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The title of Tom Gauld‘s You’re All Just Jealous of My Jet Pack, a collection of the Goliath artist’s comic strips from The Guardian, comes from the punchline of one of his many gags about literature (you’ll be hard-pressed to find another collection with half as many jokes about Charles Dickens as this one). A small circle of dull-looking people identified with an arrow as “Proper Literature” are tut-tutting, while an astronaut with a rocket-shaped jet pack, shooting out fire, billowing black smoke and little star-shaped sparks, identified by arrow as “Science Fiction,” diagnoses their problem with him (a comic strip is, of course, worth a thousand of my words; see above).
If sci-fi’s great advantage over proper literature is its cool stuff, like jet packs, then comics’ great advantage over prose is that we can not only imagine jet packs, but we also get to see what they might like look like as filtered through the imagination of an artist with a unique and compelling style. Someone like, oh, say, Tom Gauld.
Gauld’s style is incredibly simple, abstracted down to such a point that it would fall somewhere to the right of stick figure and to the left of pictogram, but it’s hardly simplistic — his people generally have perfectly round spheres atop slightly out-of-shape conical torsos, with parentheses-shaped arcs forming boneless, noodley arms and legs. They appear quite often in extreme long-shot, and as silhouettes, as the precise details of the figures generally aren’t as important as what they are symbolizing.
In fact, their simplicity is quite often the source of the gag in the strip. For example, a strip titled “Book Cover Design Is Easy” is divided into eight panels, each featuring the same book with a differently colored cover, and the same, men’s room sign-simple figure standing in the same place on each cover, slightly modified only to correspond to the genre of book. So that the romance book has him holding a large daisy, the cookery book has him holding a frying pan, and so on.
There’s a great deal of visual acumen and solid, image-making craft on display in Gauld’s strips, however. The minimalist artwork not only keeps clutter out of the way of the jokes, allowing for maximum effect, but it forces the reader into the position of collaborator to an extent that more realistic, more detailed artwork can’t. One can’t really lazily read Gauld’s comics; they necessitate engagement, a dedicated level of participation that makes the reader more receptive to the jokes.
The downside is, of course, that when they fail to land, they crash loud and violently. But when they hit, which is a good 90-some percent of the time, they hit hard.
The jokes are mostly literary and urbane, but in such a playful way that while there’s a certain threshold of knowledge one needs, the very idea that someone is cracking jokes about Francis Bacon, the Bronte Sisters and Henry David Thoreau* is in and of itself funny (In a Venn diagram** comparing Gault’s sense of humor to that of Kate Beaton, I think you’ll find a noteworthy section of overlap).
Some are awfully obscure, like “An Ant Remembers the Making of ‘Un Chien Andalou,‘” and another that features an Old English word that necessitates an asterisk explaining it in the comic itself — and, again, that very obscurity is in itself amusing.
The vast majority of the humor and subject matter is, however, bookish, if not dealing with specific writers and genres, then in jokes about mediums and novels and scholarship and criticism and the history of the above and how changing times are affecting them. Plus jokes about robots, booze, time travel, jet packs and good old-fashioned slapstick.
It’s a pretty intoxicating blend of highbrow and lowbrow humor, really; the former cut without just enough of the latter to keep it from being pretentious or off-putting. If one likes reading and if one is a writer or has spent any time in academia, then there’s a lot of strips seemingly made especially for one (Many of these seem like they would be found on the bulletin boards and refrigerator doors in the staff rooms of college professors and librarians).
And if there’s one thing that comics as a medium excels at, it’s in mixing high and low together to come up with something unique. With Goliath, Gauld proved himself a great storyteller. With You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, he proves to be just as great a joke-teller.
* Plus lots of Shakespeare gags and, as I mentioned, a great deal of Dickens gags. Oh, and lots of jokes about being trapped in wells.
**There is also a pretty good Venn diagram joke in here.