Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jim Woodring

I thought I'd take a moment this evening to crawl out from under my pile of student papers to write about a favorite cartoonist of mine. First, though, let me plump for a truly wonderful comics store, Dreamscape Comics in Bethlehem, PA. My parents live nearby, and thought the place would be a nice afternoon trip for our kids; as it happens, I'm the one who left the store with a teetering pile of graphic goodness, while everyone else waited for me outside.

The first thing I looked for when I arrived there (and found promptly) was Jim Woodring's The Portable Frank. I'd read a few of these stories before, in comics anthologies, but didn't realize until recently they'd been collected in a couple of books. I first encountered Woodring in the liner notes, and on the cover, of a record by the band Christmas (if you know them, you know their album In Excelcior Dayglo, but the one in question was the late, James-McNew era Vortex). The drawings were cryptic, evocative, and more than a little bit scary; they included a hammer-weilding man with a drawing for a face, a flying insect with what looks like a testicle for a head, and a monstrous larval fish emerging from a glass of water set on a windowsill. They were simultaneously prosaic and surreal, and backgrounded by fractal shapes whose curves seemed...somehow...Freudian.

"Frank" is probably what Woodring is best known for. This wordless strip features a cat--well, I think he's a cat--with Mickey Mouse hands and feet, who lives in a kind of onion dome and has a pet that looks kind of like a squashed toaster. The two of them go out on little jaunts, encounter frightening, inexplicable creatures and situations, and return home, often disturbingly transformed. Here's a summary of a typical strip, "Gentlemanhog." Frank is out walking with his friend, a pyramid-shaped chicken (in other strips, the chicken is often having a yard sale). They discover a pot full of fireworks. They blow up a tree, and then the chicken, against Frank's warning, ties some firecrackers to the tail of a sleeping hog-man (a recurring figure who is alternately fierce and pathetic, but always deeply sad). The explosions frighten the hog-man, who runs into the wilderness until he becomes lost. He finds a strange garden, and once there, drinks from a fountain. It is then that he is approached by a black man.

No, not an African-American man. A black man. Like, a silhouette. The man leads the hog-man into his home, an Arab-styled open-air mansion, and there, over time, he civilizes the hog-man, teaching him how to read, do laundry, and wear clothes. Eventually the black man dies (by melting in his bed), and the hog-man lives alone...until one day he sees Frank through his spyglass, walking across the wasteland with a bundle on a stick, like a hobo. The hog-man invites him inside, and the two enjoy a nice glass of wine. The hog-man then asks Frank to wait, goes out on a motorcycle, and returns with a package. A few panels later, he places a large covered platter in front of Frank, and removes the lid. It's the pyramid-shaped chicken, plucked and roasted!

Hmm. Well, you had to be there. There is something about Woodring's style--his simple, clear lines and juvenile appeal, combined with his dark humor and slightly revolting symbolism--that really gets me excited. He's not trying to do anything in particular--he appears to have no social agenda, and seems uninterested in literary devices. But his work is so thoroughly the product of personal obsession and visual intuition, that it strikes me with unusual force.

From Fantagraphics Books, of course.


Anonymous said...

Jim Woodring used to provide amazing artwork for LCD, a magazine/station guide published by a New Jersey radio station, WFMU. That's where I first saw his work, and I can thank LCD for my first exposure to Kaz, Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman and Mark Newgarden, as well.

Unknown said...

Parting with a collection (28 pieces) of Jim Woodring original art if anyone is interested.