I had a chance to talk to Kid Beowulf creator Alexis Fajardo the other day, and his publicist sent me the first third of the first issue in the series, "Kid Beowulf and the Blood-Bound Oath" -- that is, the first 50 pages or so.
Kid Beowulf is a much more ambitious and literary project than it might appear to be at first glance. The name and concept ("What was Beowulf like as a kid?") could very well have been a Muppet Babies or Flintstone Kids approach. Instead, Fajardo is using a low-brow medium to play with high-brow literary ideas (averaging out into a medium-brow, I suppose). The treatment opens with a quote from Heraclitus -- "Character is destiny" -- that acts as a theme in the part I read, though it is never explicitly quoted in the text.
According to Fajardo, though he only has three books slated with his current publisher, he envisions a story arc 12 books long. The series begins before the action of the poem, starting with Hrothgar as a teen / young man in "Blood-Bound Oath." The three sections of the first issue (which will run at approx. 170 pages) essentially give the origins of Beowulf and Grendel. Not only are Beowulf and Grendel kids in this series, they are also twin brothers who are the grandchildren of Hrothgar. "Blood-Bound Oath" tells us how it could have happened that Hrothgar is the father of Grendel's Mother, and how it could be that Beowulf and Grendel are brothers. Add to the mix that the dragon is also the father of Grendel's Mother (don't worry, this makes sense in the story), and the Beowulf tale becomes as much a family drama as a story about heroism.
After this first book, future books will essentially be a road story about Beowulf and Grendel traveling around, meeting various characters from epic poetry, and growing up in the process. "Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland" is slated for 2009, in which Beowulf goes to France to learn to fence and get involved in other adventures. Some of the other characters/epics that Fajardo plans to have Kid Beowulf encounter through the series include El Cid, Romulus & Remus, Gilgamesh, the Nibelungenlied, Troy, the Labyrinth, and the Green Knight.
Both Fajardo and Allison Collins (his publicist) expressed the hope that the material would have an eductational purpose as well -- to entice readers to want to read the original source material, both Beowulf and whatever text he's encountering that issue. It is written, then, to be accessible to audiences of all ages regardless of whether they have read Beowulf or not. Fajardo and Collins both mentioned concerns about age-appropriate violence, but I don't think that's a problem. I was fine in letting my eight-year-old son read it, though he struggled a great deal with the names (like "Hrothgar"), which were difficult to pronounce. My concern was more with the language -- though it is mostly kid friendly, there's a "damned" in the part I read, and kids won't get the pun in Fajardo's use of Hel in phrases such as "What the Hel?" For those reasons, I would say that Kid Beowulf is probably more appropriate for middle school age than elementary school.
All-in-all, I found the preview I received very promising. Unlike the sucktastic DC Comics Beowulf of the 1970s, the mash-up elements of Kid Beowulf are carefully considered, and promise to be more than cameo appearances, dealing with the broader themes of the featured work of literature. As for whether or not it will entice kids to want to read the source material, I hope to have a guest reviewer address that issue later.