The Bean review

What Did I Learn?

Today’s review is on the Bean by Travis Hanson. This fantasy comic focuses on an orphan named Bean, a boy whose troublesome father died and left him in the hands of an ogre who owns a tavern. It has all the elements of fantasy in that Bean has a role to play in his larger world and we discover that as we read the story. There is a mystery or two I’d like to explore about this comic.

the Bean

The comic is created in black and white with well crafted organic lines that quickly convey texture and form with spotted blacks. It also has non-standard panel borders, missing corners or bounded by curves. Another thing is the attention to detail in the environments.

It is nice to see varying panel shots with all different angles – bird’s eye, worm’s eye, off angle and panoramic. The first mystery is that I’m trying to deduce the pattern of how the choice of moment (in McCloud’s parlance) is made, like in this comic.

I tend to think of each page as self contained unit of story and visuals – the standard advice is for each update to have a story and visual impact. The Bean is not so concerned with toeing that line. In that page I just linked to, a stop at the inn segues into the next arc. Other than the rumble of thunder which tells us trouble is coming, very little actually happens in this page to directly advance the larger story.

Likewise, these four panels continue part of the story (from the previous comics) and pick up a new event happening in another place. I enjoyed the smooth, almost imperceptible transition between the two – a technique used a couple of times throughout the story so far.

But I still haven’t got the sense of the choice of moment that Travis uses. ttp:// It’s clear enough what each panel means with the scene-setter panel, a look! panel and then a get-moving panel. The story is advanced and we wonder what is going on but it could easily have been combined with the page before it (albeit in smaller panels.) Not that they should have been – but why that choice of breakdown?

I am tempted to say that it is due to Travis’s storytelling style but that’s just a haphazard answer. I can only fall back on the thought that the world itself is being treated as a character. It needs time to be shown, to be allowed to develop and to communicate what kind of thing it is. Even more so when I realize that the world doesn’t have a voice of its own to plainly state what it needs to say. I must also admit that it could simply be the choice of moment style is simply beyond my current ability to grasp.

In any case, the little touches like the small drake in the bottom right corner of this comic help feed you a clue about this character’s intent and tone of the update. The characters are emotionally and physically expressive and all can be clearly differentiated from one another even when they are clearly not human.

There is some characterization, some action, a hint of romance and good story told over time. It is not until well into the story that we learn that thing about Bean that makes him very valuable and no one even commented about it. Subtly handled (and no spoilers from me) even though looking back one might expect that from a fantasy story.

Some people said in the comments that they had some problems with panel flow and dialog. Or that they would prefer color to black and white. The latest updates from May 2010 to now have a line quality that is a little heavy for my tastes but you have to expect some variation over time – plus there are a lot of things going on in the dark which doesn’t lend itself to finer background details. I would also speculate that, based on the inking style, that the Bean is created with color in mind and probably will all be colored be one day. (Travis confirmed the first part in some of the comments but the second part is pure blind prediction.)

I’m up to date on the comic (Episode 136) but still divided on the second mystery. If I had to pick one, I’d guess that this comic is drawn digitally but I just can’t say for sure. It seems like the later heavy lines would be lesser if it were done with pen and ink and an eensy bit more fluid. Yep, you heard right. It’s sad, but I can even needlessly nitpick great art that only deserves to be enjoyed. Sigh.

(Pre-post update: Travis tries to hold himself to a high level and asks that we do the same. He’s not wrong about trying to make great comics although the tone of that post came across as a bit harsh to me. He has some other really good articles about making comics in the archives.)

What Did I Learn?

Comics are such multifaceted things. There are suggested rules of thumb about how to make good comics that one often takes as hard rules. Maybe comics are just too … variable to have general hard rules besides those things McCloud talks about like clarity and intensity. It all seems to depend on what you are trying to do. If you need to move a story along then you need to do that as efficiently as possible and every update needs to have story punch. If your story is as much about the setting as everything else, then each update has to have the setting featured like the Bean does. Aside from a few basic rules, the potential variety in comics is almost overwhelmingly plentiful but every element adds different requirements and their own rules of thumb.

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