Congress of the Animals: Jim Woodring's latest mindbending graphic novel

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There is no one remotely like Jim Woodring. I admire dozens of living cartoonists, but Jim's wordless comic book stories -- about a happy go lucky cat named Frank who inhabits a phantasmagorical universe of polymorphic creatures and psychedelic architecture -- are some of the most mindbending books I've ever read. (No wonder Jim was awarded the 2001 Seattle Stranger Genius Award.)  Components Com Virtuemart Shop Image Product 55A07Cfbf63417682152Cede96122E63-1

Jim's latest work is Congress of the Animals, his second graphic novel, and the first to feature Frank. Woodring describes it as a "dense, rich fable of torture, exaltation and amnesia." The universe that Frank inhabits is called The Unifactor (something I didn't know until I read the dust jacket of the book). Woodring describes The Unifactor as a "closed system of moral algebra," that is "in control of everything that happens to the characters that abide there, and that however extreme the experiences they undergo may be, in the end nothing really changes. That goes treble for Frank himself, who is kept in a state of total ineducability by the unseen forces which control that haunted realm. And so the question arises: what would happen if Frank were to leave The Unifactor?"

What we learn is that the world beyond The Unifactor is, if you can believe it, even more bizarre. The atrocious humanoids that Frank encounters in a sculpture garden of distended viscera are the stuff of nightmares. But not everything in the world is as horrific as these creatures who appear to have nefarious plans for Frank. In this new world, Frank encounters and befriends a funhouse mirror doppelgänger of himself proves to be a valuable ally in Frank's attempts to return home to his faithful pets, Pupshaw and Pushpaw, who helplessly wait for his return.

Is there a lesson to be learned from Congress of the Animals? What is the meaning behind it, and Woodring's other books? That's the question I'm unable to answer. His comics affect the part of my brain that can think and feel, but cannot verbalize. His comics change me, but I can't say why or how.

Congress of the Animals

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  1. Cool. Added it to my wishlist.

    Not to nitpick, but wouldn’t you “view” and wordless graphic novel rather than “read” it? Just curious as I’m not that up on the genre’s conventions having not delved very much into it.

    1. Woodring has addressed this topic.

      For my part, when I read a book composed of text, I turn the pages, absorb the information presented in serial symbols, and use my sense of what these symbols mean to create a story in my mind, which may correspond to what the author wished to convey.

      The process is much the same with a wordless graphic novel. The information density is probably lower than that of a textual work (a panel may correspond to a sentence or a paragraph), but the absorption and interpretation of informative symbols which combine to tell a story is similar in effect, even if it uses a different part of the brain for processing.

      In short, if it’s a book of unconnected pictures (such as an art gallery book), you browse it. If the pictures go together to tell a story, you read it.

      1. In short, if it’s a book of unconnected pictures (such as an art gallery book), you browse it. If the pictures go together to tell a story, you read it.

        That makes sense (pun sort of intended, at least I’ll claim it ex post facto :)

        I’ve been getting more and more intrigued by the symbolic relationship between visual and written art, especially since discovering this gem:

        http://www.theinventionofhugocabret.com/index.htm

        As an amateur author, I often have far richer stories and worlds in my head than I can translate into words. I may have to learn to draw :-/

        Thanks for the link.

    2. If you want to understand the story in Woodring’s work, you definitely have to read it. And yeah, I don’t think Frank is a cat. I think he is a distilled Fleischer creature living out his days on the ever fluctuating edge of the subconscious.

      1. If you want to understand the story in Woodring’s work, you definitely have to read it.

        Count on it. The sample pages are intriguing and embody exactly the type of eldritch dreamlike weirdness I demand from my visual art.

  2. Interesting point, Gulliver. It might be a stretch, but how do hieroglyphics fit into that? Although this comic lacks words, there are still moments where characters convey messages or express emotions through word bubbles filled with iconographic images, a lot like hieroglyphics.

    1. Hieroglyphics aren’t just pictures. They are a complete written language, with both phonetic and ideographic components. The characters in hieroglyphics simply look more like actual objects than the abstract figures used in other languages.

    2. Interesting point, Gulliver. It might be a stretch, but how do hieroglyphics fit into that?

      That’s what I thought of too.

      Anon #4 writes:

      Hieroglyphics aren’t just pictures. They are a complete written language, with both phonetic and ideographic components. The characters in hieroglyphics simply look more like actual objects than the abstract figures used in other languages.

      One could imagine an evolutionary dialectic between rudimentary drawings and structured symbolism that continues still. The ability to leverage this in order to create new consensus interpretations of fictional realities fascinates me.

  3. Typo Alert: “something I did learn until I read the dust jacket of the book”

    *Please delete this comment*

  4. In the interest of crystal clarity, I want to point out that the image above is not actually from the book, though it is an early version of an image from it. It was deemed too pleasant to stay as it was.

  5. fwiw… I’m not at all sure Frank is a cat.

    He’s a strange hard-to-pin-down animal/person. He may very well be a cat. But we shouldn’t go around talking about it as if it’s an accepted fact. Frank’s race is purposely ambiguous.

  6. God, Woodring’s stuff always messes me up. It’s grotesque, unsettling, and just not right. (But in a good way!)

  7. FYI, Woodring is selling autographed and customized-with-hand-drawn-artwork editions of the book:

    http://jimwoodring.blogspot.com/

    I “read” the first FRANK collection three or four times during the first week I purchased it. So strange, so wonderful.

  8. For years I’ve come across Woodring’s Frank work but I’ve never gave it a fair shake. I always thought, “No words? I’ll rip through that book in five minutes!” So after reading the above, I went down to the local comic shop over lunch and picked up The Portable Frank (they did not have Congress). I think I was 3 or 4 pages into it and realized that I loved it. Full of the vague dread and wonder of dreams that follow you after you wake. Woodring’s inking style is so interesting… I walked back to my office and after some wikipedia’ing I got on the phone and had my comic shop order me Weathercraft and Congress. Thanks for putting Frank in my head.

  9. those creatures as like the ash slave in morrowind that attack you while you try to sleep

  10. “His comics change me, but I can’t say why or how.”

    Well put!

    I think Frank is a squirrel.

  11. Did that single panel warp the grammar center of my brain or does this sentence not parse?

    In this new world, Frank encounters and befriends a funhouse mirror doppelgänger of himself proves to be a valuable ally in Frank’s attempts to return home to his faithful pets, Pupshaw and Pushpaw, who helplessly wait for his return.

  12. I’ve been reading Frank for something like 20 years. I even remember a letter from my first comic which read (probably paraphrased) “My roommate and I love Frank. We march around the apartment protruding our front teeth in his honor.”

  13. Being myself both a painter and a comics artist, I view the way most comics are viewed and the way most visual art is viewed as being very different (although these things are greatly effected by the individual comic, the individual cluster of panels, etc.). The way I see it, a standard painting on a wall is primarily *looked at*, while a comic is primarily *read*. The painting’s different elements are absorbed as aesthetic phenomena first and informational phenomena second, and primarily in relation to each other, not to other paintings. Comics images, on the other hand, are absorbed primarily as informational and primarily in relation to other images, or rather the flexible mental agglomeration of those images and their meanings in the reader’s mind.
    I employ very different criteria when making images meant to be looked at vs. those meant to be read…

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