The Webcomic Overlook #161: The Bean
I’ve always been fascinated about the very concept of a comic book awards ceremony. As a young El Santo, I remember watching Bob, a sitcom where Bob Newhart was a struggling comic book superhero artist. Heck, I even bought Marvel’s very short lived spin-off series, Mad-Dog, based on the comic character that Bob Newhart’s character created. Wish I’d held on to that comic, which had a retro-60’s version of Mad-Dog and his grittier, Wolverine-like reboot. According to some price guides, a near mint version can be worth as much as a whole $3.00! That’s more than double what I paid for it! I’d be living the high life…. ordering something from the McDonald’s dollar menu…. maybe scoring a sweet roll of Scotch tape…. but alas, it was not meant to be.
One of the episodes was about Bob going to a comic book awards show … with special guest stars Jim Lee and Jack FRIGGIN’ KIRBY. (This was long before Stan Lee would plant his mug in literally everything. Actually seeing comic book artists on TV was a super-rare occurence.) They depicted it as a fairly low-key affair, where everything was held in a small hall and family and friends were gathered around little round tables. Still, I remember thinking myself, “Boy, wouldn’t it be swell if that were to ever make it big time?”
Flash forward to 2011 and … well, we’re still taking baby steps getting there. I mean, can anyone, even comic fans, honestly say they remember an Eisner winner from last year? However, I think we’re probably in better shape than in 1992. At least the Eisners are held within the hustle and bustle of the San Diego Comic Con, where comics are at the forefront (theoretically) and the winners are announced to some sort of comic-loving public.
Besides, it’s fun to talk about, which is why I review the candidates for Best Digital Comic every year. Even if an Eisner win is, in the grand scheme of things, somewhat meaningless, at least a handful of webcomics got a little extra exposure than they typically do.
First up on the menu is something legume flavored: Travis Hanson’s fantasy comic, The Bean.
At first blush, The Bean seems to be this year’s Eisner Award winner for, “OK, how did this get on the ballot?” Every year, there seems to be at least one baffling submittal. It was really confusing two years ago, where three of the five nominees were virtually unknown short stories about a space Mexican, a murdered lady, and an artist with writer’s block. Who are you, The Bean, and what are you doing here in the same rarefied air as The Abominable Charles Christopher and Lackadaisy?
The artwork, for one, seems hardly a shave above average. The faces look a little putty-ish, and the eyes can sometimes look crossed and uneven. Also, the linework is very simple and basic. The artwork tends to look blocky. It’s fairly impressive when applied to architectural details, yet doesn’t look too good on characters. The armor details seem to disappear at times, and characters, no matter what the race, tend to gravitate towards samey and rigidly-defined facial expressions. It’s not terrible… but I’ll wager that most readers here have read DrunkDuck comics featuring far more eye-catching artwork.
Second, the fantasy genre. Next to the video game genre, it’s probably the most overused one in webcomics. Strong Bad even called them out (“Bogorroth of Coolswordorroth!”) in his infamous e-mail about webcomics. For the most part that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. This is coming from a guy, by the way, whose bookshelf is half filled with ratty paperbacks with titles like The Eye of the World, The Book of Taltos, and Child of Flame.
And, finally, there’s that header banner, which is done in glorious Papyrus. Next to Comic Sans, Papyrus is guaranteed to inspire sneering derisions along the lines of: “That font has no place outside of massage parlors.” Note to Joss Whedon: you are not exempt.
BUT! I rather liked The Bean.
The story centers around Bean, your run-of-the-mill hard-knocks life scullery boy. He was abandoned by his father at a young age, apparently to pay off his bar tab. He ends up getting adopted, in a way, by an unpleasant, hard-nosed ogre named Gort who runs a busy tavern. The rest of the tavern staff become something of a family. Groggle acts like a kind and simple-minded uncle; the harried Ravna is like a caring older sister; and Siv is that older brother who we all believed was some sort of super-ninja.
While Bean’s life is not a cake-walk, it’s also not unpleasant. He is, after all, under the care and protection of two hulking ogres, a guy with stealth ninja skills, and a tough-talking barmaid who actually can throw a knife when she needs to. As you can imagine in these types of stories, though, such pastoral idyll must one day come to an end.
While Bean is out hunting for mushrooms to fill the store, the kid gets stuffed in a sack by a troll wizard who speaks in italics. And poetry. Except when he gets mad. Anyway, the wizard wants Bean to go down a hole to fetching him an ancient magical doodad (a.k.a. a sword), and it turns out that The Bean’s mysterious past is something of an asset. Seeing that his only alternative at this point is becoming rat chow, The Bean abides.
Magical swords, by the way, are the de rigeur magical MacGuffin of fantasy novels since a magical ring is too obvious an homage to the granddaddy of modern fantasy literature. This particular sword has the rather annoying power of being impossible to get rid of. And is it a spoiler if I tell you there’s some talk of being the Chosen One in here? It shouldn’t be, since that’s one of the most prevalent cliches in fantasy literature … especially in stories that center around a humble scullery boy who comes into possession of a magical artifact. The sword once belonged to
Isildur Ganadon, who become corrupted by the one ring magic sword until his eventual death by drowning arrow. The sword, in fact, contains Ganadon’s soul, which Bean discovers must be set free.
After getting battered around a bit, Bean finds an alternate exit to the cave with the help of a rocklike creature. Thanks to the sword, Bean now has some sort of mad superhuman fighting skills. Meanwhile, Bean’s adopted family starts looking for him. Siv, though, abandons his search after finding out that there’s some treachery afoot involving sneak attacks, a newly mobilized goblin army, and the search for some sort of magic superweapon.
The Bean doesn’t do anything new or shocking to deviate from the standard Hero’s Quest template. To me, though, that’s fine. Originality isn’t what I look for in fantasy. The reason I always come back to the genre are the familiar beats: the epic battle between good and evil, the naive young kid suddenly thrust in the role of destiny, the beasties, the magic races, and so on and so forth. The novels that try to subvert the genre in some way? They never make it on my book shelf. Which is why I appreciated that The Bean plays it so old school.
What sets The Bean apart is its writing. I read in one of Hanson’s blog posts that the webcomic started out as a novel. No surprise there. Beyond the familiar fantasy novel elements, there’s a strong attempt at characterization, and writing scenes to strengthen personalities and establish attitudes and dialogue. There are times Hanson tries too hard: we cut away to a scene of Ravna acting worried over Bean one too many times to the point of being obvious, I thought. However, I liked most other characterizations. Gort, for example, acts like a bully to everyone he meets. Yet, rather subtly, you get a sense that under his gruffness he is worried about Bean, and he has been something of stern father to him. It’s not something that’s ever overtly shown, but, rather, inferred.
Another holdover from the fantasy novels is how Hanson weaves together several plot elements concurrently. Think of Lord of the Rings, and how at least two stories have to be told once Frodo and Sam run off and Aragorn goes on a rescue mission to find Merry and Pippin. Several fantasy writers employ this writing technique because it makes their story feel larger than the story of just one person. Hanson does the same thing. There’s Bean’s magic sword adventure primarily, and then there’s Siv’s attempts to figure out what’s going on. But The Bean leaves many threads open. Ravna’s fretting back at the tavern, the troll magician is out on the hunt for the kid with the sword, and a goblin army is marching to wipe out civilization. The Bean switches back and forth through the different point of views, and each adventure yields new discoveries, characters, and locations to expand the details and intricacies of Hanson’s Broken Moon world.
Ultimately, i don’t think The Bean will be the one taking home the Eisner Award this year. It’s still a fine fantasy comic, though. Through the use of intriguing characters and careful world-building, Travis Hanson has laid a strong foundation to telling a fine fantasy epic that can only get better with time.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)