Here is the interview we promised long ago via Twitter!
We stumbled upon the opportunity to interview Larry Marder when we met him at the Small Press Expo. If not for getting the chance to meet him, we probably would have never been motivated to ask him for an interview because we are such big fans of his work! Essentially, when we met him, we attacked him with similarly complex questions and he was just as friendly, down-to-earth and interesting a person as he seems in this interview thus, setting the stage for us to arrange an interview.
Keeping in mind that some may not have been exposed to Beanworld before, we hope fans will gather little known information about his work and Beanworld newcomers will be able to use information in the interview to supplement their purchase of the Beanworld Holiday Special which comes out today!
COMICS FOR SERIOUS: One of the best things about 'Beanworld' is how it feels like its own well, world, while also having many connections to this world. It's both really rarified and also universal. Things have clear connections to this world but they also don't function as metaphors or anything. We're thinking of specifically the Clang Twang and how it seems to translate to be about drugs, but you know, putting it like that simplifies it. Explain the process for translating or sort of translating our world to the Beanworld.
LARRY MARDER: I’m a firm believer in Marcel Duchamp’s observation that it is the viewer that makes the painting. I think that art begins with an artist making a suggestion. Then later, at a different place and time, a person experiences the work of art. In Duchamp’s world that person was a viewer. In my world that person is a reader. In a lot of ways Beanworld acts as a mirror. People peer into it and see themselves.
I can certainly understand that the Clang Twang story can be interpreted as a metaphor about drugs. But that wasn’t my intent. At least not in the vein of “Just say no!” sloganeering. It was more in the vein of anything that can be a powerful force for good, may well have a dark side too.
The original impulse for “The Clang Twang!” came from the phrase “Perilous Music.” It just popped into my head one day when I was riding on the L in Chicago. I had no idea what it meant whatsoever. But it seemed important so I wrote it down on a scrap of paper.
The idea of something “perilous” came to me through study of Arthurian Romance. “Perilous objects” are in the Grail stories. I was particularly tickled by the Perilous Chair and the Perilous Bed. Both were fairly mundane household objects that metaphysically transformed into really awful things of terror if you were the wrong person to plunk your butt down upon them.
The Perilous Chair gobbled up whoever wrongfully sat on it. The Perilous Bed attacked whatever weary pilgrim attempted to sleep in it. In the stories it spins around the room and swords come out of the wall and scary stuff like that. The idea of something that is good also having a hidden “perilous” side stuck with me. After all, when you are exhausted and in need of one, what is nobler than a bed or a chair?
And then there was Bob Marley. When I was first doing a lot of the earliest groundwork for Beanworld in the mid ‘70s, I was listening to a lot of reggae which was still fairly new to American ears. In the song “Them Belly Full” there is a passage where he sings:
"Forget your troubles and dance,
Forget your sorrows and dance,
Forget your sickness and dance,
Forget your weakness and dance"
Well, hell, if that isn’t one of the most concise descriptions of the deep relationship between music and people; I don’t know what is. Music heals.
So, in the case of Beanworld, in “Beanish Breaks Out” it was established that the Boom’r Band, through their rhythms and songs, have a strong healing power. The Boom’r Band’s powers are a source of healing and wellness. I knew that there had to be a flip side to that and it was while thinking about that that the phrase “Perilous Music” took hold in my head and the story came out using the elements that I already had on my palette: the Mystery Pods.
The relationship between Mystery Pods and music is always going to be incredibly important in the growth of the Bean culture. It just so happened in the first outing, things went really bad. But in the second outing “New & Improved Gunk’l’dunk!” we see that something that seemed bad, given a new context, can be a pretty good thing after all.
C4S:Why beans? There are some early sketches in the back of the old trades that show you arriving at the style, but how did you settle on the look of Beanworld?
LM: Practice. I drew the basic bean shape over and over, year after year, and arrived at the basic four circle proportions that I do my best to follow.
My relationship with Beans started on the day I was born. I was a difficult birth and when I finally arrived, my head was smooshed in and lopsided to one side and my Mom’s words when she saw me for the first time were “What’s wrong with him? His head is shaped like a lima bean!”
Needless to say, I heard that story my entire childhood. In art school, as I was thoroughly under the influence of the Conceptual Art movement, I was struggling to find a way to tell comics stories without being what I call a “renderer.” At the time comics was under the influence of artists like Neal Adams and Barry Windsor-Smith. And those guys were as close to-realism as one could get using clunky four color litho presses on low grade newsprint. Did I like reading the work of those guys? Absolutely. But I recognized that I couldn’t draw like them no matter how much I tried. So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I could do and was very much under the influence of the crazy things going on in the art world in the 60’s and early 70s. The overwhelming message of that era was that art should be something to think about as opposed to something to look at. The Bean comics that I created for my weekly strip in my college newspaper get pretty close to the kind of minimal, conceptual type of comics I was looking for. Just simple beans making gestures, no backgrounds other than a horizon line, and voice balloons.
C4S: You've mentioned that you've worked in marketing/advertising, obviously for IMAGE comics, but other places as well. The beans are iconic and simple like a good piece of advertising or commercial art. Not that you intended Beanworld to be popular in that sense, but how did advertising and that sense of connecting with consumers translate to your creative work?
LM: I worked almost exclusively in print advertising for almost two decades. Most of the accounts I worked on were business-to-business clients. B2B, as it is called, is commerce between two businesses as opposed between a business and a consumer. That meant that we were often faced with the task of making complicated ideas as simple as possible for a purchasing agent. For most of my career, the magazines I did ads for were trade journals.
I learned how to streamline ideas and communicate as quickly and as simply as possible through words and pictures.
I learned how to choose the right fonts to best communicate the message in the headline. You can’t let a favorite font compete with the shape and flow of the letter forms of the individual words in the headline itself. I decided what the illustration or photograph would be and what it would look like. I hired the people who did that work. I was the casting agent for the models in the ads. I did a little bit of everything and all of ultimately is a form storytelling. A good ad tells a compelling story about a product for sale. For me, this was excellent training for making decisions for Beanworld.
C4S: What is your artistic education and/or formal education background? Beanworld is simple and immediate but do your artistic interests extend beyond that or to other areas?
LM: I had a crazy art school education. I have a BFA from Hartford Art School, Hartford CT.
During those years the school was split right down the middle between the Conceptualists and the Renders.
My years there, 1969-1973, were the hey-day years of Conceptualism. I had terrific teachers. I was quite good friends with Jan Groover, who was on the faculty then, and her husband, Bruce Boice. They never discouraged me in my quest to find my way in comics.
I was very influenced by the most important artists of the day Robert Smithson, Mel Bochner, Dorthea Rockburne, Vito Acconci, James Lee Byars, Gilbert and George. And also by the Pop Artists Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg. If I had to sum up what I remember most about those years, it would be that we spent a lot of time investigating the key questions of “What is a thing? What is an idea?”.
Even though I was heavily on the Conceptualist side of things, I was also influenced by Rudolph Zallinger, who was the most revered faculty member of the Renderers. I took spent a semester or two in a class of his where he taught us how to paint in the medium of egg temperas. We had to grind our own pigments and mix them with egg yokes.
Zallinger was a creator of worlds. His monologues about the creation and execution of his humongous mural at Yale’s Peabody Museum, “The Age of Reptiles” were something I sort of nodded through at the time. But over the years, the influence of his words have resonated loudly in my mind as I created Beanworld. He always used to say “Set up the boundaries of logic and then you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t violate those boundaries” Good advice for a fantasy dimension builder.
C4S: Language plays a huge role in Beanworld. Both in how the different characters speak and the labeling and description of things. Things like the apostrophe in Boom'r and Gunk’l’dunk, where did that come from? And terms like "chow down pool," and "breaking out", where does this come from?
LM: A lot of these words and phrases are just things pulled out of my life. Chow Sol’jer is rooted in Bill Mauldin. I was fortunate enough to have grown up in a house in the ‘60s where ‘40s era first editions of “Up Front” and “Back Home” were on the shelves of my parent’s library. Willie and Joe used the term “sojer.” So my soldiers just had to be named something like that and I chose “sol’jer.” But I was also thinking about Cheyenne Dog Soldiers too. It’s all goes into my head and I’m never quite sure what might come out.
Why all the apostrophes? Beats me. Maybe I swiped some of it from Krazy Kat. When I’m crafting new words and phrases for Beanworld I want the words to look good on paper and sound interesting when spoken. My late younger brother, Jon, was much better at making up these sorts of words than I can ever hope to be.
C4S: So Mr. Spook, the Hoi-Polloi and Dreamishness are definitely similar in some way, but does evolution play a part in their relation, or is there some other system? Not really looking for any spoiler alerts, just some hints or clues about it.
LM: Everything and everyone in Beanworld is connected in some way. My only advice is to follow your hunches based on the visual clues. If things in Beanworld look similar, chances are there is a solid reason for it.
C4S: A lot of care has gone into creating the BW environment, and with the Myspace DHP story we see a clear environmentalist side in the characters. We sort of found out from speaking with you at SPX that there were maybe things you would've changed if you'd had more time to work with the DHP stuff, but is this something you're passionate about expressing in the BW?
LM: I got too ambitious in the MDHP piece. I had to pare it down farther than I would have liked to but 8 pages is 8 pages and that was all I had to work with. My first draft of that story would have easily filled a 30 page issue of TOTB. All of that stuff will end up being used elsewhere.
I do have a “green” impulse in my story telling. It started out when I was doing advertising work for companies selling extremely dangerous chemicals. It was enhanced in my studies of Native American mythologies. On the other hand, I’m not what anyone might call a “tree hugger” either. I just tell my stories the way my stories tell me to tell them to others.
C4S: What, if anything, would you compare the Boom'r Band's music to in real life?
LM: Any sort of music that can be successfully accomplished with a guitar, bass and simple percussion. That said, I’ve always been pretty evasive about what the Boom’rs sound like to me. It’s no secret that the rhythms of the Clang Twang were a variation on the Bo Diddley Beat which is itself a riffing of the Hambone beat, which in turn, probably goes back to the Olduvai Gorge or something equally ancient.
The look of the Boom’rs was influenced by the look of the rockabilly retro band the Stray Cats. And so at that time, I sorta heard a rockabilly sound in my head.
Nowadays, I listen a lot to The Original Carter Family. Their instrumentation was mostly just Mother Maybelle Carter on her guitar with her cousin Sara sometimes on autoharp. Maybelle had an original and extraordinary upside down style of hammering the melody on the bass strings and keeping up the tempo by strumming the upper register strings. This style became known as the “Carter scratch.” The Carter Family had a way of arranging their songs that was pretty unique in its time. For many years they were broadcasting nationwide on the radio every day. They had an incredible influence on the musicians that became the mainstays of folk music, country music and rock’n’roll. So for me right, right now, there is a lot of Carter scratch in their sound as I writing and drawing their sequences.
When I used to travel to Hong Kong all the time, there was a really fabulous Italian restaurant in the Royal Garden Hotel called Sabatini. The Yeh brothers, who’s factories made a lot of the McFarlane Toys during that time, used to take us there all the time. Sabatini had a house trio of Filipino musicians made up of two acoustic guitars and a stand up bass. I guess I saw them do their wandering minstrel thing dozens of times over the years. For tips they took requests and could play virtually any song from any culture in any language. I even heard them play the most incredible acoustic version of Jimi’s Hendrix’s Purple Haze. I used to study them quite carefully because I knew these guys are the closet thing I’ve ever experienced to the Boom’r Band.
C4S: What's the role of feminism in Beanworld? Professor Garbanzo is the leader of the Beans in many ways and she's a woman. Although gender doesn't seem to entail the same things in the Beanworld, it's still a really interesting choice.
LM: Of course that entirely depends on what one’s definition of feminism is. It seems to have gotten quite fractured over the last 40 years. But if you mean the political, social, and economic equality of females, that is a given in Beanworld society. Gender is more of a moiety, your home team, than something sexual. Gran’Ma’Pa is the source of Baby Beans and Gran’Ma’Pa is given Reproductive Propellant by the Goofy Service Jerk delivery service. In the color stories you can see that the basic Beans are color coded by red for the sisters and blue for the brothers. Beans that have broken out adopt their own coloring but they retain the gender designation they were born with.
C4S: In terms of universality mentioned before, there's a sense of Mr. Spook as in some ways being the hero but also the "brawn"--he's often angry--and Garbanzo being the "brains" (she's a Professor after all). These are sort of well-played tropes that never don't work...are you thinking in terms of myth or pop culture or what when you apply these?
LM: Absolutely. They are archetypes. They are individuals, yes, but they are also filling a pre-determined slot in the Beanworld population.
C4S: Do you have a favorite(s) cartoon(s) or comic(s)? Ones that influenced Beanworld and even ones that didn't? There's a very definitive sense of movement and animation to the bean characters, was this informed by other work?
LM: Jack Kirby, Robert Crumb, and Dr Seuss had the most influence on me growing up. Later I discovered Carl Barks, George Herriman, and Windsor McKay.
I watched a lot of TV growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s and that meant that I saw a wide variety of animation on local after school television shows. I always gravitated towards the Fleisher stuff first, the Warner Brothers stuff second, and the Disney stuff last. About 20, 25 years ago, as an adult I discovered the silent Felix the Cat cartoons and that stuff just dug into my brain and exploded.
C4S: What made you start working on a comic book? Especially a small press, black and white comic in a time where the market was even smaller. You're part of the second wave of self-publishers, were you reading the earlier, late 70s stuff? Underground comix? Super hero stuff? Beanworld seems wonderfully disconnected from comics trends, it's imaginable that you'd not even be a big comics fan. What have you read, did you read, do you read?
LM: I don’t know. After struggling with Beanworld for a long time, after I discovered Gran’Ma’Pa as the nexus of the Beanworld/Hoi-Polloi food chain, I just knew that now was the time to start drawing Beanworld comics. I had no idea if anyone might ever see it beyond a small circle of friends and family. My favorite comics growing up were basically any Marvel Comic but with special emphasis on the Lee/Kirby collaborations. I loved following Kirby’s Fourth World at DC as it came out over the two years of its existence. I looked forward to reading every issue of Conan, Master of Kung Fu, Dracula, Man-Thing, Howard the Duck in the ‘70s.
I read every underground comic I could get my hands on and tried to memorize every line on every page. I liked not only Crumb, but all the Zap! guys. Shelton, Moscosco, Griffen, Wilson, Armstrong. And the Bijou guys too. Jayzie Lynch and Skip Williamson.
I followed the industry through periodicals like The Comics Reader and The Comics Journal. But when it came to Beanworld, I pretty much figured I was out there in the wilderness on my own.
C4S: Why do you think there's such a spilt in how people feel about BW? Do you think this'll change with the new printings and the new audience it receives? Not a split in the sense that there's really anybody who actively dislikes the comic, but people seem to love it or just accept it. Do you think its context changing through republishing it (and the new issues!) will help the comic?
LM: I certainly hope so. It was often said; when Beanworld was first published in the ‘80s that it was “twenty years ahead of its time.” If I’m lucky that will prove to be true. But you d cite something that does seem to be true. The people who love Beanworld do tend to love it a LOT. I just hope that as the Beanworld wends its way though the current distribution system for comics and books, that more and more of those people who can love it, will discover it on a shelf at a book store or at their library.
C4S: Do you think BW could benefit from being recontextualized as "old" with the release of the new volumes? Is there going to be this market coming from an interest in the "retro" trend?
LM: I consider the books on the schedule to be a reboot of the Beanworld franchise. They are not archival projects, which often come across as museum displays of days of yore. Sure, the first two volumes are re-presentations of work that has been published before, but they’ve been rescanned from the original art, and the meticulous digital work that Matt Dryer did at Dark Horse is much, much closer to the things I drew than the stuff that was printed from film negatives the first time around.
I hope that Beanworld will be received as something that feels both old and new. I call it a “new fangled, old fashioned look.” I guess that might also be a definition of contemporary retro.
C4S: Discuss the challenges artistically and aesthetically in making the DHP Color Beanworld strip. When we spoke at SPX, you were really great about not being bummed that we were a little critical of it, and we'd like to know the process and challenge in the page limit, color expectations, etc.
LM: My first attempt at a color Beanworld comic story was the Asylum story more than a decade ago. It was colored in full blown Image-style color and I think it is safe to say, by all accounts, it has not held up at all. Eventually I’ll recolor it myself and reprint it.
The MDHP story was my first attempt at coloring a full Beanworld story. I was generally happy with my color work, particularly the stuff I did transitioning the “?” into the “!” on page 7.
Let’s face it. We were all nervous going into this story. When you have a hiatus of the length that Beanworld had, and it makes its return, the anticipation is going to run very high on all sides, both mine and the readers. It would almost be impossible for there not to be some disappointment.
And to have a black and white book, return in color yet, just raised the stakes. Same for the Holiday Special. But, now, Beanworld returns to black and white and next year’s original graphic novel, “Remember Here When You Are There!” is the real return of Beanworld. It picks up exactly where Tales of the Beanworld left off and resolves a whole bunch of things. And of course, also opens up just as many new doorways.
As far as your review, how can anyone get bummed out by an honest opinion? Particularly when the critic has targeted the same things I knew were some less than strong decisions I’d made. But I’m not giving up the color fades on the skies when I work in color. When I do them as solids, they just look too uninteresting to me. So we shall continue to disagree on that one.
C4S: We were a little speculative about the Xmas issue, because of conflicts it can have with things that shouldn't exist (or haven’t previously existed) in the BW, like snow (theres never been anything about precipitation) and the santa hats we see on the cover? Again, no spoilers, but hints as to how that stuff can be worked in? At the same time, it's awesome if you're just throwing it all in there without Beanworld logic. How do you decide when to include this or that and when not to?
LM: Well as you know by now, that was just a cover. It does sport a disclaimer that says “Caution: Absolutely nothing depicted on this festive cover appears in the story inside.
Beanworld characters have strayed out of Beanworld only twice: a cameo appearance in Scout #17 and the Total Eclipse mini-series. In Scout Mr. Spook and a multitude of Chow Sol’jers appear to him in a vision and help him defeat a demon during a sweat lodge ceremony.
In Total Eclipse, Doug Moench’s Aztec Ace characters come and whisk Beanish off on a Hero’s Quest when Dreamishness seems to go into an eclipse. In that adventure he meets Miracleman and other heroes of the Eclipse Universe. I thought Marv Wolfman did an excellent job of getting Beanish into the story and not violating the trust of the Beanworld readers of that time.
But, believe me, after those two sequences, I’m in no hurry to do anything like that again any time soon. I’m just going to focus on telling the Beanworld tales as they occur inside the Big-Big-Picture, not outside of it.
Just because we’re interested...
What is your favorite movie/TV show/Cartoon?
Lost, Fringe, House, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, The Rachel Maddow Show, Morning Joe. And I watch a lot of old movies on TCM. A lot!
What are you currently reading?
As far as new comic periodicals, Jeff Smith’s RASL is the only comic I consistently read. Everything else seems to be catch as catch can. As far as vintage comic, I’m slowly my re-reading every Jack Kirby collection that I have in my library. I recently finished OMAC and Silver Star. Totally whacked out stuff. I loved it.
--Other than comics?
I mostly read non-fiction. I’m slowly savoring reading “Affectionately, Marcel: The collected correspondence of Marcel Duchamp.”
I’m looking forward to reading Neil Stephenson’s “Anathem” at some point in the next year.
What are you currently listening to?
--Favorite new song/album/artist?
I know absolutely nothing about contemporary music.
--Favorite old song/album/artist?
The Carter Family Anthologies, Boswell Sisters, Howlin’ Wolf, Fletcher Henderson are what I have been listening to the most lately.
If you could collaborate with any comics writer or artist—who and why?
Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Jeff Smith, and/or Matt Wagner I appreciate their individual sensibilities when it comes to understanding the brands of mythology that I am interested in too.