Thursday, May 3, 2012

Trust Me: Tom Gauld's Goliath

Tom Gauld's first book for Drawn & Quarterly, Goliath, is his latest in a series of deadpan but heartbreaking comics involving futility and the inevitability of the individual in the face of an uncaring universe.  Gauld's retelling of the story of David & Goliath from the latter's point of view is in turns funny, sad, exasperating and ultimately tragic story made all the more so by the ending that we know is coming.  Gauld turns around the ultimate underdog story into a simple misunderstanding as one man gets swept up in forces beyond his comprehension and happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

In Gauld's story, Goliath is indeed a Philistine solider, but he excels at administration and paperwork and has no skill or stomach for actual battle.  One gets the sense that he was swept up in a war with the Israelites against his will, putting him at the mercy of ruthlessly ambitious generals and vain kings.  Goliath is a fairly gentle soul who also has no interest in the main form of entertainment at the Philistine camp: betting on animals fighting each other.  Goliath is not given to speeches or moralizing, other than choosing to act in certain ways.  One gets the sense that he doesn't quite understand why certain things are wrong--he simply doesn't do them.  However, as the story proceeds and Goliath becomes more and more cynical about his task--to march down into the valley and challenge a champion from Israel to face him, winner take all--we see him almost reach a breaking point with regard to loyalty to his country and army.  His captain, who came up with the scheme thinking that the Israelites would be too scared to send one man against the hulking (but secretly gentle) Goliath, told him to simply trust him.  Throughout the course of the story, that trust is eroded as no one emerges from the enemy camp.  The only thing keeping Goliath there (he had abandoned his old camp to stay in the valley) was concern for the young shield-bearer who came out every morning.

On the day of his death, Goliath is felled by someone who's a combination of his shield-bearer and his captain: someone idealistic, faithful, ambitious, ruthless and crazy.  Only Goliath's concern for his shield-bearer allows David (in full speechifying mode) to get the drop on him with his sling, and that's that.  I don't get the sense that Gauld is passing judgment on David or casting him as a villain (indeed, the villain is really the captain), but rather portraying him as just a kid pushed by circumstance.  He happens to be in the right place at the right time as much as Goliath is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rightfully so, the story ends right after David chops off Goliath's head as the captain's clever scheme backfires spectacularly. 

Gauld wrings a lot of humor out of this story thanks to his spare line and use of simple but powerful figures.  Goliath is really a triangle with an oval on top of that, with two lines appearing as legs and thinner, curvier lines acting as arms.  When the characters are viewed as a distance, this is literally what they become on the page--just shapes.  The heavy use of brown is a nice reflection on the dust on the soldiers.  While it's not an uncommon trick to retell classic stories from the point of view of the antagonist, Gauld is restrained in how far he takes this technique.  He doesn't set out to make Goliath a hero or a tragic figure undone by his own hubris.  Indeed, it's Goliath's sheer ordinariness that makes this such a moving story.  This is the way the world works: the ordinary are punished for things that they have nothing to do with for no reason at all.  It's a bleak conclusion, both alleviated and exacerbated by the many moments of humor Gauld injects into the narrative.

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