While wandering around the one-room Long Beach Comic Expo a few years ago, I happened to walk by a table with an organized pile of little stuffed animals – off-white polar bears with big black noses, each wearing a bright red cape. They were adorable and I was immediately enraptured by what I would come to learn was a character named Herobear from Herobear and the Kid, an all-ages series from the creative genius of Mike Kunkel.
With a pedigree of clients that includes Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, The Jim Henson Company, The Walt Disney Company, DC Comics, Marvel, Mattel, Fisher-Price, and LEGO, among others, Kunkel established his own company, Astonish Factory, that seeks to “introduce long-lasting, fun stories and appealing characters with heart, humor, meaning and positive values for all ages.” As such, he has published such titles as Timmy & the Moon Piece, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!, The Land of Sokmunster, and two of my personal favorites, The Art of the Squiggle and The Origin of the ABC’s. Kunkel has had a long-time relationship with KaBOOM!, and the latest release to come from the association is Herobear and the Kid 2016 Fall Special #1. Rounding out the team are editor Shannon Watters, associate editor Whitney Leopard, and designer Grace Park. Roger Langridge is on board with the variant cover, while Kunkel has created a playful cover capturing all of the elements from the story beautifully.
This comic book picked up on part two of “Saving Time,” where the reader finds that Tyler is not home watching baby New Year Henry, but instead attending the Simpleton o’History parade with his school chum, Elmo, and love interest Vanessa (a completely sweet and innocent relationship that is budding between her and Tyler). While watching the parade, characters and creatures suddenly appear, requiring Tyler to reveal to Elmo that Herobear is real and Tyler is “the kid.” Pirates, mummies, and even a T-Rex pose dangerous threats that need to be overcome by Tyler, Herobear, and Elmo. In the latter half of the comic, the trio return home and discover that home has been abandoned for quite some time, which they soon learn will require a time machine. Adventures ensue as well as a “to be continued.”
Kunkel favors a unique style with this series that has been inspired and influenced by his years in animation. His comic is printed from a combination of his pencil drawings and ink accents, which Kunkel admitted in a Sequential Art interview with Adrienne Rappaport (“The Un-Bear-Able Lightness of Being”) is a technique he believes “gives it a little more warmth…and still have a lot of life to the drawings. It helped me capture the movement.” His style evokes not only an ease of movement across the page that is inviting and charming, but it also endows the story with an instant intimacy between storyteller and reader. Additionally, the only color used in the black-and-white comic is red for Herobear’s long cape, adding to the magical moment when Herobear comes to life when the young protagonist, Tyler, calls upon him for assistance.
The layout is anything but simple and Kunkel again excels. He packs so much action, movement, speech balloons, and narrative boxes into each frame, it would sound as though the elements would overwhelm the reader, but in fact, it does not. For example, in the opening scene, Kunkel repeats Tyler and Elmo three times walking across the frame in different poises, accompanying their conversation with a number of varying sized speech balloons. At other times, Kunkel pulls back and does a panorama of panels across the page, such as when Tyler peeks around one side of a wall in the left frame and then from the last frame on the right. And, Kunkel creates enchanting vertical layouts down the length of a page, such as from the point that Tyler taps on Herobear’s nose (This is how Tyler brings the toy bear to life.) to his full, muscular, polar bear hulking life size. With each reading, there seems to be some new visual detail to admire and enjoy – just like that favorite childhood book that is revisited time and time again.
Astonish Factory’s motto is “Remember your childhood…and pass it on.” Kunkel is living and breathing that which he values. Whether you are 5 years old or 95 years young, Herobear and the Kid is a gorgeously written and illustrated series. Heartwarming, sweet, and, yes, gently kindling positive values with subtly, it’s no wonder it has two Eisner Awards. While this is part two of an ongoing story arc, if you are not familiar with Herobear and the Kid, you can still jump in with this issue and get a real taste for Kunkel’s storytelling and illustrative style.