Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Frank Book by Jim Woodring

Does the beginning explicate the later work? It can, sometimes. Especially if a creator starts out relatively simple and gets more complicated as she goes, the beginning is the best way in.

But if the beginning is as hermetic and self-referential as the end, then it may only look like a slightly simpler version, which could be useful, but will not provide any Aha! moment.

Jim Woodring is the latter. I don't know if I need to say that; it's probably clear to anyone who knows Woodring's work. Woodring, for thirty-plus years, has been making comics set in a world we eventually learned he calls The Unifactor, about a little guy named Frank and the enemies, friends, pets, and monsters that inhabit that world with him. The Frank Book was the first big collection of Frank stories; it came out in 2003 and collected stories that had appeared, mostly in anthologies, in the decade before that.

Since then, Woodring has mostly made new Frank stories at graphic-novel length: Weathercraft, Fran, and Poochytown are a few of them, the ones that I've written about here at the greatest length.

Some other things I should tell you about Woodring's work: it's generally wordless. We know the names of these characters from sources mostly outside the books themselves, though this book does collect a series of trading cards (it was the '90s; I can't explain the why of that any more clearly) with names for all the characters to that point and some psychological/behavioral details for them. His work is about feelings and psychological states and transformation and, probably, in some complex way, teleology - his world is a directed, purposeful one, that forces specific actions and changes to...teach moral lessons? illustrate various parables? demonstrate the futility of all action?

That's the thing. I'm pretty sure Woodring has very specific lessons to teach, that his stories are precise and pointed. But I have never found them clear, at all. I don't think most people do, luckily - there do seem to be a few readers in synch enough with Woodring's worldview to explain some pieces of his work, but most of us experience it rather than understand it.

This is the best introduction to Woodring's work, the clearest and simplest and most obvious of the Frank stories. They are not clear or simple or obvious, by any standard definition. There are over three hundred pages of stories here, and they begin as they continue: with Frank in a detailed, complex world that Woodring will not explain to us, besieged by and gleefully exploiting and tricking (and several more even-less likely verbs) the organic, transforming creatures and/or landscape of this place.

It does include those trading cards, so we know he is Frank, the appetite-driven four-legged thing is Manhog, his pet is Pupshaw and her mate/friend is Pushpaw. The devil-figure is Whim. The spindle-looking flying whatzises are Jivas. And that there is both the Faux Pa and the Real Pa, who are completely identical except for the way they interact with Frank.

Things happen. It would be body horror if we took it seriously, if we didn't know all of these characters would be back to their default state at the beginning of the next story, like a repertory company who all die at the end of Hamlet and then jump up to take a bow and ask the audience to come back tomorrow for Love's Labour Lost.

Woodring's work in this era was only intermittently in color, so this book shows his black-and-white line art better than the later, more colorful books. There are some images, mostly single pages, that look to be done with airbrush, but this is mostly pen-and-ink work, full of precise lines to delineate all of these phantasmagorical things.

Woodring is a careful, precise creator - in both his drawing and his stories. We may not know why something looks as it does, or why Frank does any particular thing, but we always know Woodring knows, and did it that way for a very particular reason.

That's enough for me; I hope it can be enough for you. Woodring is a singular figure in comics: utterly unlike anyone else, with influences that seem to be entirely outside of comics and no followers at all. His world is wide and strange and beautiful and horrible, and every page, every panel is a new wonder or horror.

This is where it started. This is where to start. But don't expect to get it. You may have to be Jim Woodring for that.

No comments:

Post a Comment