Larry Marder's brilliant comic series Tales of the Beanworld is hard to describe to the first-time reader, and it doesn't help that the first two issues contain important events that have seldom been repeated since, outside of reprints. It is a series with endless subtlities, a wealth of means for interpretation, just abstract enough to easily lift into metaphor, but concrete enough to be readable as ordinary stories. The first issue saw print under the Beanworld Press imprint in 1985. Three issues later and it switched to Eclipse Comics for distribution. Its initial run concluded, with many plotlines unresolved (Beanish and Dreamishness, Heyoka, the Mystery Pods, Mr. Spook's Fork and others), in 1993. It has recently resumed publication with distribution by now being handled by Dark Horse Comics. The first new story is "? and !", which was published on the web in "MySpace Dark Horse Presents", and can be found at:
The major players are:
Beans: Little green dudes. In color stories, those with red feet are girls and those with blue feet are boys, but other than pronoun choice there is no difference between them; beans are mostly asexual. Most of them work in the Chow Sol'jer Army, a somewhat dangerous job that brings sustenance to the Beans. The army is composed of Fling'n Flank'rs and Chow Pluck'rs. Most beans are more-or-less interchangeable and don't have names. They don't seem to mind this, being mostly a communal sort, but once in a while a Bean shows signs of individuality, signifying an upcoming Break Out.
Gran'ma'pa: Central divinity of the Beanworld, and both its spiritual guardian and source of sustenance. Appears as a huge (to the beans) black-and-white tree-like structure with strange images buried in its canopy. All the beans hold it in great reverence. It does not speak (we learn this may be due to damage sustained from an unknown disaster), but the Sprout-Butts it produces can be very vocal. It is known to listen to Bean prayers, and sometimes takes direct action to solve problems, such as granting Beans the use of the Flip-Flop Tool.
Mr. Spook: One being who acts like one of the tribe, but is technically a bit different from the Beans, is Mr. Spook, leader of the Chow Sol'jer army, hero of the Beanworld, and utterly awesome comic creation. It his job to survey Gran'ma'pa to notice of a Sprout-Butt will fall that day. If it does, he tries to catch it with his trusty Fork on its first bounce, and then leads the Chow Sol'jer Army on the following Chow Raid. Mr. Spook is somewhat conservative, distrustful of new things, but is a steadfast and loyal ally and friend. Mr. Spook's origins are partly mysterious, but we know that he was taken from the Beanworld for a while by the Goofy Jerks and taught to be a hero by Mr. Teach'm. (Both are entites from outside the Beanworld.)
Professor Garbanzo: A.K.A. "Proffy." She's the thinker Bean, distinctive in her large eyes and floppy wizard's hat. Her Fix-It Shop is the Beanworld general storehouse, holding tools and other objects assembled from the Four Realities and scavenged from elsewhere, things that "might come in handy some day." Her two roles in Beanworld culture are to make tools for Bean use (most notably spears and Pluk'n Wands for use by the Army) and to research new tools. An accident had by Beanish involving with the strange Mystery Pods that showed up at the end of issue #2 and "Twinks," to that point considered the least useful material from the Four Realities revealed to Proffy the existence of the Float Factor. Her experimentation and willingness to explore new ideas sometimes causes her and Mr. Spook to argue, but this hasn't driven any serious rifts between the two. Her deductive processes show a keen mind.
Note that, although I refer to Proffy as a Break Out, technically her origin is special. It's explained in the Beanworld side-issues "Beanworld Zero" and "How Proffy First Discovered the Four Realities."
Beanish: Has spiky "hair" (really, Chips worn on his back). He is the artist bean, and appears to be destined for the role of tribe shaman. His Break Out was the first demonstration of the process in the comic. He produces Look-See Shows for the beans, model representations of other people and objects in the Beanworld, which the other beans compare to their subjects: "Look. See. Compare. Decide." Mr. Spook, however, has never been able to see what a show's subject is meant to represent.
Every day at noon, Beanish retreats to his Secret Sketch somewhere in the Beanworld, a collection of twinks and Mystery Pods that transports him to visit Dreamishness, apparently a manifestation of the Beanworld sun and a divine being in her own right. Beanish is not allowed to talk about his visits with her, a fact that causes him worry and serves to distance him from the other inhabitants of the Beanworld. Proffy has seen him leave on his visits, but does not know where he goes; to her, it looks like Beanish has been shot into the sky, then returned.
Boom'r Beans: They are recognizable by their huge bouffant hairdos. The first beans to Break Out, these three beans are musicians. They accompany and accentuate many Beanworld activities with music, providing rousing songs when the army leaves on a Chow Raid and when everyone soaks in the Chowdown Pool, and other tunes, or "Booms" in their lingo. The other characters have remarked that their slang is slowly becoming more incomprehensible to them. Personality-wise, they are the most easy-going of the Break Outs.
Some of their songs have special powers, some good (like the Gunk'l'Dunk curing song, and the song played to injured beans in a Blanktank) and some bad (like the Clang Twang, which has a dangerously addictive quality -- although it's proven to have its uses, for the Hoi-Polloi hate it, and it also helps in the production of Gunk'l'Dunk).
Hoi-Polloi: One of the most visually distinctive characters in the comic, they are round, cartoony heads with a single arm coming out the side with a "Mickey Mouse" gloved hand at the end (they are all right-handed except for one). They live way down, beneath the Beanworld, under the Four Realities. They are often called general adversaries and enemies to the Beans, but their attitude towards then vacillates between friendliness, fear and anger. They are known to often be friendly towards Beans who are not actually on a Chow Raid, with the possible exception of Mr. Spook, who they are very much afraid of.
Many aspects of Hoi-Polloi culture (if indeed they have any) are still unknown to us, but it is known that they are compulsive gamblers, frequently playing games, like Rock Scissors Paper and "F'lit Fing'r". They use Chow as currency. When the Beans attack on a Chow Raid they form rings, linking hand-to-head, around their Chow. Stealing Chow leaves the afflicted Hoi-Polloi destitute, but Mr. Spook makes up for it by giving them the Sprout-Butt.
All the Beans and Hoi-Polloi know that, whatever momentary differences they might have, they all play specific roles in a grand cycle that benefits them all.
Heyoka: The most recent Bean to break out, she hasn't been heard from since the last "normal" issue of the comic. Tends to talk in a reversed manner, as in, saying "yes" when she means "no." After breaking out, she was struck by a strange object that fell from Gran'ma'pa that reversed her appearance (giving her a black head and green lower body), causing gravity to reverse for her, sending her falling up, out of the Beanworld. Last seen in the Beanworld's service station, doing something mysterious to the Beanworld "Influence".
Cuties: Five baby beans, growing up within their nursery Pod'l'Pool. The other beans find them adorable and are teaching them everything they know. They began growing after a delivery of reproductive propellant to Gran'ma'pa from the Goofy Service Jerks.
Some further places:
The Thin Lake: A layer of water that coats the top of the Four Realities.
The Four Realities: They contain the raw materials that Proffy makes tools and Beanish makes Look-See Shows from. They exist in four layers beneath the Thin Lake, in order: Slats, Hoops, Twinks and Chips. They are thought to be infinite in extent, but they have become locally depleted of the most useful sizes and shapes, necessitating ever-longer trips away from the Beanworld to find the right bits.
The Bone Zone: A layer of Hoi-Polloi skulls between the Four Realities and the Ring Herd. Left when they were attacked by the Mossy Mammoth's Little Clone Son's army in the first issue.
Hoi-Polloi Ring Herd: Below the deepest layer of the Four Realities, this is where the Hoi-Polloi hang out.
Der Stinkle: A layer, possibly of dirt, beneath the Hoi-Polloi. It's known to be a world of its own, formerly occupied by an insect kingdom, but now deserted. Its story is told in issue #2.
The Legendary Edge and The Proverbial Sandy Beach: Respectively, the departure and return points for trips to the Four Realities and the Ring Herd. We aren't told what's so legendary or proverbial about them.
The Big-Big-Picture: The totality of the Beanworld cosmology, containing the Beanworld and innumerable other worlds. The service stations of each world are here. Home to the Goofy Jerks (The Goofy Service Jerks, the Goofy Surveillance Jerks, the Goofy Surgeon Jerks and the Goofy Sermon Jerk), Mr. Teach'm, the Big Fish, and other, unknown beings.
The comic centers around the Beanworld cycle, the mechanism by which food is produced for the Beans. It goes like this:
Each morning, Mr. Spook watches Gran'ma'pa for signs that a Sprout-Butt will fall, signaling the need for a Chow Raid. (If no Sprout-Butt falls, then it's a Goof Off Day, on which the Beans may do as they please.)
If a Spout-Butt falls, Mr. Spook tries to catch it on his Fork (or, later, Pole) on its first bounce. The more it bounces the grumpier it gets, and the worse the chow it produces tastes. The Fork also sweetens its disposition a bit; in the old days, when Mr. Spook caught it by hand, it usually became quite upset.
After the Sprout-Butt is obtained, Mr. Spook calls the Chow Sol'jer Army together for the Chow Raid. Proffy passes out spears and Pluck'n Wands from the Fix-It Shop. They march to the Legendary Edge and jump off, plunging down through the Four Realities until they reach the Hoi-Polloi Ring Herd.
Upon sighting the Beans, the Hoi-Polloi quiver in fear. The Hoi-Polloi abandon individual greed for the time being, dumping their Chow in with that of other Hoi-Polloi into clumps which they form rings around. Mr. Spook picks a ring he considers to be weak, and he and the Fling'n Flank'rs attack it, forcing the ring to break apart, causing a lot of pain to the Hoi-Polloi in the process. The Pluck'rs rush in with their wands and use them to scoop up the Chow.
Afterwards, Mr. Spook, to repay the Hoi Polloi for their pain and inconvenience, delivers the Sprout-Butt to them. The Hoi-Polloi are sent into a euphoric state by the Sprout-Butt ("Sprout-Butt Fever" signified by lots of hearts), which they ring around and sing to. Overcome by love, the Sprout-Butt eventually gives up its very existence, turning into Chow out of gratitude. It also soothes and heals their wounds. In the end, the Hoi-Polloi end up, emotionally, with more out of it than they lost in pain from Mr. Spook and the Sol'jers. After the Chow is obtained, it's split up among the ring members and they resume their gambling games.
Meanwhile, the Beans return to the surface and dump their Chow into the Chowdown Pool, which warms and roils as the Chow dissolves into "soup." Then all the beans jump in and soak in the nutrients and minerals.
Of note: Everyone gets something out of the cycle, and they all know about it too. The Beans never raid without a Spout-Butt. The Hoi-Polloi have no use for Sprout-Butts unless they've been injured first. ("No pain, no pleasure.") The need to raid also drives much of Bean culture. In the first issue, an outside entity killed off a lot of Hoi-Polloi. When Mr. Spook (with help from Gran'ma'pa) successfully destroyed that enemy, in gratitude the Hoi-Polloi gave them a lot of Chow. This, in addition to the excess Chow left behind in the newly-created Bone Zone, formed a mountain of chow that meant the Beans wouldn't have to work for weeks. This imbalance provided the impetus for the second Beanworld story, in which the mountain of chow was devoured by insects and their eggs were left in its place, becoming the Mystery Pods.
On Break Outs:
Sometimes a bean begins to feel vaguely dissatisfied with being a Chow Sol'jer. In Beanworld, these tendencies seem to never be anti-social. They are often revealed as a dereliction of Chow Sol'jering duties, however, a sure sign that the Bean is about to Break Out. During a Break Out, a bean decides on a name and look for himself, and decides what he will do to make it up to the other beans. This is the Bean's "package" which he presents to the other beans, often in the form of a sample of the service he intends to provide. The other beans put it to a vote, which must be unanimous. (They seem to be good-natured about it though, with even the conservative Mr. Spook often going along to smooth things out.) The vote has never been seen to fail. If it succeeds, then the bean is referred to as a "new bean," and is henceforth called by his chosen name. Instead of Sol'jering, he provides the service offered in his package in exchange for the right to soak in the Chowdown Pool.
Here's an interesting fact that may not be evident at first glance, or indeed even after repeated readings. There is a set number of beans in the world. When you see a bunch of beans around, this is not visual shorthand for an undetermined population. There are only twenty-three beans in existence at the moment. Before the arrival of the Cuties, there were only 18. Heyoka fell upwards out of the beanworld towards strange realms in the last issues of the original run, reducing the number actually in the Beanworld to 22. (According to Larry Marder, Mr. Spook is not a bean, or may be a half-bean. He is counted in this numbering, though.)
Of the beans in the world at this writing, there's Mr. Spook, six break-outs, and five babies, leaving eleven more to endure the rigors of attacking the Hoi-Polloi and gathering food. Because of this, whenever a bean Breaks Out, it reduces the size of the Chow Sol'jer Army, making food more difficult to obtain.
I've left out a lot from this writeup, to be sure, but this isn't intended to be an encyclopedia of all things Beanworld. For more information, consult the BeanWeb (http://www.rdrop.com/~half/BeanWeb/index.html) or the Beanworld Wiki (http://beanworld.wikia.com/wiki/Beanworld_Wiki).