I hope a Neil the Horse Valentine's Day Jamboree isn't far behind.

Larry Marder's Beanworld Holiday Special

See? Everything old can be new. Look at those happy beans - their holiday gift is visibility.

But it's not just the grub that's old-new. You can't tell from a jpeg, but this little Dark Horse publication embodies a pretty comprehensive set of current publication values vis-à-vis a color, pamphlet-format comic with (shall we say) modest sales expectations. The frills are minimal, and no space is wasted - the cover and interior stock are uniform, the front and back covers feature art (less on the back than the front), the inside-front cover offers helpful material for new readers above the credits and legal indicia, the inside-back cover presents an advertisement for related materials by the artist, and the 20 pages of guts in between are 100% story. It's still $3.50, which probably tells you something else about ye olde pamphlet format.

And yet, it's all rather true to the origins of this Larry Marder creation, which bubbled around in various forms until the artist xeroxed a stack of small booklets in 1983 and started giving them away to possibly-interested parties, some of their addresses culled from the letters pages of Cerebus and other titles of the day. Tales of the Beanworld would eventually be picked up by Eclipse Comics, becoming a seminal 'indy' title for many readers of the late '80s and early '90s, until publication suspended in 1993; Marder went on to nearly a decade and a half of comics-related administrative positions, including tenures as executive director of Image Comics and president of McFarlane Toys.

I haven't read much of Marder's comics work. Beanworld may have been one of those titles that every English-language alternative funnybook column/recommendations box on planet Earth mentioned at least once, but I don't think I ever saw a copy in person while perusing the not-very-adventurous racks of my local store and/or mall kiosk back in the day. It didn't help that the collected editions I'd later encounter never quite reached the end of the original run. But now Dark Horse is planning to reprint the whole thing in two omnibus hardcovers (vol. 1 is due in February), with the added whet-your-appetite bonus of a new online short and this very pamphlet.

Ah, but sign of the times - the next big Beanworld work, Remember Here When You Are There!, will be a bookshelf-ready original. I wonder how curious perusers will respond?

My own first impression of this comic, an old-timey pamphlet thing, is that Marder's work looks frankly modern, and not because it's suddenly in color; the artist's simple, iconographic character art, prone to repeated motions against limited environments, suggests a custom clip art webcomic (I get the feeling some digital cut 'n paste might actually be employed), while his fascination with a detailed fantasy creature environment suggests Mat Brinkman's Teratoid Heights as converted into a dialogue-heavy mainline newspaper strip, albeit an improbably large one.

That isn't to say Beanworld is fated to discover mass appeal in 2009, but that its particulars and idiosyncrasies -- mostly unchanged from 14 years' absence, by my glancing online study -- have aged pretty well, perhaps simply for being so especially particular and idiosyncratic. I sure can't think of any other comics present for the b&w boom that might seem as comfortable displayed on MySpace.

Granted, online resources have also suggested that the true power of Beanworld comes through accumulation, with bits and pieces of the comic's ecosystem becoming better defined with each subsequent issue, so maybe new readers like me are bound to miss something. This specific chapter certainly does spend a lot of space running through crucial activities of Marder's territory, which I suspect will prove familiar (and more resonant) to Beanworld diehards; I personally found certain aspects to be far more interesting than the whole, although I get the impression that the Beanworld 'whole' -- the "Big·Big·Picture" (yes, there's a formal term) -- probably isn't as important to the artist as his studies of stylized behavior.

The Beanworld, you see, is a small island sitting in a shallow lake, under which are four layers of Realities - the stuff of which things are made, lines and hoops and stars and wedges. Beans live on the island, playing and dancing by Gran'Ma'Pa, which is a sort of tree deity that provides them with the means to obtain nourishing Chow from the Hoi-Polloi, floating head-and-arm thingies that live in a sub-world beyond the Four Realities. There's a bunch of generic Beans in the population, but also a brainy Bean (Professor Garbanzo), an artistic Bean (Beanish), lil' baby beans (Cuties) and an authoritarian type (Mr. Spook) who leads Bean "sol'jers" down to acquire the Chow, which everyone enjoys by dumping it into the Chowdown Pool and literally soaking it up. So goes life in the Beanworld.

Marder's visual style is very amenable to getting all of this across cleanly - many of his characters are variations on simple core attributes (not unlike the stuff of the Realities), allowing them to be better cast as elements of a working ecosystem, while his landscapes provide scarce enough detail that every last object or item is charged with some assumption of purpose. This simplicity of elements occasionally results in something visually striking, like when nightime drops the whole book into black & white in lieu of anything getting dimmer beyond the empty sky.

But it's not an approach that's big on flair, or even very adept at conveying movement, which is an odd problem for a comic this focused on observation of activities to have - moving objects are often trailed by dotted lines, and the air around character forms becomes thick with frantic arcs and juts as proof of velocity, which gives Marder's visual study an almost academic cadance, like he's simultaneously trying to draw and mathematically formulate in cartoon shorthand a glob of stuff being thrown or someone lifting their arms.

Marder seems to compensate for his visual stiffness with exclamatory, sing-songey dialogue that sometimes boils into accounts of how folks stumbledunkled into a somethingness they can't quite riff into twined idealios - and you bet your ass the Cuties speak wike widdle kids! Combine that with the tweeness latent to some of Marder's environmental concepts (a sandy beach at one end of the island is actually named The Proverbial Sandy Beach), and you've got one comic book script that fully embraces the hazards of unabashed whimsy, in the face of symbol-like art and a sociological bent to boot.

Still, something tells me a devout reader would insist it's all part of the series' charm, and I might be inclined to eventually agree. There is an odd sparkle to Marder's digressive plotting, which eventually settles around a community effort to get the wee Cuties to start talking amongst themselves, for the good of their social development and the Bean society's future, since every element has its vital place in the living cycle. The answer may lie in the creation of toys (and hence the comic's tenuous holiday connection) from recycled Reality, which is something artist Beanish specializes in - the purpose of 'art' in the Beanworld appears to be that of evoking recognition (and thus education or enlightenment) through iconic representation, which is fitting, given the very iconic state of the Beans themselves.

That doesn't make Beanish's job any less strange or wonderful, though. Easily the most fascinating bits of business in this comic are part of Beanish's creative process, which involves his standing in a powerful circle and launching himself straight into the sun, whereupon he's transported to the summit of a phallic hill poking out of water. He then encounters a floating green female sunshine god/muse that causes green hearts to erupt from his body as he wriggles his arms and legs and floats in a state of BLISS (IN ALL CAPS), the ecstatic moment frozen in a large panel as his flailing limbs suddenly hang in the air, and then the hearts slowly break as his feet touch ground, and the experience concludes.

"'Now' has turned into "then,'" he thinks, before sparkling out of the zone and dropping from the sun back into the Beanworld.

It's far from the first take on the creative impulse as an erotic experience, but it fits in remarkably well with Marder's approach, neatly encoding the specifics in an all-ages form, yet missing none of the reverie or the frustration of its limitations. Or the small selfishness it engenders in Beanish, who totally does not want to share the feeling with anyone else. Such tiny bites of social complexity -- the Beans may need to take their Chow to preserve life all around, but Marder makes sure you know the Hoi-Polloi get hurt when Mr. Spook skewers 'em -- give this issue some added kick as it moves through the Beans' peculiar romps.

I can imagine a lot of ways the artist might build on this; recent interviews have suggested that Marder has the seasonal cycle in mind as a structure for his Beanworld megastory, which suggests a building aspect of poignancy, while playing into the series' studious nature (and nature study). It's definitely gone through the seasons of comics publishing, with frost now forming on the hanging leaves of the pamphlet format - a few might find it poignant enough that this is maybe the last floppy Beanworld comic for the foreseeable future, and just as it came back! Something tells me this stuff could look ok in any format, though - for all its faults, it never seems so much like a revival as a continuation, which is a rare thing.

And while I wouldn't call myself a convert to the study just yet, I can believe that lone ad on the inside-back cover when it tells me that just thinking about this stuff might be habit-forming.