The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins
ISBN: 9781250050397

This graphic novel starts off whimsical yet dark, in way that I found to be (in a good way) reminiscent of Dr Seuss:

Beneath the skin
of everything
is something nobody can know.
The job of the skin
is to keep it all in
and never let anything show.

Collins maintains this balance throughout; his story is at once both absurd and understandable, impossible and yet recognizable. It’s a parable in which is it easy to recognize our world. (This might be the perfect Sunday afternoon read if you have the Sunday dreads. I am lucky enough to not have them now, but I remember what they are like.) This is the story of orderly Here, which is so perfect it is even shaped like an egg, and the suppressed realized of the existence of There, which is beyond the sea. Residents of Here are so bent on tidy perfection and ignoring all else they literally turn their backs to the sea and do all they can not to even hear the waves.

It’s about conformity, about work being separated from meaning (after his powerpoint presentations, the protagonist Dave finds himself with “the familiar, disturbing suspicion that the real reason for all the data and the meetings for A&C even being here was fear”), and about attempts to keep chaos at bay.

Not all the attempts, despite appearances to the contrary in impeccably maintained Here, succeed. In the resulting emerging messiness Collins skewers the media/pop psychology/reality tv circus that relies on whipping up people’s fear and offers to calm them. He also subtly pokes at obsession with mobile devices, and makes less subtle points about the reframing and commodification of memory.

And ultimately,
what is the
act of naming,
but a special kind…
of tidying away?

The art is wonderfully detailed, with soft pencil crosshatching that never feel starkly black and white. Collins uses a variety of panel layouts and full page bleeds to good effect, helping move his story along and creating a believable world in which something magnificently, fantastically impossible occurs.

Is there freedom in what looks like chaos? Is redemption for one’s part in fueling events possible? Perhaps. This is also about stories. The stories Dave tells himself as he sketches his perfect street, his neighbors, their cats. It’s about noticing things, what’s there, what’s visible, and how they aren’t always the same thing, for “stories are such necessary lies.”

Highly recommended. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a graphic novel this much. Not that you have to be a comics fan to enjoy this; it might help, but all you really need is an appreciation for the absurd and a willingness to be told a story.

When Mystical Creatures Attack!

When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds
ISBN: 9781609382834

I came across this book because it was featured on the shelf of Boston’s newest independent bookstore, Papercuts JP. It is just the sort of thing I hope to find when I’m browsing in a good bookstore: an unexpected didn’t know I needed it until I saw it and probably wouldn’t have found it any other way title. Also: the cover features a cartoon squid wrestling with a unicorn and a blurb from George Saunders.

The interconnected stories follow the (mis)adventures of high school English teacher Laura Freedman and those in her orbit: students, roommates, parents dead and alive. It is possible the only thing more absurd than high school is Bridges Psychiatric Wellness Solutions, the setting for many of the stories. (Think Weight Watchers + money making cult, with more than a nod to George Saunders’s sensibility in Civilwarland.)

The stories take the form of email exchanges, Wellness Point exercises, journal entries, as well as what feels wrong to call the more typical short story format. Lines like, “Damp toads sleeping in the cave of my chest awaken. One by one, they hop away” are definitely not typical.

Ridiculous, bad things happen to people. Absurdity, poverty, intense awkwardness, and the tendency to fall in the love (or think one has fallen in love) with not so good for you people have, as you would expect, painful consequences. Laura’s dead mother haunts her in more than one way. But all is not without hope, even if one has negative Wellness Points. There is, in the end, a measure of mercy.

Isn’t that what we really want to be able to believe?