If cartooning is a minimalist art, Tom Gauld has perhaps pushed it to the maximal in the name of dry understatement.
In You’re Just Jealous of My Jetpack, a collection of essentially gag cartoons (and sometimes strips) from The Guardian’s Saturday Review section over the last near-decade, Gauld’s style approaches the crude, yet only deceptively so: the cartoonist, whose work here has but occasionally seen North American print, quietly packs a wealth of ideas and nimble wit into his line.
Differences in style notwithstanding, Gauld—who’s also cartooned for the The New York Times and The New Yorker—shares the same spectrum as Canadian sensation Kate Beaton: as in the latter’s Hark! A Vagrant webcomic and same-titled 2011 book, every page boasts amusement for the bookish and certainly the nerdy.
For example, there’s Gauld’s recurring fun with literary conventions, as when noting the convenience for children’s literary heroes to be orphans, if they’re to have adventures. He also repeatedly, acerbically deflates all manner of pretension. The perpetual nature of generational divide seems a favourite subject, with elders forever bemoaning the loss of the golden age that was, naturally, their own primes.
Elitism also receives Gauld’s subtle knife, the book’s very title coming from the science fiction genre’s admonishment to the sniffy literarti. Indeed, the fanciful is where fun is had in Gauldland, which features a variety of whimsical robots, creatures and concepts. The Institute of Neologisms looks like it would be a lark in which to work, as compared to the stultifying sturdiness of the Department of Everyday Language.
Regarding religion, Gauld’s unsparing bluntness practically emits a thud. Take a chart whose mutual inclusion of Nature, the Spaghetti Monster, God Almighty and Cthulhu underlines the essential interchangeability, suggesting you “simply close your eyes and stick a pin.” Then there are the Apocryphal Bible Stories, including Mary’s Undersea Adventure and Space Jesus! (the exclamation mark seems essential). As in his wonderful 2012 graphic novel Goliath, Gauld grants that the Bible provides some great myths, anyway.
All this is conveyed with a style that often reduces figures to black stick-men, and simple shapes augmented at most by basic lines. Canadian cartooning titan Seth (Palookaville) told Carousel magazine in 2007 that comics art is really about graphic design, with drawings becoming arranged symbols; using that logic, Gauld distils comics art to its essence.
Indeed, some examples seem to offer meta-commentary on his technique, including one of his few truly barbed cartoons: a demonstration of how variously arranging the symbols of dog, sausage and chair can express different perspectives on Thatcherism (the most apt being: “The dog is dead. The chair is broken. The sausage is cold”).
Perhaps most striking, however, are Gauld’s more innovative, interactive examples of his medium, functioning more like humour diagrams with helpful accompanying keys to break down the concepts pictured—as with the snooty dynamics of beach reading, which involve the observation and judgment of others’ beach reading.
Gauld clearly recognizes cartooning is finally just lines on a two-dimensional surface. His knack for recognizing the communicative power and potential in that simple notion, however, reflects his mastery.