I can’t remember when I first heard about Jim Woodring; it must have been on one of my many tries to Understand the History of All Mediums that Involve Writing. I always meant to read his comics, but because there’s so much out there, it takes something distinctive to remind you to read someone’s work.
In this case, it was hearing about the time Jim Woodring made a giant fountain pen and tried to use it. Good enough.
So far, what I’ve read of Jim Woodring are his Frank stories, but not even all of those. The Frank stories are a series of silent (mis)adventures with a small cast of creatures and some walk-ons, set in a place of minarets and rolling hills called the Unifactor. The usual protagonist is Frank, an old-school cartoon creature of deliberately undefined species. Often by his side is Pupshaw, a pyramidal ring-tailed creature who serves as Frank’s “dog” but is far more powerful than he, and who has a boyfriend of similar make named Pushpaw.
Manhog is a disturbing man-pig-thing who is hurt in gory and pathetic ways but also might be the victim of karma. Sometimes there is a devilish critter named Whim, and vajra-like creatures called Jivas come through the sky. There are others like Quacky, Faux Pa, Lucky, Real Pa, Cart Blanche, and the Jerry Chickens. Also, lots and lots of frogs and frog-like beings.
The Unifactor stories are soundless, told in pantomime, and are short and simple in the compilation book I have, called (yeah) “The Frank Book”, though longer stories exist in other graphic novels. There is no doubt a deeply personal unspoken language in these tales, but they can be enjoyed on a surface level. I know that I liked them very much, since I love surreal settings and weird creatures.
I just love the people who can think and write like this. When faced with a bizarre, dreamlike, or stream-of-conscious mode of storytelling, I nearly always believe that it was what the author naturally desired and sought. They weren’t trying to swindle anyone with fake “depth”, but simply told the story they wanted. Sometimes earnestness produces weirdness and not simplicity.
Of course, for Woodring it all hasn’t been wonderful. Profiles of him tell the story of a childhood plagued with hallucinations, sickness, and paranoia. It’d be dangerous to believe this is what made him the great artist that he is today.
But I look forward to reading more of his books.
I’ve posted it before, but the video above is a collection of excerpts from Visions of Frank, a 2007 DVD that contained animated Frank shorts by independent Japanese animators. The DVD itself seems to be vanished, which is a shame.