Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #286: Fran by Jim Woodring

I don't think men have actually gone mad trying to review Jim Woodring's books -- but if I said so, you might well believe me: that's how phantasmagorical and elusive those stories are. Usually, we just point at a Woodring book and make appreciative noises, like the apes around the monolith in 2001: we know it's an impressive object, carefully constructed for a specific and complex purpose, but all we have are bones and our poor brains to make sense of it. (See my review of Woodring's 2010 book Weathercraft for one example.)

Woodring's new book in 2013 was Fran, a companion or expansion of his previous book Congress of the Animals (of which I've only read a preview, if that makes a difference; I don't necessarily find that I understand a Woodring book better after reading all of the pages). Like most of his work for the last two decades, it's set in the same bucolic/horrific landscape, a place where relative innocents frolic and strange creatures lurk to do literally unspeakable things.

You see, everything in a Woodring book is unspeakable -- mostly because his books are all wordless, but also because they are so clearly individual and rooted in Woodring's view of the world than any words the rest of us to describe it will inevitably be wrong and twisted. (What I'm doing now is very nearly pointless: writing words about a Woodring book is not a useful response.)

Frank is the central character, a beleaguered Everyman prone to fits of anger, fear, and jealousy. He lives with two friends/pets, the four-legged Pupshaw and Pushpaw. Other creatures or places appear, and sometimes the book's packaging tell us who they are -- the piglike Manhog, for example -- and sometimes not.

But this book focuses on Fran, who I take to be the anima to Frank's animus: his lover or female friend or mirror. The book begins with the two of them walking up in bed -- which would be suggestive if they weren't drawn so asexually, and if Woodring's fleshy concerns didn't tend more to the horrors of losing control of one's body. They play and gambol, happy until an encounter with a hideous little creature leads to Frank's discovery of a treasure-trove of strange things in an underground cave.

One of those things is a device that projects memories onto a convenient sheet: Frank uses it, showing us the events of the beginning of this book and much of Congress in reverse. He then tries to pass it to Fran, but she violently refuses, smashing the device. And so Fran leaves -- and, along the way, we see that she is not the weak quiet creature Frank is; she's confident, powerful and sure, as the projection of Woman usually is in an allegorical story made by a man.

Frank follows, as best he can. Fran has returned to an older home, to a friend/lover/husband, whom Frank of course tries to attack. And then Frank goes through less definable scenes until he returns home -- as usual, Woodring works with dream-logic and dumb-show imagery, leaving the reader to find meaning in enigmatic events.

Woodring's lines are sumptuous and glorious as ever, and the events those lines depict as clear or dark as ever. There is no one else like Woodring; no other cartoonist works so directly from his own unconscious and id. You don't have to read Woodring, the same way you don't have to see Beckett or listen to Mahler -- and it's not Woodring that is lessened by that choice.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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