Category Archives: Graphic Novels

Stan and Nan – Sarah Lippett

I wasn’t going to mention the anniversary of Granny Savidge Reads death this year. Not because I don’t think about her every day, I still go to call her after I have read a particularly brilliant book, I just think there is a point you have to move on a little. It seemed that she had other ideas in a random way as on the anniversary I had this bizarre hankering to read Sarah Lippett’s debut graphic novel Stan and Nan. Turns out this was a tale of grandparents and northern families that made me weep for all the right reasons.

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Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2016, fiction, 96 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The simplest way to explain the premise of Stan and Nan is to simply say that it is Sarah Lippett’s telling of her maternal grandparent’s story and stories. Whilst true, that doesn’t seem to quite cut it for me as this graphic novel packs a wallop in so many ways. However let’s concentrate on the story for now…

In the first part of the book ‘Stan’ Lippett gives us an insight into the life of her grandfather, a man she never knew as he died before she was born. Yet Stan is a man who was always a presence in the house in part because of the photos of him around the house but mainly because of her nana’s stories about him and their lives together. It is through these stories that Lippett builds the full narrative of how a young working class man, who wanted to study art yet due to circumstance had to become an office clerk (albeit in a pottery) before joining the fire service in Wolverhampton where he meets Sarah’s Nan and their family history begins as they go on to have children. But I don’t want to spoil the rest of Stan and Nan’s story because I really want you all to go and read it.

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In the second part of the book ‘Nan’ we follow Sarah’s grandma’s history backwards from her funeral to the point when she was widowed. I won’t say what happens here, other than that in her widowhood it seems Joyce is determined to become the best grandmother ever, suffice to say that Sarah captures all the emotions they feel towards their Nan completely in both her illustrations and the words which she uses simply and effectively. Effectively to the point where it made me cry both for Sarah’s Nan and my gran.

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This is because you cannot but help get caught up in Stan and Nan. You cannot help but compare the love Sarah has for Nan and her family with the one that you have with yours, however dysfunctional or crazy they are. It also reminds us to find out more about the history of ourselves and our families background and how we should find out these stories, and social histories, and treasure and capture them. Here again Stan and Nan really chimed with me with the stories of the working classes of the north, my families roots. I think it would chime with anyone regardless though.

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Suffice to say I bloody loved Stan and Nan. It made me smile, it made me cry (happy and sad tears), it made me think and remember. It just did all those wonderful things that the best books can. It also celebrates the every man and the wonderful stories that made the ordinary seem so extraordinary, something long term readers of this blog will know I adore. So if you can get your mitts on it, it is a real joy to spend your time with, I will be reading it again and again.

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Filed under Books of 2016, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Review, Sarah Lippett

Becoming Unbecoming – Una

I am trying to remember when it was that I became convinced that Becoming Unbecoming was essential as part of my reading year. I think Emma Jane Unsworth might have mentioned it when I saw her last, which would make sense as she is quoted on the cover of my edition. I know I heard the author on BBC Woman’s Hour, of which I am one of the 40% of male listeners. Why it became an internal insistence in my brain that I must buy it and read it though I am not sure. Maybe it was just a hunch? If so, I must follow them more often because Becoming Unbecoming will no doubt be one of my books of the year.

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Myriad Editions, 2015, paperback, graphic novel/memoir, 224 pages, bought by myself for myself

Becoming Unbecoming is Una’s memoir of a very difficult and tumultuous time in her life. As the Yorkshire Ripper began his several years of killing women, Una herself was the victim of sexual abuse. Una looks back on this period in hindsight and looks at how the situation around the Yorkshire Ripper and the attitude towards predatory men and their victims not only caused the murder of many innocent women and the pain and loss to their families and loved ones, but how the ‘victim blaming’ culture of the time also affected people like Una who were the victims of crimes that went undetected/unsolved or people feared reporting.

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As you read on six strands form in your mind. The utter loneliness of a young girl who had been taken advantage of and why she didn’t want to speak out. The fear that spread for young girls everywhere at the time. The way in which so much innocence was lost at the time, not just in the victims and Una’s case but also in something prevalent in time, as highlighted by a small appearance from Jimmy Saville. The way prostitutes were portrayed by the press, and society succumbed, as almost being asked to be killed because of what they did for money. The inept way in which the police handled the case (in part because someone called a hoax, in part because they thought he was only killing prostitutes even when a victim was not one) and why people didn’t want to report it.

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And the sixth, I hadn’t miscounted, is how this is still in our society today all around the world. Una highlights how we often sit in shock at what is happening in other countries around the world to women (in Africa, Syria, I could go on) and yet how we somehow forget that it is going on in the western world too, often through the digital world but also in schools just as it did when she was younger. It is an important message about the state of misogyny which is still rife and why we need more books like this and more projects and reactionary endeavours like Everyday Sexism and the like.

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I like to think of myself as quite a forward thinking man, yet Una made me check something about myself that I hadn’t thought of before. Una talks about the keen interest in true crime especially in the cases of Peter Sutcliffe, Jack The Ripper, The Wests, where women are the victims. Now she isn’t judging readers on this, she is pondering it (I think). I then had this awful niggling doubt as to if that might be why I had initially felt I needed to read this book, because of the Yorkshire Ripper and my interest in him and some true crime.

Now before you jump the gun and go thinking the worst, there are a few reasons I have wanted to read around the Yorkshire Ripper. Firstly, you know that fear I mentioned earlier that young girls had at the time, my mother was 12 when Peter Sutcliffe and despite living several hundred miles away still remembers the fear in which she, her sisters and Mum all felt at the time. This has always stayed with me, how could someone cause such fear, what really happened. This I would say is more a history pondering than a true crime one. Secondly, I started (and had to put down but will try again) to read Dan Davies In Plain Sight, which won the Gordon Burn Prize this year and is about Jimmy Savile and mentions the Yorkshire Ripper also, it is a disturbing but important book about how we might spot predators and making sure they are not covered up. Thirdly, I went to a talk about I’m Jack which is a fictional account of the hoaxer I mentioned above and how it affected the case in such a disatourous way. I am now still debating in my head reading them as being some entertainment unwittingly at the expense of the victims or if it is about acknowledging awful acts in history and learning from them? I still have a lot of mulling over to do.

Sorry I got diverted there. As you can probably see Becoming Unbecoming is a memoir that will make you ponder, question and think. It does this in almost every frame and in the most subtle of ways. The best examples of this are the speech bubble which Una walks around with on her back (sometimes switched to wings) which as the story gets on gets larger with the burden she carries as she keeps the secrets within. There is also the way in which the story is interwoven into the artwork so you have to move the page around and really read it doubling the effect of the imagery as you see more and more. There is also the heart breaking ending, which actually made me cry, when Una looks at how her life has turned out so far and then ponders how the victims of Peter Sutcliffe’s might have turned out, an illustration of possibility for each. This really hits home not only at the loss of their lives but at the loss of any murder victims life and the loss of innocence of anyone who has been sexually abused, deeply affecting reading and imagery.

So as you can see Becoming Unbecoming is quite something. Una doesn’t like people to say she is brave for writing this book yet I think it is an incredibly brave act to use your experiences to highlight uncomfortable issues or important topics which need attention and debate; by default in doing so you open yourself up to scrutiny an opinion which must be a highly vulnerable position. Una is a very brave woman and Becoming Unbecoming is a very brave, important and thought provoking book. I urge you all to add it to your reading stacks and talk about it once you have.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Graphic Novels, Memoir, Myriad Editions, Review, Una

Everything is Teeth – Evie Wyld & Joe Sumner

I am rather a fan of Evie Wyld as an author and as a person. I have had the pleasure of interviewing her and having a few coffees and wanderings around bookshops, including her own, the Review Bookshop in Peckham which is also delightful. I first ‘met her’ in book form when I read her first novel After The Fire, A Still Small Voice. I was genuinely bowled over by it and the incredible writing from a debut author, I know people say that a lot but it is true. Then when I read All The Birds, Singing I was blown away once again by her prose but also fell for her sense of menace/the gothic and the way she pulls of something unusual and original in its format. With her latest book she has gone and done something completely different again working on a memoir with illustrator Joe Sumner and creating the truly wonderful Everything is Teeth.

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Jonathan Cape, 2015, hardback, graphic novel/memoir, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

It’s not even the images that come first when I think of the parts of my childhood spent in Australia. Or even the people. It’s the sounds – the butcher birds and the magpies that lived amongst us on the back veranda. And stronger still, the smells – eucalyptus, watermelon and filter mud, rich and rude and sickly strong, Most of all, the river, muddy and lined with mangrove. Salt and sulphur; at low tide the black mud that smelled bad, that had stingray burrows hollowed out in it. The smell I associate with the smell of sharks.

When Evie was a young girl she grew up between Australia and the UK. It was on the coast of New South Wales where Evie first learnt of the wonders and the terrors of sharks. After initially reading a few books and going to a shark museum with her father (which later seems somewhat pivotal) sharks soon become something of an obsession for her and one that catches her at the oddest of times, where even back in landlocked London she believed one could be following her or suddenly appear out of a bin and attack her or a friend. Oddly I used to worry that a shark might suddenly turn up in any swimming pool I frequented until I was about twenty-six, seriously. Anyway…

What initially starts as quite a funny and natural obsession (we have all had these keen interests that verge on obsessions in our childhoods) slowly takes on a darker side with greater menace the more we read on and the book takes a slight shift in direction. For Everything is Teeth is also a book about grief, the threat of loss and the potential of depression or fear to be around us at any time no matter how old we are. At least that is how I read it, the shark’s presence being a way of dealing with growing up and all the strangeness that that brings for us, an escape and a way of confronting fears in a different way. Not wanting to give too much away, the later stages of the book centre around the dying and death of Evie’s father and how something like that can bring nostalgia and fears from childhood back to the fore. The bite size (pun not intended) intense bursts of memory in Evie’s wonderful writing making this all the more potent along with the illustrations.

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Oh, the illustrations! I loved, loved, loved Joe Sumner’s illustrations in Everything is Teeth as much as I loved Evie’s writing. (Note, Evie and Joe have worked together on this blog before when Evie and I got him to draw some of your imaginings of the Australian mythical Bunyip.) They are initially deceptively simple, yet have both a precise artistic and then much more comic like edge to them making the sharks seem all the more terrifying and real, with a brutal beauty. These are certainly not comical comic pictures, well with the exception of the shark coming out of the bin which made me cackle. They also, again pun unintended, have hidden depths with a sense of menace looming the longer you look at them.

It is this that makes the pairing, and therefore the whole body of work produced in Everything is Teeth, so powerful; the deception of simplicity of both the lyrical words and the enchantingly disarming images. Yet in fact the more of these intense bursts you read and take in the images of the more intensity they give and the more layers that reveal themselves and make it all the more powerful, effective and moving. It is a book you can’t shake for a while after you have read it, rather like the nagging feeling there could be a shark swimming just behind you at any given moment. I loved it, I hope we have many more novels from Evie Wyld and many more graphic memoirs/novels and the like with Evie and Joe, lyrical and visual treats indeed.

Have any of you read Everything is Teeth and what did you make of it? Which authors you love would you like to see head into the world of graphic memoir or novels? Which graphic novels have you read which affected you deeply? It is a genre I am getting more and more endeared towards when done brilliantly, so I must read more.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Evie Wyld, Graphic Novels, Joe Sumner, Jonathan Cape Publishers

Rounding Up The Reviews #5; A Trio of Graphic Novels

A series of posts I introduced last year was the ‘Rounding Up The Reviews’ posts because sometimes (particularly this year with judging) you read more books than you have time to write about, or you read some books which you don’t feel you can write 800+ words about. This isn’t to do any of them a disservice, why do I instantly need to feel defensive, because you still want to mention them so a round up post seems the perfect idea. I will have a few of these over the next few weeks and months.

First up are a trio of graphic novels (The Pillbox by David Hughes, The Art of Flying by Antonio Altarriba & Kim, Never Goodnight by Coco Moodysson) which I have read over the past few months. Graphic novels are not something I have really been ‘down’ with, yet in the last few years I have read some corkers and so am trying to read much more of them. What I am learning, as you will see below, is that all as with all art forms certain things are my taste and certain things aren’t even though I enjoy them all.

Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2015, fiction, 144 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Pillbox by David Hughes is a ghost story set on a summer holiday on the British coast. Jack is pretty much left to his own devices with his dog over the summer and on one of his adventures along the shoreline he discovers a pillbox (look out base) used in the Second World War and meets Keith a strange boy who Jack wants to befriend. What follows is a tale both of self discovery in the present and also of abuse and injustice from the past.

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Now I have to say this book still has me pondering what I think of it. In part that is because of the story and in part it is because of the artwork. In terms of story it all feels slightly dreamlike and nightmarish in the fact that it is bonkers (a woolly mammoth turns up occasionally) yet also slightly confusing. If I am being 100% honest it felt a bit like a work in progress which wasn’t quite fully formed. Interestingly I found this reflected in Hughes artwork as some of the pages are half drawn where others are (like above) intricately and beautifully drawn.

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I personally didn’t love the artwork yet I was mesmerised in a slightly haunted way by it, it captured my attention whilst also making me want to look away – a lot like some of the upsetting parts of the book as you read on. I loved how he uses colours around the emotions and feelings going on in the book when no one is speaking though. So I am conflicted between thinking this book wasn’t for me at all, yet also founding it deeply affecting and disturbing and won’t forget it in a hurry. Creepy and odd.

Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2015, graphic novel, translated by Adrian West, 208 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Art of Flying was originally released in its homeland of Spain in 2009 yet has taken quite some time to translate (by Adrian West) and to come out here in the UK. It is a tricky book to describe as it is not a memoir but more a memoir of Altarriba’s father who committed suicide at the age of 90. Altarriba tries to imagine his father’s life from what he knows of it and in doing so creates the story of a man who grew up in Aragon, a poor town in Spain, who fought in the army during the Civil War and the defected, and on it goes leading up to his death. It is a fascinating story of a man’s life and gives a real insight into some of Spain’s history which I knew very little about.

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There is a but coming though. As wonderful as I thought it was I often felt this really wanted to actually be a novel. There is so much speech and so much scene setting in words that occasionally I felt both like I was being lectured on the history and also not being allowed to let the pictures do their work and Kim’s imagery is stunning. I loved how Kim makes the artwork match the popular comic strips of that time that were fashionable, I also think he does a lot with a palette of black, white and grey’s.

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The overload of text though creates, possibly intentionally, a claustrophobic feeling in the book, along with slight eye strain as the text is sometimes tiny. Subsequently it really slowed me down, which was distracting as there is a sense of adventure and detection in the book I just couldn’t quite get in the rhythm of it. I ended up reading a part; there are four, a day which I found really worked. An interesting read, not quite my cup of tea as I think I would have preferred it either just in text or just in pictures. Lots of people would love this though.

The Friday Project, paperback, 2015, graphic novel, 252 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Last but certainly not least is Never Goodnight by Coco Moodysson, which was adapted into the film We Are The Best! which is apparently something of a cult movie. Never Goodnight is the story of three friends over the space of a month (December 1982) in Sweden after they decide to become punks and set up a band. Now I have to say this premise did not thrill me but the imagery appealed and so I gave it a whirl…

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I really enjoyed this. I thought Moodysson created a really intricate and insightful world not only of three young girls (and their friendships, rivalries, first loves and dreams) but also a look into the culture of the time and both the punk movement and where feminism was, or wasn’t as they keep getting called a girl band to their horror, at that time.  There is teenage angst, there is troubled homelife’s, there is a sense of history to it in a weird way, there are also some odd moments that didn’t seem to be relevant to the plot but promoted different life style choices, kind of…

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The artwork really suits the tones of the book as it is simply black and white yet also jovial and cartoonish. I was just charmed by it, all the more so because I didn’t expect to be.

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So that is your lot for now, I will be rounding up some novels in the next few weeks. I hope you liked this quick round up post, as always let me know if you have read any of the books and what your thoughts on them were. I would also love more graphic novel recommendations. You can see the ones I have read so far here (book covers will be reuploaded soon, not sure what has happened there).

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Filed under Antonio Altarriba, Coco Moodysson, David Hughes, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Cape Publishers, The Friday project

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth – Isabel Greenberg

I wanted to write about this graphic novel on Wednesday and then the events in Paris unfolded and I thought I should hold off, it might be seen in bad taste. Yet I think that one of the things that has come from these horrific events is the power of the pen, be it the written word or illustration, and that of freedom of speech and to be silenced by such actions (and I know this is only a book blog but you know what I mean) is to let these cruel people win. I don’t want to do that. It actually seems apt then to tell you about The Encyclopedia of Early Earth by Isabel Greenberg because it is a book that highlights how powerful both imagery and words can be. After all they say a picture can paint a thousand words.

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Jonathan Cape, hardback, 2013, graphic novel, 200 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is probably one of the most imaginative and unusual books that I have read in quite some time. It is also one of those wonderful books where stories unravel within other stories, or lead to other stories, and somehow without being chronological create a whole set of worlds that all interweave and unfold in front of your eyes. No, really. It tells of a world, which we now know as Earth, in the time before mankind when other groups of people inhabited it with their different beliefs, legends and cultures – which often relate in some slight/subliminal or occasionally pretty blunt way to the way we are living now or the tales we know be they mythical, fictional or factual.

The book is framed by Love in a Very Cold Climate (which I like to think is some kind of homage in some way to Nancy Mitford, even if I am wrong) where two people meet and instantly fall in love over one another’s mittens. (This is actually really sweet and not saccharine at all.) There is a problem however as when these two lovers try to touch they are magnetised apart so how if they cant touch what can they do? Well the man, who we soon come to learn is a storyteller from the land of Nord on the opposite side of the planet, starts to tell stories to entertain them. These stories we soon learn are in actual fact his tale of the journey to get to the south and to find a piece of his soul that went missing, which leads us to the first of the tales that start to unfold.

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Stories and storytelling are very much what The Encyclopedia of Early Earth is all about. As I mentioned they might have a mythical, biblical, fairytale, fictional or historical elements. For example some of the cultures the storyteller meets are like Eskimos now and in the past, some are like the Vikings, some the Romans etc. Then there are the biblical references such as a story involving these people’s god Bird Man’s daughter who falls in love with Noah who is a bit of a so and so and so what does she decide to do in a rage, flood the earth of course. There are also moments which link back to classical times when we meet a learn of a tale of an old lady who reminds her people of why old people shouldn’t just sit around waiting to die and can be rather useful. I wont give away anything other than it evolves a Cyclops…

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Then there are nods to more modern stories like the fairytale of Pinocchio, or indeed classic novels such as Moby Dick…

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I think Isabel Greenberg adds much depth and the occasional punch as she writes and illustrates the importance of stories and histories with The Encyclopedia of Early Earth. Firstly she imparts little moments, I don’t want to say they are morals but then all the best fables and fairytales have them (Rapunzel taught me never to steal cabbage because I might lose my first born to a witch, or let down my hair for any common old Tom, Dick or Harry; both important life lessons) and as I mentioned with moments like the old lady who shows how old people can be useful, Greenberg just weaves in some lovely little poignant thoughts for you to mull over.

She also does it with much wit, for example when Dag and Hal – the first man and woman on earth – have children sibling jealousy leads to cultural wars. The latter point is very serious yet Greenberg shows how these awful things often evolve from some small thing, or from one person’s moment of weakness. She then makes us laugh about it to show how small and stupid these things are and how with some thought and understanding they could be avoided. (The image below made me laugh for about five minutes, laugh to tears laughing too.)

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She does the same with war. It is all very clever, thought provoking and looks at religion, history, culture and beliefs in a very interesting, original and impartial way.

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I cannot recommend you getting a copy of The Encyclopedia of Early Earth enough. It really is just wonderful how every page will hold a story within a picture, yet all those pictures create another story which adds a layer, back story, or myth around the story we are following. As you will know from reading this blog I am prone to a tangent, and indeed am quite fond of them. Well I couldn’t get enough of Isabel Greenberg’s tangents and wanted more and more. In fact as soon as I had finished the book I went and ordered more of her work some of which interlink with this book. They have already arrived…

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If all the above, and the fact that I have run off straight away to get more of her works straight away, isn’t enough to convince you to run out and get it I can do no more. I won’t be surprised if it is in my books of the year in December, even though we are only in January. In fact I have read two books so far this year where I have felt that. Back to the recent horrors in Paris though, reading this and seeing such awful things on the news has reminded me about the power that the pen has when it writes or draws, and when writing and illustration are combined they can be the most powerful of all when used for good. Let us never stop reading then.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Graphic Novels, Isabel Greenberg, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Review

Through the Woods – Emily Carroll

Those of you who have been visiting this blog for some time will know that I am a huge fan of the fairy tale and have been since I was a youngster, so much so that I named my first pet, a duck, Rapunzel. Imagine my delight then when Faber emailed me and asked me if I would like to read a copy of Emily Carroll’s graphic/comic short stories, Through the Woods, a collection of creepy fairy tales and urban legend like tales. Of course I practically bit their hands off through the medium of email and what arrived in the post a few days later was a thing of beauty, though as we know even the most beautiful of things can have a dark heart…

Faber & Faber, hardback, 2014, graphic short story collection, 208 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Through the Woods is a collection of five very eerie, gothic and deliciously chilling tales. Each tale manages to do that wonderfully uneasy thing of somehow allaying themselves to your childhood, and indeed grown up, fear.  First there is Our Neighbours House which tells of three sisters who are told by their father, before he goes off hunting in the snow, that if he does not return they must head to their neighbours house, of course he disappears and so the sisters must decide what to do alone with only each other and the mysterious neighbour through the snow and woods. Second up is A Lady’s Hands Are Cold about a second wife who moves into her new home where something isn’t happy about her arrival.

Next up His Face All Red looks at how dangerous jealousy can be even between siblings, though admittedly this is the one that worked the least for me. Penultimate tale My Friend Janna is a tale of a medium which has a very, very clever twist as it goes on which I admired very much. Then finally we have The Nesting Place which is all about a young girl who visits her brother and his wife and soon wishes she had never made the journey and superbly describes one of the most sinister written noises, skreaaak skriiiick, which has just made me shiver thinking about it. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who has the joy, or terror, of this collection to come so I will say no more on how the tales twist and turn out.

Carroll does some very clever things with this collection. The first of which is that, as I mentioned before, she marvellously plays with fears we have as children such as isolation or being lost, be it in a wood or the middle of a snowy wasteland. She also plays on more adult fears like the loss of teeth, which is something I have nightmares about now and comes up in one of the tales. She also plays with things that bother us, even if we don’t admit it, as adults and children the noises that you hear in the middle of the night and tell yourself that the house is either warming up or cooling down for the night for example. We all do this even as adults don’t we? No, just me? Oh, let us move swiftly on…

She also delightfully, be it for the blatant inner fairy tale geek in you or the nostalgic one in your subconscious, brings back and plays homage to the fairy tales of your childhood. Notably it is the darker  well know ones like Red Riding Hood (come on, who wasn’t petrified of meeting a wolf in a wood that would eat your Granny?) and the lesser known but very, very dark tale of Bluebeard. She also does it with some of the more modern gothic tales, with I thought a nod to Rebecca in one, but I would think that wouldn’t I? She also plays with the tropes that we know so well, for example swapping the wicked step mother figure in one tale to being a different new member of the family. These nods and winks add to the delight of the collection.

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She also plays with emotions we all know all too well and have done all our lives; jealousy, rage and most importantly fear. At the start of Through the Woods there is a brilliant introduction in the form of a tiny piece of memoir which explains how as a child Emily would read long into the night herself and be scared to turn the light out just in case something was outside waiting at the window or ready to grab her from under the bed.

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In channelling that into these five tales along with the incredibly atmospheric and (cliché alert) haunting illustrations Emily Carroll genuinely creates a book that will properly creep you out, not just give you the odd chill or two. The Nesting Place, which was my favourite tale, is one that actually wormed (once you have read it you will see what I did there) itself into my brain and stayed in there bothering me, especially at night when I dreamt about it – and I know about three other people this has happened to with one or two of these stories.

Through the Woods is an incredible achievement and a cracking collection.  Somehow in using just the right words and just the right images Carroll creates a piece of work that genuinely gets into your head and plays with your fears in both a good shivery way and a really uncomfortable one. You will be reading it well into the early hours and left wondering just what on earth could be lurking outside your window on one of these cold dark nights before you turn the light off.

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Who else has read Through the Woods and what did you make of it? Will anyone else admit to be genuinely bothered by it? Which other collections of spooky stories or fairy tales, be they retellings or originals, would you recommend?

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Filed under Books of 2014, Faber & Faber, Graphic Novels, Review, Short Stories

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil – Stephen Collins

I have put off and put off writing about Stephen Collins’ The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil for a while now since I read it as it being a graphic novel and me not being a connoisseur of the genre I was rather daunted at the prospect. However as it is one of the most enjoyable and completely immersive books, partly because of its genre, I felt I simply couldn’t ‘not’ tell you all about it! So here we are. It may not be to the standards of those familiar with the field of the graphic novel, but I am going to have a bloody good crack at it anyway, especially as I think this is a genre I am going to be dabbling more and more with over the coming months.

Jonathan Cape, 2013, hardback, graphic novel, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Here is a place quite different from There. Here is a place of routine, uniformity and safety. There is an unknown place of dreadful uncertainly and mystery, people don’t even like to talk about it. Dave lives on the island of here, his house backing the sea which is an equally ominous place and which if must be heard can at least not be seen as no windows can face it. His life is one of routine, he gets up at the same time, wears the same clothes, does the same hours in the same job (though what the company does, and indeed what he does in it, he is uncertain) goes home at the same time the same way and listens to the same song by the Bangles, Eternal Flame, for the same number of times on repeat. That is until one day when the one stubborn hair that always grows, despite Here being a place where facial hair is banned, suddenly mutates, multiplies and Dave becomes the not-so-proud-owner of a gigantic beard – one which cannot be trimmed or stopped and looks set to take over the whole of Here. Run for your lives!

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What of course this all boils down to is difference and the fear of it, a great theme for any book. Here is not a place that tolerates the unusual, indeed within moments of it growing Dave is fired from his job and not allowed in the local eateries. People are scared and then become tourists heading to Dave’s home to see if the freakish rumours are true. Even the scientists and politicians are at a loss, the police are called then the army and as a last resort even the hairdressers are called in. It is all done with a wonderful mix of humour and irony but the main point is there, being different is wrong.

photo 1

The imagery throughout is stunning. I pondered if Collins used monochrome to match the monotone routine of the world of Here that Dave resides in. What is so stunning is how Collins uses the shading (who knew there could be shades of blackness?) and creates such a vivid world and atmosphere that soon you forget about this thing called colour and this grey world takes you over as it has done the people within it. The other thing I loved was the way that Collins uses the panels, not just to tell the story but indeed to become part of the picture (either the way they are shaped, how they are arranged) breaking the linear style I am used to and often creating a feeling of that page in the stories atmosphere as well as a broader panorama. I spent absolutely ages just getting lost in every page.

photo 3

The other thing I must mention is the writing itself. Collins’ illustrations and imagery are so strong that you actually wouldn’t need the words to get the story and it’s themes. What I found really interesting was that with Collins has chosen to write the book in verse like one long poem. ‘Beneath the skin of everything is somebody nobody can know. The job pg the skin is to keep it all in and never let anything show.’ It is wonderful. It adds another level to the book both in terms of rhythm and also how you react to it, it makes it feel even more ‘otherly’ too, as well as giving it an extra emotive edge.

There is one word that sums up the whole reading experience of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil and that is ‘sublime’. I loved everything about it; the imagery, the atmosphere, the message at its heart, everything. It’s a very moving book and one you cannot help but react to, I even shed a tear or two at the end. There is no doubt that to my mind The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil probably has the best title of any book this year, it also looks set to be one of the most memorable books of the year for its contents too. A quite literally, or maybe that should be quite graphically, stunning book and one of my reads of the year.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Graphic Novels, Jonathan Cape Publishers, Review, Stephen Collins