit this story?
Bahahaha! That’s a good question. My birth name was Zach Weiner, not that it’s much better. That said, “Weiner” really isn’t so bad, because you can’t make fun of it other than just saying “Weiner.” I think you’d be much worse off with an insult-adjacent name. Like, suppose your last name Butte and you had to keep insisting it wasn’t pronounced “Butt.”
But I don’t think a lot of my childhood or teasing directly went into the story. The part for example where Huffer calls Bea Wolf a liar and she knocks him down with words is taken quite directly from the original poem.
The one moment I can think of that’s drawn from real life is the part where the health-food people give Roger and co. fruit-sweetened cake and say it’s just as good. That actually happened to me. When I was a kid, my mother (who, for the record, now shovels ice cream into my children like it’s court-mandated) was deep into health food. She would shop at those grocery stores that smell like incense and vitamin B, and she would get kasha puffs instead of Cheerios and she would tell us that fruit leather is “just like Fruit Roll-Ups.” Outrageous.
Anyway, there weren’t snack cakes or candy or whatever in the house outside of special occasions. And, I have this particular memory of a white-paper box that one day appeared in the pantry, purporting to contain brownies. It said brownies on the side. It had a picture of brownies. It seemed impossible, but there it was before me. So, I opened the box, unwrapped a little plastic parcel, put the cake in my mouth, and literally tasted lies. Some longhaired beard-faced prodigy of evil had decided it was acceptable to replace sugar with apple juice and then vow before Heaven and Earth that it was just as good the regular kind. It was not just as good. It tasted like oxidized apple cores in a sea of bran flour. I have never been able to move on, but at least I was able to cast my grief into song.
As for the art in Bea Wolf, it’s done by Boulet. Who decided to have him illustrate Bea Wolf?
Oh, it was my idea. I think he’s literally the best living cartoonist, and he was my first choice. He also, as it happens, had the exact right sensibility. Not only did Boulet make every page gorgeous, but he added a lot of gentleness to the panels. The drawings of the teens for instance, the way Boulet did it, teens will see themselves mocked, but in a way they can relate to.
The art in Bea Wolf is black and white line drawings, decidedly closer to an indie comic than, say, a superhero one from Marvel or DC. Why was this the best approach for this story?
You know, we were originally imagining color, but Boulet’s inks were so ridiculously amazing we decided to stick with them. As you can see there’s all this cool sketchy linework and stuff, and color would’ve lost that.
So how collaborative were you and Boulet? Like, did his art suggest any major story changes or expansions, did you have a lot of back and forth as to how Bea should look, what?
Boulet was kind of like the director. I literally just gave him this poem, with maybe half a dozen notes. My view is when you’re working with a top quality talent like Boulet, you give them as much creative space as you dare. There were a number of places where I made small alterations to the text based on something he did. For example, in the first attack by Grindle, originally I had it more scary, but Boulet had it more sneaky. I thought that was great, because it makes the second attack more of an escalation. So, I rewrote a bit to accommodate that.
As you mentioned earlier, Bea Wolf is for kids. Middle grade, to be exact. But is it only for kids? Can, say, someone who was a kid in the ’70s and considers themselves as young-at-heart appreciate it, too? Or will I, I mean they find it too childish?
The ideal audience to my mind is a kid-adult dyad. Like, this is meant to be a real epic — it’s a culture story, but oriented around the values of children. I’ve repeatedly had adults tell me they loved it because it was like reading an ideal childhood. So, my hope is that if a kid and adult read it, it’ll be like two people looking at a sculpture from different angles. They’ll like what they seem, and fundamentally be seeing the same thing, but there will also be differences.
As you know, Hollywood loves turning comic books into movies and TV shows. Do you think Bea Wolf would work as a movie or show?
I must confess: I’m really not much of a movie / TV person. I’m a book person. I have no insight about whether Bea Wolf would be good in other media, other than to say I would literally kill for the opportunity to see Boulet’s art animated. In some world where that happens, I think a movie would be ideal. Bea Wolf, like Beowulf, isn’t necessarily a story that makes sense to tell via many episodes. It’s fundamentally a story about mortality (recontextualized as transition-from-childhood in Bea Wolf), so you really just want to establish a life from beginning to end. Anything extraneous to that lessens the story.
Sounds like if someone was going to make a Bea Wolf movie, you’d want it to be animated…
Oh, animated for sure. My God, Boulet’s panel with Grindle climbing the ladder at night could be so gorgeous.
This is probably a moot question, given that you’re not much of a movie person, but who would you want them to do the voice of Bea?
I really don’t know enough about modern movies to know who I’d want. Maybe it’d be funny to have the adult villain played by a former child actor. Also, if any of the oratorical aspects were kept, it’d be amazing to have someone like Amanda Gorman do the reading. That said, our household joke is that Bea would be played by The Rock, just to get the ticket sales.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Bea Wolf?
It’s hard to describe, and I have struggled with an elevator pitch. I will say, it’s a very strange book and a very beautiful book, and I believe for those people who understand what it’s trying to do, it will be a literary companion you can come back to. But, it’s not a book everyone will understand.
Finally, if someone enjoys Bea Wolf, what comic that’s also a retelling of an old story would you suggest they check out next?
Is it too generic to say Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey? I’m afraid I don’t know another story like Bea Wolf, but I found my 8-year-old had the stomach for the original Beowulf poem, as long as I gave her a heads up about the creepy parts. I would also say if you really are into this sort of verse, there’s a golden hoard of English literature. I think especially of Pope’s version of The Iliad and Sohrab And Rustum by Matthew Arnold. Proper verse epic is mostly dead in our culture, so this stuff can feel very exotic and new if it’s new to you.