The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Q & A with Tom Gauld


Tom Gauld is a cartoonist and illustrator based in London. I first came across his work a few years ago in a book called Both published by Bloomsbury in 2003. Both (sadly now out of print) collected comics by Tom and Simone Lia originally self-published as First and Second under their imprint Cabanon Press.

Since then Tom’s book cover illustrations and literary cartoons have featured regularly here and on The Accidental Optimist. His work is funny (oh so funny) — silly even — but it combines pathos with the farcical. His heroes are unlikely or put-upon; his robots lonely, mundane or murderous; detectives are clueless; scientists baffled. Everyone (including the robots), it seems, would rather have stayed at home with a cup of tea and a good book. There is a gentle subversiveness to it all, although it is never mean-spirited. I hesitate to describe it as Pythonesque, but it is in a way. Tom’s machines all look as if they go ‘ping’. Other references include superheroes (less than you might think), adventure serials, mysteries, literary fiction, 1970’s science-fiction, Stanley Kubrick, fairy tales, and old Open University TV shows. It’s eccentric to say the least, but wonderful nonetheless.

Tom and I corresponded by email.

When did you first start drawing cartoons?

I’ve drawn for as long as I can remember and I drew a lot of cartoons when I was at school, but I suppose it was when I was studying at Edinburgh College of Art (around 1998) that I really began drawing comics and cartoons seriously.

Why did you start self-publishing your work?

I first self-published a comic called  First with my friend Simone Lia in 2001 when we were studying at the Royal college of Art in London. I’d say we did it partly because we didn’t know anyone else who would publish it, but also because I was interested in the business of designing and hand making the whole object. I had bought a self-published comic called OAF by Mat Brinkman a few years earlier and it inspired me to self-publish: it was small and hand-made and quite rough, but really unique and lovely. I suppose I’d seen self-published stuff before, but OAF really excited me.

Was the design of your books always important to you?

Yes, definitely. I think with any book, but particularly with a picture book of some kind, the experience for the reader begins before they even pick up the book. So I try to make every aspect of my own books contribute towards the story or idea. When I started, I was as much interested in designing, making and publishing a book as I was in the actual stories within.

Is Cabanon Press on permanent hiatus?

I wouldn’t want to say that Simone and I won’t ever start it up again. But we don’t have any plans to do anything with it for the moment. I’m still self-publishing things, but for Cabanon to work I think it has to be something Simone and I do together and we’re too busy with other things.

Where are your cartoons published now?

I do a weekly cartoon for The Guardian which appears in the (art and books) Review every Saturday, some of these cartoons also appear in The Believer’s comics section. I do something to accompany the The New York Times “Riff” essay every Sunday but that’s usually more an illustration than a cartoon. I also regularly put my work on my Flickr photostream.

Briefly, could you describe your working process?

I sit and think and doodle in my sketchbook until I have a good idea. Then I’ll make rough pencil sketches on copier paper till I have things worked out visually. Then I hone these sketches on paper and in photoshop till I have a rough version of the image which I can send to anyone who needs to approve it. Then I will print out the image and use a lightbox to trace an ink version which I crosshatch then scan back into the computer where I can clean it up, tweak bits and add any colour. I love using the computer but I try to stay away from it till I’ve done most of the thinking for an idea, looked at it from all sides, because I feel that once the computer is involved things are on an inevitable path to being finished. Whereas in my sketchbook the possibilities are endless.

How is illustrating a book cover different from your weekly cartoons?

It’s very different. I feel more pressure doing a book cover than almost anything else, I think “This author has probably spent years writing this book: I mustn’t mess it all up with a crap cover”. So I have to try and find a way to react to the book and make something which is suitable, but is also strong and interesting in its own way.

Are you planning any more full-length comics?

My forthcoming book Goliath is really the first time I’ve written a book-length narrative (albeit quite a short book) and I found it much harder than writing short pieces, but I’m happy with the result now. I will probably write another one, but not straight away. I’ve got a couple of shortish things I want to do, then after that I don’t know what I’ll do.

Where do you look for inspiration, and who are some of your cartooning heroes?

I listen to the radio, watch TV and films, go to museums and most of all read.

Cartooning heroes: William Heath-Robinson, Gary Larson, Roz Chast, Richard McGuire, Ben Katchor, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Jochen Gerner.

How has Edward Gorey influenced your work?

I’m a big fan of Edward Gorey. I discovered his work when I was at college and immediately wanted to seek out everything he’d ever produced. I like that what he makes is unclassifiable: he makes picture books for adults which aren’t comics, many are self-published but they’re beautifully produced. I love his drawing, the odd narratives, the design of the books, the compositions, the hand drawn typography: everything really. The way I crosshatch (with small “patches” of short lines rather than long ones) I learned from Gorey.

Are you obsessed with robots?

I think I probably am a bit. I find they are very good props/characters for my stories and ideas. I like the inherent sadness in robots: they are sentient beings but also products which can break or be discarded (in my stories anyway). Also, they are much easier to draw than real people.

Who else do you think is doing interesting work right now?

Jon McNaught, Kate Beaton, Anders Nilson, Sammy Harkham.

What are a few of your favourite books?

Off the top of my head:

The Inheritors by William Golding
The Vinegar Works by Edward Gorey
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre
Teratoid Heights by Mat Brinkman
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The Stanley Kubrick Archives by Alison Castle

Are there any books you would love to illustrate? 

I’d like to do a book of fairy-tales or folk-tales.

What have you read recently?

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher (A fascinating book about language and colour)
The Annotated Brothers Grimm by Maria Tatar
The Cardboard Valise by Ben Katchor

What’s next for books and print?

One thing which might happen with the rise of e-books is that the books that DO get published in paper may have to justify themselves by being better made, designed and illustrated. That would make me happy.

Thanks, Tom!

For the sake of full disclosure,  I should mention that Tom’s forthcoming book Goliath, will be published by Drawn & Quarterly and distributed in Canada by my employer Raincoast Books.

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  1. Great interview. I love Tom’s work. Friends always love THE GIGANTIC ROBOT when I have it sitting out. Such a great style!

  2. Great interview, thanks! I love Tom’s work and it was neat to learn of his process and influences.

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