AMID THE SIMPLE ink lines of Beanworld, Larry Marder is building a whole ecology from scratch. In his comic book, the Beans, who look like legumes with stick-figure limbs, inhabit an island; in the sea below is a colony of giant one-armed heads called the Hoi-Polloi. The Beans live on a substance called "chow," which is used by the Hoi-Polloi as legal tender. The Beans get their chow by raiding their undersea neighbors, but in return they leave behind something called a sprout-butt, which the Hoi-Polloi fill with good vibes until it breaks down into more chow.

Confused? Well, Marder makes the learning worth the effort. Beanworld isn't just grade-school whimsy; it's a thoroughly enjoyable primer on interspecies mutualism, environmental balance, and the growth of culture. It's in this last area that Beanworld shines, explaining societies by building one from the ground up. The leader of the chow-raiding army finds a trident that makes the chow hunt less antagonistic; another Bean discovers that he can use the sea's geometric driftwood to craft visual representations of other objects, giving Bean society its first visual art. Each such discovery serves to reinforce the underlying logic of Marder's fantastic anthropological novel: that every object has a purpose, and that progress comes because of--not in spite of--the surrounding natural world.

The fictional universe of THB isn't nearly as fantastic, but creator Paul Pope's aims are a little more conventional; most of the stories in his nostalgic sci-fi oeuvre are simply engaging yarns of youthful exploration and adventure. Pope has been telling tales about his postcolonial Mars for a few years now, but his work has taken a dramatic leap with Giant THB Parade (Horse Press). This time around, he gives himself jumbo-sized pages to fill, and the scale seems to have led to a spontaneous, expressive brushstroke. Whether he's depicting a bouquet of flowers or a circus tent, he does so with dynamic, confident lines that either curl indulgently into their forms or threaten to zip off the page.

The newfound vitality of Pope's artwork nicely complements his unassuming writing. In a clumsier writer's hands, the stories--a love triangle set at the circus, a "mine-can-beat-up-yours" fight among schoolgirls and their test-tube men--would become cloying, but Pope enriches them with understated characterization and expressive dialogue. What emerges, clearer here than ever, is Pope's interest in innocence: children and the lovesick in a world of robots and Martians.

Comic Book (Spümco/Dark Horse) has an innocence, too, but it's more of the puerile variety; this utterly tasteless, hilarious romp could have only resulted from a disciplined unlearning of taboo. Then again, creator John Kricfalusi, who runs the pack of gag artists behind Comic Book, has done this before--his last major project was the infamous Ren & Stimpy. Just like that wretched pair, Comic Book espouses the comedic value of the gross-out. In one story where an inept father tries to take care of his son, the reader is subjected to the sights of the infant taking his first smoke, riding around in between his dad's buttocks, and breast-feeding from a particularly disgusting male nipple.

The bodies in Comic Book exist to be punished for comic relief--to be pushed, pulled, thrown, stretched, steamed, and punctured. That this frenetically physical humor is gender-neutral means that women get their space invaded on a regular basis. In one conversation, a man pokes his fingers deep into a woman's cleavage and then grabs her thighs. Which might seem out of line with the book's juvenile buffoonery if he hadn't just asked her to squeeze his vein--which bulges out like a hot dog taped to his forehead--to prove how strong it is. Apparently, the Kricfalusi aesthetic predates sexual awareness, treating all body parts--fingers, faces, buttocks, thighs, breasts, and absurdly phallic blood vessels--as fleshy props to be used in the next gag. The characters in Comic Book willingly flout our inhibitions, poking and prodding for nothing more than to get the reader groaning and laughing at the same time. What could be more innocent than that?

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