(For stories are necessary lies.)
That statement comes as a seeming afterthought, tossed off at the bottom of the page toward the end of Stephen Collins' slyly exquisite graphic novel The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. The book's absurdist narrative climax has come and gone, and in the quiet that descends in its wake we readers sail on, blithely navigating the glass-calm waters of dénouement until we strike that tiny, astonishing parenthetical. And as we've done so many times on our way through Collins' sardonic fable of conformity and chaos, we pause our reading to drink it in.
It's a good deal less assertive than the book's unforgettable opening text, which reveals itself amid a series of establishing panels. We see the mythical island of Here, upon which the action of the story will take place, and surrounding it, the vast, terrifying and unknowable darkness of a place called There, seething with a malevolent threat that looms over Collins' tale. We push in closer and closer, over tidy rows of identical houses until we find Dave, an exemplary member of Here's neat and orderly community, where every lawn is mowed, every meeting is on time, and every chin is beardless.
As we do so, these words appear in the gutters that separate Collin's meticulous pencil depictions of Here's mundane tranquility:
Beneath the skin
Is something nobody can know
The job of the skin
Is to keep it all in
And never let anything show
We don't know it yet, but this unsettling bit of verse will serve as Collins' mission statement, and the book's thematic overture. Because what happens over the course of the next 200+ pages is a dilemma Roald Dahl would have relished: The roiling anarchy of There erupts on Here — specifically, on poor Dave's previously clean-shaven cheeks — in the form of a great, snarly, twisting, unstoppable beard.
Dave's facial hair grows with such fury that it soon threatens his neighbors, his community, even the entire island of Here. This allows Collins to use his dry wit to take swipes at a variety of targets — media culture, the medical establishment, government, the social contract, even the study and practice of history itself get devoured by the ravenous bristly beast of Collins' dark humor — as the citizens of Here throw everything they've got at Dave's beard, including powerful cranes, towering scaffolds and hair stylists, in an attempt to preserve their way of life.
Collins works in black and white pencil, but these illustrations are no stark, affectless schematics. Instead, he uses graphite powder like others use pastels, creating a rich and varied grayscale storyscape shot through with white light, pewter mists and black, impenetrable shadows. And snaking through it all, the powerful insidious tendrils of Dave's beard, which seem to undulate on the page as they assume the shape of ravenous beasts or clawing, desperate hands.
The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is the very first graphic novel for Collins, but the experienced newspaper cartoonist already displays a tight, unshowy command of his gifts. Throughout, he plays with an intriguing tension between word and image, repeatedly evoking our sympathy for Dave's plight in his deadpan prose even as his riotous illustrations play it up for laughs.
If Collins is right — if, as he says, stories are necessary — then let's hope this wry young writer/artist has got a lot more lies to tell us.