Friday, August 10, 2012
Pilgrim's Progress: Congress of the Animals
Jim Woodring's second full-length Frank book, Congress of the Animals (Fantagraphics), is interesting because it's much more linear a narrative than most of his comics. Certainly, his typically vibratory line, surreal imagery and use of frightening but cartoonish violence are all in effect. However, and thanks in part to a synopsis of sorts on the back cover, the reader is easily guided through chipmunk-cheeked Frank's misadventures in this comic. Unlike the typical Frank story, there's a greater sense of urgency to Frank's wanderings, as he encounters many temptations and pitfalls along his journey to a destination unknown to even him. It's a sort of Pilgrim's Progress without knowing that the Silver City awaits at the end.
In Frank's world, impetuous curiosity is frequently punished harshly by the whims of the forces that control the Unifactor, the flowery, dense, beautiful and dangerous world that Frank inhabits with his two sentient pets/gods, Pushpaw and Pupshaw. When his house is destroyed after he tries to drive in a stake to play croquet, a series of events is triggered that lead him to having a new house built without realizing that he would have to pay for it, a grueling and unpleasant job in a factory to pay it back, and then sabotaging the factory with a squat, dark frog-duck creature named Quacky. From there, the duo goes on the lam and finds itself in a wonderland of a city, but a series of crazy events leads Frank to a boat that washes up on a far shore. From there, he gazes upon the strange sight of a structure that looks like him, minus his eyes, nose and mouth, where there is just a hole. In one of the creepier segments of the book, Frank encounters a group of naked humans with precisely those features, who have the additional ability to open up their skin and expose their guts. Frank has to brave a series of trials before he finally appears in front of the structure and knocks on the door.
What follows after that is surprisingly tender and heartfelt, as Frank meets someone who complements him in a way that he's never experienced. I'm not sure if Woodring intends to do more Frank books, but this one could act as a series-ender if that's what he wants to do. In more ways than one, this book reminds me of Jaime Hernandez' "The Love Bunglers" story, both in its sense of (potential) finality and in the ways its long-suffering main character is rewarded. The end of the book is especially effective given the punishment that is frequently meted out to Frank for his impish behavior and the generally nightmarish nature of his environment. With temporary catastrophe constantly lurking around the corner, seeing Frank sitting underneath a tree with his new love is a remarkably still image in a world that is constantly flowing with action. The ineffable wonders of the night sky still light up Frank's world, but now he has someone to show it to, someone with new eyes who can appreciate this environment. Frank the pilgrim makes it to his own idolatrous Sliver City and gets to enjoy its spoils in the comfort of his own crazy home.