Friday, October 16, 2009

The Joke's On Us: The Gigantic Robot

Rob reviews Tom Gauld's new book, THE GIGANTIC ROBOT (Buenaventura Press).

Tom Gauld's comics have often had the hallmark of juxtaposing frequently tiny, minimalist figures against vast backgrounds. His comics are frequently about futility and humanity's struggle for relevance as a cosmically absurd battle that can't be won. Gauld is best known for working small, with minicomics-sized entries for his stories that nonetheless focused on emphasizing small figures buffeted by forces stronger than they were. For THE GIGANTIC ROBOT, Gauld goes in the opposite direction, using an 8x10 format with image and text alternating on each page. That adds an extra layer of opposition to Gauld's narrative and creates a nasty comic tension that only escalates as the story unfolds and eventually collapses.

Gauld begins the book with the phrase "The war rages on.", but the facing page is almost completely blank, with only some rolling hills and a leafless tree providing any contrast to the all-engulfing white space on the page. In this comic, even the environment is insignificant in the face of the story. When we meet the people who convene for a secret project, they are minimalist even by Gauld's usual standard. They're little more than a few lines, slightly elongated. They're stretched out like a Giacometti sculpture, and their faceless nature certainly reflects the existentialist quality of the sculptor's work. They share that same hunched-over posture, the same long legs, the same sense of restlessness. They're walking and working, but to nowhere in particular and for no good reason, as we soon learn.

When the scientists create their gigantic robot superweapon, the first page upon which it's revealed sees the huge figure nearly fill up the entire page. This is where working big started to pay off for Gauld in this comic, selling the contrast between figures and environment. The robot is a huge Something, something big enough to fill a void. It represents a promise of action as an expression of pure will, a sense of mastery over others and the environment. Gauld then deflates the reader on the next page by revealing "The gigantic robot doesn't work." Here, the hunched nature of the scientists reveals their defeated and puzzled states as they try to figure out why their creation is immobile and one of its hands has fallen off.

Gauld then gets darker and darker as his joke gets sharper. The war ends, ending the need for the robot. The robot is no longer an expression of will but rather a monument to failure. We never even saw any evidence of the war, which made the peace insignificant. Each subsequent page features a heartbreaking image of decay as the robot falls apart further. Even as the reader is informed "Another war begins", getting up one's hopes that the rusting robot might eventually serve some purpose, Gauld pulls the rug out by finishing the sentence on the next page "and ends". He brutally finishes off any investment the reader had in this symbol of potential by simply having the narrator drift away, saying "Things happen elsewhere." and then cease altogether for the last two pages. Those pages saw the robot completely disintegrate and become part of the background.

The robot's fate is both tragic and comic. Its purpose was to be an engine of destruction, and it was not a bad thing that it never got off the ground in that respect. The robot was comic in that its creation and proportions were an act of defiance and almost hubris that was smacked down before it (and its creators) had a chance to exercise any kind of will to power. Ultimately, the secret weapon was abandoned by its creators and destroyed by the passage of time and the elements. It's a suggestion that no weapon of man could ever be as destructive as nature itself. Going a step further, Gauld suggests that any creation is doomed to eventual irrelevance and decrepitude. That said, Gauld in many of his comics has saved special venom for those projects of man's that glorify vanity, brutality and sheer vulgarity over beauty & self-expression, and this book is his most savage indictment of those former qualities. In THE GIGANTIC ROBOT, Gauld has created a beautiful-looking book about ugliness that is almost meta in the self-indulgence of the format. The simplicity of his line and the huge amounts of negative space he used in this book act as a sort of self-parody in parallel to the hubris of the scientists we see from a distance. In the end, the scientists no doubt went on to build some other pointless device in an effort to stop thinking about the fact that everything they will ever create will fade into oblivion--just like they will.

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