Jim Woodring is the latest comics artist to come to my enthusiastic attention. Though he no longer does comic strips, he is legendary for his color and black and white stories about Jim – autobiographical I guess – and Frank, a humanoid figure who wordlessly moves through a landscape that exceeds the bounds of the surreal. In fact, to use that term, “surreal,” to describe him is to sink to cliche. His stories of Frank are dreamlike and terrifying, but in a way that lacks the self-conscious arti-ness of so much surrealism, while being no less powerful. I’d say, his images smack more of what I have experienced in my rare spells of delirium, but his stories all make sense, often moral sense.
The color page below will give you an idea of the eerie weirdness and humor that “Frank” brings to the world. You can visit this link to see a faithful animation of his Frank character, but I think I like the regular old ink-on-page comics better.
The black and white page is from an issue of his “Jim” comics, and as usual, it is more structured along the lines of a wordy narrative…but of course, there is that giant talking frog! I love this story for its wit, subtlety, irony, and sly philosophy. It reminds me a lot of Italo Calvino’s story, “The Aquatic Uncle.” The mastery of tone in this page, keeping to a steady highminded satire while portraying a sexy “girl-form,” a pompous and sensitive frog…prince? philosopher? demon?…and a tense socratic dialog on fear and human potential is amazing. BRAVO!
Yes, somewhere there is a graduate student laboring on a Ph.D. dissertation on the comparative treatment of gore in Richard Sala, Tony Millionaire (two other of my favorites) and Woodring. Consider first, Richard Sala:
His “noir”, Edgar A. Poe-esque adventure stories are filled with hacking, stabbing, decapitation, skull crushing violence. Still, it evinces a laugh because he works within a genre and its anti-universe, always keeping it at a considerable emotional distance from us. When I see those knives flashing, or helter-skelter piles of semi-clothed dead maidens…I chuckle or leer.
Tony Millionaire goes for the grand guignol, with a devilishly funny twist. He’s not trying to scare us out of our seats. More likely, he’d like to get us up and running to the can to vomit in disgust,
even as we nearly choke for laughing. When I look at his sliced up bodies (Everything always seems to grow back fine for the next page!) and buckets of throw-up, I grimace with disgust and chortle.
Then there’s Jim Woodring. His violence is cool, often wordless and soundless. Sometimes we don’t even know what is devouring or mutilating what. Sometimes, however, it’s just straight out barbarity, but with no visual change in tone from the other actions. Consider below: Manhog observes Frank having a picnic with his dolls and grows distraught at his exclusion from the fun. He rushes in and upends Frank’s picnic spread and runs off.
Later, Frank walks alone, despondent, but he happens on the debauched Manhog sleeping. Watch him take revenge!
Is there any more clinical depiction of the savagery of human violence? It is truly disturbing, distilled to its terrible essence by the magic of the strange, ridiculous incongruity of the cartoon format.