Review time! with <i>The Bean</i> volumes 1 and 2

If Greg Hatcher likes this, it must be good!

While I was at the Emerald City Comic Convention, I met Travis Hanson, who was selling the first two print volumes of his webcomic, The Bean. He's planning nine (9) volumes of his epic, so I can't really say if this will turn out well, but it certainly starts well!

More than a few people have compared The Bean to Jeff Smith's Bone, and I suppose that's fair, but both stories are set pretty firmly in the tradition of Quest Epics, so perhaps we should compare both of them to older works. Hanson doesn't do anything fancy with the story - not a lot is original - but what he does is tell it very well, both in the writing and the art. The protagonist is a boy named Bean, whose father apparently sold the boy to his current owner/employer, Gort, an ogre who owns an inn in the forest where the book is set (I write "apparently" because we have only Gort's word on this, and Gort appears to be an untrustworthy sort).

Bean works to pay off his father's debt, and one day, Gort's brother Groggle (who's far kinder than his brother) into the woods to find some mushrooms for the inn's menu. This sets the plot in motion, as Bean is kidnapped by another troll and taken deep underground to retrieve a mystical sword. It turns out that Bean has been chosen by the sword to heal the world, and so we get more epic as we go along. Meanwhile, another employee, Ravna, sends Siv the bartender out to find Bean, and Siv ends up getting into some trouble - he discovers that the goblins, ancient enemies of pretty much everyone, are massing to attack the forest and destroy all the peaceful people living there, much like they did centuries before when the elves drove them back (which links to the sword Bean finds, but I won't get into that here). There's also a disgraced knight who returns to his country home and is drawn into the war as well. Yes, this is a wide-ranging story. That's why Hanson needs 9 volumes to tell it!

As you might be able to tell, there really isn't much that's new here. There's Bean's quest, which turns from trying to find the sword to doing what the sword wants; there's a mystical sword that is hidden deep in stone; there are elves, trolls, goblins, and fairies; there are ancient curses; there's a lost prince (the second volume is named such); there's plenty of standard fantasy elements. As with anything, the way a story is told is usually a determining factor over what it actually is, and that's certainly true here. Hanson's storytelling is old-fashioned in the best possible way, as he doesn't feel the need to surprise us with plot twists or other tricks.

When there's a surprise, it's because the point-of-view characters - there are more than one - don't know something and it surprises them as much as it does us. His characters simply figure things out as they go along, and that adds a kind of shambolic fun to the way the book unfolds. After Bean escapes with the sword, he doesn't know what to do, and by the end of volume 2, he's still at the mercy of forces beyond his control (I won't give away his fate, but it's really out of his control). Siv is distracted from his rescue mission and is plunged into a war we feel he'd rather avoid (for reasons we don't know yet). Fencer (the disgraced knight) also tries to avoid the war, but he still feels a duty to protect people. Ravna, unfortunately, doesn't have too much to do yet, but she also shows hidden depth and more to do as the book moves along, even though at the end of volume 2, she too doesn't quite know what to do next either.

What's also very good about the comic is the way Hanson gives these characters fascinating personalities. They're not doing things just to advance the plot, although this is largely a plot-based comic. Within this need to drive the plot forward, Hanson does a very nice job showing how these people react to different situations and how that reflects who they are. No one is a stereotype, even Gort and the troll who kidnaps Bean. They're not cardboard villains - they have facets of their personalities that aren't villainous, and the troll, for instance, tells Bean some things that both illuminate why he kidnapped Bean and why Bean might not be able to trust all the "good guys" he will presumably encounter. The goblins and their commanding officers (who are men) are the closest to straight-up, mustache-twirling villains in the two volumes, but even they aren't just cannon fodder. Hanson does a good job making sure that each character is interesting even if they might not get a lot of page time.

Hanson's art is cartoony and detailed, with very strong inks helping make the world in which Bean lives much more real-looking than we might expect. He takes great care to make the places where the action occurs look like actual locations, from the way the inn is laid out to the vast ancient treasures buried in giant caverns through which the troll takes Bean.

As Bean inhabits a world, Darkleaf, that is heavily forested, we also get a good sense of the outdoors, too. Hanson does some nice tricks with the artwork - when Fencer is running through tunnels to warn the people of Heartleaf that the goblins are coming, we see the tunnel running along the bottom of the page, and the goblins marching along the ground on the top part of the page. It's a really nice way to show that a race is on. Hanson wisely doesn't show gore even though the book can get violent occasionally - he understands that this is somewhat of a swashbuckling adventure, and so the book deals with some darker themes (not too dark, but a bit), it's never bleak. I expect Hanson was trying to create a comic that was truly all-ages, and he's succeeded - for adults, we can read a bit more into the way the world is set up, while kids, I imagine, will enjoy the action. I haven't shown it to my daughter yet (it might be a bit old for her), but I think she'll enjoy it. We'll see, won't we?

Obviously, you can follow the comic on line at the link above. Hanson told me he's planning on starting a third Kickstarter campaign to get a third volume out, so you can contribute to that when it goes live. Or you can buy the first two volumes! The Bean is a pretty good epic, and you certainly won't regret seeking it out.

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