On Goliath by Tom Gauld

We all know how the story ends, of course, and as soon as Tom Gauld introduces us to his own take on the Philistine giant, we can guess much of what the route to his brutal, early death will involve. For this, Goliath is no intimidatingly gargantuan champion of an ungodly race. The only remarkable thing about him is his height. A soldier less out of conviction than compulsion, it seems, he prefers pen-pushing to patrolling, and his own company to that of others. Amiable, quiet, deferent, none-too-bright and trusting, Goliath only becomes a fearsome presence when draped in ceremonial armour and marched in the direction of folks who’ve never met him before. Even then, the hurriedly constructed show of might gradually falls apart, as his huge coat of mail disintegrates chain by chain.

Given the inevitably of its conclusion and the simple reversal of biblical tradition which drives Gauld’s tale, it might be wondered what the point of Goliath is beyond the virtuoso display of cartooning which marks each and every panel of the book. After all, the general outlines of the Biblical story are well-known, while Gauld’s spin of it is straight-forward and largely predictable. From the very first moment we see him, working alone under the moon on his admin, we’re immediately aware that this Goliath is anything but the brute of 1 Samuel Chapter 17. Knowing that the tale will end with David decapitating his corpse suggests that the Gauld’s themes as well as his plot and climax are all-too-obviously mapped out in the book’s first few pages. Yet much of the brilliance of Gauld’s work lies in how he contrasts Goliath’s occluded understanding of his own life with the broader, pitiless agendas of the barely-seen powers who’ll all-too-soon do for him. On the one hand, he presents us with a hapless soldier who’s barely beginning to grasp that duty and self-interest might be very different things. On the other, Gauld makes it obvious that Goliath will never have the time and freedom to create a life of his own. A behemothic everyman, he’s doomed by the schemes of the powerful and the capriciousness of fate to crash into his own terrible end long before he ever truly grasps exactly who he is and what he ought to be doing. By inverting the myth of Goliath, Gauld evokes the sense that time’s running out and the end cruelly and irresistibly approaching which so many of us feel in our darker hours. At the same time, he also suggests that our freedom of action is severely limited in a world in which all of the power and little of the responsibility appears to rest elsewhere.

Everybody, it seems, has an purpose for Goliath. Gambling fellow soldiers would like to see him tangle with a mangy captured bear. Calculating aunts are curious about his availability as a husband for their inconveniently unattached daughters. Worst of all, a management-speak spouting Captain enmeshes him in a ludicrous plot to intimidate the Israelites and impress the King. For all that Goliath’s a tale characterised by an affable if wistful good humour, its closing effect is a profoundly tragic one, and Gauld succeeds in evoking a far more politically passionate sense of waste and futility than might at first appear possible. This, he appears to be saying, is how carelessly and avariciously power gets put to use, and this is what happens to those who unconsciously trust it to do the right thing. In the end, as the reader can’t help but know, even Goliath’s memory will be appropriated by his killer and put to serve the very cause that he nominally opposed.

Gauld’s meticulously crossed-hatched, purposefully naive artwork ensures that it’s impossible for us to loose sympathy with both his title character and the mostly unremarkable events which comprise his day-to-day existence. All of Gauld’s cast teeter on the edge of being a collection of geometrical abstractions, and that’s especially true where the pressed, unenthusiastic “Champion of the Philistines” is concerned. Gauld’s style idiosyncratically emphasises character while eschewing inessential detail, which is no unimportant thing in a tale which might easily become over-complicated and obscured by its unfamiliar historical setting and religious context. And so, Goliath’s comparatively – ridiculously – tiny head always seems to be perched precariously on the tip of his unnaturally tapering neck. It creates a sense of vulnerability and awkwardness which is only accentuated by the fact that his skull’s regularly cropped by the top of the frames he appears in. Similarly, Goliath’s body – all pipe-thin limbs and equilateral triangles – often seems to hesitantly undulate forwards rather than ever striding onwards with any confidence, which means we’re never deluded into thinking that this new take on an ancient tale might bring with it a better ending for its Brobdingnagian protagonist. Quite frankly, he’s far too human for all of this to end well.

As such, Gauld’s characters combine the charm of an unpretentiously direct style with the precision of expression which the absence of an unnecessary realism permits. A less sparse and wordy approach would struggle to match Gauld’s for elegance and economy, while a less sympathetically comedic approach would run the risk of burying Goliath’s tale beneath a weight of bathos. It’s all too easy to imagine a take on the same plot which was fatally undermined from its very first panel by the obviousness of tub-thumping and melodramatic sincerity. But in counter-pointing an entirely serious purpose with an exquisitely playful form, Gauld ensures that we care all the more despite the grim hopelessness which underpins his story. The message may be irredeemably bleak, but the work is fundamentally warm and beguiling and compassionate, and so we keep reading, and caring.

Tom Gauld’s Goliath is available from Drawn and Quarterly.

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Colin Smith is currently Q Magazine’s comics columnist and blogs at Too Busy Thinking About My Comics and on Tumbler.

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