The Frank Book is the essential collection of the first phase of Jim Woodring’s Frank comics, collecting 37 short stories. This will be one of the strangest and most disturbing comics that you will ever read, even though Frank himself looks like a regular anthropomorphic comic character, something like Felix the Cat for example. But Frank is stuck in a strange surrealistic, hallucinatory fantasy world and is doomed every story anew to go out and explore the nature of reality around him. As are we all. This collection starts with a gushing introduction by Francis Ford Coppola who does his best to explain some things to us, such as that these stories are textless pantomimes, and exist on their own bizarre terms.
The stories have their own internal logic and sort of make sense while you’re reading them, and come to some kind of resolutions that also make sense. But if I were to explain the first story, for example, I would ramble something like: “well, Frank takes a job as a cleaner and in the house there’s a special bowl of water and there’s objects in there and at night some things crawl from the river that look like the objects in the bowl and Frank is fed by a man-pig creature that makes food from the things that crawl from the river, so Frank makes a voodoo doll of himself and puts that in the bowl and then…” It all turns out well. Some characters get their comeuppance, but the reader is invited to interpret it in their own way.
Jim Woodring, the creator, explains in interviews that he has been seeing and hearing hallucinations since he was a young child. He has been seeing rotating faces and rubbery frog creatures for years and put all of that into his comics. There’s definitely a schizophrenic edge to the stories. Objects with eyes are all around Frank, as if he is constantly being observed, by houses, windows, creatures, and objects I can’t really categorise. Frank reacts to things in his environment as if they are direct messages to him. And it goes further than that. Woodring calls Frank’s world the Unifactor, and the Unifactor tells Woodring how to draw his stories, and how they must resolve themselves, and if Woodring doesn’t follow the Unifactor’s directions, then it forces him in a distressing way to tell the story in the right way, or his muse might disappear.
It is not at all clear that Woodring is joking about this. He says he has been given this job. He sees his own schizophrenic condition as meaning that his brain, which he doesn’t trust for normal daily decisions, works this way to discover hidden truths in reality. In another interview he recounts how he went to surrealism and dadaism exhibitions and that “it took me days to recover from all the revelations that came out of that”. As for the Frank stories, he says: “I want them to have this mysterious charge. Kind of ticking like a Geiger counter indicating something invisible is there; something powerful that you can’t see, and it’s letting you know you’re in the vicinity of it.”
Most of the stories are in black and white in which Woodring makes heavy use of little waving lines, and uses the thickness of the lines to create shadow and contrast. It’s very labour-intensive. The waves are always there. A review in The New Yorker sharply points out that these waves never change in amplitude and could be the frequency at which the Unifactor vibrates. And I don’t know why, but while reading I am imagining a constant droning sound in the background, like in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Frank’s face also made me more and more uncomfortable as he looks like a malformed rodent. Hinduism also plays a role in Woodring’s work. The metaphysical reality of the Unifactor shows the immortal essences of individuals in the shape of Hindu jivas. Frank frequently has daydreams in which he dies and his jiva escapes his body.
There is some continuity in the stories, even though Frank or others sometimes die. Frank acquires two dogs, Pupshaw and Pushpaw, shaped like a suitcase and a loaf of bread. He lives next door to a conical chicken who’s always having yard sales. And his main adversaries are the Manhog and some devil moonman, although the Manhog deserves our sympathy too sometimes.
I found the story surrounding these comics, about Woodring and his hallucinations and the Unifactor, more interesting than the comics themselves. Whatever meaning I could glean from them felt superficial. Maybe the stories were too short. Maybe they were too much like random visions and associations. I felt strangely fascinated by the Hindu jivas as the kind of doodles I would draw in the corners of my notebooks at university, and I had a strange fixation on the names Pupshaw and Pushpaw. I really appreciated the artwork. Other than that, most stories didn’t leave much of an impression. I guess my brainwaves didn’t fully resonate with the Unifactor frequency. Woodring followed this up with a series of longer graphic novels about Frank and I might still try those.