“How long are you going to let your beard get?” I’m often asked. I don’t have an answer. “I just want to see what it can do,” I sometimes say, which is true, I suppose; I’m still seeing what it can do, and I’m not sure what that threshold is. Your reasons for growing your beard are your own. Perhaps you’ve always had one, or maybe you really are just following “the trend” as beardsmen are so often accused lately. Regardless, you do have your reasons and your beard growth is your choice. But what if it wasn’t? What if, rather than choosing the beard, the beard chose you? Caution: “I didn’t choose the beard life; the beard life chose me” is never a valid excuse, so please don’t use it–unless you are Dave of Stephen Collins’ graphic novel The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil.
Winner of the Inaugural 9th Art Award for 2013 and a recent New York Times Best Seller, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil tells the story of Dave and his beard. Dave lives on the island of Here. His existence, along with the other citizens of Here, thrives on and is sustained by perfection and order: perfect houses on perfect streets; a vaguely important job built on data charts, routine, and predictability; completely shaven faces. This perfection is a force that holds something at bay: the chaos and unknown of There. But the disorder of There finds a way through, and that gateway is Dave’s face. He grows a beard–a prolific, colossal, razor-proof, metaphysical, culture-shifting beard. To say much more would cross the border into spoiler territory.
What I will tell you, though, is that this book is beautiful. Stephen Collins is an award winning illustrator and cartoonist, and The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is a strong testament to his artistry. Through a grayscale spectrum, Collins offers illustrations that are playful yet deep in shadow and mood when appropriate–a kind of “cartoon-noir” reminiscent of Tim Burton but in no way an imitation. The soft, cloud-like whites and grays juxtaposed to the deep and fibrous blacks of the oncoming beard gives the illustrations a texture-rich quality that is often lovely. I found myself pausing frequently throughout the story to bring the work a breath from my nose to examine the precise hashing and surprisingly intricate detail. There are many frames and full spreads that I wouldn’t hesitate to hang on my wall. In contrast to other graphic novels I’ve experienced, what I love about Collins’ work is the seamless integration of text into art. The traditional speech bubbles and highly stylized text of mainstream graphic novels (or “comics” if you prefer) can often be awkward or even a distracting intrusion, taking a reader’s focus away from the art. The text of Collins’ work, however, is subtle and minimal, serving to pull and direct attention to the illustrations–where the story is really told.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil possesses the fun comfort and whimsy of a fable while carrying the thematic gravitas of great literature. It isn’t really about a beard, nor is it about evil. It is a meditation on the imperfection of perfection and a reflection on loneliness and solitude. It’s about our fears–fear of change and individualism. It’s about the inevitability of change as brought about by the need for expression. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, more than anything, is about acceptance. In the early days of Dave’s beard growth, he wants to know how–why?–as people often do when change chooses them. “It’s the law of things, Dave,” he is told, “That which is suppressed…must be expressed.” That is the core of what it means to be a beardsman, isn’t it? Your beard, whatever your personal reasons are for growing it, is an expression of your character. And if I haven’t expressed it clearly enough: You need this book on your bookshelf.
About the Author
Raised on a riverbank in the mountains of North Carolina, Benjamin Cutler is a teacher, reader, writer, hiker, whitewater raft guide, fly-fisherman, husband, and father. He also enjoys subjecting his children and students to his amateur harmonica riffs. You can read more of his work at ABookishBum.wordpress.com, and feel free to connect on Twitter: @Bookish_Bum.