Friday, February 27, 2015

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

On the island of Here, everything is neat and tidy and orderly. It's a calm, Stepfordian community where no one ever asks questions and no one ever deviates from the norm.

Dave fits in to Here pretty well. Like everyone else, he keeps his little nonconformities in check, covering his baldness with a toupee and keeping his mouth shut about his uncertainty about his employer. But there is a single hair on Dave's body that resists his efforts to be orderly: a single, stubborn upper-lip hair that refuses to be plucked, waxed, shaved, or trimmed. No matter what he does to that hair, it regrows in exactly the same place and size. The doctors can't figure it out -- but then again, it's only one hair, so Dave does his best to ignore it and carry on with his perfectly orderly life.

And then, out of nowhere, it happens. Dave is in the middle of a presentation, trying to explain an unruly set of data, and suddenly his face erupts:

The hairs grow and grow. No matter how fast he cuts and shaves his beard, it grows back thicker and longer.

Dave's horrified community shuns and then pillories him. He loses his job, his dignity, his privacy -- they even call him a terrorist and parade in his street carrying "GOD HATES BEARDS" signs. In the end, Dave has only his sketchbook, the Bangles, the psychologist who exploited him, and his increasingly ominous beard at his side.

Of course, Dave and his beard can't be allowed to contaminate Here with their insidious presence. The government eliminates the threat. But will Here ever be the same again, with or without the Beard?

This is one of the best graphic novels I've read. It will appeal to younger readers on the basis of its silly, Roald Dahlean premise and title, and slightly older readers will appreciate the beautiful back-and-white illustrations with their twisted Tim Burtonesque feel. (I'm not being very original by citing Dahl and Burton; they're mentioned on the back cover. But it's a perfect association.) Readers will laugh at Dave's dry shock when first hearing his chin referred to as a portal to hell, and find much to smile or snort at in the panel details.

More mature readers will adore this book for its wealth of allegorical material, though. The Gigantic Beard can be a commentary on contemporary media, politics, the American cultural divide. It can be a reflection on the impact of historical events swept under the rug. Maybe it's more metaphysical than that -- an examination of existential angst, perhaps, or nihilism, or the nature of death? The book asks why bad (or inexplicable) things happen to good people, and Dave is told that what he faces is becauselessness -- what an extraordinary concept.

In short, this is a fantastic book that I fully expect to see on awards lists and required reading syllabi in the near future. It's accessible enough for middle school readers but rich enough for adults, and for my two cents, is sure to be a modern classic of the genre.

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