My Top Five Favourite Comic Books, an Also-Ran: Stephen Collins’ ‘The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil’

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Warning: spoilers!

Before I begin, allow me to say how much I love Stephen Collins’ work. Every week I cut out his comic strip from the Saturday Guardian magazine and glue it into my notebook. Many’s the happy hour I’ve passed in the library re-reading old comic strips instead of making notes on yet another article about Spark’s manipulation of narrative time in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and here I am now, writing a blog post about Collins’ first graphic novel instead of sifting through aborted PhD chapter drafts to weed out the useable bits. May I also point out as a preliminary observation that as a title, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil takes some beating, it really does. For me, this title encapsulates Collins’ work in a very neat way: a superficially childish locution which hides a deeper profundity…and is very amusing at the same time.

Not that there’s much to laugh at in TGBTWE. It’s actually a very sad story, beautifully drawn and multi-layered: I’m not at all sure that I’ve yet plumbed its depths and fathomed all its meanings. The story takes place on the island of Here, which is neat, tidy and soulless. The people who live on Here are also neat, tidy and soulless: they spend much of their time transfixed by the screens of their phones. Everything is homogenised as far as possible and everything is in its place. The daily routine continues unchanged day after day. The weather forecast is the same every day. People go to work every day, but they don’t really know what they’re doing or what their job is. However, this seems to be the way they like it.

Beyond the sea, however, lies There, a place of disorder and chaos. And There breaks into Here through Dave, our enormously likeable hero. Dave is not quite the same as the other inhabitants of Here because although he loves his quiet, orderly life, he doesn’t sit in front of the telly every evening as the others do: he sits in his front room and draws what he can see in the street. But Dave the artist becomes a conduit for evil when There invades Here in the form of an enormous beard which grows out of Dave’s face in the space of a few frames and resists all attempts to be shorn. 

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The moment a break in the routine pattern of repetition is established is the moment a narrative is formed. The remainder of Collins’ book relates the phenomenal and inexorable growth of the beard and how finally the beard – and Dave – are dealt with, all to the backdrop of The Bangles’ Eternal Flame, which Dave listens to over and over. The scary story of what happened to the fisherman’s son who sought to know What Was Over There functions as a standard literary device to provide a pre-echo and perhaps an indication of Dave’s fate, but on the other hand, perhaps the same fate did not befall Dave, because his drawings keep coming. Collins collapses the narrative levels here between author/narrator/characters: Dave’s drawings are identical to the author’s own and Professor Black’s final book is not intended for publication, but it’s clear that TGBTWE is that book. Dave’s departure leaves its traces. The world of Here is changed forever, and I’m left wondering whether There is so terrible after all. Perhaps the beard came to Here to encourage its inhabitants to embrace change and to face their fear of difference.

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Collins is a satirist, after all, and like my very own Muriel Spark, he uses humour and satire as an effective means of attack. The Daily Mail is vilified in this graphic novel and elsewhere in Collins’ work as a rag for the mindless, a pernicious publication for those who want someone else to do the thinking for them. Its fictional counterpart The Here Mail’s hatred for and suspicion of all things that come from over There will be recognisable to all as characteristic of our very own hate-filled red top. Collins is also an eager parodist of consumer culture: his Exit Ian strip shows a dead man shopping for memorabilia of his own life in a heavenly gift shop before he is allowed to move on, complete with souvenir baseball cap. (You can visit Collins’ website here. Look down the left-hand side for separate links to the Guardian strips.) Once Dave has been removed, his house is turned into a museum and visitors’ centre, and the merchandise for sale invokes an unbearable melancholy while at the same time we can raise a wry smile at the familiarity of the scene. 

Worthy of note is Collins’ use of the gutter, or the space between the frames. What may be lurking in the blank space which separates the images ties in with the thematic concern of TGBTWE, and Collins exploits this idea in the placing of captions and the fragmentation of the images. The gutter is also essential to the timing of comic book narratives, and in the image below we can see Collins using the gutter as a kind of film strip, both in external appearance and in its relation to narrative pace: each successive frame reveals the extent to which Dave’s beard has grown since the previous frame, so the reader is left in no doubt that the beard grows in a matter of seconds. 

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TGBTWE has much in common with utopian narratives: a seemingly perfect world is actually a hideous nightmarish dystopia, because the humanity has been wrenched out of it. In Huxley’s Brave New World the people are controlled by sex and the happy-feel-good drug soma; in Orwell’s 1984 people are controlled by terror and lies. In TGBTWE the people have become like the robots in the last of the Wright/Pegg/Frost Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End. As is usually the case in utopian fiction, there is no room for art or artistic expression. Dave, the man who liked to spend his evenings with his pencils and his sketchpad, is the artist for whom there is no place in Here, the man who asked what it was that his company actually did (and didn’t get an answer), the man who suspects that the reason for the apparently meaningless routine is fear. The invasion of Here takes the form of a beard in a world of clean-shaven men and Dave always had that small, tough hair that would not be plucked, razored or waxed. 

Why isn’t this wonderful book in my Top Five? I wish it could be, I really do, but I thought I was pushing it by lumping Tintin and Asterix together at #2. If I’d put this together with Gemma Bovery as I wanted to, then I would have been giving myself carte blanche to include as many books as I liked in the Top Five, and that’s cheating. So I’m afraid TGBTWE has to remain outside the Top Five as an also-ran, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t beg, borrow or steal your own copy right away. You could even buy one. Make sure you have a box of tissues nearby when you read it, however, because it’ll make you a bit weepy. Happy reading!

My Top Five Favourite Comic Books: #5 ‘Gemma Bovery’ by Posy Simmonds

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Now, I love lists as much as the next person, so what better way to while away a few of these darker autumn evenings than by writing about one of my favourite things: comic books. Over the next few posts, I’ll be giving you my Top Five plus some extra information about a couple of Also-Rans and an Outsider. I’ll try to avoid spoilers as far as I can, but please be warned that there may be a few here and there. First, straight in at number five is Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds.

I’m a big fan of Simmonds’s other work – Tamara Drewe, Mrs Weber, and so on – but Gemma Bovery gets top five placing for the fascinating conflict generated between the various narrators and narrative levels, and the sheer beauty of the delicate pencil and pen-and-ink drawings. It’s a story told in words and pictures rather than in strips made up of panels, but it’s seamlessly put together so there’s no sensation of being jolted about between text and image: the eye of the reader always knows where to go next. I have a penchant for beautifully executed plain pencil drawings, and Simmonds’s artwork here is truly stunning.

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Our narrator is the baker, Joubert, who tells us his side of the story and also reveals to us the contents of Gemma’s diaries which he has stolen from her husband Charlie, so we hear Gemma’s voice weaving in and out of Joubert’s narrative. Joubert, who I think is supposed to be a sort of textually reincarnated Gustave-Flaubert-controlling-author figure, becomes convinced that Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary has some kind of sinister power over the lives of his new neighbours, Gemma and Charlie Bovery, and indeed there are many parallels between the two texts. The more obvious similarities at story level are pointed out for the reader through Joubert, but there are possibly many more parallels at narrative or discourse level that I’ve missed, having not read Madame Bovary for over twenty years. Madame Bovary was considered obscene and Flaubert was taken to court in January 1857, but was acquitted when it was successfully demonstrated that his use of free indirect discourse meant that what appears on the surface to be Flaubert’s words are in fact Emma’s words reported through the narrator. Flaubert could not, therefore, be held responsible for the sentiments expressed.

I’ve mentioned Joubert’s story and Gemma’s diaries, but it seems likely, given the number of scenes that Joubert does not witness directly, that there is a third narrator at work here, linking and fleshing out the two main narratives. There are other texts and voices present too: mainly letters, but bills and faxes also feature alongside examples of Gemma’s artwork, thus the whole story is a complex mesh of competing narratives all held together under the over-arching umbrella of Flaubert’s novel, which repeatedly surfaces in this new and autonomous text. There is a nice distance too between Joubert’s self-deluding narrative and what the reader can pick up either between the lines or from the images: information and impressions which work either to undermine or to flatly contradict Joubert’s narrative. There’s a good example on page 59 when Joubert tells us that he thinks Gemma’s reinvention of herself as The Blonde is a tired cliché; he says he finds her ‘quite without allure’, but the reader can see him in the picture, positively drooling behind his baker’s counter with his eyes popping out of his head. Joubert is an unreliable narrator because he chooses to fool himself and the reader recognises a long time before he does the reality behind Joubert’s rampant voyeurism: he has fallen in love – or, more likely, lust – with Gemma and wishes to replace Hervé (and later Patrick) as Gemma’s lover.

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Simmonds has added to the original story of a bored housewife the thrill of a whodunnit, employing the techniques of unreliable narration and repetition used by writers of detective fiction. When the story begins, Gemma is already dead and both Charlie and Joubert are mourning her. Joubert is convinced that Gemma’s death was inevitable because she bore almost the same name as Flaubert’s ill-fated heroine, and Charlie’s subsequent grief-stricken decline seems to indicate that he too will follow in the footsteps of his Flaubertian namesake. There is some mystery surrounding Gemma’s death, however: when Charlie arrives to beg for help on the day Gemma dies, he bears the marks of a struggle – so what really happened? The narrators piece the story together for us bit by bit, but the reader has to balance what s/he is being told against who is doing the telling.

In fact, all three narrators are in some sense unreliable: Joubert because he is self-deluding; Gemma because she is self-absorbed and self-obsessed; the implied narrator behind the ‘camera angles’ of each drawing because the chosen angle excludes all others and thus renders this narrative as selective as the other two. It could be argued that Gemma’s narrative is the most reliable of the three because it is delivered posthumously from her diaries, and diarists are not writing for an audience so tend not to tell fibs. Although diaries are not usually intended for public consumption, writing them is still a selective process because one does self-edit, whether consciously or not. (As a personal aside, I burned seven or eight years’ worth of my own diaries: on re-reading them when I was older and wiser, I didn’t like the self I’d unwittingly revealed in those naïve pages and knew that it would make me feel better if I just chucked them on the bonfire.)

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The main character in both books – Gemma in Gemma Bovery and Emma in Madame Bovary – is an impossibly irritating woman, because both women are fantasists and have fed their imaginations on a diet of rubbish literature, poisoning their minds against the reality with which they are faced. Emma reads trashy romantic fiction and she metaphorically regurgitates the literary poison she has swallowed after her death, when black bile pours from her mouth as her body is being prepared for burial. Gemma, on the other hand, reads glossy magazines, and has done ever since she was allowed to peruse such publications in the waiting room of her father’s dental surgery when she was a little girl. Gemma learns of Patrick and Pandora’s marriage from one of these magazines, a bitter moment for her: what she sees is the life she had imagined for herself, after all. But Patrick and Pandora’s marriage doesn’t work either, and the reader realises what Gemma doesn’t – that life as portrayed in the glossies is nothing but an elaborate fake. Gemma, meanwhile, continues to build her castles in the air, as depicted on page 70 in a full-page illustration with explanatory text. (Spoiler: Gemma herself chokes to death on a piece of Joubert’s bread. She too, like her literary predecessor, cannot contain what she has swallowed, either in a realistic or a metaphorical sense. And on another level, G/Emma is once again killed off by Flaubert/Joubert).

It quickly becomes quite clear to the reader of both Flaubert and Simmonds’s text that G/Emma will never be satisfied with what she’s got. And G/Emma is not the only annoying one. Simmonds gives us a whole line-up of fabulously repellent characters: the ghastly Rankins, the awful Judi and her revolting spoilt children, the spineless Hervé and his snobbish, domineering mother, and finally, the borderline sex-pest Joubert.

It’s all great stuff, and it’s my Number Five.