If you’re the kind of person who congratulates yourself when you actually understand a New Yorker cartoon with an obscure reference to a minor character in Moby Dick — regardless of whether or not you’ve ever been able to finish the book, although you pretend like you have (don’t worry, I also fall into this category) — British cartoonist Tom Gauld’s new collection, Baking with Kafka, was made just for you.
Unlike Gauld’s last book, Mooncop, a graphic novel, Baking with Kafka is more like a compilation of graphic short stories — really short stories. The series of about 150 stand-alone, one-page comics imagines things like God getting in the way of the creativity of an artist illuminating a manuscript, or “Planning Neil Gaiman’s ‘Norse Mythology’ Book Tour,” where his assistant is a Viking.
Although the comics all exist separate from one another, many share an absurdist reality that uses historical references to poke fun at the present. Gauld’s favorite topics include modern reading habits and the bureaucracy of the publishing industry, although visual art and #revolution also sneak in.
One of my favorites is in the first few pages. Its protagonist is a novel that’s excited to have been assigned to a student, hoping it’ll still be read despite the fact that the student has yet to open it, instead writing a term paper based solely on Wikipedia and the movie version. Gauld takes this same deadpan, characteristically British sense of humor to the museum: A “Planned Extension of the Art Gallery” has new wings dedicated to a “caviar silo,” an “oligarch bunker,” and a “limo tunnel.”
Gauld’s simple, almost cute drawing style stands in contrast to his comics’ content, adding an extra dose of humor. The anthropomorphic books having identity crises in the face of new technology, the literally one-dimensional characters aspiring to develop in a badly written story, and even the “angry friends and relatives” fuming at the award-winning autobiographical novelist — a bearded fellow, probably Karl Ove Knausgård — are all drawn in the same manner.
Gauld’s comments on 21st-century culture may be sadly true, but his jabs at politics are probably his most poignant. In “The Angry Mob,” most of the people are either “not sure,” “pretending to be angry,” or “just like being in a mob.” One of the last few comics is of a circular orange person at a museum, laughing at all the art about stupid green, purple, and blue people, but getting really angry at the depiction of an “orange nitwit.” Get it? We didn’t need to know a single thing about Moby Dick for that one.
Tom Gauld’s Baking with Kafka is published by Drawn & Quarterly and available October 3. In October and November, Gauld will be touring bookstores in the UK, France, Texas, California, Washington, and Oregon.