It’s probably just me, but I hadn’t heard of Tom Gauld until a member of my little volunteer indexing team sent me a link to some of his “cultural” cartoons in The Guardian. I was immediately enchanted. And then, he lent me one of Gauld’s graphic novels, the above-named Goliath. Being primarily a textual person, I am not a big graphic novel reader, but our son became keen on them in his teens, so I have some familiarity and have read a handful.
Now I’ve added Goliath to that elite bunch. It’s the sort of graphic novel I enjoy – spare, drily witty, a bit melancholic. It is also, as you will have assumed, a retelling of the biblical David and Goliath story. Like many modern retellings, Goliath is told from a different perspective, that of Goliath himself, who is seen as a pawn in the game of war. In a wry touch, Goliath is your quintessential gentle giant. When, out of the blue, he is approached to be measured for some armour, he says to the armour-maker, “Are you sure this isn’t a mistake? I mainly do admin”. As one who doesn’t mind a bit of admin, I’m with Goliath.
Gauld has published well over 20 books, starting back in 2001, but according to Wikipedia he is best known for Goliath (first published in 2012) and Mooncop (2016). I notice that his latest, published just this year, is Revenge of the librarians. Now, that’s one I’d love to read!
Anyhow, back to Goliath. Although he’d rather do admin work, destiny has other plans for him as we know – and so, he finds himself, under the Philistine king’s orders, waiting in a valley, armoured and armed up, issuing, morning and night, a challenge to the Israelites:
I am Goliath of Gath,
I challenge you:
Choose a man,
Let him come to me
that we may fight.
If he be able
to kill me
then we shall be your servants.
But if I kill him
then you shall be
Poor Goliath. “I’m not a champion”, he says. In fact, he continues, “I’m the fifth worst swordsman in my platoon … I do paperwork. I’m a very good administrator.” But, in classic political spin, he’s told that there won’t be any fighting. He just has to “look like a champion” and “the enemy will cower”. We all know how that turned out … along came David (albeit in this version, after a very very long time of waiting for poor Goliath).
The reviews on the back cover sum it up beautifully. The New York Times says that Gauld uses “simple, clever images to explore the larger, more complicated issues of war and heroism”, while London’s The Times says, and I particularly like this, that “Goliath is a master class in reduction … a celebration of the Christian underdog becomes a subtle meditation on the power of spin and the absurdity of war”. The rest of the back cover review excerpts are similarly spot on.
So, did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. I liked the spareness of the art and the text. The first five textless pages set the scene – that is, they show Goliath going about his day quietly, peacefully, doing his paperwork, having a stretch at his desk, and trudging down the hill on which the encampment is located to get a drink. One of my challenges with graphic novels is taking in the images and the text, without letting one distract me from the other, but in Goliath the spareness of both made this easy. Making it easy to comprehend, though, is not the main reason for the spareness! It also reduces the story to its essence, encouraging us to engage with Goliath and what he is experiencing.
I also liked the humanity of Goliath and the small boy whose job it is to support him. As they traipse to see the captain, the small boy carries Goliath’s oversize shield. “Are you OK with that?”, asks Goliath. “Sort of” replies the boy. These two, we clearly see, are pawns in the game, potential “collateral damage” as it were, though of course the Philistine leaders believe they have the winning hand.
I also liked the subtle humour, which you have hopefully picked up already. And, of course, I appreciated the anti-war message conveyed through a twist which shows the ostensibly powerful giant as the manipulated underdog – just by changing the perspective. Something we all need to do, eh? See and feel things from another side. Recommended.
Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2017 (orig. ed. 2012)
20 thoughts on “Tom Gauld, Goliath (#BookReview)”
It looks absolutely delightful, ST ! – I’m not a bit surprised at your enthusiasm.
I do like the illustrations – as you say, spare and to the point – but I very much like it when an author puts a new spin on an old tale ..
I often do too M-R, particularly if I like the spin. Haha.
This would be a good one for Peace Studies… if anyone is still teaching peace studies, that is…
Oh yes, it would Lisa. Let’s hope they are.
Caitlin Johnstone, a journo I’m somewhat wary about since hearing her speak at a Readings book launch, has a piece at Pearls and Irritations today. It goes on much too long, but what she has to say at the beginning makes a lot of sense to me. It begins like this:
“Avoiding nuclear war is the single most important agenda in the world. The single most important agenda in history. It is more important than your political faction. It is more important than how Vladimir Putin makes your feelings feel. It is more important than anything else.
If there’s one thing everyone should be able to come together on, it’s that every measure should be taken to avoid the end of everything. It is only because our civilisation is awash with war propaganda that this isn’t glaringly obvious to everybody.”
Thanks Lisa … question is how?
For us in Australia? By keeping out of conflicts that don’t concern us, for a start.
Yes, true, but I meant as a world community.
Most of the world community is keeping out of the conflict in Ukraine. India, a member of AUKUS is keeping out of it. SE Asia is keeping out of it, so is Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. It’s being badged as a defence of democracy, but it’s basically a proxy war between the US and Russia, with Ukraine as the battlefield which is getting trashed. A lot of people are getting killed, the entire area is being hyper militarized, and the risk of nuclear warfare is high,
The only thing we should be doing is promoting peace negotiations and increasing our aid to Africa which is suffering because of the sanctions.
I wish I could feel so sure about all this … it never seems simple to me, but I certainly agree that promoting peace negotiations should be our priority.
WWIII is trending on Twitter…
I spend very little time or Twitter I’m afraid -or, maybe not afraid. It’s certainly concerning I agree. (Off to our little gourmet dining group tonight – we rotate around three homes – I’m sure we’ll discuss it.)
LOL Things are back to normal, now it’s The Block that’s trending.
Oh phew, that’s alright then!!
What would Sue say, I say to myself. On the one hand I don’t see the point in retelling Bible stories, and on the other I don’t read graphic novels.
But I do appreciate an anti war message, they don’t come along often enough (I do think though Goliath should have said no – too many fit young men say yes to warmonger politicians and are blind to the consequences).
Oh you, Bill. You have my wish-washiness down pat. But there, you’ve given another reason for retelling a biblical story! I reckon the point in retelling and well-known story, particularly one used to send a message, is to encourage seeing it from another POV. Flipping the script on a well-known story could perhaps be more powerful than creating a new story with your own message? (BTW, one of my Christian friends told me, when I told her about this book, that of course David wasn’t the paragon this story encourages people to think.)
Tom Gauld is a comic artist I am familiar with. He often incorporates books and science into simple cartoons that say a lot about attitudes towards those fields in one image. I didn’t know he wrote story -length comics, though.
I suspected you might know him Melanie. I don’t know how many of his books are story-length – I suspect just a few – but I’d like to see some of the science ones too.
Here’s a very simple one: https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/58c43ff4e3df28a158a7fde6/b79a934b-fbab-477c-949a-66a63333c97e/GLASSES.jpg?format=1500w
Oh that’s perfect … thanks Melanie.