Those already familiar with Marder’s Beanworld, those who caught it the first time around, as an independent book in the ‘80s, don’t need a review, of course. For them, a simple, “Hey, Dark Horse is collecting Beanworld!” should suffice.
But the current generation of readers, those of us who have never read Beanworld, or would respond to that same news with a, “Um, what’s a Beanworld?” How to review it to that audience, an audience I myself was in until a few days ago?
Scott McCloud, a guy who knows a thing or two about explaining comics, suggests in his introduction to the volume (originally penned in 1989), that there’s probably little point in doing so.
“You’re the first person on earth to read this comic,” McCloud writes, “Others have been here…but they all saw something different, and they all left thinking different things…you’re the only one able to see it this way. Your way.” Because of how truly collaborative the work is between the creator and his audience, McCloud explains, the reader inevitably brings a lot to the table when it comes to the perception of this work.
To a certain extent, all comics—all art, really—is a work of collaboration between author and audience, but Beanworld asks a lot more from the reader, and, in fact, seems specifically engineered—either through intent or accident—to remain just abstract enough, just self-contained enough that this enormous amount of collaboration is encouraged…and rewarded.
Knowing that, even the reading of Beanworld sounds a bit daunting, and the first few pages do little to assuage a reader’s trepidation. There’s a “Beanworld Glossary” full of all these nonsense words and strange characters next to little images, which read like a booklet for a videogame I’ve never played or even heard of. Then there’s a map of “The Known Beanworld,” presenting a sort of bizarre, overwhelming cosmology.
But by the time you’ve made it through the first eight pages, a sort of day in the life of Beanworld, you’re up to speed, and the magic of the work starts to set in.
You stop noticing the simplicity of the artwork and stop thinking of it as artwork at all. The figures no longer seem like highly animated drawings, but almost to move. Characters at first set apart from the rest only by their shape or their hat begin to develop personalities. The strange vocabulary and lingo becomes one you yourself can start to understand and speak. You start to see through the nonsense to the drama and logic beneath it; maybe as an appreciation of the complex construction, or maybe simply as an experience.
Or at least, that’s what it was like for me. McCloud indicates it will be different for everyone, and that may be, but something similar must occur for most readers, or I doubt Dark Horse would be collecting this book a few decades later for a new generation of comics readers and the market for graphic novels that didn’t even exist when Marder was making these comics.
Usually I’d attempt an explanation of the premise or summarize the events of a comic I was reviewing, but in this case I doubt that will help any more than it hurts. Suffice it to say that Beanworld is a sort of universe unto itself, populated by bean-shaped sentients with spindly limbs, only a handful of which have their own particular names and functions within the society.
Their lives are spent mostly on survival, although they also appreciate leisure, and engage in sport and music and, midway through this volume, discover visual art. Their survival is dependent on a rather complex cycle with several different players, including a silent, god-like tree called Gran’Ma’Pa, its talking sprouts, and giant heads with one arm apiece.
It reminded me quite a bit of Krazy Kat (in terms of language and approach to conflict and character), and old dawn-of-Hollywood-animation era cartoons (in terms of character design), both of which were almost certainly influences on Marder. It also reminded me a bit of The Smurfs, which may or may not have been an influence, and Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock show and (as I mentioned) video games, which weren’t influences, but are rather just personal points of reference.
It’s not exactly like any of those things, of course, but comparisons can be made. What Beanworld is most like, however, is Beanworld.
It’s not the sort of world of imagination you lived in as a child, but it is the sort of world of imagination that Marder must have lived in as a child, and which he reconstructs for you to live in as an adult seeing things as a child again. It’s not exactly a modern work of mythology, but it certainly taps into the same things that mythology does, and works in much the same way mythology does.
So a little while and a lot of words later, I don’t think I’ve made much progress in actually reviewing Beanworld.
Perhaps I should have just stuck with, “Hey, Dark Horse is releasing a collection of Beanworld!” for both those who are familiar with Marder’s unique work and those who have never heard of it. For the latter, those who might reply, “Uh, what’s a Beanworld?”, all I can really add is, “Don’t worry about it. Just read it. You’ll like it, trust me.”
Well, trust Marder anyway. I’m certainly glad I did.
Dark Horse’s Larry Marder’s Beanworld Book 1: Wahoolazuma! is currently scheduled for February 11 release. You can check out a three-page preview of it here. More images and info at LarryMarder.blogspot.com.