Baking with Kafka

“Tom Gauld is so boring,” a cartoonist friend of mine said, “If I wanted to watch stick figures jacking off I would go to” I went into Tom Gauld’s new book of literary-minded gag cartoons, many first published in the New York Times, Baking with Kafka optimistically, wanting to laugh. I smiled weakly a couple of times. Gauld’s ultra-minimal drawing style seems developed to showcase the words, but the words fall limply. In small doses, in a newspaper, these cartoons may have offered some amusement, but put all together, the effect is stifling.

One such cartoon is titled “The Snooty Bookshop.” A bookseller says to a customer, “Yes, we do have a copy of the book you’re looking for. You’ll find it in the ‘Vastly Overrated’ section of the ‘So-Called Classics’ department.” Ha ha ha ha ha? In another, entitled “The Auteur Directs a Superhero Movie,” the director says to his costumed cast, “Let’s try that again. This time: less action, more nihilistic ennui.” I would accept such dull drawings and warmed-over intellectual “punchlines” from a seventeen-year-old writing in their diary, but Tom Gauld is a grown man being paid for this. I don’t even know what this book is meant to do. Is it meant to make me laugh? If so, it is a crashing failure. Read this if you want to be mildly amused and you find it at your local library, but $20 is just too much for a stray chuckle or two out of 160 pages.

11 Responses to Baking with Kafka

  1. Jack says:

    The brevity of this review is the most brutal thing about it.

  2. Oliver_C says:

    Reviews such as this never fail to remind me that TCJ is the Cahiers du Cinéma of comics: I’m glad it exists, it’s important — but its verdict on individual works is often hopelessly off-base.

  3. Paul Slade says:

    “Off-base” compared to what, Oliver?

    If you were to ask me what the total of 2+2 is, any answer other than 4 would be undeniably wrong – or “off-base” if you prefer. But there’s no single correct answer of that kind to the question “Is this book any good?” – just a unique response from every reader who encounters it. Those responses will vary a great deal, but none is incontrovertibly right or wrong in the “2+2” sense you seem to imply – they’re simply the honest reactions of readers who happen to disagree.

    So, I repeat, “Off-base” compared to what? To your own perception of the book? To what you assume will be its consensus reception when many critics have weighed in? To the reaction it gets from Gauld’s fans? The critic is under no obligation to fall in line with any of those views, but simply to give us his or her own opinion. As long as they do that, they’re as on-base as anyone could possibly be.

  4. Jones, one of the Jones boys says:

    The view you’re describing, Paul, is a kind of speaker-subjectivism: “this book is good” is true or false based only on the reaction of the person uttering that sentence.

    Another view is that aesthetic evaluations are relative to a set of (often highly contested) standards presumed (often wrongly) to be shared by the speaker and their audience. In which case, “off-base” would have a reasonably clear meaning: viz. not aligning with the standards of (what is taken to be) the relevant critical community. So, given their audience and authorship, if Cahiers du Cinema published an article saying e.g. most Adam Sandler films are terrible, that would be on-base; if they published an article slagging every single one of the Sight & Sound top 50 films, that would be off-base.

    Or, in this instance, given the (presumptive, somewhat fictive) audience and authorship of online tcj readers, the Journal’s “verdict on individual works” is often at odds with the (vaguely defined, justifiably contested) standards of that audience. Whether or not that’s true, its meaning seems clear enough

  5. Jones, one of the Jones boys says:

    In any case this line from the review is telling:

    “In small doses, in a newspaper, these cartoons may have offered some amusement, but put all together, the effect is stifling.”

    Obviously you have to read it this way to write a review, but everyone else: STOP reading books this way! (For precisely that reason).

    Everyone needs to slow down the way they read comics; the current, reprint-fueled binge-style of reading absolutely flattens the effect and affect of most comics that were not planned and delivered as unified works (which is another way of saying, most comics full stop). This is especially true of newspaper strip reprints, but generalises. These comics were deliberately designed to be read in small chunks; reading them all in one go (or even two, or three) is like watching a stand-up video where you fast-forward through all the pauses.

    …or to put it a more positive way: you can increase your enjoyment and appreciation of originally-serialised comics by, let’s say, 1000% if you slow the hell down. You really will enjoy them a lot more

  6. Nick Mullins says:

    If you don’t think he’s funny then you don’t think he’s funny, but often Gauld’s minimalist line is in ironic contrast to the subject matter and so part of the joke. And I think he’s sometimes incredibly clever, but you have to know the authors and books he’s referencing. They’re cartoons for English majors.

    And yeah, this review is like a parody of a Comics Journal review.

  7. Ant says:

    I’m glad someone agrees with me about Gauld! I find his work so thin and not pleasant to look at in the slightest. His being published by D & Q (or, indeed, The Guardian!) remains one of the great mysteries of comics…

  8. Oslaf says:
  9. Jack S says:

    oh wow, the fanboyism is a bit more pretentious here! I wonder what books and authors the boring bookstore joke is referencing? Suggesting the critic missed the super-smart literary reference only Real English Majors caught, or read the comics the wrong way, or (idk what the nipples comic man is suggesting?) is disingenuous. Why is the reader to blame for the author’s inability to elicit any feeling from them in the medium the author chose? Gauld’s work is trite and thinks itself clever for not saying anything, because aren’t people who say something silly? It’s the worst aspects of white-intellectual rational-skeptic fuckwadism and it’s not good art.

  10. Sammy says:

    Tom’s work is pretty great. It hits more often than not. Visually, it’s heads and shoulders above most, of not all, other newspaper strips or gags.

  11. Simone says:

    I laughed more reading this review than I did with the entire book. Much appreciated, sir.

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