Creatives of all stripes have long enjoyed re-imagining famous stories from new angles, but taking on the tale of a giant whose famous defeat has become a byword for triumph against all odds pushes that to the extreme. Luckily Tom Gauld’s new comic-book, starring Goliath as an unassuming army admin clerk pushed into a situation he neither wants nor understands is a work of depth, pathos and beauty, with the sublime craftsmanship anyone who knows Gauld’s work would expect. We met up with Tom to discuss how he made the world’s most famous loser into a real winner.
The anticipation surrounding Goliath has been huge, as Tom Gauld’s army of admirers look forward to the longest work he has ever produced. It has been two years in the making and Tom admitted he struggled at times with such an all-consuming undertaking, but the finished piece is tremendous.
The initial idea was born out of a Noah’s Ark-inspired story he did for Kramers Ergot “from the point of view of Noah’s sons who thought he was a bit mental” but it was actually a longstanding idea to do a story about a giant that led Tom in a roundabout way to the famous story of David and Goliath.
“Quite a lot of my other work involves looking at something that might seem amazing and heroic and clear cut and taking another view of it. The good thing is that the Bible says almost nothing about Goliath and I liked the idea of having this tragic ending and writing backwards, to try and have a surprising story about he might have ended up there.”
In Tom’s version, Goliath is no bloodthirsty caricature, but a crack penpusher for the Philistine army who is forced into facing down the Israelite army by an unscrupulous superior. Stranded on the frontline with his young shield bearer for company, the main part of the story is about loneliness and losing control of your own destiny, with the muted brown palette reflecting the bleak situation Goliath inexplicably finds himself in.
Of course everyone knows how the story ends, but Tom hopes: “that about two thirds of the way through you slightly forget what is going to happen to him. I hope people get drawn into his story and so it’s a horrible shock when he is killed, but it was always going to happen.”
With first sketches done “in a kind of school cafeteria” during two weeks’ jury service, Tom built the character of Goliath and developed the look as the best way to tell his story.
“I did not want it to be an illustrated essay – there’s hardly any narration in it and it’s told through pictures and speech. For the basic visual I wanted it to look very flat, I did not want the viewer to feel they were whooshing around and zooming in. It is repetitive, showing the same kinds of things from the same angles.
“I wanted it to be simple. For people who don’t read comics, they can seem like a kind of puzzle that has to be solved. I sometimes like that but for this I wanted it to be easy. I heard someone talking about the American cartoon Nancy once and they said it was more trouble not to read it than to read it. I wanted that effect.”
He says that Bible stories have a lot of creative potential because they tend to be slightly less crafted. “Through years and years of translation and reworking they are more ragged – there’s more space to work with.”
The story cleverly lays out Goliath’s journey without any boringly iconoclastic atheism. “You think it’s a small boy against the giant but actually it’s the giant against the small boy and the all powerful creator of the universe. He is bound to lose.
“But I did not want to make David a baddie – he still achieves his great thing. I didn’t want to undermine what he did, just look at it in a different way. David is not a character here, he is a force of nature who says things in this very Biblical, King James language.”
Goliath meanwhile speaks with beautifully pitched normality, an ordinary (ish!) man caught up in an extraordinary situation. ”I just find it funny to imagine how people would really have spoken in these situations – I am not sure I quite believe how it is always written down.”
Although Tom jokes that he hopes it does cause some kind of controversy to whip up publicity, he researched the history involved in case anyone tried to claim there was a hidden message relating to the Middle East conflict buried within its pages.
But as he himself says he shouldn’t have to worry.
“You only have to read it to realise it’s not anti-anything.”
Goliath is released by Drawn and Quartely in March.