Laugh with cartoonist Tom Gauld’s « Revenge of the Librarians »
For the past 17 years, Tom Gauld has quietly joked about books, bringing contentment to himself and his readers.
Each week, his work appears in the Books section of The Guardian, the British institution that bills itself as the journal for progressive thinkers. Gauld therefore often thinks of books, their authors, their readers and more. Each week he strikes a balance between silliness and seriousness, ingenuity and ease of access for the reader, and it’s fun to note who he is talking to. Jane Austen, for example, may have been dead for 205 years, but she’s fair game for Tom Gauld.
Chatting during a visit to Toronto to promote « Revenge of the Librarian, » his latest four-year collection of cartoons, says Gauld.
“Even if you’ve never read a Jane Austen novel, you’ll know the basics and what happens in one,” he says. « A lot of my cartoons are about the difference between what’s in the cartoon and the reader’s idea of that thing. It confuses their expectations.
Gauld is an interesting character but, it must be said, he probably wouldn’t confuse the expectations of anyone who saw his work. With mild manners and a soft English accent that sometimes betrays his early years in Scotland, he is a terribly kind man with a gentle spirit who is never cruel, and he avoids things that might affect his peace of mind, like social media.
He calls his approach to his work “soft subversion,” which is easily found in “Revenge of the Librarians,” and the other four cartoon collections and two original graphic novels from Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly.
In one cartoon, for example, there’s a winter scene of building snowmen, plus a novelist sitting next to it because he wants to create a detailed backstory for his snowman first. Another comic shows a publisher’s desk with a fancy new computer ready to create the ideal bestseller; the result is, of course, a word salad of modern trends and nonsense. Or try the hilarious and pitch-perfect cartoon titled « Waiting for Godot to join the Zoom meeting ». Sometimes we also get little anthropomorphic books, walking around on little legs to comment on something in the edit. This is delicious.
Gauld is determined to make comics that appeal to everyone, especially people who don’t read comics. Like any draftsman, he will tackle pretension, and for that, his work is in its place. « Sometimes the book pages in the Guardian can be a bit nerd, » he laughs. « I like to treat literary fiction as a genre that can be made fun of – sometimes we can look at it in a different way. » Let’s look for confirmation in the cartoon called « Halloween costumes for pretentious children », in particular the child dressed as « the dead tree that gives no shelter against TS Eliot’s » The Wasteland « . Absolute brilliance.
The material is accessible, though Gauld is happy when people get an obscure reference, and he likes to include nods to his own interests, such as science fiction. « I think I’m still a bit of the kid I used to be, spending a lot of time lying quietly on the floor in the corner of the room, drawing, while the world revolved around me, » he says.
“Every week I have this space in the Guardian that I see as a little hole that I have to fill with something interesting. This is my 17th year doing it so I always try not to repeat myself and finding something interesting to put in that hole. Sometimes it’s a traditional play that’s set in the book world and sometimes it’s not even a joke. It’s a structure I try to make it as fun as possible.
Reflecting on this weekly task and how inspiration can come – unsurprisingly Gauld spends a lot of time in cafes, drinking in the hubbub and lost in thought – he says he has « a lovely job ». He lives in North London with his wife and two teenage daughters, and likes to separate work and home, so he goes to a studio he shares with two other artists. Close friends tell him he should have more hobbies, but he’s happier with a sketchbook.
He tried and tried again to get into The Guardian: in 2002, he took his portfolio and introduced himself to the art director in the parking lot. Initially unsuccessful, he was soon hired for some illustrations, then a replacement for established cartoonist Posy Simmonds, whom Gauld described as « utterly terrifying ». This has progressed into the current gig, which has made him a household name, although that depends on the household. Being « famous » for the comic, he refers to graphic novelist Daniel Clowes, is like being a famous badminton player.
That doesn’t mean he lacks ambition. Gauld is about to embark on a new graphic novel following his previous works, « Mooncop » and « Goliath ». These longer books bring their own challenges, of course, and Gauld considers this more difficult than doing weekly cartoons. « I want to build pages, not spend two years wondering if it’s a good idea. »
It’s a good idea. His previous books are as strong as his cartoons, although their storytelling is rather slow. « Goliath » is the story of a giant who has to fight but would prefer a desk job, while « Mooncop » shows us a lonely existence on the Moon. Both are deeply touching and thought provoking, long after the book is closed. They are silent books, just like their creator, and the world deserves more.
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