Tom Gauld’s new book, Baking with Kafka, is a collection of cartoons created for the letters page of the Guardian’s Saturday Review, as well as a handful of strips penned for the New York Times and the New Yorker. While the cartoons have literature as their theme they deal with more than just famous stories and characters – in fact, they investigate our very relationship with books and reading. Gauld’s subjects range from the book trade and publishing industry, through to the particulars of plot structure and character types, genre, film adaptations, the literary canon and the act of writing itself.
MS: The majority of the cartoons in the book have been published weekly on the letters page of the Guardian’s Saturday Review. You’ve been drawing for them for 12 years now – what’s your working relationship like? And what do they ask you to do?
TG: Nick Wroe, one of the editors there, sends me the theme for the cartoon on a Tuesday afternoon. Usually it’s the lead story from the week before. Yesterday I did one about the new John Le Carré book. Because I started it long ago with Roger Browning, who was the Art Director, the brief [then] was to make a cartoon which illustrated one of the letters. At the time, it was quite small and square and it was very much a one-panel gag cartoon which related to the letters.
And I guess, over the first few years, I asked for a bigger space and we got this kind of more strip-shaped thing, which helped. After a while, I realised that the best cartoons were not the ones that were really illustrations of the letters, but more [those] that were inspired by [them].
What’s nice about them giving me the theme to work with is that it does free me up, in a way. If they say ‘make a cartoon about Jane Austen’, then that kind of stops me having to think about anything else and it’s quite focused. I find that really helps.
MS: As with your comics, the Guardian cartoons are a blend of drawn illustration and text or speech. So do the ideas for them come to you as a written gag, or something pictorial that’s funny?
TG: Well, sometimes ideas just come as ‘an idea’, which isn’t either text or image and then I have to figure out how to use text and image to get it down in the notebook. And that’s why I guess sketchbooks are a big part of my technique – figuring out beforehand how it’s going to fit on the page, thinking around [the idea]. Once I get the theme from Nick I quite often go out to a cafe, usually with these slightly bigger sketchbooks.
I go out because the walking and the caffeine helps me think, but also because if I’m not in the studio I can’t make a ‘finished’ cartoon. The early thinking [is] where hopefully you discover an interesting way of looking at something. So, in a perfect world, by the time I go to bed on Tuesday night I’ve got the idea. Then when I come in on Wednesday I can draw it up and send it to them on Wednesday afternoon.
MS: A lot of people will associate your cartoons and comics with having great dialogue. Do you write a kind of script and then assemble the art around it, or does it just depend on the theme or approach you want to take?
TG: I think it depends. I quite like the idea that [with] the Guardian cartoon there are a lot of different ways of doing it. Sometimes I split it up into lots of panels; sometimes it’s what I think of as a more classic ‘Far Side’ cartoon where it’s one line of dialogue or one caption and a picture. Other times it’s a funny diagram, or whatever, so they’re all different.
But writing has been the thing I’ve learned doing that Guardian cartoon for 12 years. I used to very much be an illustrator who occasionally drew cartoons and now the writing part … I still feel I’m learning; the writing thing is something that has kind of come together in the background. But it’s one of the parts I really enjoy, particularly with the Guardian and the New Scientist [cartoon I do], is having that opportunity.
MS: Rather than a regular comic strip of three or four panels, you sometimes base a whole cartoon on a ‘visual list’ of objects on a theme. Are there certain visual techniques you use regularly?
TG: [I] have this sort of system if I’m stuck for a way to come up with a joke. I’ve got this list on the wall here which is my kind of ‘cheat sheet’ of ways of looking at something interestingly. And one of them is to imagine [the scenario] in the future or in the past. I did a cartoon recently – ‘Airbnb reviews of Castle Dracula’ – and taking something from the past and something from the future, generally, is a good way of making something funny.
I like to use technology mashed up with old stuff, but the thing I always worry [about] a little is I don’t want to be like one of those cartoonists where the joke is ‘oh in the past everyone was reading Proust and now all the children are playing Candy Crush’. I hate that trope and you see it in jokes quite a lot. I’ve got children and I know other people who are younger than me and I know that’s not true and it’s all more complicated than that. That’s the trope I try and avoid when I’m trying to put those together, because I do think that things are just different rather than worse.
MS: So is your list of different ways of approaching a particular scenario ongoing?
TG: It is. I have one on my phone, on Simple Note, with a list of things to help me when I get stuck. Now I think about it, I haven’t used it for a while but maybe I’ve internalised some of those systems.
MS: Are there any mechanisms that you know will work in the cartoons? For example, in a strip of, say, six things, do you always have the object featured in the bottom right of the strip as the funniest, like it’s the punchline?
TG:Yes, I think [the lists are] a bit like writing a comic but without the panels. And you do want a rhythm, so in the best case scenario you end with a really funny one. I think quite often [the list] starts normally and then goes more insane and then there’s a kind of point where you can do something else. I don’t think it should just be a kind of uphill with ‘sensible’ at one end and ‘crazy’ at the other; it’s nice if it has a bit of unexpected rhythm, different types of crazy.
MS: With the ‘literary festival’ cartoon, it seems to me that you’re enjoying the sounds of the words for their own sake?
TG: I had an idea that ‘yurt’ was funny and [so] I went to thesaurus.com and wrote down all of [the words]. Then it’s a case of sifting through and seeing which ones work. Something like ‘mollycroft’ is kind of funny, but it’s too specific and nobody’s going to know what that is.
MS: ‘Gazebo’ is possibly one of the funniest words anyway.
TG: Yes, with something like that, when I realise ‘tent’ words are funny then it [becomes] quite a technical thing of how to put them in [the cartoon] and try them in different orders until they work well. Which, I guess, is what writers do but it’s something I’ve learned for myself rather than being trained or taught.
MS: One subject you come back to a lot is technology and how that’s changing how we read. Where do you stand on that?
TG: I think the interesting thing with comics is you are attached to the page in a way that a novel isn’t. A novel can be published in a different font or format and in the end [this] strip of text broken into paragraphs can sort of be poured into anything – a Kindle – without losing, I would say, very [much]. Compared to a comic book, which is very tied to the object.
And there’s the fact that none of these e-readers are yet set up to show visuals as beautifully as the printed page. I’ve read comics on my iPad before and I find it a very unsatisfying experience. And I love that people are sharing my cartoons on the internet and thousands are seeing them. It’s lovely and it’s great, but I know that I look at a lot of cartoonists on Instagram and Twitter – and wouldn’t discover them any other way – but I’d always much rather want to get the book.
MS: Once you have your idea and your initial sketches, what happens next to take you to the artwork stage – how do you go from pencil to ink? And what scale are you working to on the Guardian cartoons?
TG: It’s not that much bigger than the printed thing. I work that scale in pencil, then scan the pencil [drawing] into the computer and move things around, just because it’s quite a small space and I want everything to be just right. And I have this font of my lettering so I can lay it out and change things.
Then, when that’s all right, I can ink it on the lightbox. Then I’m tracing off the lettering because, even though I use the font to lay it out, I like the idea that the same pen line is making the drawing and the writing. It’s not some text dropped on top of a picture, it all works in together. The other reason I don’t work huge and reduce it is I quite like the handmade-ness; that you can see the slight wobble in the lines and it looks like writing that someone could have neatly done with a pen, rather than some perfect thing.
MS: Did you work with anyone on making the lettering font?
TG: Drawn & Quarterly have made some fonts for translators to use when they do foreign editions because I just don’t have time to reletter everything. I did it once and it was a nightmare. But that one I just made myself using a free online [tool] because I never really use it as a font, I just use it for laying things out.
There are imperfections in it but I can sort that out when I draw the finished version. It really speeds things up and if I change my mind about the text I don’t have to go back to the start; it makes it easier to go back and forth when it’s a font rather than when it’s pencilled.
I try and get everything right on the inked version and then hopefully the only work on the computer is cleaning it up and paint-bucketing in the colours, so it’s all very simple and very flat. I scan it in and fiddle around with it so it’s pure black and white and then just fill things in with colour. The nice thing about that is [it] stops me getting obsessive on the computer and all I do is fix any actual mistakes.
I feel that once things are behind the screen they’re away from you, [the cartoon] is on a path to being finished. I like to try and get as much of it done in the sketchbook as I can before finishing. I’m quite colour-blind, so the computer is brilliant for colour. I don’t know what I’d have done if I’d actually have to mix up paint.
MS: Going back to the cartoons themselves, you use a range of different character types in your work – from knights to robots, even books. What do they enable you to do?
TG: I think they generalise things so it’s not about a ‘short, fat man’ and a ‘tall elegant woman’. If you move it into being two rabbits or whatever it kind of makes it unspecific so the joke can be more general, I suppose.
It also takes it a step away from what you’d expect. With the type of drawing I do for many cartoons, they really are ‘symbols’ for a person rather than a drawing of a person. And so once you’re into having your characters [as] symbols, then changing them into a rabbit or a talking book isn’t actually that much of a leap. And in a way, sometimes it doesn’t change things that much.
But also, it can take something which might be quite ordinary and allow you to look at it in a different way by having a robot doing it. Also, I’m not very good at drawing faces, or expressions! So robots or very simple stick-men can make it easier not to get caught up in that world of expressions and can help the deadpan aspect of the humour as well.
MS: Your characters might be simplified, but a lot of the expression you ‘do’ use comes from things as subtle as the eyebrows or a one-line mouth. When a lot of the humour depends on a specific facial expression, do you just draw them out until you get them exactly right?
TG Especially with things like facial expressions, when you’ve got as little going on, it does take a long time to get it right. I just work in pencil on that and I’m drawing it and rubbing it out, drawing it again and rubbing it out, until it’s pretty much right. Then I’ll ink it and, if that works, then in Photoshop I might move an eye just a tiny little [bit] to try and get the expression right.
I think it’s really important when I use [expressions] to [do] them right. I can spend a crazy amount of time. I remember seeing a video of Dick Bruna, he was talking about Miffy [the rabbit]. And he was showing how he … cut the eyes out and he’d move them and the mouth around on Miffy’s face. He’s talking about trying to get exactly the right expression. And I thought, ‘I didn’t realise Miffy ever had any expression!’ I thought Miffy always looked the same! Sometimes when I’m working on these things, I [think how I’m] really thinking carefully and everyone will say, ‘yes – it’s two dots and a line again’.