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Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Jim Woodring's Comics Remove My Psychic Baracles

It's been awhile since I've read a good comic. I loved reading stuff like Chester Brown and Joe Sacco, and I usually kept a book or two around when we lived near the Bibliotheque Nationale in Montreal, but since then I've read very little in the way of comics. The last time might've been a year ago, when my friend C. T. Staples showed me a weird little number about a creature named Manhog and his run in with some giant frogs. I only skimmed it but its essence lodged in the back of my mind.

This weekend while I was in Montreal, the clerk at Drawn and Quarterly was able to identify the artist from my description - his name is Jim Woodring, and he is an outright genius. I feel obligated to pass the name on, because you don't find material of this calibre every day. My taste for artistic weirdness is nigh-insatiable, but this is the kind of whole package deal that satisfies on a cellular level. It's not about surface oddity, though I laughed, or just the visual flair, although it's beautifully illustrated. Woodring's stories are allegories that penetrate the subconscious several layers deep, the importance of which seems self-evident despite the fact you can't make hide nor hair of it.

I picked up a compilation of Woodring's main series, Frank. The titular character is a generic 20's-era cartoon with white gloves and buck teeth. He lives in a world called the Unifactor that strikes me as vaguely medieval despite a few modern touches. There is no dialogue and a very sparing use of signs and sound effects. Apart from Frank, the aforementioned Manhog, and the most sinister, inscrutable-looking demon I have ever seen (he's called Whim and that's him in the top image), the Unifactor is populated mostly by weirdly geometric monsters, like cubical chickens and floating organic tops. Woodring has experienced hallucinations since he was a child, which probably contributes to the authority he brings to his images. It's different from acid flashback fodder - Woodring is also interested in Vedantic philosophy and brings a certain moral weight to the most bizarre scenarios. If you think just anybody can write a story about a cat with hands and make it seem profound, you're out of your mind. The way Woodring can convey Frank's misgivings or the quality of his mirth with a subtle shift of the eyes is incredible.

I already blew through the collection I picked up, I couldn't help myself. My favourite piece was "Gentlemanhog" - there is a part where a chicken finds some fireworks that made me laugh until I cried. Put that thing in words, and you've got a piece of shit on your hands. Without them, I found it very moving. I fully expect the author of that cartoon to be able to walk through walls, in the very least. Also, "Frank Obeys the Rule of Five" gave me nightmares. If I had read that as a child, I don't know what I might've become.

I've been in a slump when it comes to reading fiction, and it seems fitting that I should return to it in the form of a wordless comic. Although I plan to reread the short stories I'm also going to be on the lookout for some Woodring's latest material so I can see how he deals with longer-form stories (Weathercraft and Congress of the Animals are the his first graphic novel-length works and are from 2010 and 2011, respectively). Let me know if you run across it, and thanks again to Corey for turning me on to this stuff. If you don't like it, don't tell me. Keep that filthy secret to yourself.

Let's close it off with one last image, shall we?

2 comments:

  1. Picked up a couple Woodring books from my library based on your recommendation and am digging them. I'm not a big comic/graphic novel reader. Well, honestly I'm not a big reader, but I really like this stuff. My favorite things all seem like hilarious nightmares, and a lot of Woodring's stuff applies.

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  2. Right on! Let me know which ones you liked best when you finish. I read some shorts, and I just bought his two long-form stories. I'm strangely afraid to read them... I think I'm worried there will be nothing on Earth like it left for me to read once I'm done. That, and I want to be in peak physical and mental condition in order to understand their full resonance.

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