What kind of cartoonist is Nick Maandag? Is he a satirist, a humourist, a wry observer of human life, or a dramatist? All or none of the above? In The Follies of Richard Wadsworth, newly released from Drawn & Quarterly, Maandag chronicles three stories, the first and titular one all about errant Philosophy instructor (or ‘professor’ as he would have you call him) Richard Wadsworth and his follies while teaching a summer course at a university building that looks a lot like University College at the University of Toronto:
During the course of his summer, Wadsworth lusts after a student, feuds with another conceited professor through the pages of a philosophy journal, spreads some inadvertent gossip about the university’s Classics department, and mistakes identities to no good end.
What I find most remarkable about Maandag’s stories is that I am immediately sucked in. His steady pacing and storytelling, simple and almost repetitive renditions, and mordant humour keep me wanting to turn the pages. You get the feeling that he doesn’t take his characters or their stories too seriously, instead keeping things rolling with absurd twists and quandaries, taking pleasure in watching his characters squirm. His satire seems neither Juvenalian or Horatian but rather predicated on taking glee in the absurd while lampooning human folly. Perhaps the satire falls into the Menippean tradition? In any case, the situations get to such absurd extremes that they’re not entirely believable – while remaining mordantly amusing – and both the narrative and artistic style keep us from identifying with characters too much.
The middle story in the book, ‘Night School’, is even more absurd. An instructor begins teaching a night school business leadership course (which seems to be made up of endlessly breaking down definitions into qualities and styles) when a fire breaks out, bringing a chief fireman into the class. The fireman in question takes a very parochial sense of governance and metes out some bizarre disciplinary punishments to students who interrupt the instructor with questions. Somewhere in there is a janitor who cannot find the rooms he’s looking for because everything is a maze of identical hallways and doors. There’s a reason as to why this story is placed in the middle. Made up of absurd hijinks, it’s more like something out of a Three Stooges or Marx Bros. movie than straight satire. You could call it Kafkaesque or dream-like, I suppose, but I don’t think either of these things is what Maandag is REALLY going for.
What exactly is Maandag going for? The question as to what he’s doing constantly puzzles and leads the reader on throughout the book. I don’t know that it’s really answered. He’s too lighthearted to be a social critic yet at the same time, there seems to be something a couple of notches more literary in his work than that in the run-of-the-mill gag cartoonists out there. I think his most concerted social criticism comes into play in ‘The Disciple’, the third story in the book. In it, a young man from the West has renounced his worldly life to go study in an Eastern (at least, I assume it’s somewhere in the East, but it could be in Milwaukee for all I know) Buddhist retreat/ashram. He struggles with the pull of his physical desires and lust for the women at the ashram. His teacher instructs him to focus on observing his attachment and by doing so, detach himself from the desire. This turns out to be a major crock though. It turns out that the revered teacher is using his position to practice the path of ‘both ways’ – he’s conducting affairs with the female students while preaching detachment and purity. Also, there’s a monkey called ‘Brother Bananas’ who’s also a student and wears a robe and does monkey things.
While the last of the stories is the one which has the strongest ‘throughline’, it also has some very odd funny bits involving one disciple who eats too much, another who sneaks in toilet paper, and various hijinks involving the monkey. And then the sequence where the teacher trains the novitiate how to have it ‘both ways’ by instructing him how to pleasure and seduce the frustrated women is both bizarrely funny and disturbing at the same time.
I suppose it’s somewhat of a bold move on D & Q’s part to publish this book at this time because it seems to fly in the face of the #MeToo movement. Neither Instructor Wadsworth (who preys on the sexual ministrations of his student by visiting her place of work – a rub and tug – in disguise) nor the actions of the Buddhist teacher go addressed or punished. Instead, the teacher teaches the disciple how to perpetuate the vice. Is Maandag saying that all people are corrupt and that institutions inherently do not change? Is he pointing out that the imperative to change society is ultimately doomed to failure? Or is he simply amusing himself with the immorality of it all? Despite being an ex-philosophy graduate and the inclusion of systems of thought in his stories (all three are centred around milieus that imply some sort of learning or teaching environment), the characters don’t seem to learn or change, nor do the stories grapple with the conundrums in any meaningful or lasting way. Perhaps this is not the point of Maandag’s narratives – could he just ultimately be another joker passing through the territory of his subject matter? – but this elusive nature does leave the reader a little bit unsatisfied. But he’s funny and has a gift for unusual and absurd premises. I’ll give him that.