1985: Tales of the Beanworld

Tales of the Beanworld (1985) #1-21 by Larry Marder.

I had the first half dozen issues of Tales of the Beanworld when I was a teenager, but for some reason or other I stopped buying it. Reading these now, I don’t really understand why: These comics are so up my alley it’s scary.

But anyway, the first five issues aren’t branded as Eclipse comics. In the first issue, Eclipse isn’t mentioned, but Eclipse’s owner and editor-in-chief is. I think the deal is that Larry Marder basically did all the editorial work, and then delivered a finished package to Eclipse, who then did all the practical work? It’s never made explicit.

In later issues, Eclipse is listed as a “distributor”, which is a perhaps slightly misleading way of putting it.

From the get-go, Marder insist “This ain’t ‘jes another funny animal comic book!”, and he shows us the layout of Beanworld on the inside front cover, and then over the next few pages…

… he basically describes the entire Beanworld ecological cycle. Over the duration of the book, he’d return to this again and again, reenacting the ritual in a hypnotic way.

The beans themselves also explicitly states the premise of their world. “The life gran’ma’pa provides is perfect as long as we each follow our given jobs!!” At this point you may be thinking: Is this on the up-and-up, or is it foreshadowing of a fall? Is this an utopia?

Marder is right in that Tales of the Beanworld is a most peculiar comic book experience. He makes many things about the foundation of his world immediately obvious, but it’s also clear that what we’re being presented with as readers is just a tiny, tiny sliver of what we’re going to learn about this world later.

The first issue has perhaps the grisliest scene in the series, where unknown visitors (never to be seen again) attack Hoi-Polloi to kill and eat them. Well, to can them, to eat them later. Marder somehow manages to frame this in a way that is enticing: This is something that shows us that the world is much bigger and more complicated than what we were first told. In a less proficient hand, the same action might just have seem random, as in “Eh, he’ll just have whatever happens when he thinks about it.”

And the reason, it turns out, that reading it gives us this feeling of an enormous mysterious universe is that it really is that: Marder had been thinking up Beanworld for a decade when Beanworld #1 was published.

Starting with issue two, Marder puts a recap of previous issue’s happenings on the inside front cover. This is most handy, since at the start of the series, he was only doing a couple of issues per yer.

And from the very first letters column, the readers are going all in on this world: They want to know how it all fits together and what the mysteries are. And in many cases they formulate huge theories about it all, which Marder usually doesn’t comment on explicitly, wanting to leave the revelations to the main part of the book.

When you’re doing a work that has a lot of unexplained things (or things that aren’t explicit), it all falls apart if the reader just doesn’t care. If the reader isn’t convinced that it’s worthwhile to spend time thinking about the work; trying to piece it all together, you just get a hodge-podge of randomness. In that way, Beanworld reminds me of the early works of Paul Auster. There’s a way things hang together in non-explicit ways that makes it exhilarating to read as things slot together in your mind. I think Marder achieves the same effect.

And I haven’t talked about the artwork, because the concept of the book just takes up so much of the brain bandwidth. I think Marder’s artwork is deceptively simple. He conveys the action so clearly on a panel-to-panel basis that it becomes transparent, in a way. But how can you not look at that expressive running from that bean up there and not enjoy it as a single piece of artwork, too?

Beanish is an artist, so we get some ruminations on art in the comic itself. Marder talks a lot about Duchamp in the letters pages.

Oh, the letters pages. Readers aren’t just spending a lot of time thinking about the Bean world, but also sends in dozens of illustrations per issue. It quickly has a very clubhouse feeling going on, which is always a good sign.

Did I mention the repetition? Let me repeat myself: There’s a lot of repetition in these comics, and Marder never explains why he’s doing it. We’re shown minute variations on this scene in about every other issue. It has the feeling of dreamlike ritual, not recaps.

The comics are also brisk reads, and these repeated scenes contribute to that, because you know what they’re going to say.

Marder explains that he himself was also called “Beanish” since the 70s. But that Beanish in the book isn’t himself.

When you’re working with these really pared-down character designs, things tend towards abstraction if you zoom in too much. Which I kinda like.

Beanworld was nominated for a Kirby award in 1987, but didn’t receive it, I think?

“Haunting quality.” Yeah, that’s right.

For a comic book that is very explicit about some things (like the beans’ life cycle), it’s schtumm about other things, like how to interpret the interactions between the beans and hoi polloi (I mean, the beans are torturing them to steal food from them) and the relationship between Beanish and that being up there, who is extremely controlling. Beanish loves her anyway.

Are the beans bad people for attacking hoi polloi? Is Dreamish good or bad? What’s going on?

Sometimes Marder is goaded into spilling the beans (what a card!) on the Beanworld in the letters column, instead of waiting until the time has come to explain things within the comics. He only does this a couple of times before he promises to not do that any more.

“The life gran’ma’pa provides is perfect as long as we all carry out our duties.” The more times it’s repeated, the scarier it gets.

And then Marder does the most controversial thing he could possibly do: He participates in the Total Eclipse crossover event comic. I can just see the readers running out en masse to buy some pearl chains so that they could clutch them.

I wonder whether Marder was always this sure of himself, or whether the (deserved) accolades he was getting at this point were going to his head. “It’s the weirdest, most unique comic on the face of the earth” he would apparently tell people at comics cons, while giving away free comics.

Then again, his day job was in advertising.

Beanish returns from Total Eclipse and sums up the experience.

The inevitable backlash begins: The Total Eclipse thing sucks, and now Beanworld sucks, too. And this is the first letter-writer who complains about the repetitions. (And it seems to me that Marder cut down heavily on the re-enactments of the rituals over the next few issues, which rather makes me wonder whether this critique stung a bit.)

The reader participation thing goes into overdrive with the “do-it-yourself Beanworld” strips. In every issue, he’d draw one wordless four-panel sequence, and people would send in their versions of the piece.

By issue #14, Marder cut down on the number of pages for the main story, and did a back-up feature about the Goofy Jerks. I rather feel like these strips are a distraction, because they tell us so much that the beans themselves don’t know. Usually the information we’re given is limited, pretty much, to what the beans themselves learn about the world, so it feels like a way to cheat to give us more backstory.

And the main plotlines start dragging out as a result. In the earlier issues, things happen so fast, but by this point, there’s at least half a dozen plots going at the same time, and with only 20 pages per issue of story, they all evolve at a glacial pace.

Marder’s artwork continues to evolve, though. I like the stippling.

Marder agreed to do a limited hardcover edition with an original sketch in each copy, because he didn’t think it would sell much. It sold 650 copies, which was then a pretty big job, all of a sudden.

Marder tells us that distribution has gotten spotty, but somehow the sales are at the same level (or similar).

Marder announces that he’s going to go for a bimonthly schedule. Uh-oh. That’s never a good sign.

Marder also steps up the informational quotient steeply in these final issues, which means that, basically, all the stories we’d been following grind to an abrupt halt while we’re presented the mysteries of the universe. And learning this stuff is fascinating, weirdly enough, but I also want to know what’s going on with the beans.

And for the first time, we’re being told that there is something very wrong with the Beanworld.

So Marder got a new job and basically had no time to do Beanworld any more. *sigh*

Wow! Ron Regé, Jr. (I assume) writes in with a strip talking about being a Beanworld fan as a child. Neat! He is, of course, a major comics artist these days.

The final two issues are all about the origins of the Beanworld, and it’s bone-chillingly harrowing. I mean it! The first one of themis a fucking nail-biting issue.

It took two years for that issue to appear, and Marder explains that he’s now become The Nexus Of All Comic Book Realities. I.e., he was involved with Image Comics and creators’ rights stuff, as well as being employed by a comic book store chain and publishing a fanzine for industry insiders.

I think he’s gotten a lot of blow-back for this stuff which is, you know, kinda embarrassing.

The cover price is now 2x what it was at the start, which I guess means that it probably was selling extremely little at the end. (When circulation goes down, you have to increase the price to cover the costs.)

And in the final issue Marder tells us what he’d earlier told us in the letters page.

T. M. Maple was the most prolific letters writer of the 80s. I probably have more pages where he appears than most comics artists I follow. It’s an insane amount of writing. I’m glad I’m not excessive like that!

But by 1993, he’d apparently stopped writing letters, but he made an exception for Beanworld, as he should.

And then it’s over: No announcement that this was the final issue or anything.

I can’t really say that the quality of Tales of the Beanworld ever sagged during its run: It was always fascinating and fun. But the direction it took was deeply unsatisfactory. As Marder had less and less time to spend on Beanworld, the more he seemed to find it vital to impart to the readers all the secrets of his world, instead of letting these appear in a natural way while telling stories about the beans.

Still, (re-)reading these comics now has been a joy.

But what did the critics think? Steve Monaco writes in The Comics Journal #103:

His bean characters are surprisingly engaging, and the storyline is unpredictable and fun. In his comments at the back of the book, Marder states that this first issue of Tales of the Beanworld comes about after an incubation period of 10 years. The hard work shows in the complexity yet smoothness, Pf the narrative, and the imagination behind the premise. The book is great fun and is highly recommended to anyone looking for a comic that’s definitely Off the beaten path.

Hm… and that’s all I’m able to find in the Journal archives of contemporary reviews. There’s one published in 1994, but isn’t very interesting. Marder complained in one of the letters pages that he’d been disappointed that he’d gotten almost no reviews and no interviews during Beanworld’s run, which is surprising to me, because I thought it had a pretty high profile back then.

I guess I thought wrong.

Marder didn’t return to the beans until fifteen years later, but he’s now published three paperbacks with new material, as well as reprinting the original run. I had no idea, but I’ve now rectified the situation and ordered them all. Weirdly enough, the first of these new volumes is now severely out of print and commands a hefty price on the used books market.

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