Congress of the Animals
Jim Woodring, writer/artist
Fantagraphics, June 2011
104 pages, hardcover
Buy it and read a preview at Fantagraphics.com
Perhaps I should have seen it coming after the palpable (if fleeting) triumph of good over evil that comprised the climax of Weathercraft, Jim Woodring’s previous standalone graphic novel set in the world of his funny-animal avatar Frank. Regardless, I’ll admit it: I did not expect to read a Frank book whose final panel made me go “Awwww!”
It’s true that in Weathercraft, Frank’s hapless antagonist Manhog achieves enlightenment that for a short while allows him to become an elemental force of kindness, justice, and the security of a fundamentally benevolent order to the universe. But it’s only for a short while — the equilibrium restores itself, and he, the insouciant Frank, and the jauntily predatory Whim go back to their old ways. According to Woodring’s typically dense and hilarious jacket copy, we have the Unifactor, the familiar world of bulbous buildings and shoggoth-like plant deities in which Frank and his cohorts dwell, to thank for this state of affairs. Woodring calls the Unifactor “the closed system of moral algebra into which Frank was born, where “in the end, nothing really changes,” and where “Frank is kept in a state of total ineducability by the unseen forces which control that haunted realm.”
The difference here — and I’m not 100% convinced this would have been clear if Woodring hadn’t said so straight out on the jacket, but be that as it may — is that this time around, Frank leaves the Unifactor. Woodring’s customary Rube Goldbergian plot contrivances force Frank into a state of indentured servitude that ends with him on the lam. The journey positions Frank in the midst of various grown-up concerns, such as home ownership, property loss, commerce, employment, amusement, leisure, sex (in the form of what appears to be an angelic anthropomorphic vagina guarded by the giant disembodied head of a Dr. Seuss character), and religion (in the form of nude, beefy men with gaping chasms where their faces are supposed to be, whose ability to expose their guts at will and induce others to do so literally knocks poor Frank out with its disgustingness and is perhaps Woodring’s most troubling sequence since Manhog flayed his own leg); in other words, it’s a bit like Pippin. Normally we’d expect nothing to come of all this, save for an opportunity to marvel at Woodring’s buzzy, vibrating line, proficiency with creature design, and ability to distill unpleasant shit into slightly sinister slapstick adventures for his dog-cat-bear-mouse-thing hero. But the journey takes Frank so far afield that at some point (probably when he gets lost at sea and washes up on some distant shore) he ends up outside the Unifactor’s confines. New information can now enter his world, in the form of a female Frank-like character who lives in a house shaped like Frank. And at that point all hell breaks loose…which in a Frank comic is to say it doesn’t break loose at all.
Somehow, Frank has gained the ability to interact with another being without immediately sizing up the best way to have fun with, or at the expense of, that being, consequences be damned. They chat. They laugh at the bullying creatures who attacked him earlier, and blush at both having got such a kick out of it. (See, he hasn’t been brushed totally clean of his sins — as we see here and elsewhere, both he and his new pal still have a bit of an empathy deficit.) She protects him from the siren song of that angelic vagina-thing. She helps him return home, to the delight of his pets Pupshaw and Pushpaw, who seem overjoyed to find that their master has found his other half. But what really moved me is their simple physical interaction: They hug. I’m “awwww!”ing just thinking about it. That physical act is an act of grace on Woodring’s part, an escape from the mere hedonism or fight-or-flight responses that have been the sole custom of Frank’s world before now. It’s a new, rewarding emotion, embodied. And despite the break it marks from the world of Frank as we knew it, it fits, since isn’t embodying emotion what Frank stories have always been all about?