Thursday , July 2 2020

Comic Review: ‘Department of Mind-Blowing Theories’ by Tom Gauld from Drawn+Quarterly

Department of Mind-Blowing Theories by Tom Gauld published by Drawn+Quarterly is a chuckle-with-tongue-in-cheek collection of gags all on aspects of the scientific community. In addition to works such as the graphic novel Moon-cop, Gauld has been poking fun at writing and literate for years in the Guardian. This new collection, dedicated to his grandfather Dr. David Gauld, stirs up a mass of inanity in every aspect of the left-brained world.

The topics for humor run the scientific gamut from marine biology’s accepted acronyms (WTF: “what’s this fish?”), to picture books for young bacteriologists like The Very Hungry Streptobacilli, to astronomy with the secret that asteroids and comets hate each other. Even science history gets an elbow in responses from 1859 figures had Darwin published On the Origin of Species as a social media post. The Three Scientist Bears turn the tale of Goldilocks into a series of dense-language research papers on breakfast temperatures, load-bearing wooden seating, and sleep quality correlations to bed softness.

Many of the strips show potential inventions that would brighten a scientist’s life or at least make it easier. He suggests greeting cards for non-scientist relations bearing fronts like “Congratulations! But please don’t try to explain it again.” Science gang tattoos offer tough-looking symbols with knives and fire for botanists, geologists, and mathematicians. Proposed additions to the International Space Station include modules for a microbrewery, youth hostel, and waterslide.

Other strips are directed at experimentation, often pulling skillful comic tricks such as having universes-within-universes see each other as eyes peering in from the first panel and out of the last one. Another strip presents a classic sight-gag as a scientist discovers their growth serum experiment was somehow mixed up with hand-sanitizer, which a giant-handed peer has also recently discovered the hard way. A giant coffee mug is the perfect mirrored background for two simulations successes: self-miniaturization and cup-enormousizing.

The wit alone is captivating, but it is the art that drives the humor home. Throughout the collection, Gauld’s silhouette-style stick figures serve as shadowy everymen akin to stylizations anthropologists might find on a cave wall. The abstract nature of the images lends greater focus to the jokes themselves, not leaving the reader to worry about the look of a cowboy-mathematician but to chuckle instead at Lasso Knot Theory. For more vivid comics, Gauld has a style rich in detail, bold, straight lines, and elegant hatching that would made Edward Gorey himself give a nod. Much as with Gorey’s art, the style gives an air of ancient mystery, adding a whole new angle to dealing with advanced technology and particle physics.

Whether a science-enthusiast or simply a fan of dry cartoons, Department of Mind-Blowing Theories is a great read from the consternated metaphysical naturalist dealing with the appearance of St. Albert the Great to the hive of workers busying themselves around computers, all thinking the same, “I hope somebody around here knows what we’re supposed to be doing.”

About Jeff Provine

Jeff Provine is a Composition professor, novelist, cartoonist, and traveler of three continents. His latest book is a collection of local ghost legends, Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma.

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