Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Baking with Kafka is a collection of cartoons that appeared originally in The Guardian newspaper’s Arts and Books section on Saturdays. Each cartoon is inspired by one of the articles in the previous week’s issue, or riffing off a letter written to the Review section. These starting points enable Tom Gauld to assemble gently sarcastic or silly responses to the kind of observations and arguments that passionate readers of books fire off to the editor. There are no ongoing characters or situations in these cartoons; what they have in common is Gauld’s technique of throwing together two opposing elements in a sitcom kind of way to see what happens as they spark off each other, usually something from the past paired with something from the future, or two disparate literary genres that fuse into an absurd new category. He is also a big fan of lists that start off reasonably and degenerate as the categories change direction. “My new novel is available in the following formats,” begins one such list, with a picture of each type: “book, audiobook, e-book…” and then the formats echo the genres they might be presenting: “…drone book, nanobook, holographic information crystal, recited by a mechanical raven, odourless gas, explained by a patronising robot, T-shirt.”
Tom Gauld draws his characters as very reduced shapes, identical except where their hats and clothes denote familiar and jokey stereotypes. This cartoon shorthand acts almost like mathematical diagrams when he mashes his symbols together to create his riffs on literary styles, fashions, popular fiction and all the obsessions that bibliophiles have in common no matter what genre they prefer. The more of a reader you are, the more of Gauld’s jokes will land for you. But since his brand of humour often has more to do with the perceived idea of an author’s work than the actual books themselves, even people who don’t own a library card or shelve their books alphabetically will find plenty of amusing mash-ups here. The title strip imagines writer of nightmares Franz Kafka as the star of a cooking show, showing off his new recipe for lemon drizzle cake. A previously unseen work by children’s book author Beatrix Potter called “Scenes from ‘Mrs Tittlemouse joins the Suffragettes’” has the neat and tidy house-mouse heroine going off to town to smash windows with her toffee hammer. And so on. Gauld’s elegantly simple drawings are enhanced by beautiful colour choices and an excellent graphic design sensibility, making this book both packed with funny ideas and great to look at too. Baking With Kafka was the 2018 Eisner Award-Winner for Best Humour Publication.