by Derek Royal
Towards the end of Jim Woodring’s 2011 book, Congress of the Animals, we are introduced to Fran, a female counterpart to Frank…although in that work, we don’t know her as “Fran.” She merely appears as a nameless love interest — in Woodring’s wordless comics, all figures are diegetically nameless — and as a possible end point to Frank’s tumultuous adventure. That tales ends happily with Fran deciding to journey with Frank, the two of them overcoming a number of obstacles, Frank returning home (with Fran) to Pupshaw and Pushshaw, and in the final panels both snuggling up with one another as they look up into the heavens. In Woodring’s latest work, Fran, he picks up directly from where Congress of the Animals left off. In the latter, the narrative literally ends with Fran falling asleep in Frank’s arms. In the recent book, she wakes up in the opening panel. So one can put down Congress and then pick up the new work, feeling confident that she’s reading a progressive narrative. Yet Woodring is careful to point out both on the dust jacket and on the title page that Fran is a text “continuing and preceding Congress of the Animals.” And true to the author’s promise, we find on Fran‘s last page, a full-page panel, a visual reference to the opening panel (also a full page) of Congress of the Animals. As if Woodring’s art wasn’t surreal enough, we now get a story that defies narrative logic and bends back on itself, morphing much like many of the objects found in the alternative universe, the Unifactor, that Frank inhabits.
This narrative slight-of-hand is one of the many reasons why Fran is one of the most notable books of the year. It is also significant in that it is another Frank story, and it’s not often that we get one of those. Woodring’s Frank narratives, as elaborate and as intricate as they can be, are not a frequent phenomenon. Weathercraft, which was more about Manhog than it was about Frank, may have preceded Congress by only one year, but before that we only had The Frank Book (collecting previous Frank comics from the 1990s) which was originally released in 2003. So any year we get a Frank story is a good year, indeed.
But another reason why Fran is so striking is because we see a side of Frank that we rarely get to experience. Most of his stories are narratives of discovery, where Frank (along with his loyal sidekicks, Pupshaw and Pushsaw) has an encounter or undergoes an adventure, and as a result stumbles upon something new. This happens in Fran, of course — I don’t think it would be a Woodring story without that element of discovery — but there is something else going on in this most recent work. Frank, as a character, becomes more fully developed, more “human”…if that’s the correct word to use in describing Woodring’s signature character. Indeed, the journey in this book is predicated on Frank’s selfish outbursts. After Fran refuses to take part in Frank’s projection games — he finds a psychic apparatus that projects onto a screen scenes from the wearer’s previous experiences — he gets angry and curses her, causing her to wander off on her own. His connection to an object, in other words, becomes more important to him that his connection to what appears to be a soulmate. Pupshaw becomes disappointed in him, and Frank becomes alienated and despondent. Then, the contrite Frank experiences fear and later intense jealousy when he discovers that Fran has made her way to a former companion and a possible rival to Frank’s attentions. Frank’s subsequent forlornness and cries of grief literally bring his world crashing down around him (as only Woodring’s surreal art can express), eventually leading him back, sans Fran, to his old house…the house that had been destroyed at the beginning of Congress of the Animals. In this Möbius strip of a narrative, we see Frank undergo a full range of emotions and display a complexity that we don’t often find in his earlier stories.
Fran may revolve around relationships and their many frustrations, but it’s also a book about personal narratives. The initial breakup between the two comes about when Frank wants to communicate his own story to Fran, projecting the various experiences leading up to and including their encounter, and then when Fran refuses to share her own history. In fact, Frank’s personal revelations underscore the non-linear nature of both Fran and Congress of the Animals. The psychic projection device that Frank uses presents his story in reverse, beginning with the most recent actions and then moving temporally backwards into the various occurrences in Congress and beyond. His existence is visually presented from behind and looking back. In this way, Frank’s inverted narrative is reminiscent of the Ouroboros-like quality of Fran and Congress of the Animal, both of which taken together defy clear progression. It is a tale, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, whose beginning contains its end…and vice versa.
On a more immediate level, however, Fran is a very enjoyable and approachable book. Like most other Frank narratives, it’s an expressionistic adventure with psychedelic twists, equal parts Salvador Dali and Edvard Munch. But it’s also a personal drama with a warm, human side to it. If the misadventures of Manhog in Weathercraft gave us something to detach ourselves from and laugh at, then Fran (especially as a companion to Congress of the Animals) elicits a more sympathetic response.
Be sure to read Fran, Congress of the Animals, and other mind-warping works by Jim Woodring: