The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is, at least to begin with, the story of a man called Dave who lives on the coast of a place called Here, a place, it should be known, that lives in fear of a place called Where (Where being everywhere that Here isn’t). Here is all very neat. Everyone dresses the same, all of the hedges are cut the same, no-one causes a fuss, everyone does as they are told, everything is just so. Dave works a job, crunching numbers and presenting his findings to other colleagues each day, quietly suppressing the old head murmurs as far as whether what he does has any point or not. Whether a hint of chaos in his usually regular reports gives rise to the eponymous beard or whether the emergence of the beard forces certain issues to the surface may be a moot point because before you know it Dave is sporting a beard – and not just any beard, but a beard that soon comes to overshadow the island of Here, borne aloft on balloons.
Stephen Collins’ full length graphic debut – he has previously won graphic awards and regularly contributes to the Guardian and Prospect magazine – is a solemn marvel. Beautifully rendered in what I presume is pencil, the black and white odyssey is a thoughtful fable that sees a community reacting to the other in the ways that most communities react to that which is other (with fear and demands). Collins maintains just enough pace to create a strong bond between the reader and Dave (who is in some respects your consummate everyman) such that you feel sympathy for Dave, sympathy for the community and, eventually, something approaching joy when Dave’s legacy starts to filter down amongst the rank and file. There is a strain of Alan Bennett in the book’s humour and Edward Gorey in the look and feel of things, which is a delicious combination.
The open-ended nature of the climax (which recalls Shelley Jackson’s short story, ‘My Friend Goo’ by way of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves) suggests redemption of a sort, albeit hidden behind and beneath weird tangles and odd runes. Whether or not Collins has any plans to take his readers to Where or return us to Here, even, in the future, he is certainly a graphic novelist to keep an eye on.
Any Cop?: A surprising graphic novel in that it both gets better and better as you read but then improves further on subsequent re-reads but also in your mind, reverberating, pretty much every time you see an unruly beard or a chap in need of a haircut. Highly recommended.