Writer & Artist: Mike Kunkel
Publisher: KaBOOM! Studios
Release Date: August 14, 2013
Paul Pope’s Comic-Con retelling of the time DC informed him that it didn’t make comics for kids — just 45-year-olds — isn’t terribly surprising. And if it is, it shouldn’t be. Since the death of the Silver Age in the mid ‘80s, the market has favored the perverse and gritty over anything a grown adult would feel comfortable handing to his or her toddler. What’s a little less clear is whether adult comics sell because they’re violent or because the most talented writers and artists don’t produce anything else. Pope’s story certainly favors the latter argument.
In direct opposition, BOOM! Studios and its KaBOOM! imprint for kids have carved out a niche for Generation Z with a stream of books based on G-rated licensed properties curated by passionate creators. Adventure Time might receive the most hype (as it should — it’s awesome), but KaBOOM! has also released all-ages gems like Roger Langridge’s SNARKED! and the shockingly decent Peanuts continuation, post Charles Schulz. The publisher has added perhaps the most lauded series in this genre with Mike Kunkel’s Herobear and the Kid, which scored two Eisners in 2002 and 2003 in the Best Title for All Ages Category. And more than ten years later, it’s still absurdly gorgeous.
Initially released by Kunkel’s studio, The Astonish Factory, in 1999, Herobear and the Kid: The Inheritance #1 is pure, uncut nostalgia crack rendered in glorious sketches that recall the great 2-D animation renaissance of two decades past. This reprint presents the origin story of the titular bear and his owner, an ornery 10-year-old named Tyler who moves into his late grandfather’s home after attending his funeral. The issues also include new 2-page epilogues that form an arch story with every chapter (there are five total). Tyler’s prized inheritance is “an old stuffed bear and a broken pocket watch,” neither of which resonate strongly with the impetuous youngster. The adolescent soon discovers that his new raggedy friend contains much more than stuffing and button eyes.
This inaugural issue establishes a versatile tone and lets Kunkel’s optical confectionary work its wonders. The story swings between earnest memoir and zany cartoon hijinks, and the shifts aren’t executed all that gracefully. The masthead quotes Shel Silverstein’s marquee “Invitation” before segueing into a melancholy opening as Tyler reminisces on childhood before attending his Grandfather’s funeral. This scene stands as the book’s emotional crux, as each family member cuts a word out of a dictionary that encapsulates his or her memory of the departed before sealing all of the torn vocabulary into a jar, a metaphysical poem cemented in time and memory.
The rest of the issue thrusts Tyler into the surreal chaos of his first day at a new school, in which he falls in obsessive puppy love with a gentle co-ed and takes some nasty punches from a trio of bullies. Given the somber nature of the intro, the beating Tyler receives appears far more visceral then likely intended; if we’re introduced to a story with a reflection on mortality, then the expectation follows that pronounced violence would have consequences. In the world of slapstick pioneers Tex Avery or Chuck Jones, no amount of hyperbolic destruction could permanently scar Daffy Duck or Wile E. Coyote, but those guys never opened their cartoons with funerals and Silverstein poems.
A solid argument could be made, though, that Kunkel can tell any story he damn well pleases as long as he illustrates it. I wouldn’t disagree. A veteran of Disney fare like Hercules and Tarzan and (ironically) kids comics for DC, Kunkel’s pencils convey a weight and balance unique to the industry. Faint sketch lines beneath the main figures underly a master grasp of anatomy and shape, giving each character a 3-dimensional mass and gravity. The black and white canvass emphasizes the rich charcoal shading, but also provides a gorgeous contrast for the final pages when Herobear finally emerges with his majestic crimson cape. The last image looks plain wrong without a frame around it.
Whatever growing pains this debut chapter presents, they’re just that, and Herobear and the Kid’s joys can be found few other places. The title feels like a bold reincarnation of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, where the iconic toys of childhood funnel the endless imagination that tends to evaporate with hormones and cell phones. More promising, Kunkel is slated to produce even more Herobear adventures in the near future. Even if you’re 45, there’s no reason to avoid this bear hug.