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.

BEWARE OF THE SPIKES!

[Originally written for my Comic Cartography image blog.]

TL;DR: Maps are usually used better in comics than in prose, but artists need to be careful not to overly define a thing.

The Walt Kelly “Map of Fairy Tale Land” that was posted yesterday is, for me, fictional cartography of the highest level. It’s what would have driven me to hours of distraction as a young person.

While I didn’t have access to that map, I did spend hours poring over charts of Middle-earth, Arrakis, Athas, and many more. The most powerful thing about those maps is the amount of drama and story implicit in each of them. It’s like reading part one of a trilogy and never reading the rest: the mind trips in mad circles of possibility.

Scott McCloud calls this closure; give a reader disparate parts of a story, and the mind fills in the blanks. In McCloud’s case, he’s talking specifically about two panels of a comic and what happens in the gutter in between. For example, a glint of streetlight on an axe in one panel, and a tortured scream above a cityscape in the next. The pain inflicted from axe to scream is unique to the mind of the individual reader.

This happens in prose as well, the but the space for reader input is less explicit. A man stares down at his lover and then walks away. How are his eyes set? How does he walk? In prose, the reader might not construct the scene until they gather more information. In comics, a reader in encouraged by the blank space to fill in the blanks immediately.

Given the assumed delay in prose closure, maps take on an aspect of paratexuality. They belong with the appendix and the dedication and the author bio on the rear jacket flap. There might be a story implicit in the map, but the body of the text (spatially much larger than the map itself) bears more weight and encourages the delay of reader participation.

To put it another way, it’s heterodiegetic–it’s outside of the story and read as something other than the narrative as opposed to something that springs from within the story world. (Obviously there are exceptions–Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books spring to mind, with maps represented in the middle of the prose as characters find them–but for the most part, maps are slotted at the beginnings or ends of books.)

A quick aside to recognize Kelly’s skill: while the map plays at representing some sort of geographical location, it’s much more a comic story than a representation of geographic or population information. Note how the road starts in the upper left of the page, where an American reader’s eyes naturally go. It tilts around the way a page of comic panels would, and interactions and conflicts are implied: Jack’s giant is charging toward an inevitable collision with Snow White’s dwarves; a number of people have crossed the Troll Bridge, implicitly having dealt with the troll; what’s Goldilocks going to do when she catches the gingerbread man?

So in a comic, where images tell the story, a map is allowed to be folded into the narrative in a much more holistic manner than in a prose narrative. Since images are part of the storytelling language of comics, maps can surface anywhere in a comic, popping up between other panels to demand closure or, as in Kelly’s map, demanding closure within themselves.

Olivier Schrauwen understands these demands of closure implicit in a map, and he understands how powerful it can be for a reader to pore over a map as a story. His short piece from Mome finds workers in a drab workaday setting being presented with a coworker’s hand-drawn map that is both game and story. This mapmaker–this fantasist–is positioned as someone who disrupts the typical routine of the workplace. Is he going to save them from their sepia existence?

Naturally, a hardworking realist demands justification of the mapmaker’s game. In a children’s story or something more didactic, maybe the fantasist would win the realist over to his ways, showing the devoted employee how his soul is dying. Instead, Schrauwen depicts the mapmaker as fanatically devoted to his craft. He gets the crazy eyes and screams, “FUCKER.”

While the fantasist and the realist fight, it’s the nameless, silent man in the middle who’s left staring at the map. Is he entranced by the possibilities? Has his mind been freed by the cartographer’s diligent renditions? Or is he baffled and embarrassed, staring only because he’s trying to avoid looking at the fight?

The fantasist must be careful in his diligence. To overdefine a world, whether as a prose writer or comic editor or dungeon master, creates a dead and calcified experience. There must be room in the map for interpretation. The giant can be shown charging the dwarves, but a cunning renderer will leave it to the reader to decide how the collision plays out.