Tom Gauld interviewed on the Graphic Eye

Interview with Tom Gauld

Graphic Eye    |    Gavin Lees    |    January 11, 2012

A version of Super Mario Bros. featuring the Bronte sisters; rocks that speak Finnish; a tragedy at sea, told entirely in signal flags — all outpourings from the mind of British illustrator and cartoonist, Tom Gauld. Comprised of tiny, matchstick-like figures, his work is deceptively simple on the surface, as behind it lies some wickedly inventive humour or thought-provoking commentary on the nature of art. In addition to his weekly cartoons for The Guardian newspaper, Gauld has contributed comics and illustrations to several high-profile anthologies and gallery shows. He is about to release his first full-length graphic novel with Drawn & Quarterly in February.

In between his busy schedule and tight deadlines, Tom managed to find some time to chat to me over email about the new book and his work in general.

-- Gavin Lees

The main reason I wanted to talk to you was about your forthcoming book, Goliath. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

The comic tells the story of David and Goliath from Goliath's point of view. I had wanted to write a comic about a giant for a while but never got very far, but then I wrote a story for Sammy Harkham's Kramers Ergot 7 which took the story of Noah and retold it from the point of view from two of his sons. I was happy with the way that turned out and was thinking about doing something with another Bible story when I realised that the David and Golaith story could work well for this. In both of these I enjoyed playing around with a well-known story. I didn't change any of the details in either, but tried to weave my narrative around what was already there. (Actually I did change the conversation between David and Goliath a bit, but not in a way that changes the meaning.)

The David and Goliath story tells us very little about Goliath so I could make up an unexpected background for him, and spend quite a lot of time with him, before he meets David and gets killed. It was good having a very clear ending to the story to write towards.

Again, you are concerning yourself with something “big” — you mentioned the Noah’s Ark story, then your last book was The Gigantic Robot, and your artwork frequently features humans being dwarfed by structures and machinery. Is that a conscious decision? Where does this preoccupation come from?

I'm definitely interested in the visual contrast between big things and small things, and the narrative contrast between grand, heroic ideas, and small human ordinariness. I'm not quite sure where this comes from.

There are definitely things in common between Goliath and The Gigantic Robot: Goliath took quite a long time to make and part of the way through I had the idea for the Gigantic Robot. I was a bit stuck with Goliath so I thought I'd pause and do the Gigantic Robot (which was going to be a tiny 16 page mini-comic) but it grew as I worked on it and became a bigger thing which took a lot longer than I expected.

Why did you decide to make it fully-formed book, as opposed to a mini?

Well it just sort of happened. First I realised that it would work better if in each spread the text was on one page and the image on the other (in the first draft it was below the image on the same page) so that made the book 32 pages rather than 16. Then I thought it'd be good if, like the robot, the pages were quite big. Then, Alvin (Buenaventura, the publisher) and I thought why not go a bit crazy and make it into a chunky board book. I like that the production suited the grand, slightly silly bigness of the robot himself.

Is it easy for you, living in Britain, to work with North American publishers? How closely did you work with Drawn & Quarterly on Goliath?

It's been great working with D&Q, I'm really excited to be in there with so many great artists. As for the distance, I'd have liked to be able to pop by and see them in person occasionally, but it's generally been fine. I wanted to give them the chance to guide me on Goliath if they felt it was going wrong, so I drew all the pencils first and sent them to D&Q (actually I showed the first pencil draft to two friends, reworked it based around their comments, then sent it to D&Q,) they just said "great, carry on" so I did. Towards the end we worked together on the book design, colour and copy-editing/grammar but they always wanted to help me do what I wanted to do.

I first contacted D&Q five years ago about doing a book and then, there seemed very few options for British Comic publishers. But in those 5 years we've got Nobrow, Blank Slate, Landfill Editions, Self Made Hero and probably others I'm forgetting. It's very exciting.

It seems that a lot of your work — from Hunter and Painter, to your illustrations for The Guardian — also explores the nature of art. Do you think that comics, which seem to straddle the high- and low-brow, are a good vehicle for criticism?

My work for the Guardian appears in the arts review section so that's the main reason for their focus on the arts, but you're right, it is something I'm interested in. I think because I am an artist, I understand the world of an artist (more than the world of a lawyer or farmer) so it’s easier to find interesting things to say about it. Going back to the idea of contrasts, I think there's a fascinating (and funny) contrast between the near-perfection a work of art can achieve, and the messy imperfection everyday-ness of its creation and of the artist’s real life.

I think because comics can have a lightness about them they are a good way of looking at, criticising and making fun of anything, but High Art and it's occasional over-seriousness is a good topic to have fun with.

You strike me as a very literate cartoonist, given that you use literature as a touchstone for a lot of your humour. What makes this such a rich area to draw comedy from?

I read quite a lot, so naturally I get ideas related to what I'm reading, but also it's useful to have an established world into which I can introduce unexpected (and therefore funny) things or events. For example in a Guardian cartoon I might put Facebook into a Jane Austen world, or mix up Beckett and Tintin.

Do you have particular favourites that you like to bring into your work? Is it ever difficult to poke fun at writers you enjoy? I notice you use the Victorians and Romantics quite a lot.

I like it when Dickens pops in there as I like his work, but you can have fun playing with his world because its so recognisable.

I think it's easier to make fun of things I enjoy, it's gentle teasing rather than satire. I used my extensive Tom Waits experience to make this strip which sort of makes fun of him, but with love:

I'm more often playing off a general idea of a type of literature than the detailed reality of it. Quite often the strips I do in the Guardian are based on some general knowledge and a quick look at Wikipedia, rather than a close knowledge of the actual work. I made a Jane Austen-esque strip which also featured Facebook, but I have never read any Austen or used Facebook so it involved some googling to get the details.

Another aspect to writers like Dickens and Austen— heck, even Tom Waits — is that they often worked in the Gothic mode, dealing with the awe-inspiring nature of things bigger than ourselves — a tradition you seem to be following. Would you agree with that? Do you think comics can be part of a literary tradition?

Yes, I'm definitely interested in that: both genuinely and in making fun of it.

I suppose certain comics fit into certain literary traditions, though I'm a bit wary of pushing that idea too much. I think sometimes there can be a feeling that the best comics are those which are most similar to literature or visual art (of the gallery sort) whereas I think comics are best when they are good comics.

I notice that in your sketchbooks you’ll often riff on a topic — like the Bronte sisters, or pigs — over a whole page, then eventually we’ll see some of those ideas appear in your illustrations, fully formed. I was wondering if you could talk a little about your process of producing your Guardian illustrations — how much lead time you’ll have, how much art direction you’re given, and so on.

I've been working for the Guardian since about 2002, not long after I left college. Roger Browning the art director of the Review hired me to do a spot illustration; I've worked regularly for him since, and in 2005 took over the illustration on the letters page every Saturday. I am sent the "lead" letter (always about something in the world of the arts, most commonly books) and my image has to relate to that, quite quickly I realised that it was more successful when I made a cartoon commenting on the letter rather than an illustration accompanying the letter. I have a feeling that most people don't read the letters so I try and make something that stands up on its own but hopefully encourages the reader to look at the letter, and maybe even come back to the cartoon afterwards and see something more there.

I'm very lucky as this weekly job is one of my favourite things to do. The turnaround is quite tight: I get the letter on Tuesday afternoon and have to send the finished artwork on Wednesday afternoon. The sketchbook pages you mention are how I think of my ideas for this: just after I get the letter I leave the studio and go to a cafe where I suit and doodle until I have a good idea (or until the cafe closes), then I spend Wednesday morning drawing up the cartoon. The reason I go out is partly that I think a change of scene helps my ideas, but also that being away from my desk, computer and all the means of making a finished cartoon I'm not tempted to rush into making a finished idea: I might get a good idea but then keep doodling and think of something better or more unexpected.

As for art direction I'm given none at all, I don't even have to send a rough, which is brilliant. It's great that Roger trusts me to deliver something entertaining and I think it really frees me up to do better things.

All your work that I’ve seen has been rendered in pen with completely uniform line-weight, even for heavy shading. Is there a reason that you choose this medium? Would you ever consider moving to brushes, or even digital?

I use a uni-ball pen as I really like the uniform flat line it gives, I don't want my lines to be exciting and expressive, I want them to be attractive, but quite understated and deadpan. I think this suits my themes and the types of ideas I have. I play around with other media but have (so far anyway) always come back to this style. I feel that the crosshatching adds a certain human warmth without which the images might be a bit stark and typographic.

As for digital, I use the computer a lot at the start of a drawing (I scan in my pencil drawings and manipulate them a lot before printing them out to trace in ink on a lightbox) and at the end (cleaning up and colouring in Photoshop) but in the middle I still like to make an old fashioned ink (and whiteout) on paper drawing. I find it easier to feel how the image is working when it's there in front of me and not behind a screen. Having said that I'm not completely settled on my technique and try out little tweaks here and there, and I couldn't say 100% that I'd never get into making fully digital work one day.

Were there any strong artistic influences in your style? I see elements of Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti, but I know they’re not quite as popular in Britain.

I'm definitely influenced by those two, and also Jason and Edward Gorey. I also like William Heath Robinson, Jochen Gerner and Mat Brinkman.

I think the visuals in Goliath are influenced a bit by the books I've been reading to my children, particularly Strega Nona by Tomie de Paola.

I know you’re from Scotland originally. Does that background inform your work at all?

I'm not sure that the nation defines me, but I did grow up in quite isolated countryside (near Aberdeen) and I think the landscape, (bad) weather and quietness had an effect on me.

Is Scottish literature something that had an effect on you? To me, a lot of our best writers are concerned with art and the creative process, and also have a similarly dry, deadpan sense of humour.

I can see that, I think there's a specific sense of humour. I can't think of that many Scottish writers who I read, I like Alasdair Gray a lot though. And I was a big fan of 2000 A.D. in my teens which I think, in those days anyway, had quite a lot of Scottish artists and writers.

You mentioned that Goliath took a long time to create. Was that a result of your creative process being quite painstaking?

In part, and another minor reason was that I was busy having a family and doing commercial illustration work. The main reason though, was confidence: I haven't written anything as long as this and I found it hard, and I was putting pressure to do something really good for D&Q, so I took a long time to figure out what to do, then even when I got going I would lose faith in it and put it aside to do other things (things which gave more short term satisfaction). I'm happy with it now, but I definitely made heavy weather of it along the way.

Aside from your newspaper illustrations, are you working on anything new at the moment?

I'm finishing up a short sci-fi comic story and have a couple of shorts to make for anthologies but I haven't got a next project really. I've got various ideas but nothing definite. I think I may try to write something with a happy ending.

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