Comics Time: The Man Who Grew His Beard

The Man Who Grew His Beard
Olivier Schrauwen, writer/artist
Fantagraphics, 2011
112 pages
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I love the disconnect between how big and broad this substantial softcover feels in your hands — at 8.5″ x 10.25 ” it’s just wider enough than your average graphic novel for you to notice it — and how tiny the little mustachioed men who people most of its stories feel on those big pages, even when they’re blown up big enough to occupy most of that real estate. It makes it feel even more alien than it already does, like you’re reading a giant’s minicomic.

I don’t know how he does it, whether it’s something to do with how he puts his lines down on paper or some treatment he gives them afterwards, but Flemish cartoonist Olivier Schrauwen makes images that look like…like they’ve been transmitted from a great distance, both temporally and spatially. He’s playing with style and design that looks like it predates the Great War, and his line and coloring has a hazy feel to it that could be a copy of a copy of a copy, or the unlikely discovery of some microscopic cartooning culture blown up to many times its original size. There’s something off about it just as surely as there’s something off about Al Columbia’s rotted vintage visuals, only here that off-ness is used in service of a comic surrealism rather than a horrific one. He can stick it to the foibles of the 19th-century culture whose style he’s swiping quite effectively — savagely satirizing Belgium’s bloody misadventures in Africa, parodying the West’s penchant for physiognometric pseudoscience with a look at what your hairstyle says about your mental capacity, lampooning the world-conquering bravado of transcontinental rail, and so on. But he’s just as likely to seize upon some strange effect or idea and run with it as hard and as fast as he can — nearly literally, in once case, in a strip consisting more or less solely of a guy running to catch a train for as long and as far as the train would have taken him to begin with. Elsewhere, he shatters sexual idylls into a fractal feedback loop or draws its participants as lounging subjects of some kind of weird cubist stained-glass art style; portrays a man who can paint things into existence by trotting him through a series of guffaw-inducing mock-heroic poses, as if his miraculous creative abilities were only secondary proof of his awesomeness compared to his theatrical, bare-chested machismo; and uses bright color and titanically ornate architecture against bland ones to paint a portrait of a catatonic man’s rich and adventurous interior life of fun with a beautiful woman and a beloved child, in a story that ended up being actually quite moving. These are deeply strange short stories, centered on ideas and effects I’m not sure I’d have come up with even with the proverbial infinite number of monkeys at my disposal; even in this short-story-saturated alternative comics climate, there’s nothing else like his gestalt of finely calibrated nonsense. It’s good to see that comics can do things you’d never think to ask of them in the first place.

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