One of the few pleasures of being young in the 1980s was the thrill that came from wandering into a comics shop when the new comics came out. In those pre-internet days, you had no idea what the hell you were going to find. Similarly, if you went to another city and found a comics store you’d never seen before, you had the chance not only to pick up back issues not available in your home town, but also to be exposed to a new selection of titles. This mattered, because in the heady days around the alt-comics explosion of the mid-80s, all kinds of oddities flourished. Most of these books were awful, some were good, one or two were excellent, and many were just plain weird. One thinks of George Alec Effinger’s Neil & Buzz in Time and Space, or Arn Saba’s Neil the Horse — I don’t know how to begin describing these things.
Even the popular books were almost self-consciously odd; I mean, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Really? And the more self-consciously artistically ambitious books were also made out of unexpected materials: Cerebus, combining parody of old Marvel Conan comics with the Marx Brothers and Canadian politics; or Love & Rockets, mixing magic realism and women’s wrestling and punk and Archie comics. But the point is, whatever the level of artistic or commercial success, you just had no idea what you’d find on a store’s shelves — you’d see some fifth-generation Elfquest knock-off beside a sensitive and realistic story of a young boy in the Depression wandering the country with a tramp calling himself the King of Spain, or a cheap comics bio of a heavy metal group beside a wise-ass story about Christ returning to earth to fight the world’s only super-hero, the Anti-Christ. I’m not saying the comics field was producing better material then than now, only a wilder mix of things; and, somehow, the fact that it was all contained within a single store — that comics specialty stores were the only place you’d find them, mixed in with Marvel and DC on the one hand and The Comics Journal on the other — gave this disparate collection of stuff a sense of unity, of cohesion.
It’s this latter point, I think, that distinguishes comics-as-they-were from the webcomics field of the moment, which is the closest area I can think of to something like the weirdness of the comics field of the 80s. There are a lot of different webcomics out there, covering a ridiculously wide range of genres; but without the store as a place where these things are all physically gathered together, the feel, to me, is much looser. Then again, it may be only that so far webcomics haven’t yet come up with an Alan Moore or a Love & Rockets; a creator or a work that hits the heights of artistic and formal ambition. At any rate, if such a person or creation exists, I’ve not heard of them yet. One assumes it’s only a matter of time.
But if the current era doesn’t have quite the same creative feel of the years past, it does have this going for it: masses of material, from that time and others, are coming back into print (which was certainly a characteristic of times gone by; classics weren’t easily available. Curiously, although this was obviously a hardship in many ways, in some ways it might actually have been useful — not everything hailed as a classic can survive a close look with older and wiser eyes). So this extended trip down memory lane is all by way of trying to begin talking about Larry Marder’s Tales of the Beanworld, which is now being reprinted by Dark Horse, along with all-new material.
Very roughly, it’s the story of a society of anthropomorphic beans living in a wonderland-like secondary world — simpler than Alice’s wonderland, the sense of the Beanworld as a place which operates by its own rules of logic and character is still vaguely similar. Much of the story of the comics had to do with various members of the Beanworld — its hero Mister Spook, or its artist Beanish, or its scientist Professor Garbanzo, for example — trying to solve some riddle of the Beanworld’s nature or exploring the world in some new direction. With, always, further riddles appearing once one was solved.
The Beanworld has its own logic, but it also has its own feel. It’s a little like what one thinks of as an underground comic, especially in its early issues; but it’s also gentler, Seussian, and more mythic. The first couple of issues, among the nine collected in the first reprint volume Wahoolazuma! (a cry of joy in the Beanworld), have a satirical tone which is immediately abandoned — for the better, as the book actually gets deeper and more involving without it.
Reading Tales of the Beanworld — now just Beanworld, in its new edition — is like nothing else I know. Not only like no other comics experience, but no other experience overall. It’s gentle, but also ominous, in the way a fairy tale is ominous. It’s vaguely like a computer game, as actions have consequences and the world is built on interlocking riddles; but it’s more organic than that, and the characters are stronger. But then again, those characters are archetypal, as in a folktale. But then on the other hand, the vocabulary and sometimes imagery is more modern than that.
So Beanworld is a mix of a lot of things, and the result is something wholly individual. Something compelling, too; it had been years since I’d read an issue of Beanworld — years since a new issue had been published — but everything came back as I read the collection, in a way that’s unusual with old comics. The thing sticks in the mind.
Some of that may just be due to Marder’s way with craft. Beanworld is in a lot of ways a simple book, literally suitable for readers of any ages, but the comics storytelling is very clever, notably in terms of the Marder plays with page layouts and panel transitions. It’s incredibly clear work, which is impressive given that Marder’s laying out the workings of a world pretty far removed from common experience.
In the end, perhaps the most impressive thing about Beanworld is the sense that it’s managed to find a way to do without conflict as a drive for narrative. It’s vaguely like a really good Hayao Miyazaki film, where the more you learn about what’s happening and why, the more you come to realise that apparent conflicts are simply reflections of a lack of understanding; that, in fact, things are unfolding as they should, and our own slow increase of awareness is itself a part of that unfolding process. At its best, this sort of story is involving, teaching us perhaps something about ourselves that can’t be got at in any other way. Beanworld is in that class of stories; it operates at an almost preconscious level. It bills itself as “A Most Peculiar Comic Book Experience”, and it is that. It’s also a valuable one, and one I’m glad to see back on shelves.