There’s never been anything in comics like Larry Marder’s Beanworld, before or since, and although the last collection came out in 1999, it’s still very much missed.
Marder combined his original symbology with elements of Native American myth, the influence of Marcel Duchamp, and thoughts on ecology, community, and the nature of art. There wasn’t always a story so much as an exploration of some sort of philosophy, and much of it remains unexplained.
That might be why it’s still so fondly remembered. It was challenging and unique, and as such it spoke to many non-traditional comic readers.
I’d talk more about the characters and premises, but the BeanWeb site already has a wonderful illustrated introduction to the series. Start with their Glossary.
Here’s another explanation and remembrance of the series (link no longer available).
Was it a metaphor for a passionate environmentalist view of the world? Was it a political allegory for the way governments and their people interact? Was it an exploration of the human condition and an examination of the soul? It could have been all of those things and more. Certainly Tales of the Beanworld was Larry Marder’s labor of love
The special characters have individual looks and functions. Professor Garbanzo crafts tools. Beanish creates art. Mr. Spook leads the army. The Boom’r Band play music. Together, they explore their world and seek answers to mysteries and debate.
The beans work when they need to eat and dance and sleep otherwise. When too much of their Chow is available, they become lazy, demonstrating the need for honest work and a balanced ecology. The pages are more designed than drawn, using their black-and-white contrast to distinctive effect.
At the end of the first book, Marder explains why Beanworld doesn’t come out more frequently (at the time, he was the Executive Director of Image Comics, distracted by business affairs) and says “I will work on Beanworld for the rest of my life.” If that’s still true, I hope that he’ll share it with the rest of us sometime.
At Comics Should Be Good, Mark Andrew has a similar complaint, more forcefully expressed.