Ok, so maybe the title is a litte over the top. Still, when describing the Frank comics I feel it gets the point across rather quickly: cartoony main character that’s a throw back to early 20th century cartoons, check, weird as all hell, check. Of coarse there is more to Frank than this shallow description, and these stories are quickly becoming some of my favorites. The Frank comics don’t get your attention by stand head over heals above the crowd, they freak the crowd out and develop their own stand alone space through the crowd’s avoidance yet fascination of them, like a street performer that happens to be an octopus.
Frank is a silent comic and it takes place in the Unifactor, a place where rules don’t apply and most everything that happens is mean and terrible. In the Unifactor are a set of recurring archetypal characters including Manhog, Whim, Pupshaw, and various others, all of which you can read about in the wikipedia article. Frank himself is depicted as a generic anthropomorph. He is drawn in a way that is a throw back to the similarly drawn cartoons of the Micky Mouse era, though Frank clearly has qualities all his own despite the fact that he’s not suposed to look like any particular animal at all. A few peculiar things to know about him are that he cannot learn anything, he is innocent but not noble, and that he has many copies of himself that all behave exactly the same, though it’s usually only one that’s out and about; Woodring’s own description is memorable, saying, ” Frank is like Neptune and enjoys the riches of the deep(Woodring).”
There are many things that draw one’s attention to the Frank comics, but the most simple and easy to appreciate aspect is the actual art. He draws the comics using a dipping pen and he gets the various line widths by pressing down harder or softer to release more ink. I find the amount of depth and beauty he is able to conjure up with such simple yet unique style amazing. The pages while reading them feel more like a unified work in their elegance, something more akin to a painting than a traditional comic.
The stories themselves are told in masterful fashion that I feel any comic book enthusiast needs to experience. The pacing of the stories and the panel transitions are phenomenal and have great comedic timing, yet this high level of control is betrayed by the mysterious and inventive nature of the stories, due in part from the lack of text. What we get is a mix of a traditionally well articulated story telling style, and inventive and bewildering events. It is not very often that the reader feels like she truly know exactly what’s going on, and the stories consistently inspire multiple interpretations. Frank himself plays an interesting role in this paradox; because of his cartoony nature we are drawn to him and almost see ourselves in him(Scott McCloud talks about the power of the cartoon in Understanding Comics). At the same time, he is often involved in disturbing and off-putting scenarios and he does not always make the most nobel decision. The comic takes the masking effect(also talked about in Understanding Comics) and turns it on its head, envelopes the reader in a mysterious, dangerous and unpredictable world, and takes us places we do not want to go but can’t look away.
A great example of all these points is the comic Pushpaw(which begins halfway down the page). This is one of my favorites; the multi-dimensional monster that envelopes them is wonderfully rendered. The fact that we can even recognize it as this abstract beast is a testament to how well executed it is.
Jim Woodring is the creator of Frank and you can learn all about him here, although his wiki page is also pretty extensive. What I find most interesting about him is that as a child and throughout his life he has suffered from hallucinations. He has said before that he doen’t make comics to consider himself an entertainer or even an artist, but rather he has ideas that he gets the urge to express in ink.