Some rules, to begin:
This review will not claim that graphic novels have come of age. This review will not refer to the Costa book awards as ‘the turning point’, or even question graphic novels legitimacy against other more established art forms. This review will not mention Maus, by Art Speigleman. And moreover, this review will not claim to have discovered that graphic novels are a serious artform.
Because with The Gigantic Beard that was Evil, Stephen Collins has produced a book too profound to be serious, too good for the patronizing pat of mainstream media.
The novel opens with a map of the island of Here. Here is surrounded by a sea, which in turn in surrounded by There. Everything in Here, from the trees in the park to the pelts of the pets, is trimmed, clipped and just as it ought to be. And everyone in Here is utterly preoccupied with blocking out thoughts of There. For There is chaos, There is disorder, There is a place where meaning disintegrates.
Dave is regular guy living on a regular street of Here. He is as bald as a bowling ball but for his eyebrows, and one rogue hair that springs from his top lip. Every morning he gets up to work in an enormous corporation whose business its employees never pause to question, and daily he produces summaries on statistical data, bar charts, scatter graphs and the like, which nobody understands. But like the like the windowless wall of his house that faces out to sea, like the one song that Dave plays endlessly on repeat to block out the sound of the waves, it is the security of these structured data forms, the regularity of their appearance, that drowns out thoughts of There. One day, however, following an unexplainable anomaly of data on the graphs, Dave’s one unruly hair explodes like “a roaring black fire” across his face, spouting into an ungovernable beard, which bursts through walls, and both fascinates and appalls all residents of Here. There has finally penetrated the thin skin of Here, and so begins Collins’ dystopic parable.
In his debut graphic novel, Stephen Collins, illustrator and cartoonist for the Guardian and Prospect magazine, sees the world though a fairground mirror – stretched, widened, distorted, but nevertheless a recognizable reflection. His characters’ silhouettes are skittles on matchsticks, their hands and faces like stretched teardrops, their haircuts styled by the Jetsons. Everything is elongated and graceful, halfway between the wide-eyed naïveté of Chris Ware's faces and Tom Gauld's boyish fantasies of laser-eyed robots and hairy monster giants. And this distorted style extends through to the logic of the world he has created, and into the narrative itself. Collins’ world is warped, a surreal suburbia that calls to mind the dark humour of Chris Morris’ Jam or Simon Pegg’s Spaced. In place of weirdy electronica backing tracks, it is Collins’ soft smudgy graphite rendering that provides the tone. Soft hatching and thick black lines create a totemic atmosphere to his characters, and an ominous feel to their environment.
It is in the ensuing reaction to the beard that the satire of Collin’s novel really starts to shine. Grounded on the surreal premise of a rampant beard, there is an all too believable fallout of media exploitation, accusations of terrorism and religious fundamentalism, tabloid reactionism, government conspiracies and, with a gift shop and museum set up towards the end of the tale, the eventual commodification of the story itself – every inhabitant of Here jumping on the beard bandwagon to further their own ends.
With everyone searching for a reason for this outcrop of chaos on Dave’s chin, Collins takes the reader a step further into his paradigm, explaining the wildness of there: “what we see … is becauselessness itself” With that, the novel becomes a study of the order of language, the structure of narrative, and how events rarely conform to this neat order, as if, he says, “it were possible to connect this to that and somehow show a purpose, or prove some kind of pattern”. The final coup is when Collins allows his story to unravel, to discombobulate, and refuses the reader the right to a clear, distinct ending, a bold narrative move which signals the victory of the story’s ethic over its form.
Much of the difficulty found in assessing a graphic novel is the inability to accept that when one art form, writing, meets another, graphic representation, a third is created. This is a story that could only be told in the medium of graphic novels. The black wilderness of the sea is expressed in clawed hand, spiky neural branches and crabby claw motifs that appear throughout, in There, in the sea, in the nightmares of the islanders, and in the beard that swamps the streets of Here. Both word and image operate together to tell a story that works only as a combination of the two. In The Beard That Was Evil, Collins has created a total work of art which elevates itself beyond comparison.