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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496