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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The Wood Wide Web: the world of trees underneath the surface

Mycorrhizal networks, better known as the Wood Wide Web, have allowed scientists to understand the social networks formed by trees underground.

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau published Walden, an extensive rumination on his two years, two months and two days spent in a cabin in the woodlands near Walden Pond. It was situated on a plot of land owned by his friend, mentor and noted transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Thoreau’s escape from the city was a self-imposed experiment - one which sought to find peace and harmony through a minimalistic, simple way of living amongst nature. Voicing his reasons for embarking on the rural getaway, Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life.”

Walden cemented Thoreau’s reputation as a key figure in naturalism; his reflections have since been studied, his practices meticulously replicated. But in the knowledge that Thoreau’s excursion into the woods was a means to better understand how to integrate into society, curious minds are left to wonder what essays and aphorisms Thoreau would have produced had he known what the botanists of today know of nature’s very own societal networks.

As scientists have now discovered, what lies beneath the ground Thoreau walked upon, and indeed beneath the ground anyone walks upon when near trees, is perhaps the most storied history and study of collaborative society in something which is now known as the mycorrhizal network or the “Wood Wide Web”.

Coined by the journal Nature, the term Wood Wide Web has come to describe the complex mass of interactions between trees and their microbial counterparts underneath the soil. Spend enough time among trees and you may get a sense that they have been around for centuries, standing tall and sturdy, self-sufficient and independent. But anchoring trees and forestry everywhere, and therefore enjoining them into an almost singular superoganism, is a very intimate relationship between their roots and microbes called mycorrhizal fungi.

Understanding the relationship between the roots of trees and mycorrhizal fungi has completely shifted the way we think about the world underneath them. Once thought to be harmful, mycorrhizal fungi are now known to have a bond of mutualism with the roots – a symbiotic connection from which both parties benefit.

Despite the discovery being a recent one, the link between the two goes as far back as 450 million years. A pinch of soil can hold up to seven miles worth of coiled, tubular, thread-like fungi. The fungi release tubes called hyphae which infiltrate the soil and roots in a non-invasive way, creating a tie between tree and fungus at a cellular level. It is this bond which is called mycorrhiza. As a result, plants 20m away from each other can be connected in the same way as plants connected 200 metres away; a hyphal network forms which brings the organisms into connection.

At the heart of the mutualistic relationship is an exchange; the fungi have minerals which the tree needs, and the trees have carbon (which is essentially food) which the fungi need. The trees receive nitrogen for things such as lignin – a component which keep the trees upright, and various other minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, copper and more. In return, fungi get the sugars they need from the trees’ ongoing photosynthesis to energise their activities and build their bodies. The connection runs so deep that 20-80% of a tree’s sugar can be transferred to the fungi, while the transfer of nitrogen to trees is such that without the swap, trees would be toy-sized.

It’s a bond that has resulted in some remarkable phenomena. Suzanne Simard, an ecologist at the University of British Columbia, has researched into these back and forth exchanges and has found that rather than competing against one another as often assumed, there is a sort of teamwork between the trees facilitated by the mycorrhizal fungi.

In one particular example, Simard looked at a Douglas fir tree planted next to a birch tree. Upon taking the birch tree out, there was a completely unexpected result: the fir tree – instead of prospering from the reduced competition for sunlight – began to decay and die. The trees were connected underground via the mycorrhizal system, transferring carbon, nitrogen and water to one another, communicating underground, talking to each other. As Simard says in her TED talk, “it might remind you of a sort of intelligence.”

It has been documented that trees share food not just with trees of the same species, but with trees of all kinds of species, forming a social network which some have come to describe as a socialist system. Growth rates are positively affected while seedlings face greater chances of survival. There is in fact a group of plants – the mycoheterotrophic plants of which there are around 400 species – which wouldn’t survive without the mycorrhizal network. These plants are unable to photosynthesise and are therefore heavily dependent on other plants for carbon and minerals.

Over the years, Thoreau has had his fair share of critics who deemed his trip to the woods nothing more than an exercise in self-indulgence and narcissism. Perhaps if Thoreau had the chance to head back to Walden Pond with the knowledge of the Wood Wide Web at hand, he would fully understand that no one man is an island, as no one tree is a forest.