Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Beowulf. Written by Santiago García (Las Meninas, Fútbol) with art by David Rubín (Ether, The Hero), this hardcover invigorates the myth of Beowulf with brilliant artwork and a clever metatextual twist. (This review reveals major plot points.)
Beowulf is one of the prototypical heroes of Western fantasy, a brave warrior who fights monstrous beings that threaten his people and who isn’t afraid to give his life in battle. His story has endured for centuries, but despite efforts to make Beowulf more attractive to modern audiences—like Robert Zemeckis’ 2007 film—Beowulf is probably best known for that dusty poem high school and college students are forced to read in English literature classes.
There’s nothing dusty about the new Beowulf graphic novel from writer Santiago García and artist David Rubín, who offer a stunning interpretation of the legend, using the comic-book medium in bold, surprising ways to intensify the narrative. Originally published in Spain in 2013, García and Rubín’s Beowulf gets an English translation courtesy of Image Comics, published in a gorgeous oversized hardcover that reinforces the narrative’s epic scale. The rich detail and immense power of Rubín’s artwork demands a big book, and while readers of the digital copy will surely find much to appreciate, print is the way to go.
The afterword from Javier Olivares reveals that Rubín wasn’t the original artist for the project, which was initially going to be drawn by Olivares before an injury took him out of commission. It’s hard to imagine Beowulf drawn by anyone other than Rubín, because so much of the book’s power comes from his energetic, atmospheric artwork. Rubín’s entry into the American comic-book scene has been one of the great pleasures of the last few years in comics, and he makes some ingenious artistic choices in Beowulf that showcase why he’s such an exciting talent.
Take Rubín’s use of tangents in the opening sequence revealing the carnage of Grendel’s first attack on the Danes: While the larger panels on the page show various members of the community discovering the massacre, there are small panels laid on top that offer small glimpses of the festivities from the night before. Some of these panels bleed directly into the action around them, contrasting the jovial nature of those flashbacks with the devastated state of these people in the present. The coloring enhances the contrast; the overlaid panels have a golden glow that pops against the current events, rendered with cold colors where there aren’t large pools of blood.
European comics are known for devoting extra attention to environments and giving readers a very clear sense of place, and this certainly applies to Rubín’s work. Overhead shots are especially handy in this regard, particularly for the mead hall that is attacked by the demonic Grendel and, later, his mother. When Beowulf arrives with his companions to assist Hrothgar with his monster problem, there’s a large feast in the mead hall, presented with an overhead shot that gives readers a clear understanding of its layout and reestablishes it as a place of celebration after the grisly opening.
That celebration does not last, however. A few pages later, the creative team returns to that same angle as Grendel arrives in the night to attack the sleeping Danes. As Grendel makes his way through the space, a flurry of angled panels reveals how he views his surroundings. Close-ups are layered on top of that larger image, and then there are smaller panels layered on top of those close-ups, showing the individual subjects from Grendel’s perspective. The monsters in this book view humans as blood-red masses of nondescript, sinewy flesh rather than beings with specific characteristics; humans are prey to these creatures, and there’s no effort to distinguish one meal from the next. There are so many smart, unexpected decisions in this two-page spread, highlighting Rubín’s inventive approach to graphic design in both his page design and panel composition.
García’s script is a fairly straightforward interpretation of the myth, but it takes a fascinating turn in the final pages after Beowulf achieves the glorious death he’s been seeking. As a minstrel sings the hero’s myth, the music trails across the page as the action fades away, leading to an empty all-black two-page spread. It’s a firm break from the events that precede it, taking readers into the epilogue. That pool of ink also represents the transition from Beowulf as an orated story to a written poem, and after that two-page spread, the creators switch gears to explore the legacy of Beowulf as a piece of literature.
The next page begins with a close-up of the original Old English poem, and the following panel zooms out to show even more of its text. Turn the page again, and there’s a panel of Seamus Heaney’s contemporary English translation used for this graphic novel, followed by a panel showing García’s Spanish script for the first page of Beowulf, then two panels detailing the steps of Rubín’s process for that page, from rough layouts to final edits on digital software. The final page contains eight panels that outline the last stages of production, from the laying out of the trade dress to the email containing the completed galley to the printing, distribution, and sale of the hardcover.
Beowulf ends with a hand turning to the book’s first page, the action that initiated the experience for the reader. This epilogue is an effective metatextual twist that ties in very well with the theme of Beowulf seeking glory for the ages through his heroic death; the evolution of the Beowulf myth shows that he’s achieved his lofty goal. Beowulf’s story has withstood the test of time, and this graphic novel is an exceptional retelling that refreshes the myth and makes it accessible to an even wider audience.