First-time readers of Jim Woodring’s work are going to find this work refreshing. There’s no text at all in his new book, Congress of the Animals, which is out now from Fantagraphics. Still, one “reads” the book (and Woodring’s others) as closely as any graphic novel — there’s just more emphasis on the “graphic.” Woodring himself calls it a “symbolic visual language.” He can tell a story fully without any words on the page. The images inform and instruct the reader’s understanding and experience. In fact, Congress of the Animals is a more straightforward comic than most else out there these days; maybe that’s due in part to Woodring’s past work in animation. Some panels transition so fluidly that it can almost feel as though you’re being led by the hand. Of course, that’s not such a bad thing when trying to make sense of Woodring’s world. Or, more accurately, his character Frank’s world.
Readers familiar with Woodring and his art likely already know of Frank from past books and collected volumes. The character brings to mind Felix the Cat and is often cited as being reminiscent of early American animated shorts, like those from Fleischer Studios. The character is described by Woodring as a “generic anthropomorph.” His world, called “the Unifactor,” is both dreamlike and nightmarish, and it is an environment rife with surrealist imagery. The cartoonish landscapes of the Unifactor are dotted with odd crevices, craggy mountains, and houses topped with onion domes reminiscent of Russian architecture. Like most all of Woodring’s work, the book’s completely in black-and-white, meticulously drawn with his trademark wavy lines.
Just as with the wordlessness of the story, the art itself might be a departure for first-time readers — especially those used to just the output of the industry’s two main publishers (and even most indie presses). Woodring’s unique style quickly becomes familiar, though. He’s so methodic and cohesive in his presentation that one quickly gets the feel for Frank and the Unifactor, with all it’s squiggly-shaped creatures and other oddities.
It’s tempting to call Congress of the Animals a continued adventure forFrank, but there’s little apparent continuity or chronology in the Unifactor. Characters get maimed, torn apart, and killed all the time, and then return unscathed in later episodes. It’s a little like The Itchy & Scratchy Show in that way, or The Simpsons itself. Or any of a dozen different cartoons. For that reason, having never read any of Woodring’s previous Frank stories shouldn’t deter people from picking up this new book.
Frank actually escapes the Unifactor in Congress of the Animals. His adventure’s almost wholly happenstance, bringing to mind everything from Voltaire’s Candide to the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man. Situations thrust themselves upon the character, and the story focuses on how Frank reacts. Early on, the situations start off relatively mundane and everyday. In that way, a lot of what happens in Congress of the Animals is easy to relate to, despite the Unifactor being so otherworldly. Things quickly get surreal though, as the following synopsis details. Fantagraphics posted this description of the book online when announcing a short book tour that Woodring embarked upon earlier this month:
In Congress of the Animals we are treated to the pitiful spectacle of Woodring’s signature protagonist Frank losing his house, taking a factory job, falling in with bad company, fleeing the results of sabotage, escaping in an amusement park ride, surviving a catastrophe at sea, traveling across hostile terrain toward a massive temple seemingly built in his image, being treated roughly by gut-faced men and intervening in an age-old battle in a meadow slathered in black and yellow blood. We trust the artist’s book tour will be more sedate.
What’s interesting is how helpful even a short few sentences (like those above) can be in decoding Woodring’s book. While the story itself is completely wordless, the book’s back cover description serves as almost a guide to Frank’s adventure. Woodring’s not easy in offering up text as clues though, filling the page with phrases like: “The moral erosion associated with passively profiting from the misfortune of others” and “The curse that befalls those unwilling to adhere to the regimes intended for them.”
Give the back cover a full read before cracking the book open, then again after finishing the graphic novel. Then dive back into the book. That’s how I processed it. Woodring’s someone whose work demands repeated reads. For longtime fans, Congress of the Animals is another puzzle piece in Woodring’s complicated world of art. For newcomers, it’s likely going to be the first enjoyable step of discovering that world and Woodring’s back catalogue.Visit: Jim Woodring | Fantagraphics
Purchase: Powell’s Books | Amazon