By Jim Woodring
104 pages, black and white
Published by Fantagraphics
Jim Woodring is that rare comics creator whose works are truly unique. On the surface, you might think it sounds otherwise—a silent comic about a protagonist (Frank) in a strange world that perpetually seems out to get him—but the reality is anything but. Of course, that’s in part because the word "reality" and Woodring’s comics about Frank really don’t belong in the same sentence; these are some of the strangest, trippiest comics to crawl out of anyone’s headspace in a while, and at such a continual basis at that.
In 2003 Fantagraphics published The Frank Book, an omnibus of Woodring’s comics about Frank, and I figured it was probably the last we’d see of the character. But last year, Woodring debuted Weathercraft, a new graphic novel set in the world of Frank, and he followed it up this year with Congress of the Animals. It’s an extremely pleasant surprise, to get such a wealth of new material in the space of these past two years.
With Congress of the Animals, Woodring returns to Frank as our protagonist, where a bizarre croquet accident destroys his house and places him into indentured servitude to pay for a replacement home. And then, when a moment of escape presents itself, Woodring plunges Frank into a series of strange non-sequiturs that lands him in a situation I never thought we’d see in a Frank comic.
Of course, if you’ve ever read a Frank comic then you’ll know that saying there’s "a series of strange non-sequiturs" is like saying that an issue of X-Men features mutants. The world of Congress of the Animals is forever morphing and malleable. Statues shudder to life and flip their faces inside out; creatures with 13 faces rise up out of the deep; tentacled horrors attempt to eat and devour our hero. (It’s that latter in particular that we’ve seen more times than we can count in Woodring’s comics. Those easily disturbed might want to steer clear.) There’s always a certain internal logic to Woodring’s comics, though; be it a crank device that rotates your face in the direction you turn it, or rings of eyes that forever gaze at whomever is walking by. There’s that continual danger that the world of Frank is always out to get the unaware, and it’s a place where you can never let your guard down.
But with all of that in mind, Congress of the Animals is—and I hate to say this—probably the weakest of the Frank comics I’ve read, saved in part only by its conclusion. Too much of Congress of the Animals feels aimless, or rather more aimless than normal. I’m used to Woodring’s strange stream-of-consciousness stories and I enjoy them a great deal, but this feels like a series of scenes even more disconnected from one another than Woodring normally gives us. It’s still a trippy, surreal, slightly unnerving landscape that I appreciate the creativity and sense of wonder that is infused into its creation, but this is a much more episodic and wildly varying story than I’d have liked. Maybe it’s in part because of its larger page count, versus a short story; Woodring usually doesn’t have this much room to stretch out his explorations into the world of Frank. But when the big event happens in the last twenty pages, it feels slightly frustrating that it’s taken us this long to get to this moment, and that it’s shoved into the last fifth of the book.
That said, "weakest" is a relative term when it comes to Woodring, who is truly one of the most creative comic creators working today. His art is still richly textured and unnerving, with massive faces on prehensile necks that swing around and stalk poor Frank, or creations that are so fundamentally wrong that it can’t help but disturb the reader if they look for too long. It’s fascinating just to look at the art and marvel at the oddities that spring to life; for that alone it’s hard to not highly recommend a graphic novel from Woodring.
Congress of the Animals might be my least favorite Woodring book, but it’s still overall strong and compelling. I love the fact that Woodring has made a huge, fundamental change to the world of Frank, and that in doing so it still feels like an old familiar friend. I’m not sure just anyone could have pulled this off so late in the game, but with Woodring it feels like a natural extension of everything we’ve seen up until now. There’s no other comics quite like Woodring’s out there, and I’m forever thankful that we get these amazing, disturbing, wonderful creations from him. After all, a "merely good" comic from Woodring is still better than most other comics out there. If you haven’t read any comics by Woodring, definitely take the time to give them a try. They are, in the end, truly unique.