The Man Who Grew His Beard

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren, and it might still be viewable there with the accompanying images.]

The Man Who Grew His Beard by Olivier Schrauwen (Fantagraphics, 2011)

The short stories in The Man Who Grew His Beard are akin to fables—somehow both specific to the strange settings that Schrauwen constructs while carrying a sense of the primal or universal in the themes he includes.

Many of the stories are concerned with acts of imagination and artistic creation. “Hair Styles” appears to take place in some sort of office or monastery where the men at their desks are tasked to create charts and images for an undisclosed reason. (The same office is the setting of “The Dungeon,” which is not included in the book but can be read here.)

“The Assignment” shows students struggling with a drawing assignment, their problems taking lives of their own. “The Grotto” has humans uncovering the well of inky liquid that is the source of all life. “The Imaginist” explores the mind’s ability to create it’s own worlds.

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This isn’t surprising; many comics (and many stories in general) celebrate the redemptive power of art and stories. Many others explore the hopelessness in our search for meaning through creation. The Man Who Grew His Beard occupies a strange, existential place between these two poles.

For every triumph—the artist in “The Grotto” harnessing the fundamental ink, a student in “The Assignment” watching his work dance to life—there is a corresponding catastrophe, failure, or, at the very least, ambiguity.

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I mentioned those amoral fables earlier—those comic book versions of “Ozymandias,” with their mouldering pages in the lone and level sands. While The Man Who Grew His Beard contains all the instances of listless existentialism you’d expect from a modern comic, those instances are presented as part of a spectrum.

In Schrauwen’s world, artistic creation isn’t good or bad. It exists on a range that encompasses all those possibilities. Art becomes something like food: something we’re driven to consume, something that’s inherently neutral, but something that, in our consumption, can be good or bad for us.

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Losers Week

[Originally written for my Comic Cartography image blog.]

In case it wasn’t obvious, all the posts this week are from the Vertigo series The Losers. Written by Andy Diggle and with art mostly from Jock, it was an entertaining and well-plotted espionage book.

With art assists by Shawn Martinbrough, Nick Dragotta, Alé Garza, Ben Oliver, and Colin Wilson (who is one artist I always wish I could see more from), it was a book with a distinct look. The Lee Loughridge colors unified the whole book beautifully, and I was especially impressed with the blocky, geometrical shapes his colors took on for the flashback arc that ran through issues 14 to 17.

Maps play an interesting role in The Losers (and in other espionage books). In fantasy or sci-fi titles, the maps are most often for the reader’s benefit–they serve to orient us to a strange land filled with alien names. The characters in those stories usually know much more about their world than we do.

In espionage books, though, the characters’ world is similar to our own, so the maps aren’t for us–the maps are for the characters. In a fantasy world, maps might indicate a dangerous forest or a foreboding mountain. In espionage, the danger is often hidden in the next country over or the next floor up, and with information at a premium, a good map can be the difference between life and death.

Many of the maps on this blog serve us, the readers; the maps in The Losers serve the characters.