“I am Goliath of Gath, Champion of the Philistines.”
by Tom Gauld
Drawn and Quarterly
review by BK Munn
Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld has made a career in comics by playing with our ideas of class, scale, and history. His usually tiny, deadpan figures of cavemen, medieval knights, and robots spout terse, mundane observations using anachronistic language while muddling through some epic crisis made human by Gauld’s deft sense of humour and deceptively simple rendering. Gauld usually works in a very minimal style, with spare backgrounds and characters composed of basic geometric shapes that appear little more than stick figures, especially when reproduced in the tiny minicomics that he is known for (think Edward Gorey meets Johnny Hart’s B.C.).
Gauld’s most recent forays into North American comics publishing, 2009’s The Gigantic Robot and his contribution to 2008’s Kramers Ergot 7 (both from Buenaventura Press), are perfect examples of his method, an amalgamation of huge and tiny panels contrasting the construction of a massive object (giant robot, Noah’s Ark) with the ant-like, working-class humans who labour in the shadows. The sublime effect of both these works relied in part on the size of the books they appeared in, especially the table-sized Kramers, commenting as they do on the folly of most human endeavour and the randomness of life as perceived by the bit-players of history –suitable subject matter for someone labouring in the trade of cartooning, making tiny picture stories in the vanishing medium of print for an ever-shrinking audience.
Sad-Sack or Superman?
Goliath, Gauld’s latest, is his longest and most ambitious comic to date, and is something of a formal departure from his previous work in that it is comprised of a greater variety of panel sizes and features a more traditional presentation in terms of book size (6.5 x 9.75 inches). The book retells the Biblical story of David and Goliath from the giant Goliath’s point of view, with heart-wrenching and hilarious results. Goliath, an introverted, introspective infantryman in the Philistine army who prefers paperwork to patrol duty (“I’m not a champion. I’m the fifth-worst swordsman in my platoon.”), is recruited into a cheap propaganda effort by an ambitious officer, and ends up alone out in the desert, issuing a daily challenge to the Israelites, with the intention of vanquishing the army through fear and intimidation. Of course, we know how the story turns out, but the joy is in Gauld’s execution, and all the charming little details he puts into the telling, like Goliath’s relationship with his tiny shield-bearer and the minutiae of life in the Philistine camp. The whole thing is a wonder of pacing, with great beats and an exquisite deployment of cartooning tropes in the service of seriocomic tragedy.
As in his previous work, Gauld gets quite a bit of mileage out of contrast here, not just in terms of scale but also in terms of language and perception (comics vaunted melding of words and pictures). On the one hand, we have the insertion of actual Biblical language in the description of Goliath and the actual dialogue spoken in the giant’s challenge and, late in the book, David’s Old Testament speechifying when accepting the challenge, On the other hand, we have the bored, bewildered conversations between Goliath and his shield-bearer. Goliath comes to love the quiet and isolation of the desert, and his viewpoint becomes a sort of vocal manifestation for Gauld’s theme of perception, saying to his assistant, “It’s sort of beautiful, don’t you think?” To which the shield-bearer replies, “No. It’s not beautiful. It’s boring.” This Beckett-like exchange is played out over one of Gauld’s typical minimalist backgrounds, a flat brown horizon with three artfully arranged boulders. The shield-bearer, a typical Philistine, would rather be back at camp, with it’s bear-fights and gambling, instead of chucking pebbles down in the valley, while Goliath is enamored of his zen surroundings, slowly coming to terms with his own place in the universe. A fitting metaphor for our own individual struggles with art and daily life. Sort of beautiful, don’t you think?