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.)
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.
Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the editor-in-chief of MAKE and Cool Tools. Twitter: @frauenfelder. Come and hear Mark speak at the ALA conference in Chicago on July 1.