Friday, December 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #348: Beanworld Omnibus, Vol. 1 by Larry Marder

I have to admit this: I'd never read Beanworld until now. Maybe you're the same: I obviously can't judge, if so.

Larry Marder's Beanworld has been around since 1984, perhaps the quintessential quirky comics series, lauded and awarded regularly and loved by lots of comics creators but looking really, really weird to a general comics-reading audience. It's the kind of book I expect to like -- and, not to bury the lede, but I did, once I finally got to it.

Beanworld Omnibus, Vol. 1 collects the twenty-one issues of Beanworld's original run, from 1984 through 1993, when Marder took a full-time job running Image Comics. (I gather that there are new Beanworld stories since 2007, when Marder left Image, and I'm now trying to figure out where to pick them up. There is not an Omnibus, Vol. 2 yet, sadly, and I'm trying to figure out how this Omnibus lines up with the smaller collections.)

Beanworld was unlike any other comics on the racks in 1984, and there's very little like it even now. It's fiction, with a slant towards metaphor or allegory, and no obvious relationship to any of the genres dominant in any part of American cartooning up to that point (superheroes, westerns, horror, romances, or the strip staples of gag-a-day, soap opera, and adventure). Instead, Beanworld is about an entirely separate world with its own complex rules and systems, and the story of the comic is how the inhabitants of that world work through those rules and systems, interact, and live together.

There is conflict, in the sense that different characters want and need different things, and some are thoughtless or selfish or just trouble-makers. But there are no villains, no one that needs to be defeated. There is a hero, though -- that's Mr. Spook, the guy in the center of the cover with the fork. Being the hero doesn't mean he's always right, or even the center of the stories: just that his role is to be the strong, assertive leader of his people when strong, assertive leadership is needed.

Since Beanworld is the story of a world, let's take a look at it -- this image shows the immediate surroundings. (There's a wider world further away, which will come into the stories eventually. But we start here.)

The Beans live on an island, in the shade of Gran'Ma'Pa, a tree-like living thing that is their ancestor and provider and center of their lives. That island floats above a sea, topped with water. Under the water are first The Four Realities, containing four different basic items -- slats, hoops, twinks, and chips -- that can be combined to make useful tools by someone with the skill and knowledge to do so. Below that is another community, the Hoi Polloi.

The Beans and the Hoi Polloi are dependent on each other: the Hoi Polloi need the "sprout-butts" that the Beans bring, and the Beans need the "chow" that the Hoi Polloi break the sprout-butts down into.  But, even though Beanworld is something like an ecological fable, there's not going to be a peaceful, happy, let's-all-sing-Kumbaya solution: Marder has set up this world so that the Beans need to fight for the chow every time. It all works -- and he spends time as these stories goes on examining various ways it could work better or worse -- but it doesn't work in a simplistic, "nice" way. It's complicated and competitive, like life itself.

All of the aspects of the Beans' lives are like that: superficial simplicity over deep complexity. Not just anyone can combine the building blocks of The Four Realities: that's another specific role among the Beans, like Mr. Spook is the hero. Their tool-maker is Professor Garbanzo. And we see other specific Beans "break out" to be something more particular in these stories, with a particular focus on Beanish, their first artist.

Beanworld is not a formal allegory: it doesn't line up to anything else. But it is deeply metaphorical in its use of simplified characters and objects, telling a widely applicable story that is both entirely its quirky specific self and parallel to a thousand things in our real world. The tag line since 1984 has been "a most peculiar comic book experience," and that's very apt -- but "peculiar" doesn't express how smart and deep and thoughtful Beanworld is. Marder's drawings look simple, but they're very precise, just like his writing. Beanworld is a comic with vast depths, simple enough on the surface for readers as young as grade school but implying and suggesting vastly more for those with more experience.

You probably shouldn't wait as long as I did to read it. That was not my smartest idea. But the great thing about a good book is that now is always the right time to read it. And now is a great time to read Beanworld.

1 comment:

Rusty said...

Next, find “Neil the Horse”! It’s not as good a Beanworld, but it’s as strange and magical.

Beanworld Omnibus Volume 2

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