Stephen Collins – The Gigantic Beard that was Evil (4 stars)

Collins’ graphic novel inspects the havoc wreaked on a neat community by unruly facial hair

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Stephen Collins – The Gigantic Beard that was Evil

On the bland, egg-shaped island of Here, Dave lives a comfortably dull life: by day he performs a data-processing job; by night he sketches the view from the windows of his suburban home. Like the other inhabitants of Here, Dave is wary of change and untidiness – they bring to mind thoughts of the untamed There, a mysterious, intangible otherness that lies beyond the dark and storm-tossed sea surrounding the island. Little does Dave know that’s there’s something growing inside him – inside his chin, specifically.

The fact that Here is so blandly inoffensive means the early pages of Collins’ graphic novel are somewhat featureless themselves – only a Dali-esque nightmare vision of There and a gag involving a Venn diagram projected onto Dave’s shirt break up the monotony. The text that accompanies the artwork is also often inane and uninspiring. If you were feeling kind, you could argue that these faults are a post-modern extension of Dave’s character, but were it not for the promise of the title, there would be little reason to keep reading.

Thank god then that the beard arrives when it does, sweeping through the second half of the book like a typhoon (in one double-page spread the beard actually mimics Hokusai’s famous ‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’). It bursts through Dave’s follicles and smashes through the very frames of the narrative, leading to exhilirating experiments in style: entire pages give way to masses of hair; large-scale frames are introduced to depict large-scale scaffolds for taming the beard; crowds of spectators fan out from Dave’s house, resembling strands of facial hair themselves.

After all this hair-raising action, Collins’ decision to end in an understated, minor key is a bold one, but the abrupt change of pace pays off. Dave’s troubles have a lingering effect on Here; his final selection of sketches will stay with the reader too.

Jonathan Cape, Thu 9 May.

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