Baking With Kafka (2017) Book Review
A delightful anthology of literary-themed comics that shows respect for the written word – and its fans.
Written by: Trent McGee October 4, 2017
When you stop to think about it, one of the more delightful developments in the Internet Age has been the dismantling of borders – digital borders – when it comes to how we consume media. This has been especially true for those American consumers of said media (including yours truly), the great majority of which had been living blissfully unaware there were any other media to consume. Once the floodgates of international online opinion and talent were open, the rest would surely follow. This was especially true for comics lovers, whose primary imports had been the pub-loving Andy Capp and Doctor Who.
Imagine having your options expanded from just The New York Times, Washington Post, or LA Times (all very city-centric, if you hadn’t noticed) to wider, more non-American fare like the BBC, The Daily Telegraph, or The Guardian. That last one brings us to the subject of Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld’s latest collection of horizontal panel comics in Baking With Kafka, culled from the Guardian’s deep treasure trove, republished in proper form for easy collecting and maximum enjoyment. It’s actually Gauld’s second proper collection following 2013’s You’re All Just Jealous of My Backpack, continuing the artist’s expertise at blending literary allusions with absurd realism.
Don’t let the words “literary” and “allusion” throw you off; yes, Gauld’s work is unusually higher brow than most, but the same could’ve been said for Gary Larson’s Far Side. Your typical bibliophile will most likely ‘get’ many of the individual comic’s more veiled references where famous scribes like Neil Gaiman or Jonathan Franzen sit comfortably alongside Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. But there’s more than enough for the layperson to get the gist, too, with plenty of world-expanding moments for those willing to crack open a dictionary when necessary.
Again, this is a collection of comics, ones pulled from a newspaper, so any actual ‘review’ really should focus more on pointing out the reviewer’s personal favorites or standouts. Here’s a few samples of what really had me rolling:
“Scenes from ‘Mrs Tittlemouse joins the Suffragettes’ by Beatrix Potter” (“Deeds not words.” said Mrs Tittlemouse and went off to town to smash windows with her toffee hammer.) or “Bad Writing” (which include tips on ‘developing your crummy idea’ and ‘editing your pile of rubbish’). Others include “The Auteur Directs A Superhero Movie” (“Less action, more nihilistic ennui.”) or “Previously Unknown Final Chapters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Charlie fends off an aggressive takeover by Nestlé). “War and Peace Clickbait” was too spot-on – because that’s exactly what would happen now.
There’s plenty more, including possibilities of a feminist James Bond, or how an indignant digital e-reader stacks up against the punishing, filthy environments of a kitchen shelf (hint: not well). Ever had a pressing question about the importance of growing just the right writer’s beard? Or the book’s namesake, “Baking With Kafka”, which reimagines the absurdist writer as a cooking show host demonstrating his recipe du jour: lemon drizzle cake. The secret, of course, should be obvious: “The meaning of life is that it stops.”
Regardless what side of the proverbial fence you fall on, there’s plenty in Baking With Kafka for both writer and reader to share their love of the written word in all its permutations and possibilities. Gauld is at his sardonic best when mix-matching not just genres, but anthropomorphizing literary styles and time-skipping variations on a theme if it helps get the laugh, which are never cheap or mean-spirited; a rarity these days. Gauld shows a clear reverence for not just literature, but those who share and appreciate this funny world of pure imagination.