For years I have been searching. Yet it is only recently that my plan, my mission, has crystallised; only recently that my goal has become clearer to me. I have long sought an escape, a way of avoiding the world, a world that seems, not incomprehensible, but vulgar and tedious and grotesque. I want to avoid you, and myself too; myself most of all. This is why I read books, why I have always read books. To be apart from, to find some refuge from, you and from me. So, for years I have read, and for a while I was happy in that space that wasn’t quite ours. But I’ve found that ultimately it isn’t enough. I can still see you, lurking in the corners. The closer I look, the more distinct your figure becomes. I am there too, of course. The drone of my voice; my filter, my thoughts. Recently, my nausea has been reaching intolerable levels. A life spent hiding in books, but I haven’t escaped. I have climbed the fence and found that my trouserleg is caught on barbed wire.
To my surprise, The Frank Book feels like an important step towards my end point, my goal, the thing I have been searching for all along. Certainly it is the closest I have come to comfort and excitement in my reading for a while. Jim Woodring’s work is almost completely wordless, and that was initially the biggest draw. I could ‘read’ it, I thought, without my narrating voice, without having to listen to, and engage with, myself. This turned out to be not strictly the case. I was there, for I am unfortunately that through which all information, all words and images pass, but I felt somewhat muffled, at least. Moreover, the geography of The Frank Book is unlike ours. There are trees and so on, so it isn’t completely alien, but it doesn’t look much like earth [the place is, in fact, called Unifactor]. The characters too – including Frank and his sidekicks, friends and enemies – hint at the familiar, but are not human nor really the animals, creatures or objects that they resemble.
Real shapes and real patterns are things you would observe in nature, like the marks on the back of a cobra’s hood or the markings on a fish or a lizard. Imaginary shapes are just that, symbols that come to a person in dreams or reveries and are charged with meaning. – Jim Woodring.
Frank is a cat-like creature, who walks on two legs. He is drawn in an uncomplicated, almost crude, fashion, and looks much like Felix the cat or something from one of the earliest Disney cartoons. The simplicity of his form is mirrored in his personality also. He has a limited number of expressions and therefore emotions; or visible emotions, anyway. During his adventures he appears to be a happy-go-lucky sort. When he is invited to a party of the dead, he goes; when, in another story, he sees something that looks like a kind of toffee apple, he takes it. At various points he comes across holes and he invariably sticks his head in them. There is something child-like about Frank, whilst being obviously not at all like a child. He isn’t, all told, particularly likeable or charming or interesting, which is a pattern I have noticed with many prominent cartoon characters; that it is, in fact, their enemies who are more sympathetic and developed, such as, for example, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry.
Frank’s nemesis is Manhog, and he is drawn with much greater precision [as is the devil-like Whim], to the extent that he and Frank do not look as though they exist within the same world. Manhog is avaricious, mean, self-serving; and, unlike Frank, he mostly crawls along on four legs, intimating his lowly position. And yet he is, in fact, the only character whose motivations make sense to the reader, or to me, in any case. In my favourite, and the most shocking, episode he steals a dead tadpole [i.e. child] from its parents, eats it, and then writes a ransom note. Manhog is bad, yes, but he has a notable personality and is, more importantly, flawed and judged, and that is something relatable. Indeed, throughout Woodring’s tales he is beaten, made fun of, and generally persecuted [deservedly so, you might say]. His principle facial expression is a grimace of despair. Due to this he is the emotional heart of the book and, for me, the one inhabitant of Unifactor to whom I could warm, against my better judgement. I wanted to escape you and I completely, and yet I found us regardless, in this horrible pig.
Recently, I read Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron by Daniel Clewes. It is often described as nightmarish or surreal, but its weirdnesses are but small breaches in the fabric of normality, of the recognisable and familiar. Clewes’ world is a world that, for want of a better phrase, largely makes sense. It is still our world. It is populated mostly by human beings, who do human stuff, who communicate with each other, and as such with the reader, in a human fashion. In The Frank Book, however, it isn’t always clear what the characters are doing, never mind why. Even something like time, which so dominates our existence, does not appear to exist in Unifactor. The reader can, and should, make of Woodring’s drawings and stories what he wants; he can, for the most part, create his own meaning or – more attractively – not look for meaning at all. It is clear when reading the book that you are somewhere else, where our laws, our ideas, ourselves are largely irrelevant.