by Andy Wolverton
Conventional wisdom might tell you that the opening scene of a kids’ comic book should probably not be set at a funeral, but that’s exactly how Mike Kunkel starts Herobear and the Kid, Vol. 1: The Inheritance. Young Tyler has just lost his grandfather, a man who entertained and told Tyler stories for as far back as he can remember. Tyler’s family has inherited his grandfather’s house (including a butler named Henry), but Tyler learns he also has inherited something: a broken pocket watch and a well-worn stuffed toy bear. But as he soon discovers, things are not always what they seem.
In Tyler’s case, a new house also means a new town and a new school. And new bullies. If he can just keep his mouth shut, things will probably be all right, but, as Tyler himself tells us, “Okay, there are times that my mouth gets waaay ahead of my brain.” In addition to avoiding bullies at school, Tyler is also trying to figure out how not to miss the bus, how to make friends, how to talk to the school’s cutest girl, and how to figure out why his grandfather left him a busted watch and an old stuffed bear.
Herobear and the Kid, Vol. 1: The Inheritance was actually first published in 2003. This new edition includes those stories as well as a new prequel story and a story from Free Comic Book Day 2013.
Comparisons to Bill Watterson’s classic Calvin and Hobbes are inevitable, and for good reason. Kunkel plays on many of the same themes as Watterson: kids’ dreams/fantasies of adventure, the way children often inflate their own importance and place in the world, their sense of friendship, and how easy it is for kids to embrace a childlike faith, while adults can’t. “Why do grownups lose faith so easily?” Tyler muses. “There’s so much in life to believe in.”
Yet unlike Calvin and Hobbes, Herobear is a character that everyone can see, not just Tyler. This creates some interesting situations between Tyler and his friends, as well as between Tyler and Herobear himself. Even more interesting, Herobear has some enemies from his past who are still out there.
The longer format for Herobear, unlike the Calvin and Hobbes strips, allows Kunkel to develop and draw out several themes and concepts at once. (Of course Calvin and Hobbes did this too, just in shorter bursts.) This first trade consists of one long story arc that covers the origin of Herobear, his first adventures with Tyler, the evil Von Klon and his deadly X-5 robot, and much more, all the while touching on larger ideas with an impressive amount of depth.
Kunkel’s storytelling style takes a little getting used to. (Remember, as much as I try to read kids’ titles as a kid, it’s been a long time since I was one.) Many of the comic’s panels seem almost cluttered with narration text boxes, speech balloons, and the artwork itself (sometimes with many panels per page), yet each time Herobear appears, the panels and drawings are generally larger, implying that life is less confining and offers more freedom and fun when Herobear is around. Again, I think kids will have less of a problem with Kunkel’s storytelling style than will adults.
The art style, at least for me, began as an acquired taste. Most comics artists sketch their initial work in pencil, erasing any remaining pencils after the inking has been done. With Herobear, you can detect Kunkel’s pencils in just about every panel. At first this seemed distracting, but after a few pages, you come to understand that those sketches add depth and shading to the art. (I should mention, however, that the newer stories included in the collection — a “prequel” of sorts and a story from Free Comic Book Day 2013 — still show signs of pencil sketching, yet look cleaner and tighter than the earlier stories.)
Like Calvin and Hobbes, the genius of Herobear and the Kid is that both kids and adults can read and enjoy the book. It’s a fun title for kids, and while it’s also a fun title for adults, it’s also a celebration of nostalgia. Kunkel knows, however, not to let the nostalgia factor take over, something that could easily have happened. This is a title I would’ve loved on one level as a kid, yet love on another level as an adult.
Although Kunkel has been busy working in animation and film, I’m not exactly sure why he waited 10 years between the initial publication of The Inheritance until now to return to the Herobear universe. Recently Kunkel has not only rereleased the trade with new material, but has also begun a new ongoing series of adventures called Herobear and the Kid: Saving Time (single issues in comic shops now), which, for kids and adults of all ages, is very good news.
Get your copy of Herobear and the Kid, Vol. 1: The Inheritance, as well as other books for younger (and older) readers: