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Mooncop Cartoonist Tom Gauld on Isolation, Nostalgia & Robot Cruelty

Comics Features Tom Gauld
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<i>Mooncop</i> Cartoonist Tom Gauld on Isolation, Nostalgia & Robot Cruelty

Tom Gauld is the book-lover’s cartoonist. His comics appear regularly in populist high-minded publications like The Guardian and New Scientist, where they focus on literary genres, both fiction and nonfiction. They’re silly, but in a serious manner, where a sandpaper dry delivery renders the absurd amusing. Gauld demonstrates a very British way of executing humor—the appearance of noisy attention-grabbing is strenuously avoided for more casual methods of engagement. At the same time, the comics swim in melancholy, even when they aim to make you giggle. Gauld’s simplified forms, which often appear in silhouette, have skinny arms and legs. If they have faces at all, he often defines those faces only with eyes and an occasional nose. This visual technique, along with the figures’ restrained body language, can make the characters seem down, and an atmosphere of failure pervades the strips (because failure is much funnier than success).

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Mooncop, a short graphic novel by Gauld released by Drawn & Quarterly, falls along these same lines, but the payoff is a slower build. It can still be read in a single sitting, but the focus on one isolated character builds empathy over time. Jokes still flourish (i.e., cops love donuts, even in the UK…and even on the moon), but they’re more situational and less gag-based. It’s also a pleasure to see Gauld flesh out a world, even if it’s a rather airless one devoid of humans—save one. So does the cartoonist live in a Victorian-era bubble? Would he be happy being the last man on the moon? And how does he really feel about robots? Read on and find out.

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Paste: Talk to me about the difference between crafting a stand-alone cartoon (whether or not it has several panels) and a longer narrative. Is the act of inspiration similar or not?

Tom Gauld: The two are very different and I think that I’m more naturally suited to making the short cartoons, which explains why I’m rather slow at making the longer books. The cartoons I make for The Guardian or New Scientist generally have between one and eight panels, and I think that for something of this size you can take just one nice little idea, execute it well and hopefully you have a successful cartoon. There isn’t space to cram in too much, or to overthink things, which is good as I have quite tight deadlines for these. For a longer story, I think you need either a bigger idea which can be explored more in-depth, or a series of interconnected ideas.

With my short cartoons I can take a chance on an idea and tell myself, if it falls flat I’ve got another chance next week, whereas you’ve got to commit a bit more to a longer story. Writing Mooncop (and Goliath, my other graphic novel) was much harder than making the shorter cartoons, but I do relish the bigger canvas.

Paste: So do you outline a lot for your longer works? How do you know if you have enough material to create a full graphic novel?

Gauld: Yes, I do a lot of outlining and planning and editing. I’m quite jealous of cartoonists who can set off on a story without a detailed plan. With Mooncop I was simultaneously making lots of sketches, designs and notes in my sketchbooks, while also typing dialogue and scenes. I just kept going till I had enough scenes to tell the story and give an atmospheric impression of the setting. I then drew the whole book in pencil and let a few people read it. After that I edited it some more, then drew the ink version. It’s quite a slow process, but it works for me.

As for the length of a graphic novel, Art Spiegelman wrote an interesting piece in a recent New Yorker (or maybe it was just on the website) about one-page graphic novels. He argued that the term could be used without a connection to a prose book idea of length. You might say that Mooncop is a graphic novella, but my aim was just to make something which worked as a story and not to worry too much about length.

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Mooncop Interior Art by Tom Gauld

Paste: Were you a funny kid? Or is joke-making something you grew into later?

Gauld: As a child, I was too shy to be much of a performer, but I did like making people laugh. I entertained my friends through school with funny drawings and cartoons. When I got to college I realized that my work tended to fall flat when I tried to be angsty, dark and serious, and was much more successful when it was funny. Now I’ve come to understand that being funny doesn’t mean that you can’t be dark or serious too.

Paste: Tell me how you came to comics.

Gauld: I went to college (Edinburgh College of Art) to study illustration and imagined I’d go on to illustrate other people’s text, but as I went on with my degree I became more and more inspired by comics. I’d read comics since I was little, but I began to discover the work of Chris Ware and Dan Clowes, which really inspired me. I also discovered Edward Gorey, whose work, while not quite being comics, was perhaps most inspiring in that it showed me that words and pictures could be used to tell stories to adults in all sorts of ways. I was much more comfortable with the picture-making side of comics than the words, but by the end of my time at Edinburgh—despite having made very few comics and published nothing—I was convinced that I wanted to do more and went to do a two-year MA at the Royal College of Art, where I concentrated on making stories. I was lucky to find supportive tutors and a good friend named Simone Lia who also wanted to make comics. We published a comic together while at college and set up a small publishing house (Cabanon Press) together to publish more. After graduating we shared a studio, published more comics and I began getting commissioned to do comics for Timeout London and The Guardian. I still divide my time between illustration and comics, and enjoy both in different ways.

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Mooncop Interior Art by Tom Gauld

Paste: One of the things I feel that is particularly distinctive about your work is your word balloon shape and placement. It reminds me of early 20th century (and earlier!) newspaper strips. How did you develop that style? How much is it instinctive versus trial-and-error?

Gauld: That’s an interesting observation and I think probably accurate. I like the idea that comics are diagrams of a story, and the way those old comics are set out really appeals to me. In general, I don’t like comics where every panel is exploding with energy and the perspective is zooming around all over the place.

In my own comics, I’ve more or less dispensed with perspective and gone instead for a flat style a bit more like a theater stage, with characters and props on a flat stage. It makes it much easier to design the page in a pleasing way, and hopefully the simplicity draws the reader into the smaller details and changes in the panels. For me, every part of the page should work together to tell the story: I want the drawing, the balloons, the lettering, the panels to all feel like they were drawn by the same hand—that they come from the same place.

Stylistically, I went down a lot of different routes while I was at college, but by the time I came to make my first professional illustrations and publish my first comics, I’d pretty much settled on my style. It grew out of wanting to tell stories with a minimal, clear style, which could be easily read, but which also had some handmade human warmth to it.

Paste: What’s your work environment like? My impression is that you work at an old-school copy desk, on a high stool, with a very fine-pointed pen and almost nothing else in your working space. Probably not accurate.

Gauld: I wish it was! I share a studio with other illustrators and designers, and have a corner with a nice big window, a big messy desk with a drawing end and a computer end, a chair, bookshelves and a big old-fashioned lightbox (which I use to trace my ink drawings from the pencil roughs). All the furniture was there when I moved in ten years ago, or I found on the street. Sometimes I look around and think I ought to go out and treat myself to a new desk and chair, but then I get busy with work and forget. I shouldn’t be too down on it, the building is a very nice old factory, the view from my window is pleasant and my studio mates are lovely people.

Paste: You seem to have a great fondness for the past, but not entirely in a Seth-y (i.e., straightforward, wish you had a time machine) kind of way. Would you say you’re amused by the act of nostalgia? Are you nostalgic for anything?.

Gauld: You’re right, I do have a fondness for the past. I think we’re all prone to nostalgia, but you’ve got to keep it under control. I think it’s certainly a mistake to think that there was ever a golden age when things were better for everyone.

I like to set my comics in other places like the past, or the future or imaginary worlds, as I find it interesting to put ordinary people, feelings, events into these worlds. Also they are more fun to draw. I admire Seth’s work very much, and I can see now that there is something of his work in the aging buildings I put on the moon in Mooncop.

I’d love to have a time machine, but I think I’d only like to visit the past. I did hear an academic on the radio saying that the rot set in when farming was invented, and that hunter gatherers had a much more equal and fair society. I’d like to go back and see that.

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Mooncop Interior Art by Tom Gauld

Paste: What’s the place of technology in your own life?

Gauld: I like technology and computers. My Dad was an early adopter and hobby programmer of home computers, so I’ve always been around them. But recently I’ve been feeling, as I think many people around me are, that my iMac and iPhone are in my life just a bit more than they ought to be. I need to use a computer for my work (I scan, clean up, tweak and color all my work in Photoshop before it’s printed), but sometimes I feel it is like a siren call saying, I can help with that. Scan that drawing in and we’ll fix it together. I think I need to resist doing too much on the computer. I try to work out ideas in sketchbook and to make drawings work on paper before I put them into the computer, where they’re behind glass and sort of slipping away from my clumsy human control into a clean, neat digital file.

Paste: Are you a romantic?

Gauld: I’m not completely unromantic, but I think on a scale I’m probably more at the realist end. In art I’m really drawn to things where you feel the emotion (romance?) is there, but perhaps a bit below the surface.

Paste: Are you a fan of Futurama? The way it shows the moon (an outdated vision of the future, basically) is pretty similar.

Gauld: I am a big Futurama fan and thought I’d seen all the episodes, though the moon episodes had slipped my mind till somebody else mentioned them to me recently. It’s more than possible they were in the back of my mind somewhere. I like the idea that people in the far future (or for that matter, past) probably won’t all be grand, noble, heroes, but ordinary flawed people like us, and I think Futurama suggests that too.

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Mooncop Interior Art by Tom Gauld

Paste: It also seems like computers are old enough now that there’s rather a lot of nostalgia even for them (see, for example, the TV show Halt and Catch Fire or the rise of web brutalism as an aesthetic). Is it weird to have those kinds of feelings for machines?

Gauld: I think we can’t help projecting feelings on to all sorts of unsuitable things. That’s why I like doing comics with robots in them. Robots (at least the sort I put in my comics) are in a funny and sad no-man’s-land between thinking beings and disposable objects. I saw a video recently of one of those Boston Dynamics-style humanoid robots in which a (human) man came up to the robot and pushed it over. I think it was to show that the robot could balance itself or get up on its own, but is seemed so nasty. The man seemed like such a bully, even though I knew he was just testing a gyroscope and a balance algorithm or whatever.

Paste: Do you think you have a different relationship to the past as a UK denizen? Everything (well, not everything, but lots of things) is so old there. It seems like you live alongside the past in a different way from Americans.

Gauld: I’m not sure that it’s that fundamentally different. But I certainly remember bicycling with friends to a ruined castle and a Neolithic stone circle when I was a boy and thinking about the people who had been there before. Now I live in London, I love to read books set in London’s past knowing that I’ve walked along the same streets that the characters (and presumably authors too) have walked along.

I dropped out of history class very early in school, which I sort of regret now, but I think it’s maybe given me an amateur’s enthusiasm for history.

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Mooncop Interior Art by Tom Gauld

Paste: Do you prefer to be on your own (or with a small group of people) rather than in a dense, urban environment? There’s a lot of metaphorical room to breathe in your comics, which is something I think you share with Ware and Clowes and Gorey, but take even further.

Gauld: I grew up in the countryside near Aberdeen in Scotland. It wasn’t very remote, but our nearest neighbors were half a mile away. So I had a reasonable amount of quiet space and nature in my childhood. Now I live in London so it’s quite the opposite, but I’m very happy here too.

As for the comics, I think you’re quite right. I’m not completely sure where that came from. Maybe some of that got into me as a child and stayed. I do like the idea that by leaving spaces, gaps and pauses you can ask the reader to fill in the gaps themselves. Persuading the reader to imagine a character’s feelings can be more powerful than simply telling them how the character feels.

Paste: Do you think you’d be happy or unhappy in the mooncop’s situation? How much human contact do you need to feel fulfilled?

Gauld: I think I’d feel similarly to the way he does, which I think is increasingly dissatisfied, but not desperately unhappy. One of my simplest writing methods is to think how I’d feel, or behave in a situation, even if that situation is absurd or fantastical.

I’m very happy in my own company for stretches, but I also need to see people from time to time. I have a wife and kids now, and that’s definitely changed my outlook on how much time I ought to spend wrapped up in my own little world.

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