Beanworld's Back: Talking to Larry Marder

Larry Marder on Beanworld

Beanworld Holiday Special

Larry Marder’s getting his Christmas present early this year. The writer and artist, who’s mostly worked behind the scenes at Image Comics and McFarlane Toys, gets to see his cult hit Tales of the Beanworld return to comic shelves this week.

Regarded as one of the most unique comics of the black-and-white boom of the 1980s, Beanworld has retained such a loyal fan base that it even has its own Wiki. Douglas Wolk even named it as one of 100 things to love about comics in his acclaimed study Reading Comics.

The premise of Beanworld is deceptively simple: In an abstract corner of the universe or “The Big*Big*Picture,” a race of tiny beans go about their lives, whether it’s listening to the Boom’R Band, enjoying the latest creation of the artist Beanish, or checking out Professor Garbanzo’s latest invention.

The Beans live on a substance called “Chow,” which is made from “Sprout-Butts” produced in the Beanworld. The Sprout-Butts can only be refined into Chow by the Hoi-Polloi, a race of one-armed heads who live just outside the Beanworld, so the Beans occasionally have to go on raids to steal Chow from the Hoi-Polloi, leaving behind a Sprout-Butt in turn so there will be more Chow in the future.

This balanced ecosystem often finds itself threatened, though, either by forces from the other realities, or by the Beans’ own follies. Between crises, the Beanworld is a pleasant place, full of culture, invention and a real sense of wonder.

After a 15-year absence, Beanworld finally returns to comics with the Beanworld Holiday Special from Dark Horse , which is followed by a new graphic novel and reprints of the original series next year. We spoke with Marder a while back about the return of his creation, and now we’ve got the brains behind Beanworld with us to talk about the new stories, the changes in the industry since the series’ original run, and how it feels to return to the characters.

Newsarama: Larry, I’d like to start by talking about Beanworld’s cult following. This is a book that came out from a smaller publisher two decades ago, and hasn’t been in print for almost as long, but there’s still a loyal base of fans who are excited to see it return.

Larry Marder: That’s one of the funniest thing about Beanworld – people hold onto it. I mean, it’s been hard to find, it was never a huge-circulation comic to start out with, but for a handful of people, it’s been one of their favorites. And they’ve hung on to their issues, so it’s been hard to find them for a lot of fans.

NRAMA: But it has had that enduring appeal – what do you feel has helped it stick in people’s heads?

LM: I think it’s because it’s really different! (laughs) Don Thompson, Maggie Thompson’s late husband, said in his review of the first Beanworld that it was sui generis – unlike anything else. That really was true then, and I think it’s still true now.

The aesthetics of Beanworld are probably a little more acceptable to the mainstream today than it was 20 years ago, thanks in large part to things like Pixar and the Cartoon Network and just the general style of cartooning that exists today. But the storyline in and of itself has always seemed to be a little more offbeat than your standard comic book.

NRAMA: I remember it was the early 1990s when I read it, and it reminded me of an even more left-of-center version of Fraggle Rock.

LM: Yeah, you know, I don’t remember Fraggle Rock, and that’s funny, because that comparison’s come up a lot lately. People compare it to Fraggle Rock, and I think I need to actually go back and watch those, because people watched that when they were young seem to have ideas processing through their heads that are almost like cousins to the ideas that get processed through their imaginations when they read Beanworld.

NRAMA: Well, the major similarity is that both deal with fantasy world that have their own ecosystems, and the different characters have to work together to maintain that ecosystem.

LM: I like the idea of having a self-contained world with its own rules and laws and vocabulary. Those impulses, for me, really came from reading things like Dune. And of course Watership Down, which had its own rabbit-vocabulary. I read that when it came out, in the really formative time when was starting to get the ideas that would become Beanworld, and starting to weave them together.

And also a book that was a big influence on me, though it’s terribly flawed, was Hanta Yo by Ruth Bebe Hill, which was about the Lakota Indians, and had this huge glossary of Lakota words in the back, and you really had to learn the language.

Of course, a Native American tribe was a pretty self-contained environment, and lived by its own rules and traditions, pre-White Man invasion. So that, and the other things I mentioned, they sort of combined in my head, and Beanworld is what came out of that.

NRAMA: It’s funny, because when I first read Beanworld, I wouldn’t have guessed that. But a lot of the beans do fulfill traditional tribal rolls – Professor Garbanzo is sort of a medicine man, and Mr. Spook is the hunter, and the raids on the Hoi-Polloi are like raids on buffalo.

LM: They are the buffalo. (laughs) When I came up with the idea of a chow raid, and the way I depicted it, with the Chow Sol’jer Army breaking through the rings of Hoi-Polloi and stealing all the chow, it was very much based on a buffalo hunt, and also the practice of the most honorable thing a Native American could do, stealing a horse from a native tribe. Those were the images that I wanted to translate into my world.

NRAMA: Getting back to your return to Beanworld – you’ve said this was something that’s been at the back of your mind for the last 15 years.

LM: Yeah.

NRAMA: How many stories and ideas did you come up with during that time?

LM: A lot. (laughs) I have had a rough outline of the seasonal arc of Beanworld, because I consider Beanworld-time to be circular time. Tales of the Beanworld is what I consider to be the “Spring” stories. That story arc will be finished with next year’s graphic novel, Remember Here When You Are There. The next arc will be Summer, followed by Fall, and then Winter comes, and everything goes away, and they wake again in Springtime.

What happens in this arc of Beanworld is that unlike every other year, something goes horribly wrong with Springtime. And the Beans’ response to try and figure out why these things are going wrong.

This is following up on things that are spoken out loud in the original Tales of the Beanworld, particularly in the last issues. Those have never been collected, though we have had little appearances in things like Normalman/Megaton Man, because Beanworld’s always had a lot of fans among comic book people, and we get invited to do little cameos and things like that.

NRAMA: How’d you come to do this through Dark Horse?

LM: Well, we had to go through somebody, and I basically just wrote a letter to Mike Richardson at Dark Horse. We’d known each other for years; we’d see each other at conventions all the time, and trade stories about our tastes and comics and stuff, but we never talked about business and stuff – we were competitors!

So I basically wrote him a letter saying, “Would you like it if we came on board?” And he wrote me back about 20 minutes later saying, “I always thought that Beanworld belonged here, but I was too polite to ask!” And I wrote, “I was too polite to ask, too, but somebody had to ask, so I did!” And I’m here!

I really wanted to work with Diana Schutz. Diana was a supporter of Beanworld back when she was doing The Telegraph Wire for Comics & Comix, when Beanworld was a fanzine and she was not yet a comic book editor. I really wanted an opportunity to work with her, and I just wanted to be at Dark Horse, because it feels like Beanworld belongs there! I wanted to be alongside Usagai Yojimbo and Groo and those Harvey reprints…I just feel really comfortable in the editorial mix there.

NRAMA: Beanworld came out during the independent comics boom of the 1980s, which gave rise to a large number of creators and books that are either still around or still remembered today. What do you feel was unique about that era?

LM: I think that every 10 or 15 years or so, a new group of creators springs up that was influenced by everything including the previous group of creators. My group that came up in the 1980s, we were taking advantage of an economic distribution system that hadn’t been around before, the direct market, but we were also able to take our influences from not just the classic Marvel Comics, but also the other comics coming out at the time.

NRAMA: With the changed distribution system and today’s economy, do you feel today’s market is less amenable to creator-owned works than when you started Beanworld?

LM: I’m not sure that that’s true. The truth in there is that at the time I got started, Marvel and DC were in a deathmatch – one of many – where they were putting out an unbelievable number of reprint books, trying to squeeze the new books out of the shelves. I grew up in a period of chaos – companies going under left and right – and so it was a pretty rough time.

The biggest difference now is that there’s only one distributor into the comic book store marketplace. If they choose not to carry you, that’s a problem. But on the other hand, there’s the Internet. And I think this is actually a more exciting time, and there are an infinite number of opportunities.

For us back then, 20-something years ago, it’s true we might be in multiple catalogs, but if we wanted to communicate with the retailers or the fans, we had to do so through a bottleneck of a handful of publications. If (those publications) chose not to put our your press release, or they put your add on a bad page, you felt like you weren’t communicating with anybody.

Today, you have the ability to get on the Internet and network with other people who are networked with other people who are networked with other people…and if you have something good, people can find out about it. If somebody says something nice about you or something bad about you, either way, the story is going to be linked…I think this is the golden age of distribution in that sense.

And you have the bookstore market being keenly interested in the comic book medium. The interest has been spirited by manga, that’s true, but they are interested in comics, and that’s a good thing.

NRAMA: In terms of things like web payments or launching a self-published book, what do you feel needs to be adjusted in the current distribution paradigm?

LM: I’ll be honest with you – I didn’t feel like going into self-publishing this time. It’s too much work, in the sense that you’re going it alone, and the publishing takes you away from doing the work.

The opportunities you get as a self-publisher are much smaller than if you’re aligned with an entity that already has momentum and clout, and there are very few Jeff Smiths in this world who can go it alone. If you want to break into that gigantic bookstore marketplace, I think it’s good to have alliances with someone who knows what they’re doing…which is what I’ve done!

NRAMA: Well, one thing is that you are seeing more bookstore distribution of all-ages graphic novels, many of which are grouped with the children’s books. Do you see Beanworld reaching that larger audience in its collected editions?

LM: I hope it does! I always wrote it for adults – I still write it for adults. But it appeals to the different audiences. The younger audience might not get some of the irony and the satire, but there are certain things in Beanworld that are nested in a kind of storytelling that’s a bit simpler. That’s why I think Beanworld has always done well – adults and children can read it together and have different experiences.

Well, everyone who reads Beanworld has a different experience. I have no idea what it’s like to read Beanworld. (laughs) I know what it’s like to create it, and what it’s like to read everyone else’s books, but I have no idea what it’s like to read Beanworld, because I live with it, and I struggle with it. I think I know, though. I’m not sure.

NRAMA: You mentioned the unlimited aspect of the Internet earlier. Have you considered experimenting with Beanworld on the Internet, doing larger, navigating pages or the like?

LM: I’ve always wanted to that. As far back as art school, I was thinking about the infinite canvas, and as I showed in the first Beanworld trade paperback, I was doing storytelling that was going up walls, and around corners. I always had that format in mind, but I don’t have time for it until I finish this next graphic novel in the spring. And then, as we get next year, maybe we can do more of that sort of thing. But I don’t understand HTML and those sorts of things yet, though I’ll get there.

The thing about the jobs I’ve had in the last 15 years is that there were always people to do these things – you can get an idea, but you have a department with highly talented people who can figure out how to do what you want to do. And now I want to figure that out for myself.

NRAMA: I want to talk about the jobs you’ve done, because you’ve remained visible in comics for the past 15 years, but in a behind-the-scenes capacity. And a lot of people don’t really know what goes on at some of the jobs you’ve done. Would you be interested in talking about them?

LM: Sure! I was executive director of Image Comics from 1993 to 1999, so I was there during the early years, the crazy years. And then from 1999 to 2007, I was the president of McFarlane Toys. So I have been right in the center of basically all the business trends of the last 15 years. In some instances, I was a participant; in others, I was a negotiator.

It’s really funny, because – and this is a funny transition that happened over the years – the reaction was, “I can’t believe that Beanworld guy is running Image Comics!” And now it’s, “I can’t believe one of those McFarlane Toys guys is doing a thing called Beanworld!” (laughs)

NRAMA: What did you do at McFarlane Toys?

LM: My responsibility was that I was the liaison between Todd McFarlane and the rest of his companies except for the Hollywood entertainment division. I oversaw, supervised, suggested and edited the activities of really, basically, everybody else, so Todd could be off doing his creative thing. It was really, really fun for a very long time. And then it wasn’t.

Basically, the toy business just got so complicated that I didn’t want to be involved in any more. I was tired! I never moved to Arizona; I commuted every week. On Monday morning, I would fly in to Phoenix and on Friday evening, I would fly back. I was on the road constantly; even in the middle of what I just described, I was making day trips to visit movie studios during the week over licensing issues; I spent six weeks a year at McFarlane Designs in New Jersey; I made four to six trips a year to Hong Kong and China. That gets very, very, very wearying. (laughs)

NRAMA: I’m kind of surprised you’re alive after all that…

LM: (laughs) Well, I wanted to stay alive!

NRAMA: Did you have any time to draw?

LM: I drew constantly. I drew all the time, during meetings, on the plane….I’d have jet lag and be unable to sleep, and the ideas would just come pouring out. I have this one sequence that was rather good, and it’s in the graphic novel next year, and I drew it during the Tony Twist trial, when I should have been paying attention! (laughs)

Stuff would just pop out of nowhere, and I would scribble it down as fast as I could, and then file it away. But I didn’t really know how any of it fit in with anything else. And then, about two years ago, it all started making sense. And the more that it made sense, the more I wanted to get back to it.

Then, when I started my blog, and I found out how many people still liked Beanworld and missed it, that was a tremendous encouragement to me! There would be years – years – when I would go to San Diego and represent McFarlane toys, and maybe one person would say something to me about Beanworld.

So I sort of thought it was lost and forgotten, and I was wrong. (laughs) There were a lot of people out there who had really, really great memories of Beanworld and were eager for it to come back. And that’s so great. The best marketers for Beanworld have always been Beanworld fans, the people who show an issue to someone and go, “Just read it!”

NRAMA: Now, you represent someone who had this idea in your head for many years before doing it as a comic – and also a creator who’s come back to their book after a long absence. What words do you have for the people out there who might have an idea they’re reluctant to get down on paper, or a story they’ve never finished?

LM: The same advice I was given by people: Plug. Just plug away and work, work, work. And don’t misinterpret friendly criticism for “I don’t like you.” And don’t be afraid to show your stuff to people. I was afraid to show my stuff to people for a long time. Then, I finally did, and I was published within a year!

The main thing is, if you have something to say, then say it! And you can only get better by working, and continuing to work. If you have something unique and original to say, people will find it, and they will appreciate it. Right now, I think this is the best time for comics. There’s more material out there than ever for the curious. And the key word there is “available.”

Beanworld HolidaySpecial is in stories (now/Wednesday, December 17th). The first collection of Tales of the Beanworld hits shelves in February 2009. For more on Larry Marder, visit his blog at larrymarder.blogspot.com or myspace.com/Beanworld_press.

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