Tom Gauld

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Those past two years have seen his first full-fledged graphic novel Goliath and the first collection of his Guardian cartoons You're all just jealous of my jetpack -- indeed, Tom Gauld has been particularly busy, and yet still manages to remain incredibly funny. And very, very British.

Xavier Guilbert : One thing that strikes me in your work is that a lot of references come from outside the realm of comics. There’s a lot of things linked to the Victorian era, such as Dickens, the Brontë sisters and stuff. What led you to comics ? What kind of education do you have ? And how did you end up doing comics, even though it seems that your interests lie in a different field ?

Tom Gauld : Well, I went to Art School and studied illustration. And my plan, when I was there, was to become an illustrator, and illustrate other people’s texts. While I was in college, I got into works by Chris Ware, and Dan Clowes, and particularly by Edward Gorey. And that made me interested in writing my own stories. And while I was studying at Edimburgh College of Art, I made some short comics — but they didn’t really go anywhere. I didn’t publish them, they were more just in my sketch books. When I finished Edimburgh, I moved to London to do a two-year post-graduate degree at the Royal College of Art. And that course is much more about doing what you want to do, and exploring — choosing something and exploring it. And that’s where I started making comics. I published a handful of comics there, some with my friend Simone Lia. And I guess the little successes of those first comics — and the fact that I had always read comics, and I always liked comics. That was what got me into it.

Xavier Guilbert : When you say “always read comics”, what kind of comics where those ? The authors you mention represent a very specific slice of comics.

Tom Gauld : Those are the ones I was into when I was between eighteen and twenty — well, I still am. Those are the ones I was into when I was in college. When I first got into comics, I was reading Astérix and Tintin, which I used to get from the local library. In Britain it seemed to me that the only comics that got published by mainstream publishers were Astérix and Tintin. So I was obsessed with Astérix when I was a child : I used to draw him and read all the books.

Xavier Guilbert : So you didn’t get much exposure from the US production, or even the British production like 2000AD or more underground stuff ?

Tom Gauld : I wasn’t into the Beano and the Dandy, which are the British children comics. I think my parents didn’t approve of that, and they approved more of Astérix, maybe because it is historical, or maybe because it was French and therefore supposedly sophisticated. But I did get into 2000AD very much, when I was a young teenager. I think if you’d said to me, when I was fourteen, “what would you like to do with your life ?”, I guess I would have said : “draw Judge Dredd comics.” And I’d be perfectly happy at that age to do that. So I got into Judge Dredd and 2000AD, and they had an interesting cross-over with sort of more underground comics. Some of the same artists were working on 2000AD and working on a magazine called Deadline — it was where Tank Girl first appeared. So I was really into Tank Girl when I was sixteen, and then through Tank Girl and those comics, that’s what got me into the American stuff like Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, particularly, early on. So I kind of went on, that was my journey to — to reading comics.

Xavier Guilbert : When you started doing things like Three Very Small Comics, what were your inspirations for doing there ? There’s kind of a disconnect from what might have been doing Dan Clowes, even at that moment. They are more like abstruse, little stories… I was about to say that those are “art student pieces” in the focus on the conceptual rather than doing something in a more classical form.

Tom Gauld : I think that’s true. I think that was the influence of Edward Gorey’s work. I really liked — because I liked reading comics, but I also wasn’t sure if I wanted to make this sort of traditional speech-bubbles, pamphlet sort of thing. I wanted — I was more intrigued by the fact Edward Gorey made this strange, little books, which were almost comics but not quite. Particularly then, I was interested in that idea. And those Very Small Comics came out of a feeling — I wanted to make a graphic novel, a long book. And I just couldn’t seem to find any way of doing it, any way into it. And I kept trying to start big projects and failing, and then one day I thought : I’ll just sit down and make three comics, one every day. I did the first set in three days, and it was sort of like the opposite of trying to make a grand statement. I was really happy with the way these turned out, and I ended up doing three volumes of them, so nine tiny little comics. I enjoyed that, it was fun.

Xavier Guilbert : What about Move to the city, which was published by B.ü.L.b Comix ? It’s your first published serial, if I’m not mistaken, but also your first collection (even though it only exists in French). How did it come into being ?

Tom Gauld : It started as a weekly comic strip which I was commissioned to create for Timeout London just after I graduated from college. They wanted something about a city, but I thought it would be amusing if the comic was about characters on their way to a city, and was a bit of a contrast to the “London is so exciting and brilliant !” tone of the magazine. I was very happy to have a weekly pay cheque and I learned a lot from doing it, but I think sometimes the quality suffered because of the weekly deadline, and the fact that I was so inexperienced. I knew the guys at B.ü.L.b Comix and they saw the weekly comics and expressed interest in publishing the story as a book. It wasn’t my first collection but it was my longest story at that point. Nobody asked me about publishing it in English and I was busy with other things so it didn’t happen. At some point I expect it’ll appear.

Xavier Guilbert : It’s interesting that you mention this question of a longer narrative, opposed to short pieces. Just looking at your latest books, there’s an obvious divide between You’re all just jealous of my jetpack and Goliath.

Tom Gauld : Yes. Well, that idea of timing in comics is something that really interests me. And with the stuff that’s longer than one page, or one small strip — I’m really interested in the idea of using images and panels to divide up space and making it interesting or funny by getting the timing right. And that was something I enjoyed doing Goliath. But with the stuff in Jetpack, all those comics were originally done for the Guardian newspaper, and I have this very small space to work with every week. So if I have six panels, they have to be six very tiny panels, and this strip is more comfortable with three or four panels, or one big panel. That’s interesting though, I like that. I like the restraint of every week, of having this tiny little space and having to take an idea and boil it down so it fits into this space. And sometimes having to throw away stuff I love, just because it’s not going to fit. And that’s interesting.

Xavier Guilbert : Yet, there’s a lot of your production that falls within that approach. Even when there’s not this constraint of available space — you’ve done postcards series, a lot of posters. And again, a poster is just one big image. And there’s also the work you’ve done for the New York Times, which occupies the top of the page, right ?

Tom Gauld : Yes, it’s a very long, thin, illustration that accompanies an essay every week. And yes, I’m really interested in constraints on work. I find it really helps me make things. I mean, not take it to a sort of OuBaPo level, but — for me, I think that idea of having a constraint does help. And that one for the New York Times is really like a puzzle to solve every week — because it’s such an unhelpful shape, you know ? You can’t draw anything tall, because it’s only two centimetres.

Xavier Guilbert : Is that one a week, or do you do more than one per issue ?

Tom Gauld : No, I just do one.

Xavier Guilbert : Because there are some recurring elements — one that comes to mind is the one revolving around the C-word, and there’s like three or four variations that are grouped together on your Flickr page. This serialization aspect, with recurring themes, is something that is very frequent in your work, with something like story-arcs, even if those are not stories per se. Like for that C-word thing.

Tom Gauld : Yes, but that was because they kept rejecting the illustrations. Because the New York Times wouldn’t — they wouldn’t even allow you to print the phrase “C-word”. I don’t know how, the essay that it was accompanying, somehow wrote a whole essay about this word without using it once. And they wanted an illustration which illustrated it, but didn’t show it in any way. So that was why I had to make three attempts. But what I like about that New York Times thing is, I think with all my work to some extent, it is almost making — well, I suppose all comics are making a language of pictures to write with. And in that New York Times‘ thing, because there’s no colour, and because it’s so small, it’s even closer to it being a font for storytelling. And there’s no space, really, to be virtuoso with the drawing, it’s very much little symbols. I do find that interesting.

Xavier Guilbert : The economy of means is something that’s very present in your art. I’ve seen some pages from your sketchbooks, but it seems that from the start, you’re trying to tell something by using as little as possible.

Tom Gauld : Yes. Well, in the notebooks, they are small, and I do draw very small. Partly so I don’t get too caught up in making a beautiful drawing. Because it’s more like me trying to get something down as an idea, but that does go into the work. And even when I’m not forced to work on a small scale, I do like the idea of — having this very simple language. I was thinking about when I was a child, I really loved Lego, playing with Lego. And I still do, actually, with my kids and on my own (laugh). But the thing about Lego is that the parts, the blocks are so beautiful, they are such perfect little objects that you almost can’t go wrong. Whatever you make with Lego, is going to have a certain beauty, because the unit is so nice. And that’s sort of what I try and do now, more than ever before. With the story, almost come up with those little units, which I can put together to tell the story with.

Xavier Guilbert : So how much challenge was it to work on much bigger pieces ? I’m thinking about the cover for the New Yorker, which you did recently, but also dealing with the story for Kramers Ergot #7.

Tom Gauld : Well, with the Kramers thing, that was interesting, because it was such a big page, and I thought I wanted to do a story which felt like it would suit the big page. So I chose the story of Noah and his ark. You know, it’s a bit like what I was saying about the little bits of — the little units. And with that, actually, the scale is about the same scale that I do in normal comics. There’s just a lot more bits placed together. There’s either a lot more panels on the page, or the big panel has a lot more things in it. But it’s still the same language of pictures that I use for a tiny little comic. But that was fun, because that was so over the top, the page was so big, that was part of the fun of it. But technically, it was a bit of a nightmare, because it took so long to draw. The last page happens at night, and I — I have a way of drawing night which takes a lot of cross-hatching. And the drawing was the same size as the — slightly larger than the comic, so big. And I did spend a long time cross-hatching. In the end, I thought it did look nicer that it would have done if it had just been flat black. So I felt — I felt it was worth it at the end. The New Yorker cover was a difficult one. That was tricky, because I had this idea — it was for Thanksgiving, and I knew nothing really about American Thanksgiving. But after thinking about it a bit, I realized really the big themes of Thankgiving are Americans driving to get their families together from all over this big country, and eating too much. So I drew a big turkey strapped to the top of the car. But the scale of the cover did mean there was a bit more — I sort of had to spend some time figuring out how to make it work as a full cover of the New Yorker.

Xavier Guilbert : And there was the challenge of the colour, also. You use colour, but in a very parcimonious way, usually something like two-tone.

Tom Gauld : I don’t find colour that easy to do. I’m slightly colour-blind, so I can’t — I get mixed up about some colours. And I can’t imagine I’ll ever do a comic more than a few pages in colour, because I — I just find it really difficult. Unless I, as you were saying, limit myself to one or two or three colours. But that New Yorker cover, I really wanted to have the atmosphere of that time of year, and I felt it — I wanted it to have a certain warmth and a certain atmosphere. So I spent a long time figuring out those colours. And I think they were successful in the end, but it is something that stresses me out. I feel my natural instinct is to work in black and white, or very restrained colours.

Xavier Guilbert : You mentioned the influence of Edward Gorey, but there might be also the reminiscence of Punch and John Tenniel. The feeling I get from your work is that it’s so very British.

Tom Gauld : Yeah, I suppose there probably is. I mean, it goes back to what you asked me at the beginning, and I didn’t really answer, which was — you know, having influences from outside comics. And I do read a lot of comics and love a lot of artists and do get a lot of inspirations from there. But I think, for me anyway, the idea of making comics but not looking at any other art-form would be a bit silly. And I do enjoy reading a lot, so that definitely feeds into the work. And also the cartoons in Jetpack — a lot of them are about literature, because the newspaper section they’re in is the books and arts review. So quite often my cartoon — well, it always relates to a letter on the letters page, so I take that as my theme. Quite a lot of those are given a literary theme. Sometimes about something I know nothing about — so some of those cartoons, the references are stuff I’ve looked up on Wikipedia that day. It’s not all — not all stuff that I’d naturally read. But it’s interesting to be forced to look at new things.

Xavier Guilbert : There’s a great consistency there — and when I’m mentioning the Victorian angle, even when you’re dealing with science-fiction, it’s all in a very retro style. And that’s not unlike what Gorey did, as he was looking into the past.

Tom Gauld : Yeah. I think the sci-fi stuff I’m more interested in. I like that… funny idea of the past’s view of the future, rather than our view of the future, which doesn’t seem so interesting. I like this idea of — like, the book I’m working on at the moment is a science-fiction story, but it’s set in a sort of… almost in the world of the Stanley Kubrik film 2001, which is now thirteen years ago. But that idea of a forty years ago view of a future that is now.

Xavier Guilbert : When you use science-fiction in You’re all just jealous of my jetpack, except from the title strip itself, it’s often about putting out a chronology of how things evolve — and how much they remain the same. So it’s a comment on the kind of projections or expectations that we might have.

Tom Gauld : Yes, I think so. And also, the projections people make on the past. My work, which is set — you know, I’ve done comics set in a kind of medieval world, and I’ve done a comic called Hunter & Painter about some cavemen. In all of those, I think there is — one of the things that interest me is this idea that people in the past were more noble than us, and they were great knights who would fight for rights. They would speak in, like, Shakespearian dialog. And I think it probably wasn’t like that. I think people in the past were much closer to people now, and I think the same with the future. In a way, the stories I tell, quite often… yes, quite often, they’re just wearing these clothes of the future or the past, just to kind of make you look at quite ordinary things, a bit more, because they’d been made unusual. If that makes sense.

Xavier Guilbert : That’s something that’s very much at play in Goliath. It’s very mundane in what Goliath himself actually does, and at the same time, there’s some kind of irreverence towards the original material.

Tom Gauld : Yes, and I think with Goliath — one of the interesting things for me was : I knew whatever I was doing in my comic, the reader also knew the other story, the grand epic story of David slaying Goliath. So there was this sort of interesting thing, where my story is mundane, and nothing’s moving very quickly, but the reader knows in their mind that something dreadful is coming. And my hope was that, maybe, about halfway through of reading it, the reader — they don’t forget what’s coming, but they slightly — they almost play along with forgetting what’s happening. And then hopefully, the ending, which is the same as the original story, comes, maybe not quite as a surprise, but as something like a surprise, or as a shock that it comes — because it comes very suddenly.

Xavier Guilbert : It is very effective indeed. And when Goliath goes into the desert to launch his challenge for forty days, this is when suddenly the original story catches up with you. And you know it’s going to end up very badly for this character that you’ve learned to like. Which makes me think of the people who go see Titanic, and at some point hope for the ship not to sink. (laugh)

Tom Gauld : Yes. I thought about that Titanic analogy when I was making it. That James Cameron managed to make that film work, even with an ending that everybody knew. And that was the thing with my Goliath, because I didn’t want… I wanted my story to hit some of the — well, all of the same important moments as the Bible version of the story. Because in the Bible, it’s not — it’s only about two pages long, and there’s almost nothing about Goliath, apart from how tall he is, how much his armour weighs, and some lines of dialogue. And I wanted to fill in his story, but without — I didn’t want David to be a bad guy, or to be a cheat or to… I still wanted his victory to be a victory. And David doesn’t do anything other than was is stated in the original story. So I didn’t want to say that Goliath is a good guy, and David is a bad guy. It was more like — maybe he was just caught up in it.

Xavier Guilbert : Was it difficult to resist the temptation to have a good punchline here and there, since most of your work is in a very brief format ? Making sure that the overall story was more important than the little local moments ?

Tom Gauld : Well, with Goliath, I had the ending, which came from the Bible story. The beginning was quite — was a thing where I had to think about : how do I get him into this position ? I had this idea of him as an administrator and I have this middle section where he’s got to be challenging David, so the first half was me trying to figure out how realistic, how I could show realistically how he might get into this terrible position. Then I sort of had the beginning and the end, and I had quite a long middle of — of his forty days in the desert, where nothing really has to happen… because nothing really happens on his side of the story. In David’s camp, all sorts of things are happening, but nothing’s happening for Goliath. So I wrote a lot of scenes with Goliath in the– in fact, what I should say is : in the first draft, he didn’t have a shield-bearer. In the Bible version, he has a shield-bearer, and that was a real problem for me, because I didn’t want Goliath to have a companion, another man with him, who could share his burden. I wanted him to be lonely and alone and in a difficult position. But I also had a problem that this shield-bearer is mentioned in the original story, and I felt like a cheat not putting the shield-bearer in. And then one day I had this thought of, if I make the shield-bearer a boy who is small enough, then he is more of a burden to Goliath than a companion. And yet, it also gives Goliath somebody to talk to, so it isn’t just forty pages of him sitting alone. So that really helped, and once I had those two characters, I wrote a lot of scenes with them in the desert together, and that’s where quite a lot of the middle of that book came from. Just imagining how their life of boredom would be together. I did have some more — “funny-funny” stuff, some of which I took out, and some of which I left in there. But I didn’t want anything which distracted too much from the story.

Xavier Guilbert : How was Goliath received ? I remember reading your description of it in a TCJ interview : “One thing I realized while making the book is that we usually think of the story as “Boy vs Giant,” but it’s actually “Boy and Supremely Powerful Creator of the Entire Universe vs Giant,” and seen like that, you can’t help having a bit of sympathy for Goliath.”

Tom Gauld : Yes, that was part of my realising it would be an interesting story, it was realising that idea, and realising that Goliath is really the underdog and was bound to fail from the beginning. I didn’t — I worried that people would see it as a metaphor of Israel and Palestine in some way, because of David becoming the King of the Jews. But it wasn’t about that, and nobody took it as that, so that was a relief. Nobody seemed annoyed at all — I was sort of hoping that maybe some right-wing American Christians would burn it (laugh), and it would get lots of publicity and it would sell lots of copies. But that didn’t happen either. Everyone responded to it very nicely. I got some reviews from religious people, which were, I thought, very thoughtful and interested in it. And I was careful when I made it, that it wasn’t — it wasn’t saying “God is bad”, or “religious people are evil”, or “David was a cheat”, or anything like that. It was… you know, it was just looking at something from the other side. So it was received very well. I was happy about that.

Xavier Guilbert : Before we talk about your next project… do you still do the weekly cartoon in the Guardian, and the thing for the New York Times ?

Tom Gauld : I still do the New York Times thing and the Guardian cartoons. The Guardian cartoons are collecting up again, so in a year and a half, or two years, I’ll have enough for another collection like Jetpack. And I really enjoy those : it’s like a lovely little exercise every week to do one of those cartoons. It’s probably the thing that gives me most pleasure in my work — sitting down on Tuesdays and making one of those cartoons. It’s quite a tight deadline, so I’ve really only got 24 hours to make it, but, as I was saying, that restriction forces me to get on with things.

Xavier Guilbert : Have you decided on a title already ?

Tom Gauld : For the second book ? I don’t, no. One of the cartoons was called “Baking with Kafka.” Which had Franz Kafka making a cake, so that’s a possibility. But I don’t know. So yeah, I’m doing those, and I’m working very slowly on a new graphic novel. It’s a science-fiction story, but I don’t want to say too much about it. Hopefully, I’ll get it finished this year, so it will be out not too long. But I — I find longer narratives very difficult. It took me a long time to get to make Goliath. Longer than it should.

Xavier Guilbert : How long exactly ?

Tom Gauld : Well, it takes me a long time, because I spend a lot of my time making illustrations and cartoons. So I’m never working on these things full time. And I quite often put my longer projects aside for a while to work on something else. So I think it probably took… I can’t remember, but it was maybe four years I was working on Goliath.

Xavier Guilbert : Do you work on it also in your sketchbooks, or are the sketchbooks more for the cartoons ? From what I’ve seen, they seem more limited to the cartoons and something stuff that ends up as postcards. And very often, that’s interesting, they are very close to the end version, only smaller. Also, there’s a lot of schematics and lists, things that are very present in your work.

Tom Gauld : Well yes, I love lists and schematics, and all sorts of information graphics. And you know, that is kind of what a comic is : it’s a diagram of a story. I like making those things — and also in a way, I like the fact that the list, you can make comedy in a list. Having three things the same, and then one thing completely different. That, basically, is funny to people, if you can get that right, and then sort of making rhythms and breaking them. And I find that side of it interesting. I like comedy that doesn’t — that doesn’t shout at you that it’s comedy. That doesn’t force you to see that it’s funny. And that’s why I can find that the list or a diagram, that you don’t expect to be funny, can be more amusing. I don’t think anyone looks at my work and assumes it’s serious. But it’s not sort of screamingly funny — it’s not screaming about its funny-ness. And the sketchbooks are where I work these ideas out. With the Guardian one, particularly, I wouldn’t really move on from the sketchbook until I really felt an idea was…

Xavier Guilbert : Well-formed ?

Tom Gauld : Yes. And I find, you know… With the Guardian cartoon, I do want to do something surprising, and something maybe I haven’t done before or that people don’t expect. So I don’t draw those — I don’t work in the sketchbooks at my desk. I leave my studio, and I go out to a café and I work there. Even if I have a good idea, I don’t have the means to make a finished cartoon, so I might carry on a bit longer and find something which is more interesting than that idea, or better, or just more different. So for that reason, sketchbooks are good, because you’re not always racing towards making a finished piece of work. Goliath and the new book I’m working on, they do appear in the sketchbooks from time to time. Little ideas for designs of things, and there’s a few pages of Goliath. But for both Goliath and this new book, I tend to have a separate book with slightly more — a separate book which is entirely for that project.

Xavier Guilbert : Your work is not screamingly funny, but there’s a lot of irreverence. In a way, the title strip “You’re all just jealous of my jetpack” is a good example of looking at the hierarchy of genres and subgenres in literature, and giving it a little twist.

Tom Gauld : Yes, but also, I like with these things to not just — because I’m making a comment, and because they are in the Guardian newspaper in the literary pages, I’m usually making a comment — almost like an argument which is already happening, and that one is of literary people being snob about science-fiction writers. I like to come in and — in a way, I’m making fun of the literary writers, but also a lot of science-fiction writers don’t think that what is good about their work is jetpacks. You know, that’s a really dumb — that character, he’s a dumb science-fiction character. So it’s sort of teasing everybody, really, and kind of making fun of both sides.

Xavier Guilbert : Do you know how it’s received ?

Tom Gauld : Em, I think it goes down really well. I think it’s — I’ve been doing it for eight years now, and I think it’s a good match. I think I like that newspaper, and that section of the newspaper, even if it didn’t have my cartoon in, I would read. So I feel — I hope I can keep working for them for a while, because I think we’re a good match together. You know those cartoons, I don’t think you need to have terribly intelligent to enjoy them. You just have to be willing — to put a little bit of thought in. Sometimes. They’re not difficult, but some people — I know some people who don’t get them or aren’t interested in them, but I think that would be true of anywhere you were published. But that section helped me find the sort of readers who like what I do.

Xavier Guilbert : It does connect things that are not usually connected. I’m thinking about the game controller for the butler game — you have two worlds colliding.

Tom Gauld : I think, definitely, when sometimes I think that the subject is particularly high-brow, then it’s fun to put something like video games, which people at least presume to be low-brow. But it’s fun to put those two things together. And I like — I did one of the cartoons, which was a Brontë sisters video game, and I liked the fact that for me, there was a joke in there about Super Mario Brothers, and Brontë sisters. But I think that most readers of that section wouldn’t know much about video games, and maybe wouldn’t even see the Super Mario Brothers reference. But I like having all those things in there. That’s fun.

Xavier Guilbert : I’m wondering — as the Jetpack collection has been released, have you faced the other accusation — that is, of being too “high-brow” compared to what comics should be usually aiming at ?

Tom Gauld : I haven’t really heard anyone say that. I had a few cartoons which referenced slightly obscure literary things which were being discussed in the newspaper at the time, so made a bit more sense when accompanied by that discussion, than they would on their own, in the book. Most of these I edited out, but some I liked and left in the book and I hope they don’t seem too self-consciously highbrow, or snobbish.

Xavier Guilbert : Talking about high-brow and low-brow — as a cartoonist, where would you put yourself ? Are you on the sidelines, commenting stuff ? How do you see yourself ?

Tom Gauld : Well, most often, if there is a snob, in my cartoon, they are the butt of the jokes. That’s most often, and that’s what I think, that being a snob like that is worth.

Xavier Guilbert : What I also mean, is that you’re a cartoonist doing a cartoon in the literary section. So in a way, in the accepted hierarchy of things, you’re the low-brow in the most high-brow part of the newspaper.

Tom Gauld : Yeah, how do I see myself ? Hem, I like to… I suppose it is being a sort of jester. I wouldn’t say my cartoons are satire. I’m not… I’m just trying to entertain people. I just want to make everyone look a bit silly, or have — sometimes it’s more fun to tease pompous people than anyone else. So that’s why the snobs in my cartoons get made fun of. But for me — I don’t know, I don’t think too much about my place there. I just try and make something… entertaining.

Entretien par in April 2014