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)