Interview with Tom Gauld
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but as any writer would tell you, it doesn’t stand a chance against the three-eyed monster other known as writer’s block. Tom Gauld recently illustrated this cover of Stories edited by Neil Gaiman. What a perfect combination of dark and humor.
You may recognize Gauld from his wry commentary and Giacometti-like characters that illuminate the Sunday Review of The Guardian. He also published several books through his own printing press, Cabanon Press and has worked with The Walrus, New York Times, The New Yorker, The Believer and the UK design blog, It’s Nice That.
I’m fortunate he let me shuttle my questions across the pond and carefully returned them:
How did you get involved with designing the cover for Neil Gaiman’s Stories?
A few years ago I made this image for a book called ‘Beasts’ edited by Jacob Covey. I was happy with the image and put it in my portfolio where I suppose somebody at the publisher saw it. They got in touch and when they asked if they could reuse it for the cover, I thought it was a better idea to do a new version for them and they agreed. I wasn’t that sure about the ‘big pen idea’ which came from the publisher but in the end it worked out quite well.
You’ve illustrated classics like the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Three Musketeers. Do you think literature is too serious with more focus on words than imagery or are most comics not literate enough?
In both of those cases, I do make fun of ’serious’ ideas and ‘high’ art but the humour comes from a love of these things. I think most literature works perfectly well without illustrations and I have seen some truly awful images put on the cover (used as illustrations) of great books. As for comics, I’m more often frustrated by comics which are too wordy than too visual. I think the balance between words and pictures is very important in a comic and though the ratio doesn’t always have to be the same, my heart sinks when I see a page which is filled with writing.
Using a pen reproduces well graphically, but it’s also a tool that’s interchangeable between writing and drawing. Is this why it’s your weapon of choice? Also, which comes to you first, the picture or the caption?
Yes, I think both of these are good reasons. I also like the unvarying line from a pen. I don’t want my linework to be energetic or expressive. I want it to be constant, flat and almost unnoticeable. Mostly what comes first is an idea, which is neither words or pictures. Then I have to pin the idea down before I forget it, so I usually doodle in my sketchbook and what I doodle will be a mixture of words and pictures. Having said this, I do find that words are more ‘definite’, less nuanced and more edit-able than pictures so for a longer cartoon I may use the text to structure and pace the whole piece, but I’ll always be thinking about the visual side.
It seems that whether you depict cavemen or robots, no matter how primitive or modern, they all still grapple with the same issues. Do you think it’s important to satirize progress in your work?
Good question. I’m not sure that I’m satirizing progress, or at least I’m not against progress. I am an optimist and though I’d like to travel back to the past for a visit, I still think that most of us would be worse off if we lived there. Sometimes I’m satirizing the idea that the past was some sort of ‘golden age’ where we were simpler but nobler and wiser. Also, I do think that people are all quite similar whether they are artists, astronauts or soldiers and whether they live now, in the past or in the future.
I noticed you use a lot of graphs and diagrams to make absurd situations even more mundane. Do you intentionally use the objective language of information graphics to add humor?
In a way comics are information graphics so it’s not much of a jump. Also, I often find things funnier if they are presented in a serious (or mock-serious) way so I try to make my images quite clear, flat and unexpressive and hopefully this makes the humour a bit more of a surprise.