Thursday, August 05, 2021

The Follies of Richard Wadsworth by Nick Maandag

I thought I knew deadpan. Brother, was I wrong.

Nick Maandag is deadpan. Middle-of-Death-Valley-in-a-heat-wave deadpan. No flinching, no blinking, no prisoners. And I appreciate that, even as I start to wonder if I really should be laughing: what if, I think, this isn't meant to be funny?

There are sequences in the second story in this book, "Night School," that run straight down the weird borderland between dystopic horror and exaggerated slapstick. I did laugh, I admit it. But I immediately felt bad about it, and wondered if I should have.

The book is The Follies of Richard Wadsworth. Nick Maandag, again, is the cartoonist. It came out two years ago, and had three new stories - the title piece is about half the book, then "Night School" and "The Disciple" split the rest. There's also some four-panel jokes, somewhat along the lines of Ruben Bolling's "Super-Fun-Pak Comix," on the inside covers.

Maandag will not tell you when to laugh; he's not going to telegraph anything. His situations may be bizarre - "Night School," in particular, spirals from a fairly normal business class to escalating torments smoothly and plausibly. "The Disciple" is a bit more of a shaggy dog story, in which one young monk battles his attachments to the world and learns some unsavory secrets about his master. Oh, and manages a monkey sidekick, because Maandag will never quite be straightforward.

The title story plays it basically straight, with Wadsworth, a peripatetic philosophy professor in his early middle years, landing at a new college for a new academic year, hoping to finally put down roots and get tenure. But he's bizarrely impulsive and socially inept - in the manner of a comedy protagonist, mostly - and horribly bumbles both a relationship with a female student and learning a juicy piece of academic gossip. Wadsworth is one of those people who can't get out of his own way to save his life, but always in funny ways. Maandag, though, plays it all as it it were totally straight, as if this were yet another story of a professor lusting after a student and not about a total goofball who runs on endlessly about the joys of bland chain restaurants.

Maandag's line reminds me a bit of Seth: precise, thin, all the same weight, with a lot of texture on surfaces behind his characters. His people pop from their backgrounds, but still feel small, limited, inherently minor. It's a good look for comedy: his people are mockable down to their core, in the way he draws them as much as the way he writes them. They're mostly ugly or funny-looking to one degree or other, like real people are and comics people most of the time aren't.

I don't think anyone needs to be told this book is comedy. I think that would be clear in the reading of it, even if you picked it up randomly, with no knowledge at all. I think. Maybe not. Maandag is that deadpan. 

No comments:

Post a Comment