Postmod godfather Donald “The King” Barthelme—he of the collages, merry spectacles, and pointed barbe courte—when asked why he wrote as he did, famously replied, “Because Beckett already wrote the way he did.” Shortly before waking this morning, this critic swears he heard artist Tom Gauld give the same answer to a similar inquiry on the origins of style. Why should it matter, in an age with God and the author both dead, that this critic has no idea what Mr. Gauld actually looks like? In the dream I can no longer quite remember, his features are doubtless rudimentary, absent, or obscured as those of his characters, whom anonymity nudges one shuffling step closer to everyman-ity. The exchanges he devises for them, which meander hesitantly into being before faltering abashedly from it, perfectly capture the quandary of existence—theirs and ours. Which is this: not only is what we do pointless, but we are often not very good at it. This could qualify us as pathetic. And that is quite funny.
I should take a moment to exempt, from the condition of universal futility I am so eager to extend from Gauld’s situations to the rest of us and our activities, Mr. Gauld himself, who differs from his characters in this important respect: while they may fail variously at the functions they’re condemned to fulfill—jobs sometimes inextricable from mere being—he is, in fact, quite effective at his. His expert recipe calls for equal parts plight and sweet rue to be sautéed in a deadpan.
In his 2001 minicomic Guardians of the Kingdom, Mr. Gauld’s people are very small, but the wall they guard is very long, and the land to either side vast and barren. It would already outsize them in every way, even were Mr. Gauld not to keep them at the distance it seems he prefers (close-ups are generally reserved for objects and body parts).With all the indignant articulateness of patter comedians, Mr. Gauld’s guardians hurl their pettiness and boredom, blunt and discouraged, into the massive emptiness of whose austerity Mr. Gauld provides us ample, rocky, mountainous reminder. Their words win, from an indifferent universe, not even the barest of echoes in acknowledgment. Stranded at their posts, certainly neglected and quite possibly forgotten, the guardians mope and busy themselves against the bare and greater pointlessness, about which, since nothing can be said, Mr. Gauld does us the service of exemplary silence. These juxtapositions of fuss and nothingness do nothing so forceful as mean—really, they sidle up to the unspeakable.
Mr. Gauld’s laudable reticence is the occasion for great economy and hence unspoken eloquence. In “Afternoon, Day 66”, a single page of great and discreet canniness, time becomes space; along the wall’s sinuous curve wafts a conversation in which space is found to be meaningless, or at best indifferentiable despite borders, the monumental scrawls of monarchs across its wastes. This indeterminacy settles uncertainties of allegiance. The resolution is irresolute. His speech balloons, set into his compositions, function as elements of design and narrative. In the bottom left panel, the final word, a forlorn “Oh” adrift in its crosshatched desert, is a line whose placement implies its stage directions, its emotion enhanced and clarified for being spatially detached from its speaker.
But observe the ritual of morning tea in “Morning, Day 11”, which begins the book—especially the third page, the two panels of, again, the lower left corner: the calm and timeless simplicity of twinned cups receiving liquid, further twinned in the repeated composition, and followed by the charity of an extended hand. Companionship, with all its baggage of comic bickering, is the cornerstone of survival on Gauld’s desolate frontier. Likewise, in Hunter and Painter, however little comfort Hunter is able to provide Painter—however little understanding the simple man can muster for his moody buddy—their fast friendship gives Artist food and consolation in his ostracism and eventually, by happy accident (is there any other muse?), triumphant inspiration.
Nor is Mr. Gauld himself without peers in his explorations. The work of L’Association stars Ruppert and Mulot feature similarly faceless characters exchanging rapid-fire Beckettian banalities that, instead of rounding out in punchlines, peter out in unvoiced despair. More frequent close-ups make their characters’ blankness more chilling; casual obscenity and sudden savagery give their stories a sharper, darker edge: the unsettling flirting of nonsense with j’accuse. When, in “Les Pharaons d’Égypte”, the native guide imagines doing violence to his racist client, his fantasies are not confined to the relatively benevolent thought balloon of “Morning, Day 72”. What these two creators excel at might best be called inhuman minimalism. The Belgian team’s line is finer and more nervous than Gauld’s. For someone who lavishes as much inkish, fine-grained love over his backdrops and landscapes, we might perhaps look to 2002 Xeric winner Richard Hahn, whose scrupulous linework in his self-published Lumakick, at once obsessive and delicate, conjures much of the same affectionate pathos pervading Gauld’s scenes. Lumakick goes from rainy days and libraries to the gimlet-eyed bar griping, but in stories featuring the bewildered Professor Lee, the bowler-hatted, hollow-eyed Keatonesque misadventurer, mournful as Prufrock and helpless but to be ridiculous, Hahn achieves the lightness of whimsy in the face of the cosmos. In Hahn’s cosmos, it is usually lightly, but not seriously, overcast.
Why does detailed linework serve the deadpan sensibility so well? Perhaps because Edward Gorey already drew the way he did. Or perhaps this critic is fantasizing continuities, hallucinating lineages of influence. Well, then? The critic’s duty is to get high from art. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.