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Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Drawn & Quarterly -Mooncop by Tom Gauld

In a hostile take-over bid involving 1p per share in Black Tower and CBO Lord Brown of Bristol has taken over (and I've made 1p which is my best sale this year!).

Mooncop by Tom Gauld
Published by Drawn & Quarterly 
100 pages 
£12.99 uk.

Back around 2001 I was in my last year of an Illustration Degree, and had ventured up to that London with a group of Friends from the Course to attend the Royal College of Art's Open Day, part of which was an Introductory talk by  Andrzej Klimowski, the Head of the Illustration Course there, and part of the talk included a slideshow/powerpoint presentation of work by various past and current students there. To be honest, I wasn't enamoured with many of the examples on show, considering them embarrassingly vacuous drivel, like animated dancing pasta, or a film someone had made of a bridge they'd just driven over, but then shown upside-down. The kind of conceptual codswallop that people who actually can't paint or draw do, y'know. But then among these tragic excuses of artistic expression was a drawing of some rain, with a dryly witty caption that was actually funny. The students name was Tom Gauld, and he'd apparently made little comics with another student on the course named Simone Lia. I made a mental note of the name, based solely on that one panel.

 Since then, I have continued making comics in virtual anonymity (bitter, me? Yes !) while Gauld and Lia have both gone on to make successful careers as "Graphic Novellists"(for want of a better identity descriptor). Gauld's last book was Goliath, a rather witty and oddly moving "re-imagining"(as Tim Burton's Publicists might put it) of The Biblical characters final days. In his new book, he's travelled farther into the future, to tell a slim yet equally affecting tale of the last Policeman on the Moon.

What I like about this book is it's blatant lack of plot dynamic, which allows Gauld to do what he does best. Which often is, seemingly, not much. But for those familiar with his work, it's the lack of movement,the "non-dynamic" as it were, that's everything. But let's get what suffices as "plot" out of the way. There's this guy on the Moon, who's the policeman for the Lunar Colony that's been established there.  Sadly though, it seems the Lunar Colony is on it's last legs, everyone's leaving and returning to Earth, and there's very little for a Mooncop to do, by way of crime. Or living, it seems. That's it. There's your story. Nothing's happening here, it would seem.

Of course there's actually a bit more to it than that really.

You could say it's about the individual's sense of desolation, human obsolescence in the face of technology (technology that never seems to work however !!!), the need for others in the face of melancholy and loneliness, the failed pursuit of ambition and dreams, and the triumph of love and doughnuts.

What I'd say above all else is that this is the best thing Gauld's done yet.

In this book, Gauld seems to have found the natural landscape for his storytelling skills. The moon is empty, desolate, and most importantly silent. See, Gauld's great strength as a cartoonist is in understanding the importance of stillness and silence in narrative, and describing them. His humour derives from a rather beautiful understatement in both his pictures and words, that have weight because so little seems to be occuring. He also has a terrific sense of rhythm and balance throughout, and has the timing of all great comics in delivering these neat little punchlines. His panels seem to embody the very idea of the "still-life", whereby every element is there for the purpose of the story, and not moving, which means you have to pay attention, you have to look at he picture, what's going on in it. There's no showing off in his work, yet this little book is like a masterclass in pacing and storytelling.

Gauld's work always looks deceptively simple, like he's spent the last Religious Education lesson of a Friday afternoon doodling away at ease in the back of his exercise book to avoid boredom. All the elements in his stories are delinated in an instantly recognisable style of neat little rapiographed etches and cross-hatching. Like all really good cartoonists there's a wonderfully coherent and concise quality to his drawing which tells you everything you need to know in each picture,which remains consistent throughout the book. He never overdraws-take away the hatching and each element in   the panel is rendered simply, without fuss, the hatching's there for weight and tone, not for showing us his brilliance at cross-hatching. What I was enamoured with in Mooncop was the composition of his pages, just how well he understands how to move a story along visually, even if it seems it's not moving. Then there's the balance of each page. This whole book is so beautifully balanced visually, yet the arrangements per page are so utterly simple. There's not a single page with more than 6 panels. Often it's his use of one panel pages that's truly clever and wonderful here. They often act as a bridge between the small incidental events in the story, and they also create a sudden sense of scale, whether it's Mooncop passing another man-made relic of the Lunar Clony on his silent way across the lunar surface, the Earth sat alone in the sky above, or the newly erected Lunar Doughnut shop sat in the middle of an uninhabited nowhere. They're silent punctuations that suggest isolation, and the vastness of space, and still reflection. Gauld's genius is in the skill of "the Pause", and how to use it. And there aren't many that use it so well. Here's someone who truly understands the form, nature and language of the comic-strip.

And he's also gently funny, in a way that reminds me of film-maker Bill Forsyth, another craftsman of wryly incidental and softly eccentric understated comedy. There are some lovely sequential bits of humour throughout, Mooncop completeing his Monthly Crime Stats,the Robot replacement Lunarmart operative,looking for a colonists lost dog, Neil Armstrong(!!???), and the therapy unit that arrives to see if Mooncop is suffering from depression. Yet also underlying the humour is a quiet sad melancholy; the realisation that your reason for existing may be pointless, what you dreamt of as a future wasn't what you hoped it would turn out to be, and that you and eveything you knew that existed will one day be obsolete and replaced.As one incidental character states," Living on the Moon...Whatever were we thinking? It seems rather silly now".

Yet despite this, the book ends on a warm and optimistic note of sorts, that while the heart beats, hope, and life, is never entirely lost. Within this deceptively simple and quietly beautiful little book, Tom Gauld manages to tell us huge truths about the nature of our modern lives, and does so with an assuredness and skill in comic-strip narrative that students in the form would do well to investigate, and those more weathered in the landscape would do well to admire.

Paul Ashley Brown

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