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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