The one time I’ve managed to make it out to the San Diego ComiCon was in 1999. I’d gone out with a friend, shared a hotel room, and mostly ate the overpriced crap inside the convention center, so as not to miss any panels. There wasn’t any particular writer or artist I was there to see. I was far too busy experiencing a near constant state of geekgasm to want to focus on anyone in particular. Probably best for all involved.
There were three people I did see, though, who have stuck with me all these years, and whose work I devour with a near childlike glee:
- Stan Sakai, whose Usagi Yojimbo is a surprisingly deep blend of funny animals with Japanese history, myth, and legend.
- Bob Burden, creator of Flaming Carrot and the Mystery Men (a far stranger group of heroes than even the movie based on them shows).
- Larry Marder, creator of one of the best comics of all time, ‘Tales of the Beanworld’.
I’ll almost certainly talk about Usagi Yojimbo and Flaming Carrot on other occasions, but today, it’s all about the beans.
‘Tales of the Beanworld’ is a title that defies description, and defies categorization. On the surface, it’s a story about anthropomorphized beans living on a small island and having fun adventures often involving the procurement of food. But the more you read Beanworld, the more you see. Marder has blended elements of cartooning, mythology, and spirituality, mixed with bits of his own life. Beanworld, as he says, is ‘not a product, it’s a process.” Take, for instance, the self-contained ecosystem of the Beanworld itself:
The central figure in the Beanworld is Gran’Ma’Pa, the great tree that provides the initial part of the food chain, the ‘sproutbutt’ a sort of sentient seed. The beans take this down through the ‘Four Realities’, a sea of shapes that provide them with materials for building things, and into the Hoi-Polloi territory. The Hoi-Polloi have the ‘chow’ that the beans need to eat. The beans take the chow, but leave the sproutbutt, which the Hoi-Polloi surround and then nurture. The sproutbutt eventually absorbs enough emotion from the Hoi-Polloi that it bursts, becoming chow.
It sounds a bit silly on the surface, but again, if you look at the details, how every little piece fits together, and nothing is wasted, you see the hidden depths that Marder has put into this work. Not only into the ecosystem, though. Marder has put pieces of his own life into the book. When his marriage was failing, he met another woman. In ‘Beanworld’, one of the beans was zapped to a secret mountain where he met ‘Dreamishness’, a living female sun. They loved each other, but he was told that he could not talk about her to anyone. It really isn’t necessary to know that Marder was writing about his own secret love affair, but when you do know, and go back to re-read those pages, it gives the text an added poignancy.
The multi-layered aspects of Beanworld were what initially drew me to the book. I’ve always been a fan of the old silent cartoons, and the beans’ simple appearance has always reminded me of them. Then when I read the book, I was amazed at all the detail that Marder puts into each page with these simple characters. Even in the map, you can see that every inch is covered with something to look at. And the stories he’s managed to tell with such simple tools have been deceptively elegant.
I’m not sure if I’ve managed to say anything new about Beanworld, or if I’ve simply said the same thing over and over again using different words: It’s amazing, beyond your ability to truly understand until you’ve read it. Once you do, you may not read the same Beanworld as I do. Everyone brings something of themselves to the book, and in turn gets something new out of it. I can’t say for sure what you would get from Beanworld, only that it would be wonderful.
Be seeing you.
PS. I told Larry Marder at that ComiCon that I was planning on getting a Beanworld-themed tattoo for my 30th birthday, which I eventually did. If anyone cares, I’ll post some pictures.