I had a day off work this week with some class of cough and cold combination and spent the better part of it engrossed in Stephen Collins’s The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, a fable-like tale of a perfectly ordered world being disrupted by a sudden invasion of inexplicable facial hair. This is a comic strip book I guess, in that the story’s told via a series of beautiful and simple pencil drawings laid out in panels with spare rhyming captions providing quiet narration, but it’s got more in common with the writings of Franz Kafka or Kazuo Ishiguro than it has with anything produced by Marvel or 2000 AD. For the first half of the book we follow the daily routine of a seemingly ordinary office worker called Dave, who goes to work every day to produce bland spreadsheets and charts and then goes home to spend his evenings listening to The Bangles and sketching the street that he can see from his window. The town (actually, island) that he lives is in known simply as Here and is kept pathologically neat and clean and free from unsightly expressions of individuality but this doesn’t seem to be due to any oppression from above – it’s more to do with an underlying fear of the unknown, and the unknown is represented by There, the unruly wilderness that lies all around the island, just across the sea. One terrible day There finds a way to establish a presence on Here through a moment of uncertainty on the part of Dave and we’re thereafter shown the ways that the powers-that-be struggle to contain this unholy infection.
Gigantic Beard is, despite its slightly self-consciously wacky title, a really quite eerie work that refuses most of the opportunities for cheap humour that present themselves in favour for some touching insight into the thinness of the veneer of civilisation and the quiet despair that permeates a life spent in meaningless routine. Which is not to say it’s not also very funny in places and brilliantly rendered throughout, with the muted greyscale tones aptly fitting the subject matter and some imaginative framing and subversion of comic book conventions providing more than adequate relief from the potentially depressing subject matter. I’ve read stories like this before but can’t remember ever seeing one drawn, and it’s great that something as offbeat as this can get published.