The Daily Heller: Tom Gauld’s “The First of the Mohicans” and Many, Many More Paeans to Books and Authors

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This has to be my longest headline for The Daily Heller. Tom Gauld’s hilariously funny Revenge of the Librarians (Drawn & Quarterly) deserves the accolade and more hurrahs for comic acuity, especially when it comes to nailing the insecurities and conventions of publishers and authors.

Born in 1976 and raised in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Gauld is a cartoonist, illustrator and regular contributor to The Guardian (where these comics originated), The New Yorker and New Scientist. He is artist/author of Department of Mind-Blowing Theories, Baking With Kafka, Mooncop, You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack and Goliath.

With a special fondness for librarians, without whom publishers and authors could not survive, he focuses on the fun and foibles of the field. While currently in the States on a book tour, he told me how these over 100 comics came to be.

Do you have a professional, scholarly or simply personal relationship to books?
It started out as a purely personal interest in reading but, because these cartoons appear every week in the “Books” section of The Guardian newspaper, it’s become a somewhat professional thing, too. I think without the weekly commission I’d still make some cartoons about books, but probably not on a weekly basis.

Why are librarians the target of your acerbic yet sympathetic humor?
My parents were big library users and drove me and my brother from our house in the countryside in Scotland to the local library every week, and that’s where I discovered many amazing authors, so I’ve always had a soft spot for libraries and librarians. In the UK our dismal government has been closing libraries and I wanted to make a cartoon supporting librarians. It seemed too insipid and obvious to make a cartoon which just said “libraries are good,” so I did the opposite and made a cartoon about dangerous librarians rising up and taking over the world. That’s where the title for the book comes from.

I am in sync with many of your situations, like the one writer looking blankly out her window. You comically cite many other examples of procrastination—are you a procrastinator?
The funny thing about trying to come up with ideas for cartoons is that it’s hard to tell where procrastination ends and work begins. Taking a walk, sitting in coffee shops and doodling in my sketchbooks all help me make cartoons, but from the outside look a lot like idleness. Luckily, having a weekly deadline stops me over-procrastinating or getting obsessively perfectionist.

Having just published a memoir, I can relate to “Marlon,” the bad dog cartoon. Did you make a long list of the foibles and folly of all memoir authors and all reader complaints?
I make a lot of lists and spider diagrams to come up with ideas. Generally, funny is things going wrong, so I tend to imagine situations, then think about how they could go awry. Memoirists upsetting the real-life people around them in one way or another has come up a few times.

Your situations are so true that you must have gone through some of them, if not all of them, yourself. Am I wrong?
A few have begun as real things that I’ve experienced but then exaggerated or made worse. The one that is fully taken from real life is titled “My bedtime reading routine,” which documents preparations to read in bed but ends with the book open but unread and me “scrolling through social media for 45 minutes.” I did exactly that one night and immediately realized that it would make a relatable cartoon. I think that putting it in a cartoon helped me avoid doing this (mostly).

You seem to have the most fun with the punning of famous book titles. My fave is “The First of the Mohicans.” What are your A-list repackaged books?
I enjoy making these groups of pun-titled books. I think just one book wouldn’t be enough of a joke so I always do four or five on a theme. Sometimes I’ll come up with a few quite easily but then agonize over a fourth or fifth to complete the set. I was particularly happy when I created a set of “classic novels with added positivity” (“Merriment on the Orient Express,” etc.) and at the last minute came up with “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spa” and drew George Smiley in a hot tub (I’m a big Le Carre fan).

Where have these cartoons appeared before this book, and how long have you been at it?
I’ve been doing these for The Guardian Review for 17 years. When I began, I had only published a few Xeroxed zines, so I had to learn on the job. I feel I’ve been very lucky that The Guardian has given me this space, allowed me to improve and forgiven the occasional mis-steps and experiments. This is my third collection of book cartoons (after You’re all just jealous of my jet pack and Baking with Kafka) and I think it’s my best.

There is such good-natured revenge in all of these funny truisms. Have you been traumatized by books or the book business?
I’ve actually been very lucky with all my publishers, and pretty much all the bad things that happen in the cartoons are me imagining the exact opposite of my personal experience. I’ve been touring the book recently and my publisher and editor Tom Devlin has been driving me around and looking after me, so I feel a bit bad when I stand up in front of him at the events and read cartoons featuring mercenary, philistine publishers. As I say, failure is funny but I hope my love of books and book people comes across in the cartoons and they feel more like teasing from a friend than attacks.

They do. However, are you done with books? What’s next? I can’t get enough of these.
I fly back to the UK on Sunday night and have to file a book cartoon by Wednesday, so as I travel around, I’m looking for ideas and making notes. I’ll keep making theses cartoons and hopefully have enough for a new book in three years. My next project will be a new graphic novel, but I’m not sure of the details yet.

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