Over twenty years ago, during the black-and-white indie comics boom of the 80s and 90s that gave us Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Love And Rockets and Flaming Carrot among others, there was one series that stood out even above the rest. Drawn with minimalist art and cartoony style, at first Beanworld appeared to be a title for children but that was far from the reality. Inspired by Native American myth and possessing an infectious writing style that borrowed equally from slang and advertising, Beanworld was utterly unique at the time, and remains unique to this day. To miss it would mean being ignorant of the full sweep of the possibility of comics as a medium.
The joys of reading Beanworld are many. The writing has a pop and poetry little seen in this age. The artwork is stylish and engaging. The characters are energetic and appealing, and their secrets are many. But just these things would not be enough for me to so heartily recommend it.
The Beanworld is a separate reality, with its own physical laws and types of matter. For example, the floating musical notes that comics use to represent music, and the hearts that indicate love, are both a real and tangible thing in the Beanworld, and have special properties! One of the greatest pleasures of the series is discovering how it all works. Creator Larry Marder warns us at the beginning not to look for scientific or magical processes, but that doesn't mean that the Beanworld doesn't have processes that fit neither description. These processes have a deep consistency and logic to them, and the Beans are as in the dark as to how they fit together as we are. The methods they use throughout the series to deduce the physical laws of the Beanworld look similar to the scientific method of our own universe. The Beans even have their own scientist, Professor Garbanzo, who both invents tools to improve Beanlife and searches for the underlying thread that ties it all together.
The Beanworld has a spiritual side too. The Beans' patron deity is the awesome, silent GRAN'MA'PA, a tree-like being that stands in the center of their world that provides subtle guidance and sustenance to the tribe. It is the center of the Beanworld, its lifecycle, and its greatest mysteries. Gran'Ma'Pa is closer to an indigenous culture's idea of godhood than the Christian idea. Another prominent character is Dreamishness, who could be considered a kind of sun goddess. There are also creatures that come down from the sky, like Big-Fish and Mr. Teach'm, who could be considered gods or spirits themselves. Yet for all this mythology, the characters are rarely full of themselves, and are nearly all friendly.
That is perhaps the greatest surprise of Beanworld. There is actually not a huge amount of intra-character conflict going on! Most of the characters' quests are against the mysteries of the universe (which are many), of the nature of their lives (like the Beans' war against the Hoi-Polloi), or of misunderstandings between them. The Beans' adversaries, the Hoi-Polloi, are often friendly when approached without the intent of thievery. While the Hoi-Polloi and the Beans fight each other as a necessary part of their lives, it is understood, between them, that they are really partners existing in a symbiotic relationship. Refreshingly, there appears to be no real source of *evil* in the Beanworld; all of the characters have their own motives that sometimes put them at odds, but there is no pure meanness or spite. Even the "villains" in the early comics have their own priorities and desires.
And so we observe the central irony of Beanworld. It's this: although the art work is minimalist and symbolic, and although the Beanworld's physical systems are often alien to our own, the absence of that good-and-evil, light-and-darkness worldview that permeates so many other comics (not to mention movies) means that Beanworld is one of the most realistic comics you could hope to read.