Harvey Knight’s Odyssey
Cartoonist: Nick Maandag
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly
Harvey Knight’s Odyssey by Nick Maandag is an interesting book, sort of a mash-up of the best of modern humor cartooning — think Tom Gauld — with the pressure cooker stress of movies where the main character shoots themselves in the foot over and over again until that foot is gone. Think Uncut Gems, or, perhaps more relevant to comics, Funny Pages. Where this book stands out, however, is with the way it applies its dark humor vision to very specific power structures, including mundane office politics as well as a cult that has come to wield vast powers within society.
This vision is played out most clearly in two of the three total pieces in the book. The first is the opening story, The Plunge, which is entirely grounded in reality and built on the menial nature of office existence, wherein anything new or unusual is liable to become a source of fascination. In The Plunge, that new thing is the use of a French press to make coffee, something most of the folks in the office haven’t seen before. It’s a great and relatable bit. Personally, I used to bring a different brand of sparkling water to my office, one my co-workers hadn’t seen before, and it was a constant source of conversation. See also, when I ate an orange at lunch everyday in a different office (literally someone different would walk by each day, sniff, and say, “smells like orange” …it was absurd).
It’s that familiar concept that makes the first story such a strong opener, one that makes a sly and subtle point about how homogenous modern work can be, how it primes people for anything different or interesting. It pays off in a clever and earned punchline I won’t spoil here. It also serves as a great entry point for a book that might otherwise prove tough to access.
After the intro story, Harvey Knight’s Odyssey segues into the titular piece, where the true scope of Maandag’s interests for this book start to become clear. In a way, the second story also drives to make a point about the personal aspect of being entwined within power structures that make the individual feel uniform (a theme Maandag has explored previously, albeit in different context). But while the first story relies upon relatable familiarity, the second story casually builds an absurd alternate reality, laced with the gross and depraved. The characters we follow are part of a cult that inexplicably wields so much power in society that it has started to shape the law (making murder legal in the right context).
A different (and lesser) comic would have dwelled obsessively on the cult, as well as the reasons that this society has become what it is, but not this book. The cult and society are mostly background flavor. The book goes hard instead with a focus on it’s titular character, who is just awful. We watch this awful man inflict increasingly violent and queesy self-owns upon himself for nearly 100 pages. This man — Harvey Knight — is as incapable as he is ambitious, and the results are harrowing.
As I said above, the way Knight increasingly hurts himself with his schemes feels evocative of a type of story that is moving through the zeitgeist and influencing other art with great alacrity. It’s a feeling that has led to movies like Funny Pages or Uncut Gems. The difference with this piece is that those movies happen in our world, and Harvey Knight’s Odyssey takes place in a world all its own. This frees the story up to go even further than it otherwise might, and there are few checks on where the bits in this book ultimately go.
And that’s really the strength of this book, at least for a certain type of reader. It’s essentially so bold that it might also alienate some readers. Harvey Knight’s Odyssey, it should be noted, is not going to be a broad crowd-pleaser. The central piece is filled with sudden murders, can-can dancers dressed as maggots, and men wearing speedos in a basement getting drunk while forcing mice to bowl instead of tending to the responsibilities they have schemed and murdered to obtain. The opening piece, The Plunge, eases the reader into Maandag’s fascinations, while Harvey Knight’s Odyssey tests how far they are willing to follow his narrative explorations of them.
For readers willing to slide into chaos and depravity and imaginative dark humor, though, this one might end up being their favorite book of the year. I enjoyed it quite a bit myself. I found these stories to all be compulsively readable and entirely unpredictable. And I chuckled in many places at the humor Maandag found within a certain type of depth of cynicism thought I’d rarely (if ever) seen cartoonists explore.
Maandag’s cartooning too is subtle, consistent, and interesting throughout, as are the characters and the thematic interests he explores. True humor cartooning is maybe the most difficult genre to work within, and Maandag does so fearlessly. The results can be brutal at times in this one, but it’s all in the service of interesting premises and funny payoffs. If that all sounds appealing and you’re game to take a trip into the basement (literally and metaphorically) with Harvey Knight, you just might emerge having found one of the funniest books you’ve read in years.
Harvey Knight’s Odyssey is available now.