Childlike in the best way – The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

Stephen Collins' debut graphic novel, reviewed.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil
Stephen Collins
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £16.99

Stephen Collins is the creator of what is perhaps my favourite newspaper cartoon ever. Published in the Guardian last year, it features Michael Gove and David Cameron arguing about how best to respond to an alien invasion. The caricatures are spot-on, the "acting" (as it were) tells as much as the words, and the humour is a finely balanced mixture of political satire and nonsensical lunacy. It's what I imagine Steve Bell's If… feels like for people who've been reading it non-stop for thirty years, the only subsection of society able to get the the byzantine in-jokes, and well-enough inured against the scatological puns to survive them.

So I was excited to see Collins' debut graphic novel arrive on my desk. It's less political than some of his strips, focusing instead on the absurdist humour that makes pieces like I tried to cancel my gym membership and Don't wake up work so well; but despite the fact that there's no politicians caricatured, it still reads as a fable for our times.

Dave lives Here. The important thing about Here is that it's an island in the middle of The Sea, and somewhere past the edge of The Sea is There. The people of Here don't like There. Because Here is orderly, neat, and predictable, and There is everything Here isn't.

But Here is also beardless. So when Dave – Dave who makes charts for a company whose business he doesn't understand, Dave who is completely bald save for one thick hair on his lip, Dave who has listened to the Bangles' Eternal Flame 427,096,483 times – suddenly sprouts an enormous beard that can't be cut, won't stop growing, and just seems slightly evil, Here goes mad over it.

The book is rendered in soft pencil, black and white throughout, but printed to a huge size (almost bookshelf-busting, so be warned there), which gives Collins a chance to express tremendous versatility. The orderly nature of Here in the early half of the book is expressed with a high – almost Chris-Ware-high at times – panel count, and as the squares of the panels blur into the lines of the grid system of houses, the sort of world Dave lives in becomes apparent. And then, after one full-page spread early on shows the windowless walls of the houses on the coast of Here facing out to the sea, we see our first glimpse of There. The panel boarders drop away, and drawn in black on top of black is the chaos the residents fear.

As well as high panel counts, the huge book allows Collins to use another effect to great success: a couple of pages in the book are nearly blank, except for one speech balloon or caption. It's a relatively standard technique, except that as the pages get bigger, the text has been shrunk – leading to a feeling of the reader drowning in the absence of information. Something which Dave, faced with his inexplicable beard, knows only too well.

The obligatory art paragraphs also can't end without a mention of the book's coda. It's hard to discuss in too much detail – the story's not plot-heavy, but it still wouldn't do to give away the ending – but as a character leaves hand-drawn pictures behind on their journey, we see the last few notes found, pasted into a scrapbook and illustrating, maddeningly vaguely, what came next for them. The pictures fade to black, and then, in the very last one, a hint of something else appears…

Taken overall, it reminds me of nothing so much as a Roald Dahl novel: a surreal premise, presented as matter-of-factly as possible, which, if you buy into it – as children do naturally, and adults who know whats-what do too – presents the opportunity for a piece of strong character work. This isn't a book for children, the oblique references to the Bangles and self-help gurus make that clear, but it is childlike in the best way. Which is what you'd expect from a man who drew a cartoon about the High Speed Beyoncé, really.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times