Stranded in the Jungle--11


FLICKER. Jim Woodring has been publishing his Frank stories since 1992. This comic book dazzles me with its alien beauty. The stories are told entirely in pictures. There are no captions or word balloons. Instead, shapes and textures, landscape and decor, control the action. Some of the strips are in color, others in black and white. Woodring uses colors of vivid contrast and high saturation. Everything glistens with a psychedelic sheen. Grass, river, and sky seem on the verge of weird transformations. The black and white stories achieve a similar effect through an almost obsessive use of wavy lines. The background is inked in just enough to make it flicker and flow. Whether in color or black and white, these strips show a world in which nothing is quite solid. Most cartoon drawing is highly stylized. Incidental detail is omitted. A few lines can be enough to convey a place, a posture, or a facial expression. The more basic the figure, the more universal it seems. Woodring, however, gives this process a special twist. His images are not reduced to their essential features, so much as they are stylized into strange shapes. Take, for instance, the flying creatures in "Frank and the Truth About Plenitude." These are long, flexible, segmented, tapered spindles. They are marked, no two alike, in ornate patterns of parallel bands, fields of dots, and holes arranged in circles. Woodring says somewhere that these figures are angels. But they look more like rubbery, elongated spinning tops, or like vegetables that have sprouted into sporting trophies.. Woodring's angels are pure decoration, without form or function. They are figures without identity, and without resemblance. That is what gives them their delicate, alien beauty. A visionary world flickers in these images. It flickers, and then it fades. For everything is fleeting and insusbstantial. The comic is all obliques and curves. It has almost no right angles or straight lines. Even the architecture is askew. Woodring draws houses that look like fanciful chess pieces, or like floridly engraved urns. Their roofs are domes or conical shafts. Their sides are obsessively decorated with arabesques, squiggles, and repeated circular motifs. Everywhere there are doors, portals, and windows, laid out in elaborate foliate patterns. Such designs are seductive. They invite you to look or to enter. There are also pools that hint of mysterious depths, and caves and corridors that beckon into their darkness. There are huge jars whose lids conceal strange contents, and signs scrawled with cryptic invitations. Frank, the title character, can never resist these allurements. His curiosity always gets the better of him. Frank is an anthropomorphic cartoon animal. He has Mickey Mouse ears, two big buck teeth, a wide face with cutesy freckles, a short tail, and gloved, four-fingered hands. His figure is drawn with solid colors and firm, simple outlines. This makes him look quite different from everything else in the comic. It's as if he had come into this world by mistake. He would look more at home in a Disney cartoon. He's a kind of Everyman, a stand-in for the reader. He is less an actor than a passive observer. He wanders in upon scenes of the most exquisite beauty and terror. In the story "Peeker," he simply goes for a walk. In a window, he sees a giant frog. It stands in monumental postures of grief, weeping over a dead tadpole. Such a sense of desolation is too great for us to share. We can only regard it from a distance. Frank moves on. Through a second window, he observes a cannibalistic orgy. Inhuman bodies lie writhing in a heap. It isn't clear which organs and orifices belong to whom. It's all just a nauseating tangle of eyes, mouths, lips, tongues, squirming limbs, and blood. Such is the horror of elemental forms. Frank flees. Next, he looks through a telescope, and sees his enemy, Manhog. If Frank is a humanized animal, then Manhog is the reverse: a human being turned beast. In story after story, Manhog rages with spite, envy, and greed. He has a pig's snout and pig's ears in an otherwise human face. His arms and legs are human. But his torso is that of a pig, and he usually walks on all fours. Like Frank, he stands out visually from the rest of the comic. He is the only figure to be rendered naturalistically. This makes him all the more ugly. "Peeker" ends, however, not with Manhog, but with one last enigmatic vision. A spindly devil figure offers Frank a view through another telescope. Frank peers at a distant star... and sees an old-fashioned candy store. After being exposed to the monstrous, we end up with the mundane. However much it allures or terrifies us, the visionary world remains a place apart. We're only allowed brief, flickering glimpses of its alien beauty. The candy store is open, but Frank can't get there. Instead, the last frame of "Peeker" shows Frank passed out on the ground, with the devil figure leering over him.

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