High Low Comics on Baking With Kafka

“High-Low: D&Q: Tom Gauld's Baking With Kafka” / High Low Comics / Rob Clough / September 11, 2017

Baking With Kafka is another collection of Gauld's strips for The Guardian, and it's Gauld doing riffs and gags. I prefer his long-form work as it's drier and more restrained in its humor, but that's not to say that his pure gag work ins't entertaining as well. This collection of strips isn't so much a collection of strips about literary concerns in the vein of a Kate Beaton, but rather a series of meta-literary strips. That is, they are strips about writing, about the tedious business of publishing, about the cynical nature of advertising, about the way books become product, but most of all about books qua books. It pokes gentle fun at fantasy quests, literary cliches, romance tropes as well as the workshops aimed at writers desperate to get published.

All of this is done in Gauld's usual dry and deadpan manner, with a healthy dose of the silly and absurd heaped on top. Indeed, a lot of the jokes in the book are funny because Gauld pummels the reader with context, delivers the joke, and then goes back to context. Take "Niccolo Machiavelli's Plans For The Summer". In terms of drawing, this couldn't have taken more than an hour, because all it is is a calendar. The joke is conceptual, as the first Monday's plan is "Plot", the first Tuesday is "Scheme", the first Wednesday is "Connive", etc, all based on our conception of Machiavelli from his famous book The Prince. That's amusing, but after piling on for seven straight days, we get the more amusing "Dentist" on a Monday, and then ten days marked off for "Holidays!", and back to "Deceive", "Collude", etc, interrupted only once more with "Mum's birthday". It's a joke that would not have worked without a really good thesaurus and a strong conceptual grounding, because without the repetition of the expected bits, the other part of the joke wouldn't have landed.

Slightly less successful is "Magical Items For Fantasy Writers", where each magic item is described as doing something like "Dispels misgivings, gloom, bad advice and writer's block". Here, the joke is simply repeated from panel to panel, rather than building from panel to panel. The best strips incorporate visuals as a key element of their humor, and this is where Gauld's minimalism shines. Using simple silhouettes, he's able to evoke nearly any kind of situation. "Forgotten Chapters of Jane Austen's Emma" is a good example. The captions ("The Witch's Prophecy", "Bonaparte Attacks Hartfield", "Emma's Warrior Training" and "Wild West Adventure") are all funny on their own. But it's the drawings of silhouetted blimps bombing a British manor, of Emma learning to fight using an umbrella and Emma on horseback dodging arrows that help the joke to really land.

My favorite of Gauld's literary strips are those which feature books as anthropomorphic characters. There's one where a stodgy old literary novel refuses to let his daughter marry a fantasy novel named "Kingdom of Iron" ("He is epic and exciting and I love him!"). Instead, he's arranged for her to marry "pickwick.com", a "humorous modern update of a classic". The latter book is presented as wearing sunglasses and saying "Yo!". This is another conceptual strip, but the small visual flourishes are crucial in helping the joke to land, like the older book carrying a cane. Gauld also uses color not so much to emphasize his jokes, but simply as a way to fill negative space and force the reader's eye back to his figures.

Gauld is such a strong conceptual humorist that he barely needs illustrations for many of his strips, but this is sometimes unfortunate because his drawing is clear & efficient and creates clever juxtapositions to his text in his longer narratives. Indeed, some of Gauld's best work occurs in long, extended silent scenes where all the gags are visual. That's because this allows him to establish his themes in a more restrained and less obvious manner, without losing any of the humor. It's the difference between a long-form, personal work and a regular cartoon with a deadline. With the latter, Gauld has a lot of variations on particular themes that he alternates, most of which circle around the idea that books and characters are wonderful but publishing and all that goes with it is very silly indeed.

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