Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Sublime Reference: You're All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack

Tom Gauld's collection of gag cartoons from The Guardian, You're All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack (Drawn & Quarterly), is very much unlike most of his his other work. Unlike his mostly wordless strips about biblical figures, cavemen, guards and robots, Jetpack is almost entirely beholden to references, be they pop culture, historical or literary. This book is a shorter, punchier version of the sort of thing that Kate Beaton likes to do, especially in the way that he mashes up historical and modern references to art, history, music and literature. My favorite example is captioned "Attitudes Toward Sex In The Middle Ages: Figure 1, Geoffrey Chaucer, c1370." The strip features a man riding on the horse. The man sings "(Get Up I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine" by James Brown, with the horse acting as his call-and-response Bobby Byrd. The strip "The Street Tom Waits Grew Up On" is a hilarious imagining of the weird buildings all in a row that surely must have inspired the singer's weird lyrical imagery.

Gauld is also willing to be absurd in making his references, with some of them ending up more in Michael Kupperman territory. Kupperman loves making references to old things that don't actually exist as well as utterly warping history in crazy fashion, like in his Twain and Einstein stories. Similarly, in Gauld's hands, Charles Dickens is an action hero whose "Dickensmobile" rides on tracks under London. In another strip, "The Multifaceted Mister Dickens", there are Steampunk, Song And Dance and Sexy versions of the author. Gauld also loves having god talk or react to to famous atheists like Phillip Pullman, the fantasy author whose His Dark Materials novels are notably anti-religion; in one strip, god tells Pullman what to write for his next book, with Jesus and the holy ghost wanting in on the action as well. Noted atheist author Richard Dawkins is another common subject, as Jesus tells god not to take Dawkins' book The God Delusion personally up in heaven.

The title of the book comes from a strip where a character in a space suit labeled "science-fiction" says this to a group of tut-tutting normal people labeled "proper literature". It's a fitting title, because Gauld loves genre tropes and tries to incorporate so many of them in his strips to get a laugh. Sometimes this is done in a straightforward manner and other times it's one of his many metafictional jokes and slow reveals. His ultra-simple line and restrained use of color make each strip instantly comprehensible as a gestalt, allowing the reader to get to whatever reference he's making that much faster. Gauld makes a lot of references to film and video games, imagining Pip from Great Expectations in a first person quest video game or the Bronte sisters in a multiplayer game. He spoofs political cartoons and their frequently arbitrary drawings and labels. He makes clear the relationship between art and commerce. Probably the funniest strip in the book is an artist who's designed new covers for D.H. Lawrence's books, claiming that he chose "images that represent Lawrence's key themes: class, nature and capitalism". After a silent panel, he says "Just kidding! They're all pictures of sexy ladies!" to which his publishers exclaim "Hooray!" The hit-to-miss ratio in this book is quite strong and his art is so appealing that it's easy to simply tear through the book. While Gauld's long-form comics are more ambitious and rewarding, he's astonishingly good at the art of the sophisticated gag that draws simultaneously from high and low art references.

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