The island of Here is a place where order reigns supreme. ‘Tidy’ is the watchword, and everything follows pre-defined patterns, and no-one stands out. Across the sea is There, the complete opposite to Here, a place where chaos rules and nothing is ever as it should be. At least, that’s what the inhabitants of Here believe, since anyone who has ever gone to There has never returned to tell their tale. Dave lives in a small house – exactly like every other house on his street – on the edge of Here. He has a tidy, ordered life: gets up at the same time every morning, follows the same route to work, performs the same tasks – analysing the same, unsurprising figures – and eats the same lunch from the same fast-food place, all the while listening to the same song – The Bangles’ Eternal Flame – over and over on constant repeat. Dave is completely bald, except for the single stubborn hair under his nose. A hair that one day grows into a giant beard that Dave cannot get rid of, throwing his life into chaos, and inherently changing the nature of Here.
The Gigantic Beard that was Evil tracks Dave’s transformation from "everyman" to individual, a transformation that, however unwelcome, will change Dave’s outlook on life, and those of his neighbours and fellow islanders. It’s a beautifully-told story that follows a simple, linear progression from the daily grind to the freedom that we all, at some stage, wish for ourselves. Dave finds himself dreaming of There, nightmares that frighten the sheep that life in Here has made him, but which appeal to him nonetheless.
Stephen Collins has used the perfect medium to tell his story. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words never applied more than to this wonderful and touching tale. Simple, monochromatic, pencil-like drawings, which tie in quite nicely with Dave’s own pencil sketches, and almost childlike lettering, combined with a rhythmic, rhyming narrative make this a single-sitting, and completely engrossing, read; though be warned: there is more here than can be appreciated in a single sitting. While you’ll grasp the story, and enjoy Dave’s journey, many of the nuances and deeper meanings will require more in-depth examination, on a more leisurely second or third pass.
The light-hearted, almost comical, feel of the novel disguises the fact that Collins is addressing important issues: the fear of the unknown, of anything that doesn’t conform to our own view – by its very nature, limited – of what is normal and what is not. But it also looks at how attitudes change, how quickly the human race adapts and accepts. Dave loses his job (untidiness is not acceptable at the generic company where he works), finds himself unable to buy food ("no shirt, no shoes, no service" taken to the extreme), and ultimately restricts himself to his home where the gigantic beard spreading out across the neighbouring area becomes something of a tourist attraction. Things start to change in Here: streets become impassable, so people’s morning routines are upset, but a different route to work isn’t necessarily the end of the world. As always, there are the voices of dissent, people for whom the beard is a step too far, who call for Dave’s banishment from the island, unaware of the wider changes that are going on around them.
When the hairdressers are called in to try and tame the beard, to keep it from completely overrunning the island, the other inhabitants of Here find that their own tidiness is suspect: how does one get a haircut when the entire population of hairdressers has a new full-time job? Dave’s surge towards individuality (intended or not) has a knock-on impact on those around him, either because it is inevitable or, perhaps, because people see that different isn’t necessarily so bad, and acceptance leads to experimentation.
There is a surreal quality to The Gigantic Beard that was Evil that works well in the sequential art form. But the story is never less than engaging, the down-to-earth Dave a character with whom we can all identify to some degree or other (witness the repeated series of panels that show Dave’s daily trudge from front-door to office desk, a journey that will be eerily familiar to most of us). The beard as metaphor for chaos is perfect, and Collins uses a swirling, hair-like motif to identify There throughout the book.
Beautifully-written, beautifully-illustrated and in a beautifully-presented package from Jonathan Cape, Stephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard that was Evil is a masterpiece, a work that deserves a place amongst the finest graphic novels ever produced. Don’t let the "graphic" aspect put you off this one; it’s as in-depth, intelligent and entertaining as any work of prose, and has the added benefit of making you want to go back and start again once you’ve reached the end. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, I can’t recommend it highly enough.