If you spend much time online, you’ve likely already run into some of the strips featured in Baking with Kafka, perhaps circulated uncredited on various social platforms. Luckily for us, Drawn and Quarterly has collected 150 of Tom Gauld’s cartoons from The Guardian in a well-bound, compact hardcover—8” x 6” with beautifully illustrated endpapers—that is the perfect length for a lunchtime read.
Gauld’s one-shot comics will quickly draw snickers and smiles from readers with quips about modern technology, nostalgia for simpler times, and literary tropes. The majority of Gauld’s comics are odes to books as objects, literature, and writing; they’re sure to speak to a librarian’s heart. The book opens with a remembrance comic to ‘our dear, departed books’ who have met a variety of unfortunate fates, such as being dropped in the bath or mauled by a baby. Other comics act as visual listicles, featuring types of futuristic social classes, archetypal heroines, and modern murder methods, my favorite being ‘organic, locally-sourced cyanide.’
Given their previous publication in The Guardian, some cartoons rely heavily on their relevance to current events for their humor, evoking knowing nods and smiles from well-informed readers. Gauld’s artistic style is pleasantly straightforward, designed to make an instant impression for readers who may have only a few seconds to spare. This design makes them particularly pleasant to enjoy in print, which effectively causes a reader to slow down and linger on each page, giving ample time to appreciate what might otherwise be just a quick laugh while browsing through a social media feed.
Many of Gauld’s characters are merely silhouettes without names, though literary figures make frequent appearances, from Emily Dickinson to Jonathan Franzen to the titular Franz Kafka. This style allows Gauld to develop an ongoing joke of whether the silhouetted characters have names, or if they are part of an experimental style of storytelling “where nobody has a name and nothing ever happens.”
While the comics are primarily comedic and do not develop an ongoing plot, they do carry deeper underlying themes. Self-sabotage is a strong thematic element, with many of the strips focusing on the ways in which we alienate ourselves from new experiences, using avoidance and substitution as coping mechanisms when we’re faced with the unknown. Gauld’s characters are too often searching for guidance, whether it’s how to write, how to appreciate nature, or how to engage with history, rather than allowing themselves to actually have these experiences. In this way, his comics seem like a cautionary tale against over-preparation, and a call to live more genuinely.
Baking With Kafka seems to be written for an adult audience, though there is little in regards to content for librarians and their patrons to deem inappropriate. A strip called The Sex Scene shows two dark silhouettes in the throes of passion and several strips feature some form of weaponry, though no violence is depicted. Librarians seeking to shelve this in their teen collections may find that the humor doesn’t quite hit its target, but it’s not otherwise inappropriate. Fans of xkcd, Chris Ware, and mild existential dread are sure to enjoy Gauld’s wit in Baking With Kafka.