If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy, or just books in general, you might have come across the minimalist, elegant, and witty work of cartoonist Tom Gauld. Gauld is responsible for the series You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, and most recently, Baking with Kafka, a short collection of his cartoons drawn from places like The Guardian, the New Yorker, and The New York Times.
Gauld’s artwork appeals to me most as a book lover: each piece teases out jokes inherent to the science fiction or literature communities, equally decrying literary snobbery and pedantic fans. I recently chatted with Gauld about his art and where he finds his inspiration for his cartoons.
You've been cartooning for over a decade now. How did you fall into that line of work?
I've loved comics since I was small and always drew silly cartoons to amuse friends, but I thought that to make a living I'd need to be a graphic designer or something. In the end, I studied illustration because I loved drawing more than anything else, and it seemed like the best career to be allowed to draw all day. I really enjoy illustrating other people's text, but I've come to realize that using my own words and pictures to make jokes and tell stories is what really fascinated me.
Around 2002, I started illustrating regularly for The Guardian newspaper, so I showed the art director my self-published comics, and he asked me to fill in for Posy Simmonds (one of their regular cartoonists at the time) while she was on holiday. It was terrifying, but I did okay, and it has led to my making cartoons for them ever since.
Can you tell me how you settled on your art style, and what other artists have inspired you?
My art style was a real mess of competing inspirations until I started drawing comics, which was so hard that I was concentrating on the ideas and storytelling and forgot to try so hard with the art, so something simpler came together. I love William Heath Robinson's drawings, they are beautiful, but more importantly, beautifully clear. You can always “read” what's going on in his pictures, even when they are really complex. I'm much less interested in virtuoso drawing than art, which is used well to tell stories. For this reason, Edward Gorey, Chris Ware, and Roz Chast also inspire me.
I've been reading You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack for a couple of years now. What's impressed me is how you've been able to capture some really complex ideas in just a couple of panels. What is your approach to drafting up each comic?
All my work starts in my sketchbook where I can play around with an idea, trying things out in different ways and hopefully finding a simple, funny idea. Sometimes, it can take ages to find the right combination of words and images to convey an idea. My aim is for the text and image to be as minimal as possible, but for them to work together to make something bigger happen in the reader's mind. The way you lay things out on the page is a big part of making a good comic, so I spend time moving things around, in pencil sketches and on the computer, until I have a good composition. Then I'll use a lightbox to trace a final, ink version which I color in Photoshop.
Jetpack isn't a series of related comics, but they all follow similar themes about science fiction and books. How did you come up with this series?
Most of the cartoons in my books You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack and Baking with Kafka appeared originally in The Guardian’s Arts and Books section, and each cartoon is inspired by one of the articles in the previous week's issue. I like getting a theme and having to find my own way of looking at it; it sets me off in directions I might not have otherwise found. As you say, the individual cartoons aren't related, but together they build up to give a picture of how I see things.
A common theme in your comics is applying modern tech to more traditional stories: Airbnb reviews of literary locations, for example. What are you trying to convey by mashing these up?
I have a handful of tricks that I use to try and find interesting, funny ways of looking at subjects. One is to put something from today together with something from the past or future. I'm really just trying to be funny, but occasionally this technique throws up more thoughtful comparisons. I try to be careful though, because I hate when people (sometimes older satirical cartoonists) suggest that in the past we all spent our time reading great literature, but today youngsters do nothing but play Candy Crush ,which is just nonsense.
Also I like to draw robots and jetpacks because they are more fun (and easier) to draw than people and cars.
As someone who's written science fiction and is familiar with the community, I've found myself laughing at jokes that are very community-specific.
I'm glad to hear that. I like to read and watch science fiction, and find it often inspires me. I'm trying to have my cake and eat it: I want the jokes to be open enough that a general reader can enjoy them without feeling left out, but I also like to squeeze in things to amuse people who know that particular genre or artwork in detail.
Your cartoons seem to end up in a variety of places. I've seen them in The New Yorker, for Charles Yu's fantastic story Fable, and New Scientist. How do these collaborations work?
They all work differently, which is one of the things I enjoy about my career. For example, the brief from New Scientist is pretty much "Do whatever you want about science but make it interesting" which is wonderfully open, but puts pressure on me to look outwards, to seek out interesting aspects of science, and research them to a level where I can make jokes about them without embarrassing myself in front of scientists. Whereas, with an illustration like the one you mention, the writer has done most of the work and my job is to find something interesting within the work and bring it out visually.
From reading these comics, I'd guess that you're a regular reader. What's on your to-read list right now? Do you find that you get ideas as you're reading?
I do get ideas from the books I read, though rarely while I'm reading. Usually, ideas float up later and might kick around in my head, or in a notebook, for ages before working their way into a cartoon.
At the moment, I'm reading Palladian by Elisabeth Taylor (the author, not the actress), which is very good, and Jack Handey's collection of humor pieces What I'd say to the Martians, which is incredibly funny. I plan to reread Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, because I loved it so much the first time. I'm also looking forward to the new John le Carre and William Gibson books.
Baking with Kafka is now available from Drawn and Quarterly.