Stephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil has a title so irresistible that it’s a surprise to see that he actually pulls off the addition of a great book to go along with it. In his first novel Collins, who won the prestigious Observer/Cape/Comica Graphic short story prize in 2010 for his comics work, has crafted a hauntingly beautiful parable built on a deceptively simple plot. The book’s entire plot is essentially in its title.
Set in the island of Here, it tells the story of Dave, a man with a life so typical, we can pretty much say he rinses and repeats his routine every single day. He goes to work down the same streets, spends hours at the office doing something he knows has no real importance, and then goes back home. His only pastime is to draw. Evening after evening, Dave stares outside his window and recreates what he sees outside in his sketch book. More often than not, he finds himself content over the perfectness of the island of Here, where everything is tidy and under control. Not that things being out of control is even fathomable for the inhabitants of this place.
Dave is also bald, hairless practically, except for a single, obnoxious hair that grows time after time right over his upper lip. Then one day, another hair appears.
Through a series of gorgeously realized black and white panels, Collins shows us how Dave’s facial hair begins to grow bigger and bigger until it becomes completely out of control, and the more he tries to cut it, the more violent and unexpected is its return. Panicked by the presence of this unwanted beard, Dave goes to specialists and medical experts, all of whom try their best to remove the beard to no avail. We see how the presence of something so seemingly innocent turns the island of Here upside down, and the innocuous beard becomes a symbol for everything that must be tamed, even if not perfectly understood—and something that must be eliminated, if it gets too out of hand.
Collins is a masterful storyteller who, with very simple sketches, makes his characters into fully emotional beings. Dave’s little eyes, two small dots crowned by thin, long eyebrows, can become vessels of pure fear, compassion and admiration, all depending on how they are framed within the panels. Because of its simplicity, Dave’s face turns him into an “everyman” figure, allowing us to see ourselves in him. As Dave’s beard becomes associated with the chaos of the strange, unknown place people from Here refer to as There, Collins turns his book into a satire about the way in which the media blows news stories out of proportion in order to conceal more important issues.
For all the unattractiveness of Dave’s beard, the true story being told is one of irrational fear, of xenophobia, which has resonated throughout the ages. Collins’ prose is simple, the story is told using comic book-like speeches and pithy narration that sometimes achieves true beauty, “...perhaps the most disturbing and remarkable story you’ve ever heard. It is the story of a man whose face has become in just the past two days a portal to hell,” comments a sensationalist professor.
With its dark, whimsical undertones, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil can’t help but remind one of the works of by Roald Dahl (and it’s even harder not to imagine a Tim Burton film adaptation, the thought of the stop motion alone making one salivate), and yet perhaps the strangest thing about the book is that despite of its scope and qualities, it remains such a simple piece of art.
The book can be read from cover to cover in less than an hour, and yet the story of Dave keeps haunting you weeks after you finished reading it. It pops out of nowhere, like Dave’s own beard. You might find yourself gasping in awe and fear of a single random hair that appeared on your face or chest. You might find yourself deciding to take a slightly different road to work that morning. You might contemplate doing something fun before heading back home at night—and this tale shadows each of your actions.
Not that the story is moralistic or even didactic in any way; Collins doesn’t seem interested in teaching us lessons. Instead The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil offers itself like an invitation to explore the world, to look closer (a theme that is suggested visually by the unique arrangement of the text boxes in the story) and to live better, to seek joy, to explore new places. As far as graphic novels go, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil feels timeless, because it contains truths you’ve known all along.
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