It was not my intention to make a political book. But, said Flemish Klaas Verplancke (1964) last year to the Flemish newspaper The standard about his picture book then published in America The King’s Golden BeardWhile he was working on it, the fairy tale about a king suffering from megalomania took on a political and social dimension. †[P]opulist leaders, the science that is being questioned, conspiracy theories, polarization, selfishness and pride, all that crept in,” said Verplancke.
That’s a lot for a picture book, and daring: however topical and relevant all those themes are, the danger of ostentatious moralism is lurking. But Verplancke, internationally known for his witty prints in among others The New York Times and are great digital’Combat Covid‘-posters on the streets of New York, fortunately managed to avoid this. Metaphor and reality are brilliantly intertwined in The golden beardwhich was recently released as a Dutch edition.
Fantastic beard growth
The Dutch title, which is actually better than the English one without mentioning the beard bearer, already partly betrays the successful secret of Verplancke’s allegorical narration. The above-mentioned theme is nowhere explicit, neither in language nor image. For example, we don’t get to see the face of the narcissistic king who is obsessed with his fantastic beard growth. Only a luscious head of hair with a pair of red gloves and black pointed boots poking through it and a grim grin are visible. Besides making the illustrations exciting, it also gives them an absurdist touch. Hilarious, for example, is the unusual print after the classic fairytale beginnings ‘long, long ago / when almost everyone still thought the earth was as flat as a pancake’, in which members of the royal guard armed with garden rakes arrange the king’s beard. Raak is also the spread on which they submissively carry strands of hair after the king as if it were his court train.
The plot is otherwise genius in its simplicity. First, ‘the beard’ imposes a beard-growing ban on its subjects by decree on pain of death, so that it can grow even more beautiful and longer without hindrance. Then he winds his way through the palace corridors, along garden paths, through deserts and forests, over seas and mountains around the world, until he knocks on his own back door and under the motto ‘THE LAW IS THE LAW!’ orders the ‘strange beard’ to be trimmed immediately, ever convinced that the Earth is flat despite recent evidence to the contrary from clever astronomers. The outcome is then easy to guess. The sublime final spread in which a guardsman sweeps the king’s beard out of the book with a broom that has its bristles back makes it pleasantly easy to digest.
Yes, The golden beard is a crazy picture book. At the same time, it is unnoticed a playful exercise in looking cross-eyed and counter-thinking. The grumpy shaved and cropped faces, for example, suggest that no one is happy about the hair growth ban. But look closely, that lady, who used to be plagued by beard growth, is really smiling. The remark ‘hairdressers and barbers did golden business’ also tilts the original perspective.
You sometimes have to take that cross-eyed view literally: whoever wants to follow the beard’s journey has to turn the book and even (logically) turn it upside down at the South Pole. It’s great how Verplancke casually introduces the climate problem there: when the guards run around the world in reverse to grab the ‘strange beard’, the polar ice appears to have melted. Verplancke plays ingeniously with an alternating surface and color division and typography: the king’s roar regularly pops out of the book in bold capitals. This ranting seems to be a reference to Trump. All things considered, however, the golden beard symbolizes every megalomaniac idiot who terrorizes the world, giving this masterful fairytale a universal eloquence and the potential to become a classic.
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