Love and mathematics

An interview with cartoonist Tom Gauld and quarantine cat pix

Greetings, friend. I hope this email finds you safe and sane. My betrothed and I are still somewhat-safely ensconced in my Cobble Hill apartment. We’re trying to focus on our three cats (who are getting more friendly with one another with every passing day) and our work (she’s got a few secret projects in the works, as do I). It’s not a terrible life, as far as lives go! Here’s hoping we can get out to the other end. ANYWAY, I don’t wanna make things too grim, so let’s get on with the content. Today’s main course is a fun one: an interview with the great Tom Gauld, whose illustrations and cartoons have adorned The New Yorker, The Guardian, New Scientist, and various bound collections. As a bonus treat, the interview was conducted by me and the aforementioned fiancée. Read on!

Cat update

S.I. constructed a toy that has become a successful diversion for all living beings within our apartment.

My son, out like a light.


Talking Heads, “Air” — I’ve been listening to the classic Talking Heads live album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads and have been struck by the Fear of Music-era tracks, especially the driving, ecstatic anxiety of “Air.” Worth (re)visiting!

Aliens: Dead Orbit by James Stokoe — I had the great pleasure of showing this terrific graphic novel to S.I. last night and, upon seeing just the first page, her jaw dropped and she couldn’t stop whispering, “Holy shit.” Stokoe is extremely gifted, taking the granular inventiveness of Moebius, developing it in his own idiosyncratic way, and then applying it to an array of topics, including the Aliens mythology. Whether you’re into that mythology or not, there’s a lot to love here!

The Wrestler — We watched Darren Aronofsky’s masterwork the other night and were completely transfixed. My top-secret next project is pro-wrestling-related, so I felt compelled to rewatch the flick, which I’d seen in theaters. It was even better than I’d remembered! Special shout-out to the young Evan Rachel Wood, whose portrayal of the titular wrestler’s estranged daughter starts out formulaic and ends with her displaying a transcendent set of emotions that shake you to your core.

Hanna — Speaking of younger incarnations of great actors: holy shit, how good is Saoirse Ronan in Hanna??? I’d never seen this sucker until S.I. suggested it last night and I am so glad she did, because it was a compelling thrill ride from minute one to the very end.

Dark Side of the Ring — Sorry for all the wrestling content … when I get into a topic, I sort of block out most other informational stimuli for a bit. I recommend Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring series to everyone, not just wrestlemaniacs. It’s a fascinating exercise in investigative documentary filmmaking. Start with the one on the so-called “Montreal Screwjob” and go from there.

Me me me

Been pretty busy with long-term stuff lately and a story I was writing for Vulture didn’t work out due to forces beyond my control, so I have no new articles to show you. HOWEVER, I am proud to say I’ve been able to publish the first round of blurbs for my book, including one from Neil freakin’ Gaiman. It reads as follows: “True Believer is a biography that reads like a thriller or a whodunit. It's an exploration of an often farcical tragedy: the life, afterlife, and death of a salesman and an editor who dreamed of being something more. It unwraps Stanley Lieber the man and Stan Lee the invention and the brand name, and manages to be scrupulously honest, deeply damning, and sometimes even heartbreaking.” I’m blushing! See more blurbs and buy the book by following this link to my website!

Main course

You may not know Tom Gauld’s name, but if you’re a tweedy intellectual like me, you almost certainly know his work. He’s the man who does those gorgeously textured stick figures in those charming comic strips and illustrations about the world’s problems. You can familiarize yourself with his work at his website or by buying his new collection, The Department of Mind-Blowing Theories, which collects STEM-related cartoons originally published in New Scientist and is being released by Drawn + Quarterly. My fiancée, the journalist S.I. Rosenbaum, is very familiar with Gauld’s work, so we decided to do the interview together. Look, it’s my newsletter, I get to be nepotistic if I want to. Hope you enjoy!

Abraham Riesman: How's quarantine treating you?

Tom Gauld: Yes. Yes. We're in the countryside here. Pretty isolated here so I guess I'm doing what I always do, but doing it here and emailing my work. I can get by. How about you? Are you in New York?

S.I. Rosenbaum: We're in Brooklyn. 

Oh, ok. How are things with you?

AR: Great. We actually just got engaged.

TG: Congratulations!

SR: Thanks! Everything inside the apartment is great and everything outside the apartment is going to hell. Along those lines: I was looking at some of your older work and apocalypse and catastrophe seem to be themes for you. One of my favorites of your comics is “Some Advice On How to Cope in These Tough Times,”and I just tweeted that out because it seems more a propos than ever. I was wondering, as somebody who has obviously given some thought to the world ending, how do you feel about the present moment?

TG: Some cartoons like that one, it doesn't feel to me quite so funny at the moment. I think I did that one around the time of the financial crash in 2008, I think. And then it felt like that was caused by bad people and some of those same bad people were saying a slightly trite "we're all in this together" sort of thing. So I guess I was angrier at hearing that and this time, I guess it's slightly more complicated and I don't think I'd do exactly the same cartoon as I did. It is ironic that it’s got a sentient virus in it. 

SR: I know. I saw that. The resemblance is uncanny.

AR: Even in the lighter, one-panel strips, you often have post-apocalyptic visions there. Is that something that you gravitate to? Are you a big dystopian-novel reader or anything like that?

TG: Yeah. I like reading science-fiction books. I like the utopian ones and I like the dystopian ones. I suppose one of the things I like about them is the idea that there's a real language — and I think particularly a visual language of Mad Max and The Road — which everybody understands. Or I can kind of play with it. And I like to use things like the Jane Austen type regency novel, or I suppose almost a cliche, and trying to use those cliches to do something unexpected.

SR: Yeah, I like the Marie Kondo one you did, I think in 2017. Getting rid of things that don't spark joy but also not disturbing the monsters underground. 

TG: That one again, doesn't seem quite so amusing right at the moment, to me. 

AR: What did you draw when you were a kid? What kind of stuff did you doodle down when you were growing up?

TG: Pretty much drew the same stuff as I draw now. I went through a period in art school where I tried to be grown up and draw virtuoso, deep, dark things. But it didn't really work out. And I’ve kind of, in a way, gone back to drawing in the very simple, minimal way as I did as a kid and drawing a lot of the same things: spaceships and robots and knights. And I still love drawing those things. But I do find that when I write the stories, I'm not that interested in writing stories about heroes and grandeur and epicness, so I guess it tends to work that I can do these slightly minimalist, undercutting stories along with these slightly over-the-top characters from childhood literature or from heroic literature, if you see what I mean.

SR: I think you've even commented on them in your comics. I just came across a strip about Macbeth and the Weird Sisters, who've abandoned the Great Man Theory of history. I love that one. It's almost a comment on your own approach, I guess.

TG: Again, that's one of the … It's sometimes a bit tricky to find the right sort of cultural touchstone that the general populace understands well enough that you can play off it. There are certain authors I'd like to do cartoons about, but I know that they're a little bit too obscure. I really like Anthony Powell’s novels, and if everybody else read those, it would be fun to do something. But there's no point in that.

AR: At what point in your career did you go, "Oh, I can just do comics full time. I don't have to do supplementary gigs or anything like that."

TG: When I was at college, I started out thinking I would just be an illustrator and I would just make illustrations for other people's stories because I didn't think of myself as a writer at all. I just thought of myself as someone who likes drawing. But my teacher was very encouraging about making my own stories and he showed me some Edward Gorey work and encouraged me not to feel I had to write very much and to see that I could make funny little picture stories. And at first, it was a just a bit of fun in the spare time between illustration projects and then, when I graduated, between jobs. It did start as a hobby. Something I started in the evening when I've done my paying work. There wasn't one day when it changed. It was a slow change where just more and more people seemed happy to do cartoons rather than illustrations. And even though I really love making illustrations, I probably enjoy cartoons a bit more. So the balance has shifted, so maybe, probably about 75% of my time, I'm making my own picture stories and then the other bit I'm making illustrations for other people. I've always supported myself drawing pictures, but it changed from commissioned pictures to much more about comics these days. 

AR: What's your average workday like at this point?

TG: It's funny now, because I'm working from home, which I've never really done before. 

SR/AR: Really?

TG: When I was at college, we had really nice studios at Edinburgh where I studied and then in London as well. So I always worked there and then maybe I'd draw in my sketchbook in the evening, but it was very much The day's over and I'm going home now. And I liked that. I liked that feeling of slightly pretending I have a job and almost keeping office hours, really. But now, in lockdown, it's quite different. There is that impulse to creep back to my desk in the evening, which I normally don't have. So it's a bit strange. 

SR: You think you're having an urge to draw more than being distracted?

TG: No — I think the thing I'm finding a bit funny about lockdown and being away from everything is that it seems i'm getting a lot more emails and there's a lot more to deal with in that sense, so that's distracting me. But generally, no. I'm getting my work done. I'm a morning person, so I like to get up and get going as early as I can. And trying to do the creative stuff before I start doing the other stuff. So that still works, that's fine.

SR: Do you have anything new in the works?

AR: Probably nothing you can tell us, but if you can.

TG: I've got a children's book, a picture book for children, which is almost finished and will be out next year, but I can't really talk about it any more than that. But that's pretty much finished. My mind's kind of turning to doing a new graphic novel or doing a longer comic book because it's been a while since I did Mooncop and I'm slightly itching to do something.

AR: I adored Mooncop. I wrote a little essay about it at Vulture when I was on staff there. And I turned in the draft and had some elegant headline about the magic of whatever and my editor changed it to "Reading Mooncop is Like Taking a Literary Xanax” or something else mentioning Xanax, which I thought was … I didn't really have any control over that headline.

TG: [Laughs.] I remember that!

AR: It got published and I was like, That's a weird thing to say. The essay was very praising and I did say it was very relaxing, so I guess it was still a compliment.

SR: Speaks to your boss's habits rather than yours.

AR: Let's talk about the new book. I should make sure we should talk about the topic at hand. How did you end up getting the New Scientist gig?

TG: I've been making illustrations for New Scientist more or less the whole time I've been an illustrator. They have all kinds of great history commissioning illustrations because for a lot of science subjects, there isn't an interesting photograph to go with it or it's more about a concept than a thing. So I've always enjoyed working for them. And then — it was kind of on a whim actually — I had published a little packet of postcards with comics on them and I sent them to the creative art director there and slightly on a whim just said, "If you ever want a cartoon, like what I do for The Guardian, but about science, let me know." I thought maybe he’d get in touch in a year or two, or probably never. The next week, he said, "I love the idea. Yeah, let's do it." I had to come up with a pitch and see the editor and things, but it was surprisingly easy. And then I had a panic because I'm not in any way educated in science and I realized that there's this huge audience of people who are educated in science, or at least very interested in it, and I didn't want to make insultingly stupid cartoons. I wanted them to be silly, but I didn't want them to be insultingly silly. So I sort of had to go on a bit of a self-education process of listening to science podcasts and reading New Scientist magazines rather than flipping through it and looking at the pictures and trying to get my base level of knowledge up a bit.

SR: The terrible moment when you actually have to read the magazine you've pitched to.

AR: As journalists, we know that feeling well. You dedicated the book to someone in your family. I presume he was some kind of scientist?

TG: Yes, it's my grandfather. He was a marine biologist. And to be honest, I never talked to him much about his work, but he always had New Scientist magazines around and he would give it to my dad, who was an architect, and he was quite interested in science. The magazine was always kind of around. He died when I was at college, so I feel I never really knew him as an adult. But as a kid, he was what you'd want from a scientist. He was quiet and thoughtful and if you asked him questions, he always seemed to know the answers to them. He didn't foist these things on you and I think that meant that science in our family was considered an important thing and there was a reverence to science, which I think I caught on. I'm really pleased that I could dedicate the book to him. I'm sad he can't see it, but it does slightly go back to him. And when I did a cover for New Scientist magazine? In my family, that is considered above a New Yorker cover or a Guardian cover. New Scientist is the one.

SR: “Finally, you're doing something serious and important!” We know that feeling, too.

TG: Or being silly about something serious. 

AR: Where do you jot down your ideas? Do you use your notes app on your phone?

TG: The thing I've realized — the thing which is really important when you're trying to two weekly cartoons every week — is, whenever I have an idea, I need to make sure I get it in the book and get it noted down because you can very quickly run out of ideas or have a bad week with no ideas. So I absolutely need to keep them as much as I can when I get them. I have a long file on my phone of notes, which I tap in when I'm walking along or on the bath or whatever. And I've got a small notebook I carry in my coat, where I scribble things down, and I’ve got my main sketchbook where I'm always writing down notes and things. So it's just a mania these days of keeping notes and having these piles of generally bad or half-finished or half-thought-through or maybe even seven-percent-thought-through ideas.

SR: Are the ideas coming faster or slower right now in this weird time that we're in?

TG: Well, it's a complete mystery to me sometimes why an idea happens and why it doesn't. I know that, in two and a half hours, I can make the picture look nice. The final stage I can do. That's fine. And I know the middle stage of turning the spark of an idea into a cartoon is hard work, but it's possible. The thing that is frustratingly difficult to figure out actually even how to do it is how to get that first spark of an idea. It's very difficult to know if the right thing is to stay at the desk and stare at the blank paper and scratch your head or give up and go for a walk. I don't think there is an answer and I think that's one of the reasons it's quite difficult. Today, I got to my desk and, within half an hour, I had the whole of my New Scientist cartoon for this week figured out and ready to go and I finished it at lunchtime. That's why I'm in a good mood today.

SR: Congrats.

AR: Well done.

TG: But some days, I'll spend a day and a half on it, or two — never really more than two days — but yeah, that first spark is the tricky part and that's why having a notebook full of ideas, even not very good ideas, at least it's something to get started from.

SR: There have been so many artists talking about needing to revise works in progress because of the hugely changed status quo, or come up with new scenarios because, like, there are old scenes set at a restaurant and now no one goes to restaurants or something like that. Have you had anything like that feeling?

TG: I did write to my editor at New Scientist and say … I don’t know if you've seen anything recently, but it's about 50% Covid virus every week, at the moment, because there's so much happening there. And I said to them — and I also said to the Guardian — ”I really don't want to do anything directly about the virus.” Because I think my cartoon isn't about a satirical take on current politics or anything. It's really supposed to be an enjoyable moment, an escape from all that. So I'm generally just trying to make cartoons which are funny and maybe thinking a little more about being upbeat or this sort of upbeat that I do, at the moment.

SR: Do you feel you have a civic duty to give people a respite?

TG: I'm pretty easy on myself as an artist. You don't want to put rules on what art should be. And if there is any civic duty in my work, I guess it's just to be interesting and entertaining and — I think of the moment — I think there is a civic duty to be, I guess not even quite positive, but to entertain people. That's all I'm thinking about at the moment.

AR: Along those lines a bit, one of my favorite cartoons in the new collection is the one about Utopian Science Quarterly vs. The Journal of Dystopian Science. If you were to subscribe to one or the other, which would it be? Would you err on the side of?

TG: Ooh. Of those two, actually, the dystopian one does have a virus or a superbug in it, I think. 

AR: Oh yeah, I think it does.

TG: I'd subscribe to the utopian one. I love flying cars and jetpacks. I rather like utopian science fiction. I like Iain Banks' books and I was just reading one just recently because I just thought, that's what I wanted. I wanted to go away and fly to space with the culture and not think about what's going on. And I really found that book was helpful and enjoyable to me. So I'd definitely be getting the Utopian one.

AR: We've been watching the original series of Star Trek for the same reason.

TG: I just watched the new Michael Chabon Picard one. Which, even though it's not utopia, it was another nice escape from our current world. 

AR: We were looking at some older work of yours. Will Both ever get rereleased?

TG: I don't see any reason why not. I'm still good friends with Simone [Lia], who I worked with there. Every now and then we sort of joked that we should do a … We did our very first comic together. It was called First and then we did Second, and they both got collected in Both. And we thought we would one day do a third together. But things have to happen. What it always seems is one of us is excited about doing it and the other one is busy on something else. So I don't know when, but one day, I think we'd both like to do that. 

AR: I've never read the whole thing, but someone posted a few pages online. It's very obviously you, but you were playing with a different visual style. It seemed a little more wild and non-linear and impressionistic. But maybe I was seeing the pages out of context.

TG: No, that's correct. I mean some of those are some of the very first cartoons I drew outside of sketchbooks. It's really early stuff. We did all of First while we were at college. It’s two people just excited about putting words and pictures together on a page and not so much frightened of getting it wrong because we didn't know what we were doing at all. So I think it’s more freewheeling than most of the things I've done since. It came out from Bloomsbury and it pretty much did nothing. [Laughs.] Our editor left the company just as the book came out and I'm sure it didn't sell well, so I'm pretty sure they've lost the rights to it. So someday, we'll find time to dig it out and find a publisher for it.

AR: I would be shocked if Drawn + Quarterly would not be at least a little interested in that.

TG: No, they probably would. I think the other thing is my attention is always on the next book, the next new thing I want to do. So all the small comics work and all the short pieces, I'd love to make collections and republish some of those. But it's difficult to find time and I'm actually more excited about writing something new. 

AR: In terms of your upbringing and British or Scottish background, do you think any of that had an influence either thematically or concretely on how your career's going?

TG: People often see the work and say there is a British sense of humor there. And Europeans interviewing me often mention Monty Python and that kind of absurdism. I don't know. I think my cartooning influences have always been quite international. I grew up reading Gary Larson [of The Far Side] in the local newspaper. So absurd humor seems to me as American as it is British, at times. I think maybe an influence was that I did grow up in Scotland, in the Northeast, which is pretty grey and dark and cold. And I grew up in the countryside, so I spent quite a lot of time on my own. I think that had more of an effect than the nation. It was more the place I grew up. There was lots of reading and drawing and imagining. Certainly not being lonely. I had a brother who I played football with, sometimes. I had time to spend imagining things. And I think that had a big effect on my cartooning.

AR: What's the origin of your last name? You're the only Gauld I've ever encountered.

TG: It's handy actually in terms of being found on Google or whatever. There aren't many of us around. It's an old Scottish name and my grandfather in fact told me that he thinks it was originally “Gaul,” as in “the Frenchman,” which excited me, as a huge fan of Asterix comics. It's a pretty unusual name, and I'm always having to spell it and correct people who say “Gold” or “Gould.” But as a cartoonist, it's kind of handy having an unusual name.

AR: I agree. I'm the only Abraham Riesman around these days, so it works out pretty well for me.

SR: Unfortunately, there's at least three Sara(h) Rosenbaums in Queens, alone, which is also why I use my initials. I'm excited about this graphic novel project!

AR: Yeah, I'm curious to see what you end up generating from that.

TG: Yeah, it's a funny place to be at the moment. I think the beginning of any project is convincing yourself it's worthy of more attention, or enough attention to make it stop being an idea and stop being bad and turn it into something good. And for a short comic, the amount of persuasion I need to do to myself is not much. But for a whole book, it's quite a lot of persuasion. I've got a couple of ideas. One, I think I'm going to do, but I haven't quite been strong enough to commit to it yet. So I'm hoping that, in the next few weeks, this book, the science cartoons, finds its way into the world, and I can focus and start on something new.