On Tuesday I went to Foyles to see Joe Hill wow 160 people with his hugely approachable and genuine charm and his ninja-sly wit. Oh and he scared a lot us too by reading a chunk of NOS4R2. Don’t get in the car!!
But I’m not going to write about NOS4R2. Because, to my shame, I have not read it yet. Though rest assured I will.
No, I’m going to talk about another book that I bought that night, after the reading and which, being a graphic novel, I read on the bus on the way home that night. We don’t publish this book, the lucky people who do are Jonathan Cape, but you should definitely read it.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins not only has the Best Title in the Whole World Ever but is also a wonderfully funny, somewhat depressing, beautifully drawn, subtly written marvel of a graphic novel. The national treasure that is Raymond Briggs describes it as ‘An amazing book. Completely original. Surreal, yet believable.’ And when Raymond Briggs says something I tend to sit up and take notice.
The wonderful thing about graphic novels is that the sparseness of the text and the mutable nature of illustration allows you to bring a lot to the story. You can read things in to them, or just be vaguely troubled by an image. Or downright enraptured without quite knowing why. Because the plot is sketchily drawn it becomes elastic, you can stretch it to mean things beyond the obvious.
And if the author and artist has fallen in love with the beauty of the surreal, or the elusive moment then so much the better – the graphic novel will really let your own mind and imagination go to town. It will take you from Here to There.
TGBTWE begins as a story of Truman Show-like order and conformity. Our clean shaven hero lives Here. He and the rest of his street, his work, his colleagues, his neighbours, his world are really very neat. He draws neat (yet rather lovely) pictures of his neat (yet not very lovely) street. No-one thinks about There very much. There is where the darkness is. There is chaos. Here is safe. There is not.
And then one day our hero grows a beard. Well, the beard grows, our hero rapidly becomes little more than a spectator. People Here are shocked, scared, fascinated. A famous TV psychiatrist called Derren Black (Heh. Did I mention this graphic novel was in black and white? Although it’s anything but black and white?) comes to call and soon the beard is famous. But the beard doesn’t want fame. It wants to grow. The army are called in. No use. Hairdressers build skyscrapers of scaffolding and attempt to style the unruly beard. No use.
So far, so conventional you might think. A simple story of the desirability of non-conformity in a conformist world. And so far? Yes that is pretty much it. Albeit an ‘it’ that is wittily conveyed and stunning to look at it. But other things are going on and as the beard grows so does the story. We certainly learn more about Derren Black, perhaps we learn about creativity, or maybe we learn about the value of stories that find their own way of being told. It’s possible that the lesson is that ‘big’ conformity will probably win again and that the best way of countering that is to own your own, smaller unconformities. Or do we learn that There is all around us if we look and we listen to what it has to say? Maybe. This is a graphic novel after all, it leaves things uncertain.
Oh it sounds like we learn a lot doesn’t it? And that makes this book sound very worthy. It absolutely isn’t. If it turns into the same sort of book for you as it did for me, you will read it with a growing sense of fun and pure delight.
Thank you Stephen Collins for the delight, thank you Jonathan Cape for spreading that delight. There, simple. Black and White.