Now the Philistines gathered; the armies of Israel stood on a mountain on the other side. And there was a valley between them.
With these words, Tom Gauld sets the scene for Goliath. We can only imagine the drama that will ensue, the bloodshed, the pandemonium. In fact, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Within a mere ninety six pages, our hero will not only blunder the opportunity to fight the enemy, but will be lying dead on the ground, severed head beside him. And the strangest part, this happens in cartoon form. Adapting an age old biblical tale to fit the narrow constraints of a comic book was surely no easy task for Tom Gauld. Little did I know writing about it would be an equal challenge.
David and Goliath seem an unlikely choice for the basis of a graphic novel; especially for an artist known for his stark and simple comic strips. When I mentioned this to Gauld in a recent interview his answer caught me off guard. “One day I thought of Goliath and looked up the story in the bible,” he explained, “I knew pretty much straight away I could work with it.” Gauld may say this as casually as “I could go for a tuna sandwich on rye,” but the actual writing process wasn’t as spontaneous. “Once I started thinking about Goliath’s position,” he said, “I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.” Gauld’s version of the character takes on a whole new context. No longer is he arrogant and monstrous; rather, he’s tranquil and misunderstood. He’s a gentle giant.
It’s the dead of night. We see a village perched atop a hill, illuminated by the glow of a full moon. A dreary-eyed Goliath is hard at work, refilling his canteen in the river below. Submerging the bottle underwater, he reaches for a stone. As he examines it, a fellow soldier calls his name making his way down-hill. The soldier warns Goliath of the enemy’s close proximity. “You should be careful,” he says. They say goodnight, and Goliath drops the stone back into the shallow water. This opening scene is critical. Goliath is both warned of the enemy, and locates the object that will ultimately lead to his annihilation- a simple stone. Soon after the midnight encounter, Goliath reluctantly challenges the enemy to a battle, a fight to the death that will assert the Philistines’s superiority. After waiting for what feels like eternity, his nemesis, David, finally accepts the dare. He throws a stone at Goliath, killing him.
In an interesting twist, the story is told from Goliath’s perspective. This is an ambitious concept, fascinating. “The story in the bible is so totally from David’s point of view,” Gauld tells me, “He’s hardly a character at all in the bible, he’s more of a list of measurements.” Not much happens in Gauld’s version though. Goliath waits with a young admirer–a shield bearer, conversing and dozing off. The approaching battle is foreboding, and the book captures the fleeting moments of serenity beforehand.
The pace of the story is unusual. It’s a quick read, straight and to the point. This works as an advantage. However, more dialogue would certainly enhance the book, because when it does appear it’s clever and engaging:
Shield-Bearer: Everyone’s talking about you. Did you punch a camel and kill it?
Goliath: What? Where did you hear that?
Shield-Bearer: And you don’t eat rocks?
Shield-Bearer: Is it true you have a gigantic “you-know-what?”
Goliath: Enough questions.
Goliath is defined by its minimalism, as nothing seems out of place or excessive. The landscape Gauld depicts is stark and lonely, made up of rolling hills, twig like trees, and a few rocks. “It just seems to be my natural instinct to pare things down,” Gauld reflected, “I like the idea of taking everything away which isn’t necessary until there’s just a very simple skeleton of a story.” While this style works to its advantage, at times I also found the “skeleton of a story” almost painfully minimalist. Gauld is an undeniably skilled artist, yet his style doesn’t translate well to such a large scale. The sterility of his drawings get in the way of a riveting and exhilarating story. It’s best taken in small doses. I found myself hoping for variety, and yearning for excitement.
Capturing the essence of Goliath seems a nearly impossible task. I read and re-read the book, drafted and re-drafted this review. I’m still trying to figure out whether it’s brilliant, or whether it’s missing the embellishments of the age-old biblical tale. It’s an enjoyable read, attractive and charming. Upon closer examination, however, there is an emptiness. Goliath has an inexplicable mystique. Perhaps it’s best to leave it that way.