One thing that stories in Belgian cartoonist Olivier Schrauwen’s The Man Who Grew His Beard share is that they question their own form-and they usually feature bearded men who draw-but otherwise resist association. This is, after all, Schrauwen’s first collection of stories, and much like those first collections of his fiction writing counterparts, this book contains the enthralling inconsistencies and volatility that result from an artist experimenting with and discovering a form. Like American artists Robert Goodin and Dash Shaw, Schrauwen reaches into the toolbox of the animator to reinvent the print comic. He employs the more technologically dictated concepts of animation, in which he is trained, to innovate the older form of comics, the medium which he has come to practice. His feeling for immediately sequenced moments and relationships within varying depths of field serve to create comics pages that interrogate their own form, creating a real sense of newness in his stories.
Schrauwen’s stories are not animated films on paper. Anything but. They are comics that could only exist on the page. His layouts are driven by the relation of one panel to another, existing as a unified whole rather than a sequence. Schrauwen eschews panel gutters, making his pages into single compositions, highlighting relationships of lines and colors and repetitions from one panel to the next. In his story “I Am a Handsome Man with a Broad Forehead and a Beautiful Beard,” Schrauwen’s painted pages are created to reflect the structure of a stained glass window, or even a complex family crest. Moments are found within single panels, but the pages are composed to ask the reader to look at them as a whole. Even more compelling are instances, such as in “Hair Styles,” when adjacent panels echo each other with slight variation, reminding us of the animator’s storyboard, or a film strip, but, at the same time, creating a regularity that sets a narrative rhythm only achieved by those cartoonists who are most naturally inclined to employ the basics of deconstructed comics grammar (think Ernie Bushmiller, or Ivan Brunetti’s recent work).
The variation of line, color, and graphic archetype throughout the book unsettles the reader, demanding close attention. The grasp that Schrauwen, and therefore the reader, has on any particular visual paradigm is tenuous at best, at any given moment. It’s as if his people, and places, and his very lines may slip away at any point. And the instability is not only a function of the collection as a whole, but occurs even within particular stories, or on a single page, or even within a panel. In the book’s first story, “Congo Chromo,” an absurdist episode of Belgian colonialism, the three principals, a group of white-man hunter/explorers in Africa, have body parts, heads, legs, torsos (especially torsos) that continually changes size from panel to panel, sometimes with logistical explanation, other times not. This makes their age, and visual personality, which is usually so easily established with highly abstracted cartoons, tough to identify. Our idea of these men change as the story itself is changed. This story is an appropriate pace setter for a collection that—if it suggests any thematic unity at all—is driven by the idea that not only is the creator questioning his form as he creates (as cartoonists, like the OUBAPO group, who work with constraints, do so effectively), but that each story that Schrauwen has discovered and the characters within are questioning the narrative as they experience it.
Many of Schrauwen’s featured characters either carry pens, pencils, or brushes, or they are a product of another character’s drawing tool. Formally, this approach is not unlike the meta-fictional conceits of William H. Gass and John Barth. (Don’t fear: there are no characters in this book named ‘Olivier Schrauwen,’ though the author did point out in an interview that he had a beard the entire time he was drawing these stories.) But, the meta-narrative effects on a visually concrete medium such as comics are much different than their role in prose fiction. Fiction writers use this method to reveal to us “the author’s hand,” to make us consider the story as an authored construct. Comics, as a medium, usually do that without any overt meta-narrative techniques, because artists’ drawings styles are constantly obvious and more particularly nuanced. We are much more often more actively aware and attuned to a comic artist’s style than that of a creator who works exclusively in text. We think about more about how the thing is made when we read comics. Schrauwen invites us into the process of making comics, particularly the idea of conceiving of and making images, and calling into question these processes as separate undertakings, suggesting that thinking and making are the same process. “The Imaginist,” a story in which the comics page predicts, sometimes incorrectly, the conceptions of a particular bearded man, and then corrects those ideas to suit his whims is the most obvious example of this. Most compelling, this story then goes on to address this man’s limits when he loses the power of formal invention, in his “waking life” as a quadriplegic. Another story, “The Grotto,” looks at cult who reveres a flawed “creator” who quite literally draws things that come to life, things which ultimately disappoint the creator himself, although these creations still delight his followers (perhaps, audience—or readers).
So many storytellers are lauded for creating worlds so believable that they cause readers to forget. Presumably, readers forget their own realities, and become absorbed in the author’s imagined product. Schrauwen creates new worlds in every story, and these worlds envelope us, but he never allows us to forget. He doesn’t let us forget that he’s an artist, and that we are readers, and that those are his pencil lines and paint strokes on the page we’re reading. And this reminder of the form and experience is exactly what makes his stories seem so real. They refuse to deny the process with which we all struggle if rarely acknowledge, and that is the process of continually framing and creating the world in which we live.