Larry Marder, the industry mainstay once referred to in his Tales of the Beanworld series as the “nexus of all comics realities,” is out of the game. The marketing professional who debuted Beanworld as a Xeroxed minicomic in the early 1980s, who became executive director of Image Comics (1993-1999) and president of operations for McFarlane Toys (1999-2007), and who later served as president of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (2010-2018), is done with the business side of the industry. And he’s just fine with that.
Lately, he doesn’t care much for business, and seems relieved to put it behind him. He’s recovering from serious health issues, and thinking about a return to Beanworld, the series he paused in 1993 and unexpectedly revived in 2008, with intermittent releases through 2017.
I met up with Marder over Zoom to talk about his health, his career, the business of business, and the many inhabitants of Beanworld.
– Jason Bergman
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[Full disclosure: In 2022, Embracer Group, the parent company of my employer, Gearbox Entertainment, became the parent company of Beanworld publisher Dark Horse Media. That convoluted corporate relationship had no bearing on this interview in any capacity.]
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JASON BERGMAN: Do you mind if I ask about your health? I know you’ve been dealing with health issues.
LARRY MARDER: Yeah. Long ago, when I was still at McFarlane, I started having trouble with these sores on my hand. It was diagnosed as vasculitis and it was no big deal. After Cory died,1 it started again, and it was on my arm. I got a biopsy and it's like, "Well, it's a form of lymphoma but it's in your skin." I'm going to make these numbers up now but it's basically, if out of 100 cells, whatever they look at, if 50 of them are this malignancy then you have cancer. “You have like two or three and so we can't tag you as having cancer—you don't have cancer—but you probably will have cancer."
It took 10 years. I was at the Image 30th anniversary party in Portland. I was up there, and I was not right. I was having real balance troubles. I didn't really think too much of it at home, but when I was out there in the airport and I'm standing amongst all these people, I knew something was really not right. I went to the doctor and they put me through all these tests. It turned out that I have a syndrome called NPH, normal pressure hydrocephalus. What is that? That is too much brain fluid.
In the center of your brain there's a cavity, and I was making too much brain fluid and it was pushing up against parts of my brain, and it was mimicking other diseases. It takes a long time to find. They eliminate everything until that's all that's left. For a while, I'm sure I have Parkinson's and all kinds of stuff. I didn't have any of those things. It was like, “No, you have NPH.” It turns out that one of the foremost people [who treat] NPH on the west coast is here in Orange County, at the University of California, Irvine. He used to be up in Portland, but he came down here.
I really liked the doctor, I really liked the doctors that sent me to him. He said, "Eventually you're gonna have to have a shunt." Well, what's a shunt? "We drill a hole in your skull and we put in some tubing," which is what I have.
[Points to head] I have a little machine here and it goes up and it goes in my skull and then the tubing goes down my neck and then it disappears into my abdomen where the brain fluid drains. It's a little electronic machine that regulates the brain fluid. I'm a little bit of a cyborg. It really worked. I was using a walker, my balance was gone. [The doctor said,] "If I don't do this, you might end up in a wheelchair."
I said, "Okay, I'll do it." And I did it. It didn't hurt. There's no nerve endings up there, so it was just weird, it was awkward, and within a week I was perfectly back to normal. But four or five months after that, I started getting these [sores] again and they were on my leg and they got really big and they grew really fast. Nobody knows why this epidermal lymphoma showed up again, but it did. My personal theory is that [when] they drilled a hole in my head, it was very invasive. It didn't feel invasive to me but it had to be. It let loose the cancer cells. So I went to the doctor. The sores on my leg, they really hurt and they were itchy and they got really big, really fast.
Everybody looked at it and went, "Oh, yes, the time is now." I went to a specialist, a regular oncologist-- I have a regular oncologist. She too is an expert on this exact thing that I have, which is really rare. Not hideously rare, but really rare, not common. It's like, “Okay, you're going to go to chemotherapy.” Then I find out that it's really mild chemotherapy. It's cool, I loved this because it's an antigen and inside of the antigen's a little particle of chemotherapy. The antigen is in the bloodstream and it's only looking for this one specific kind of cell and it attaches to it. It worms its way in, it gets inside the cancer cell and it blows up and it kills the cancer cell. I can send you the diagrams later, but it was like I drew this fucking thing.
I'm picturing a Goofy Service Jerk swimming along with a chemo cell.
It was so weird. It was like I drew this thing. The first time I had the chemotherapy, I went into a little bit of a trance. I saw it going in because I'd seen the animations and it was like, "Chemotherapy, you're my friend, you're not my enemy." It was very mild, it just made me tired. I never got sick. I didn't lose my hair. It was growing out because they had shaved my head when they drilled the hole. I was like, "Oh." And that was it. I did that for six months, and everything went away. I was getting neuropathy in my fingers, which I still have a little bit. They're like, "We think we can stop it now, and send you in for a PET scan.” And I didn't have any cancer cells lit up in the scan. Which doesn't mean I’m cancer free, it just means that I didn't have anything active showing. By the way, I hope you're not queasy about medical stuff.
No, no. Go on.
Okay. I just started reliving my life again. I'm still under close observation, I still get the original scratchy things on my arm, but I'm okay. All I wanted was my balance back.
When you were having the balance issues, where were you working at the time? How far back are we talking?
Let's see. I fell right before the last Comic-Con I went to, which was 2019, I guess.
That’s post-McFarlane, post-CBLDF.
Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes. It was the last time I went to Comic-Con. I went to the last Comic-Con in a wheelchair, which was-- everybody's pushing me around. I'm not the most mobile person in the world still. I walk with a cane, but I can do whatever I want and I'm pretty quick with it. When you lose your balance and you get it back, you don't want to lose it again. I never had any of those issues. Personally, I think I probably had this for a long time and I just thought I was a klutz.
I do want to go back a bit because I want to try to catch up from your last interview. It's been a really long time since you last talked to us.
Very long. I looked at it the other day.
It was 1998! You were still at Image. The industry has changed a lot since then.
Everything has changed.
Do you still keep tabs on things?
Not really. I get a notice every day from Heidi MacDonald’s The Beat, and sometimes I read it and sometimes I don't. I still have a few friends in the business, they're only kind of in the business themselves now, but they pay more attention. So I hear what's going on, but to me, it's like, "Boy am I glad I'm not in this business." [Laughs] Really glad. I stay in touch with Dark Horse, but they've never said, "You can't come here anymore." It's been a long time. I corresponded with Mike [Richardson, Dark Horse publisher] about a year ago about this, and he was like, "Come back when you're ready."
Well, I'm just curious to know what you think of the state of the industry, because you were so instrumental to the direct market for so long.
Until I wasn't.
Does the direct market even have a future?
[Chuckles] I don't know. I can remember… I was probably at Image then, I guess. I don't know. Dave Sim, I will not forget him saying, "Look, guys, the direct sales market is a dead horse and every once in a while somebody puts some electrodes on it and gives it a jolt and it twitches and everybody goes, 'It's still alive!'" Now, I didn't believe that at the time, but back then it would have been easy to say it has no future.
I can tell you another anecdote. When I first got to Image, I had lunch with Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri. Marc asked me-- because sales were starting to go down, but they were still in the hundreds of thousands, and Marc said, "Well, how low do you think it'll go?" And I said, "Well, it can go to zero." [Laughter]
That's what we were working to prevent. I don't really know that I necessarily understand all of it anymore. I understand that comics are very expensive. They've been expensive for a long time. I don't know. I haven't read a new comic book in a long time, and I can tell you why. In 2012, I was an Eisner judge. Between January and whenever that thing was, in April, maybe, I had to read every freaking comic book from the year before. And I did, but it turned my head to mush. There were some really good ones and there were some really bad ones.
It's all kind of messed up because Cory was dying, but she insisted that I go to the Eisners judging weekend in San Diego and not drop out because of her, and so I did. But I wasn't in the greatest state of mind there. I was not pleased with how any of it worked. I don't want to really get into that because I still am very good friends with Jackie [Estrada, administrator of the Eisner Awards], but I remember coming home and saying to Cory, "I'll never complain about not being nominated for an Eisner ever again because it's just not going to happen. It's not the way it works." Blah, blah, blah.
Yes, that's mixed up in my head. Her dying is mixed up in my head. The big thing for me was just to finish the work that I was working on. Then, I think, after that I did the next book. Yes. Remember Here When You Were There! [Dark Horse, 2009]. That's the last hardcover I did, right?
There was Remember Here When You Were There!, then there was Hoka Hoka Burb'l Burb'l! [Dark Horse, 2017]. Also Tales of the Beanworld [Dark Horse, 2012] in there somewhere.
Oh, yes. Hoka Hoka Burb'l Burb'l!, yes. I guess she died-- I think maybe I finished that one before. I don't know. I can't-- yes, that's right. Hoka Hoka Burb'l Burb'l!, I had a hard time getting to-- oh, I know what it was. She saw the color book being--
That was Tales, yes.
I remember her looking at the color proofs. I think it came out after she died. In fact, I remember Diana [Schutz, editor at Dark Horse] sent it to me with a note saying, "Well, maybe this will help make you feel a little better." It did. Then I went into my normal hibernation. Somehow I got that one together and I started immediately on the next one. I don't know how many pages I did. A lot. I mean, 40, but then I got lost. Then I just got interested in how's this going to work and trying to figure out how to go really far ahead and work in the origin of Mr. Spook. How's this all going to work? How's it all going to end and I don't know, and now it's now.
Again, right now, for whatever reasons, I can't manage the Cintiq. I can draw perfectly with a pencil, but the glass messes me up. And so I just decided, "Okay, just stop torturing yourself." Then I was doing a lot of things with just pencil. I still got a lot of stuff in just pencil, but actually doing the work itself, keeping all the continuity together, drawing all those Hoi-Polloi, all that stuff, it just doesn't interest me right now. I don't know when it will interest me again. I don't know. I assume that it will. I would like for it to, but I'd be lying if I said that I know that it will.
Was it hard to come back at all after your wife died? You’ve said that Dreamishness is based on your wife.
Yes. I lost her voice because she is the voice of Dreamishness. She is Dreamishness. But a lot of that stuff was already written. No, I've done okay writing her. I know the next two or three big steps. It's like Diana used to say: "Larry, you don't have to tell the reader everything," but I kind of do until I can start cutting it out. And I want to get to the next stage, but I got lost in the transition. So I've got lots of things that are up in the sky and I definitely know what the five baby beans grew up to be. I call them the Huwaxoo. There's a picture of them. There's several pictures of them. And I know that Professor Garbanzo's Fix-it Shop grows a second story, because the-- I don't think I ever named the little Professor Garbanzo. She's very apparent in the last book.
The thing about the baby beans, what'd I call them after that? The Cutie Long Legs, was they don't want to ever touch the ground ever again. They're just in the sky all the time. They sleep on top of Gran'Ma'Pa. All this is drawn. Professor Garbanzo’s Fix-it Shop sprouts a second story with a second door and the beans, they grow up and they go out and they start trying to figure out what they're going to do. Let me see. Yeah, there's a boomer. He's called Zoom’r. It's a terrible name now, but it was great when I thought it up. There's Wand’r who's the scout. There's Gath’r, in charge of food distribution, and then the Professor Garbanzo. Oh, and then Little Mr. Spook, except he's not a Mr. Spook. He's a hero, but he patterns himself after Mr. Spook. I have these adventures where they're doing stuff. It's kind of pointless adventures, but they're just up there, they're doing stuff. I don't know if you remember the piece that I did for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. I think it's the only thing that's never really been reprinted.
If it's never been reprinted, then probably not.
It's a two-page thing and it's off continuity, I guess. Wand’r is on the top of Big Fish and they're flying around and they run into this book and it's like, "I'm a book. I am the spirit of learning," or whatever it is. Anyway, it turns from a book to a scroll to a computer. And it was really all about how, "You got to read, kids." And so it was pretty good. I'm not doing it justice right now. But Wand’r being on top of Big Fish and flying around, that was pretty cool.
Then, I think it was the last thing I actually really did, was Big Fish gets caught in this tangle of weeds and seaweed. And I was far more interested in drawing the seaweed than I was in how he gets out of it. If you look in the last book, there's one bean that's always looking up in the sky. That's Wand’r. You know, I have such copious notes that somebody else may finish this. Somebody else may finish this in the future. Somebody I don't know, somebody's not even born. I don't know. Because I think that Beanworld is just a thing that came to me. I had possession of it. I legally have possession of it, but mentally, I don't know. I know what it is.
You've always said that Beanworld is a process, right?
You've also been pretty clear about how you believe in Duchamp’s idea that part of art is in the viewer.
Absolutely. The reader. The reader creates his or her own Beanworld in their head.
Well that’s interesting, because there were so many years where you were at Image and then you were at McFarlane, and I had pretty much assumed Beanworld was never coming back.
So had I. [Chuckles] Everybody did!
Was it 15 years? Am I making that number up?
Yeah. It was 15 years.2
Well, during that time I sort of assumed that Beanworld was never coming back. There were just those Eclipse collections, and they were long out of print. But I was okay with that because they're just sort of perfect in their way.
Oh, I appreciate that. I can tell you exactly… I remember talking with some people at Comic-Con [at] the end of my McFarlane run. "You know, my work's out of print. I wish it wasn't. I don't know what I'm going to do because I never put out that fifth trade because I didn't know how to do it." They were stories that were those last five books or however many, the Tales of the Goofy Service Jerks, and they were broken up and I was paralyzed by figuring how to reprint it. I don't know, Diana figured it out.
It doesn't take much to paralyze me sometimes. I used to tell the story all the time when I first got to Image, people would say, “I didn't know that the Beanworld guy was the guy at Image.” Then later they were like, "I didn't know that the McFarlane Image guy is the guy that did Beanworld." And I remember when I first started up again, I was at Comic-Con and one of the people from Warner's licensing, because we used to license a lot of stuff for toys from them, she said, "I had no idea. I read your book, but I had no idea that you were the same Larry Marder." And I’m like, "Oh, I am, maybe." [Chuckles] "I am."
So I had pretty much turned off my Beanworld brain. Scott McCloud always thought I would come back, and Jeff Smith I think really didn't. But nobody pushed me harder to come back than Jeff Smith and Vijaya [Iyer, Smith's partner]. And then I just did it. Once I was out of McFarlane, because I got pushed out, I got myself pushed out. Because I was really tired of it.
And I'm like, "What am I going to do now? I guess I got to go back and figure out Beanworld.” Now I was working on the Cintiq and I don't know what I'm doing, but I said, "I better start doing some master drawings." So I did a master drawing of Professor Garbanzo's Fix-it Shop. And it took me a month, but I use it all the time. I switch this stuff around, but I use it all the time. It’s still there. A lot of stuff I do by hand, but then I figured out I had a pattern for the grass. I would do that and then I would just erase it and put in mystery pods.
The thing about the Hoi-Polloi was they were always supposed to be identical, but I was drawing them all individually. Now I could just draw one and reproduce it and make small changes by hand. That was closer to my original vision.
It's almost like you've rediscovered paste-up.
I always did paste-up. Because first of all, that's how I made a living. I will never forget this - Jill Thompson came over, she was still really young. I don't know what she was doing at the time. She and Cory hit it off, [when] she was wearing a Beanworld t-shirt that she hand-drew. Cory said, "Oh, can you make me one?" And she did. She brought it over and I showed her the pages that I was working on. And if I didn't like something, I just cut it up and moved it around. My pages are totally unsellable. And I know she was horrified when she looked at it because she's such a craftsman. And besides, everybody makes money on their original art. My stuff is just whatever the camera sees. I don't care what my originals look like. It's whatever the camera sees. And I never cared because I had the film made myself. That was part of my deal with Eclipse. You make your own film, you send it to the printer, and we'll take care of the printing. I didn't care.
In that 15 year hiatus, you did do the one story.
I did. For Rob [Liefeld].3
Which was interesting.
Oh, it certainly was.
Coloring aside - because that was an experiment.
No, that was… I didn't know how to color anything, and Rob said, "Well, so and so, she really likes your work, and she's the one that's coloring the Bone covers. Let her do it." I looked at it and I really liked it. Then I'll never forget, Scott McCloud said to me at WonderCon, I think it was, "Oh, not too long from now, you're going to be really upset that Mr. Spook looks like a light bulb." And he was right. It was Image coloring and it didn't go with my stuff. I thought it was great at the time. I can't hold it against the colorist. Then when it came time [to reprint it], this was a really big question to me, is that book canon? Is that story canon or is it not? I was like, "How can it not, it has to be canon." I had to figure out how to get it into the canon. And that's what the little red book was. Beanworld 3 1/2.4 That's it.
That story, “While We Wuz Eatin’” is really interesting.
Do you know the last time you read it?
Probably when I converted it to black & white.5
It's one of the rare times where your day job crept into Beanworld.
It never really occurred to me before, but when I was re-reading everything for this interview, I was surprised to see that it’s a Beanworld encounter with a marketing guy.
It's actually Beanworld meeting Marvel. If you actually look at that monster, he's got a hat on, that's got an M on it. It's got an M on his hat. [Laughter]
That was like Galactus. He's this cosmic entity and he comes to Earth and he's got a G on his belt, you know. To me, that was Marvel. He was selling protection. “We're here to help you.” Because this was during the whole distribution thing when Marvel went off on its own. I didn't know exactly what I was saying, but it felt right. It started when Rob said, "I'm starting this book and I want you to put your work in it."
Now, he really does like Beanworld and he really did want me to do it, but it also helped me keep the other partners back, because he was doing some crazy stuff. And when you really look at it, that first issue, it's got Battlestar Galactica in it, I think. It's crazy.6
The other time it seems like your day job crept is when the action effigies showed up. I don't know if that was you talking about your time at McFarlane in any way, but they became a big part of the story.
That's true. That was way before I was before I was at McFarlane. Actually, it started out as a parody, very, very early on. I was going to do one of those trade shows and Dean Mullaney [of Eclipse Comics] said, "Larry, you need to give something for people to remember. Do a bookmark or something."
Then I realized that this photograph had been on my wall when I was in advertising, and it was a spoon with kidney beans on it. I drew eyes on them and I thought that was funny. I looked at that and I said, "You know what? I'm going to take lima beans and I'm going to draw eyes on them and I'm going to give them away." And I did! The sign said something like--
“Free Beanworld action figures, take one.”
That was much later.
I had one! [Laughs]
I turned it into world famous Beanworld action figures. First there was one and there was two and then there were twelve. I made them all the time. I would go to a convention, wake up in the morning and I was a little obsessively crazy. And I wouldn't let anybody else do them because when I looked at them, I could tell that I hadn't done them. At some point, Cory, other people started just doing them when I wasn't looking. And I didn't know the difference.
Then you know, as the years went by, I did a Harry Potter one and I’d just throw it in. It had glasses and a lightning bolt. And people go all crazy over this, but it was a marketing tool. And here's the joke. San Diego can be a very hot, humid place, and people were putting them in their pocket and they'd come to me a day or two later and say, "It IS an action figure! It sprouted in my room." [Laughter]
And I'm like, "There's the joke!"
That's what led into the whole idea of toys, because when I did the toys originally, I wasn't at McFarlane yet. I was still in Chicago. I was being snooty about the toy thing. It was because toys were becoming so central to the business.
But you did leave Image to go to McFarlane Toys [in 1999]. How did that happen?
I have to say that after Jim Lee left and after Rob left, there was peace. Nobody was fighting anymore. And a majority of the money that came into Image Central came from their books. At one point it seemed like Extreme and Wildstorm were putting out 15, 20 books a month. Image Central was getting a cut of that. And all of a sudden, we didn't have that anymore. So I had to start bringing in books to Image Central. And I brought in a lot of "bad girl" books that I didn't necessarily like one way or the other, but we needed the money.
I remember getting off the phone with a pretty famous indy comics person explaining some business point to them. I'm holding his hand and I'm thinking, "Why am I holding the hand of an insecure comic book creator?" Because that's what I am! It's not the same as when I was trying to keep Rob and Jim and everybody from killing each other. I was just bored. I was bored for about a year, just totally bored.
And so Todd [McFarlane] was expanding his books. He had a writers' conference in Phoenix and he wanted me to come because I was from Image. I don't exactly remember who was there. Brian Holguin was there. I know Brian Michael Bendis was there. I don't remember what other creators were there, but there were others.
And typical Todd, that night after we ate dinner, we went to go see his wife Wanda playing in a softball game. And he's over there, he's critiquing. "Run! Run! Swing! Swing!" I don't know if he was the coach or not, but he turned to me and he said, "You bored? You bored in that office?" And I go, "Well, yeah." He says, "That's okay, come with me. Come here. I need you." To do what?
Now, I knew that he was looking for somebody to coordinate all the various McFarlane companies and all the various locations, because there were a lot of locations, and to help keep it all together so he could just do what he does best - think stuff up. And so, I don't know why, but I said, "Okay." I said, "But I just want the same deal that I had when I went to Image the first time. Pay for me to come out here and give me some housing and I will go back and forth and let my life catch up with me." And he said, "Okay."
And that's what I did for eight years. I flew to Phoenix every Monday morning, got up at the crack of dawn, flew there, went to work, worked all day. On Friday, I would leave from work and go to the airport and go home. It was a way of life for a long time. Now, Cory in those days traveled a lot. She was selling upscale travel and-- not like a travel agent, but selling her product to the travel agents.
And her biggest client was American Express Platinum in Phoenix. So a couple times a year, maybe three, four, she would spend a week in Phoenix. And so we bought a condo there in addition to our townhouse in Orange County. I went back and forth. I was living there during the week and at home on the weekend. I was racking up the miles because I would fly to and from California every week. Maybe in the middle of the week I would fly to California to go to Burbank for some licensing meeting.
And then I would also fly, maybe three, four times a year, going to New Jersey where the R&D offices were. That's where they were designing and sculpting the action figures. And it was a big place spread out over several buildings, and I would help them because that's all I ever did. I was never really in charge of anything. I was more like a fixer than I was, you know, boss.
Your career up to that point had been very… comic books. You came from the direct market. Aside from being a cartoonist yourself, you came from the business side of the direct market7 and then you rose to Image, which made sense. But now you’re running a toy company, or a conglomerate of companies.
We didn't know what we were doing! In the beginning, Todd didn't know how to run a toy company. He didn't know how to make toys. The belief in Hollywood at the time was that what Mattel was doing was rocket science and nobody knew how to do it. And so Todd didn't know how to do it either, but he figured it out, he found a bunch of really talented very capable people, and they became the genesis of McFarlane Toys.
I mean, he was so popular in comic books that my recollection is that they went to Toy Fair8 and they had pictures of some of the characters in clamshells with packaging. [And said to buyers], “We're making toys.” And the buyer from Toys“R”Us liked Todd. He liked the product, even though he'd never seen it. He even wrote a purchase order. And that purchase order allowed them to finish the toys - and far more importantly, to get the credit in China to make the toys.
The business model there was, in the beginning, very, very crazy. They would make-- well, here we go. This is actually within reach. [Holds up a toy] This Malebolgia was in the first case of McFarlane Toys that ever shipped. And it’s a chase figure,9 it cost way more than the other figures manufactured for series one. They cost a lot more than the other figures, and it was so detailed and it was so cool. And it caused so much hubbub that-- I remember I was at Toy Fair, it was still with Image, it was the Toy Fair that showcased Whilce Portacio’s Wetworks figures, whatever year that was. I was going up the elevator in the toy building, because that's where it was. We actually had a showroom there that we paid for 12 months out of the year and only used for like two weeks in February and a weekend or something in September. And there were these guys, they were with Mattel I think.
They said, "Have you seen that McFarlane stuff?" "Yeah." "What are we going to do about him?" "I don't know, but he's giving us a run for our money." And he did because it was just like Todd. Todd’s secret to how he got popular was [impersonating Todd’s Canadian accent], “I liked to draw lots of little lines and that was it.” The detail on the toys was amazing.
Now he brought me out to Phoenix. I was titled his “President of Operations.” Nobody knew what that meant, but I didn't know anything about the toy business. So my first day out there, he sits me down. And the job-- Wanda had been doing it. His wife Wanda. But she was pregnant and just about to have her baby, Jake. So she wanted out of the company. She wanted to be a mom. I know for a fact that they looked everywhere for somebody to do this.
He really wanted Ted Adams to do it. Ted would have been perfect. But Ted had other ideas. I think he had been working with [longtime McFarlane associate] Terry Fitzgerald in L.A., and then he left and then started IDW. He didn't want to be any part of it, helping run the toy company. Todd asked me, and the one thing that he knew was that I was very good at keeping track of all the pieces that were in motion, because that's what Image was. He had the R&D offices in New Jersey. He had business offices in Detroit. There were a lot of people up in Detroit, and then there was Beau Smith in West Virginia. [Smith] was like-- I don't know, he was a marketing person. Beau was really good at it. He knew the names of all the retailers’ wives, their kids, who was in little league. Stuff like that. Real personal touch. He was so good at that. What else? Oh, and Terry was in Hollywood working on the HBO animation series.
And then there was the office in Hong Kong, which was where they oversaw the manufacturing of the toys in China. My first day there, [Todd] said, "Forget the comic book business. Don't pay any attention to it. You're out of that now and you got a lot to learn here." I remember they were going on and on about the distribution center in Belgium, in Antwerp. I'm like, what? Nobody told me anything. I had to pick it all up on the fly and I was thrown into the pool and [it was] sink or swim. I had to figure out the toy business, but there were great people there who helped me. I never had to do the math. I'm terrible at math. We always had accounting people that did that.
What I really did, I was the person in-between Todd and everybody else. It was that way for a long time. Back then, Todd was computer-phobic. Most of the Image partners were computer-phobic and he didn't do email or any of that stuff. But then he started doing it. We always had video conferences, but now he was putting stuff in writing himself. He was able to communicate with everybody. I really became redundant. I was in the way. Because I had very strong ideas about what was going on in China, and he didn't agree with me.
Would that be the--
Business practices. The business. This was the period of time where they were finding lead in the paint. Not our toys, but the big boys' toys. I used to go over there a lot - twice a year, some years, three times a year. I remember we were in one of the larger factories. They didn't make too much of our stuff, but they were so proud of themselves. They had this plaque on the wall that one of the companies had told them that they could do their own quality control. They didn't have to use an outside third party [for] quality control. I was like, "Todd--" This is before the whole thing happened with lead in the paint. I was like, "This is not good. This is not good."
The reason why they did it was because the major retailers like Walmart, their prices had to remain the same. They're not doing that anymore, but their prices had to have the same everyday discount, everyday low prices. The raw material manufacturers needed to raise their prices because China was getting to become what it is now. There was starting to be a middle class. I'll get back to that in a second, but they had to make stuff faster every day. The way to make it faster every day was to surreptitiously give it a paint that dried faster, and so that's what they did. I just knew it was wrong. It was just a matter of time until that hit us.
Were you getting flashbacks to your days doing marketing for chemical companies?10
Yes, I most certainly was. I was like, "What is this?" China impressed the hell out of me. They were not that far away from total communism. The workers lived at the factory, in dormitories. They would come in the morning and they would do their group calisthenics and then they would march two-by-two into the factory and do their sweatshop jobs, and all that was terrible to see.
Workers started wanting more money, because what they did was they came from the provinces, it was like a rite of passage. Young men and women would come from the provinces and they would go work in the toy factories. When Chinese New Year happened, they took their money and they went home. If they had enough money, they got married. If they didn't have enough money, they came back and did it again because it was only semi-skilled labor. The last year or so I was there, they were living in town. The town started growing. It was all in Guangdong Province.
I can remember one factory where the first time I went there, if you looked across the street, it was a rice paddy. The last time I was there, across the street was a Four Seasons Hotel. I kid you not. It was like, "Oh, they're not going to let this factory be here much longer." Which was true, I guess. They had public transportation. They had a subway, they had buses. And so the workers figured out, "Hey, you know what? I can get in the bus and I can go around to all the other factories and maybe get a better job, and maybe I'll be able to stay in town, maybe I'll be able to afford a washing machine or a car."
Labor costs were building up, and we were just caught in the squeeze in the middle and it was really beyond my ability to keep track of.
Do you know what ultimately happened there? I suspect they found another country, because that's typically what happened.
Yeah, most toy manufacturers went somewhere else. They went to Vietnam, or they went to Indonesia. But the main factory that I used to visit stopped making toys. Now they make Samsonite luggage. The factory is a factory, and there's still some people that can make them and do them. But I haven't seen a McFarlane toy in a long time. I have a feeling they're not what they were the first 10 years of McFarlane Toys.
Is that what ultimately led to you leaving, then?
I wrote Todd a memo about lots of things, and I call it my Jerry Maguire memo. I showed it to my wife and she said, "Oh, he's going to fire you." I showed it to my assistant Suzy. She said, "Oh, he's going to fire you." I said, "Okay," and I pressed send and didn't hear from him for a week or two, because he didn't read it. Then when he finally did read it, he shitcanned me, and I was happy. I needed to be out of there.
Can you say at all what was in that memo?
Okay, fair enough.
No, let me tell you the thing. I don't like giving internal business of people that I worked for, even though it's not confidential as far as I'm concerned anymore. I don't want to stir a hornet nest. But you look at it and you go, "Well, that's stupid." Let me tell you this. One of the vice presidents that I had, I remember telling her, "You know, the job isn't to do what Todd says to do, it's our job to protect the employees from the things he really doesn't want us to do, but he says he wants done."
She just totally disagreed with me, and then she got fired a year later. Then she wrote me, she said, "Oh yes, you were right. You were totally right." Because Todd is a wonderful micromanager, but he gets lost in the details. Or he did. Everything I'm saying about Todd is so past tense. I think I've been gone from there for like 15 years now.
You left in 2007, right?
Yeah. And to my knowledge, there's only one or two people left there that I even know. He took on a partner and all kinds of stuff. So here's the thing. We were doing gangbuster business, and then 9/11 happened. And retail fell apart. The thing about McFarlane Toys was that the toy business, everything's in the fourth quarter and really most of the toy retail business is done at Christmas. There's a little bit in the spring for Easter, graduations or whatever, but it's really at Christmas time. And so all the toy companies loaded up for Christmas time, but the rest of the year they didn't have anything.
So McFarlane Toys with the chase figures and all that created great foot traffic for the big retailers, but all that fell apart with 9/11. And then the other thing was, Todd's a complete and utter sports nut. And we got into sports and I didn't care. I didn't care about the players, I didn't care. I knew what I had to do and I knew if there was a problem I had to go solve it, but I couldn't look at something and go, "Yes, that really looks like--" Because I didn’t know who he was. And I have to say, we were really proud of what we did. We revolutionized the sports toy business too, but that all drifted away too. They don't even have any sports licenses anymore, I think.
So you left McFarlane in 2007, and then in 2010 you became the president of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
What led to that?
Well first, the thing that happens with presidents of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, they reach a point where they go, "I can't do this anymore." That's what happened to Denis Kitchen, and that's what happened to Chris Staros. Chris called me and he said, "I'm going to leave the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and they want you to be the president. You should at least just be a member for a year or something." Okay. I didn't think that was really going to happen that way, but it really did.
So who promoted me to be president? Who was really pushing for me? It was definitely Paul Levitz and definitely Neil Gaiman and, to a lesser extent, I think Steve Geppi. I did it, and then I became the president and I was working with Charles [Brownstein], he was my friend. When I got there, we had no money and a lot of cases. Then as the time went by, we were really good at raising money and there weren't that many court cases. A majority of the business that we did was rescuing librarians.
Well, there are no headlines for the fact that you prevented something from happening, because once something was solved and a book was kicked out and they got it back into the schools and all that kinda stuff, nobody wanted to raise a fuss. So we went from being a wartime organization-- because people were getting prosecuted left and right. It started out defending a distributor, Friendly Frank’s. Distributors would be busted and then after that, it went into stores being busted.
And then it went into individuals being busted, and that got trickier because-- well, all kinds of things, but mostly because anime, manga, they all got big eyes and they look like little kids and they're not, they're 400-year old vampires or fairies or whatever. But authorities would look at those and go, "Oh, no, no, that's fucked up." But I didn't really have much to do. The main thing that I did at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was help get them out of New York. Because the New York board members did not want it to leave New York. But New York was getting very, very expensive.
We were spending too much money on New York. And so I got the New Yorkers-- I don't know how really, but it was my job to whip the votes and get the votes so that we could move to Portland, and we did. It was good for me too, because I could go up and visit the fund and also see my publisher [Dark Horse].
What led to you leaving?
I thought it was time to go. Plus my terms were up. You're allowed to have three three-year terms, and then they could extend it. And I was like, "I think I should go, because there are people here that have had themselves extended over and over again. We’re old people." I'm talking specifically about Paul Levitz and Milton Griepp. I quit, and Milton decided that was a good time for him to quit too. We quit the same day together. And then Paul stayed for a while. But I felt very strongly we're old people that came in [through] the direct sales market.
That's not what everything is now. Now it's all little publishers and creators. We're old, and we're male, and we don't really necessarily understand it. I can remember one meeting where somebody was talking about a Will Eisner book, and one of the younger people, a woman, said, "We don't need another book about a dead white man." And I'm like, "It's fucking Will Eisner!" At that point in the industry, Will Eisner was the name of the award, not a creator. It just was like, "I don't know. I think it's time for me to go." Plus, I was getting a little bored with that too. Because nothing ever really happened. The thing was, once we moved, that was fine, but as the president of the board, it was my job to oversee everybody's raises. And I hated it, because I knew they all deserved more, but the board wouldn't give them more. It was always my job to convey what the board said, and back to the board, because I was the person in the middle. I had enough of that. So I gave them a year's notice, and off I went.
I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about Charles Brownstein, who ultimately resigned following the resurfacing of allegations [of sexual imposition]. While he didn’t resign until many years later, the incident in question did happen on your watch. Were you aware of any of that at the time?
You know what? I have absolutely nothing to add to the information already in the public domain. At this late date I can’t see that anything I say will make any difference to anyone, anywhere.
Fair enough. But before I let you go, a couple more things I want to touch on.
In your last Comics Journal interview, you mentioned you wrote a book called The Brand Names that was intended for Eclipse.
Sure it was.
That was a cartoon history of mass advertising in America, that at one point was going to be drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz.
Yes, it was.
Is that still sitting around somewhere?
Yes, it is. Actually, I look at it all the time.
Will it ever be published?
Maybe, because I could do it myself now with AI and all of that. Yeah, it was a good book. It was supposed to be, I don't know, 32 pages, I wrote 40 pages. And it just got completely out of hand. The whole book that it was supposed to be part of got canceled or something. I think about it all the time and people ask me all the time, "Are you going to do it?" It was good. Now, it was apocalyptic in the sense that in the late '80s, all the media was in the hands of 15 corporations. What's it now, four? It was radical. It's around here somewhere, but it's never in the permanent file. It's always out. I always look at it every once in a while. I look at it, and I read it, and I go, "This is still viable." But I don't know who would publish it because everybody would get sued.
[Chuckles] Print on demand!
The Brand Names, it was really the history of advertising and how advertising drove the media. And so started out with Benjamin Franklin, and it ended up with Rupert Murdoch. But Rupert Murdoch 20, 30 years ago, before Fox News and everything. I named names. Here's Quaker Oats, here's whatever. And I never wanted to do it like faking it. It would have to be nonfiction. It would have to be severely fact-checked, although I had all the facts. What I was asked to do was a version of Ben Bagdikian's The Media Monopoly, but it went way from there.
It really was that advertising started in the country newspapers and then it became part of magazines. Magazines were subscriber-based. Then we got to radio and TV, and they were advertising-based, not subscription-based. That was a big deal. Every city had a gazillion newspapers and they were all aimed at one demographic. That went away for a long time, really from the Depression to when the internet started. And so there were the three TV channels and the two newspapers and whatever.
Now all of a sudden, anybody can be a journalist, and there's a gazillion points of view out there. The big money always figures it out. I remember early on, when the world wide web first started, being told, "There's no way. This is the wild west out there. Nobody's going to take it over. Nobody's going to dominate it." Because I had done [marketing], I said, "You underestimate the power of money and how money likes to conglomerate."
I assume you're familiar with Network. There's a speech.
That's my favorite speech! I used to make people listen to that because it's the best analysis of the world then and it's even more true now.
Paddy Chayefsky knew what he was talking about when he wrote that.
He certainly did. And so I didn't know what [the internet] was going to be, because at that point all there was was Netscape. Google hadn't even been invented yet. Certainly, nobody saw Facebook or anything, all the stuff we have now. Right now, again, I know people, and they're talking about, "No, this time it's going to be real and they won't be able to control it." I'm like, "Maybe you're right. I don't know." But with ChatGPT, I don't know. There's so many variables out there. I just can't figure out what people are going to do. I know they'll figure something out. I'm not one of those people that thinks this is the apocalypse. And I don't think it's the death of anything.
I think that people forget, but desktop publishing was the end of something. It went from Mad Men-type ad agencies, which is where I started out, to copywriters being able to lay out their own ads. They would be using whatever they used in those days. What did we use, QuarkXPress? You could just do it and you didn't need all those people. It doesn't mean it was good. There's lots of examples of bad stuff. If you look at any early issue of Wizard, you can see they did not know what they were doing, but it sold.
And I think that that's what's going on now. I always said, "I don't know how, but someday in the future, there's going to be a movie and it's going to be Groucho Marx and John Wayne." Those are the two things that I said. "It'll be like a murder mystery, and they won't need actors anymore." That's what I said. We're a lot closer to it now than we were then. I don't know.
I do get the impression that you still carry guilt from your days in marketing. Is that an accurate statement?
When you were talking about McFarlane and your reactions there, and even when you were talking about Image. Is it because of the chemical companies, or was it just being part of the system?
Yeah, I think it's being part of the system. I think that you can't do anything unless you're part of the system. Even [Dave] Sim had to join the system. You can do stuff outside, people do online comics and stuff, but somehow they always end up in print and they end up getting distributed. I don't know anything about distribution now. What I do know sounds kooky to me, but I'm glad I don't have to know anything about it.
Somebody asked me something once. He said, "You don't think about this stuff at all anymore?" I said, "No, nobody pays me to." That was when I realized, wow, at some point I was really curious, and then at another point I was just getting paid. When did I cross over that line? I don't know. Sometime probably after Heroes Reborn11 and probably after the whole Diamond thing.12 I became very business. “Business.”
Did the joy come back when you came back to Beanworld then?
Oh yes, because I was home. I was not commuting anymore and I had five really, really good years with Cory. And then she got sick and then she died. Can't do anything about that. But yeah, I loved being home. It was great. Right now I'm in what used to be her office. It's mine now, but she would be down here because she had a job where she worked at home. I would be upstairs, it's the room directly above where I am right now. We would come down, one of us would make lunch, one of us would make dinner, and the cats just went to whatever room they felt like being in. And it was a life.
Do you think you're going to be able to continue Beanworld?
I don't see any reason why I won't be. That's the best I can say. There are a lot of people that want to help me, that's for sure.
Is it too personal for you to take on a collaborator?
No. Probably not at this point. Well, a lot of people are like, "Larry, come on, they're fucking Beans." They're right. You could figure out, what do they got? Twenty poses?
Dave Sim collaborates with Gustave Doré. That's how he does Cerebus these days.
Believe me, I understand that. The thing is, I just don't know. Maybe somebody will come in and help me. I don't know who that person would be. But somebody will because I will figure out how to make an offer.
But you're not against it?
I'm not against it at all. Like I said, I just had my health for six months after being really out of it for like three, four years. And that's why I definitely made the decision I'm not doing any conventions until I have new work. Unless they ask me to come. But you know, I'm not going to go to Comic-Con. “When is the next Beanworld coming out?” No.
But it still sells. It doesn't sell a lot, but I see that it sells. And the big thing that I wanted when I really wanted to come back in the beginning, and why I went to Dark Horse in the first place, was because I wanted my stuff to be in print and I wanted it to be a child-friendly package. We picked a size where it's easy for them to hold it in their hands, and those hardcover books are out there. They're just out there.
The omnibus is the big thing, but the hardcover books are out there and they're in libraries and things like that. So it's not like before, where it wasn't in libraries. Once you're in a library, you don't necessarily stay in the library, but at least you got a shot. I was at the ABA [American Booksellers Association] in Las Vegas, so I have no idea what year that was. But I was doing Beanworld, so I don't know. I was at the CBLDF booth and my badge is turned around and this woman, her badge is turned around, and she comes up to my table [and] she's tapping on Beanworld, which was sitting there, and she goes, "This is the strangest book in our library." I said, "Oh." She said, "I'm not talking about the strangest book in the children's library. This is the strangest book in our library. And it is always checked out.”
That's the one thing I always knew about Beanworld. Beanworld always sold itself. Didn't win any awards, didn't do any of that. It's just, you put a Beanworld in front of somebody and if they can make it through the first 10 pages, they're going to make it all the way through. If they can't make it through the first 10 pages, it's not their thing. That's how it works. It’s just you got to find those kids. But now I don't have to, because they tell each other. And they get older and they become parents.
And they give it to their kids.
Multi-generational family fans are the best thing I have. Because I just love it. I don't know if I ever put this in print or anything. But years ago, a lady came up to me and she had a onesie for-- well, an infant, I guess, it was a onesie for like a little baby. And she asked me to draw a baby bean in marker and I did it. I don't know if she paid me or what, I don't know. But she sent me a picture of the baby being held up with this onesie on.
The last time I was a guest at Comic-Con, I don't know what year that was, but I had my panel, and I showed that picture. And I swear to God this happened. After the thing was over, a woman came up with a 14-year old girl and she said, “That's her in that picture.” And I was like, "Whoa!" I have a lot of magic moments like that.
* * *
- Larry’s wife Cory Marder passed away in 2012 following a protracted illness.
- That is to say, 15 years between Tales of the Beanworld #21 (The Beanworld Press/Eclipse Comics, 1993) and Beanworld Holiday Special (Dark Horse, 2008).
- A four-page story in Asylum #1 (Maximum Press, 1995).
- Tales of the Beanworld is book 3.5 of the Dark Horse volumes, and features “While We Wuz Eatin’” along with two other shorts. The stories are all printed in color, albeit in a much more subdued treatment, this time by Marder himself.
- This would have been for Dark Horse’s Beanworld Omnibus series, which includes the stories from Tales in black & white.
- The eclectic lineup of Asylum #1: The aforementioned Beanworld tale, two Liefeld properties (Avengelyne and Merlyn), Stephen Platt's Doubletap, and indeed, a Battlestar Galactica story.
- Marder served as marketing director for the Moondog’s chain of comic shops from 1991 to 1993.
- The North American International Toy Fair, an annual trade show.
- A limited quantity figure, after which collectors "chase."
- In his pre-comics career (discussed in detail in his 1998 TCJ interview), Marder created advertisements for a host of clients he didn’t particularly like.
- Heroes Reborn was a 1996-97 experiment where Marvel contracted the Image Comics studio heads to create updated versions of their characters. While the results were interesting, most of it was critically panned, and in some cases outright ridiculed.
- Marder is referring to the mid '90s distribution wars, which saw Marvel acquire Heroes World, leading to Image signing exclusively with Diamond. The results cannibalized the direct market, which has never recovered.