Nearly ten years after it was first published in hardback, Jim Woodring’s widely acclaimed The Frank Book has been reprinted with a soft cover.
Frank is a bipedal creature of deliberately nondescript species, somewhere between a cat and a beaver. In fact, he looks a little like a cross between Sylvester the Cat and Bugs Bunny, with perhaps a bit of Mickey Mouse thrown in. Apart from a violent streak of dark comedy, however, this is where any similarity between Frank and mainstream cartoons ends.
Frank lives in a silent world without speech. It’s populated by a collection of very strange characters, including Manhog (a human-like pig who sleeps rough and is the victim of much cruel violence), Whim (a strange, lanky, devilish creature with a fixed, rictus grin and no morals), and a whole range of floating, spinning creatures. These live in water or the air, and seem to serve mostly as amusement or food for the characters.
The landscapes and architecture are surreal and strange. Frank lives in a neat single-storey house amongst gently rolling hills, while Whim lives in a cave and Manhog in a scruffy wood, surrounded by his own detritus. There’s something of an eastern influence on all this and the detail is fantastic.
There’s a mix of colour and monochrome strips in the book, but even the black and white ones have a deep vibrancy to them, the visuals are so rich in character.
This collection of strips doesn’t have much of a thread running through it, apart from the characters and their surroundings. Like classic cartoons and newspaper strips, they are there to have situations inflicted upon them. In his afterword, Woodring suggests that each strip is intended to be a mystery but that one concept runs through each one, like a sort of moral or statement. Finding these can, at times, be challenging, but this obscurity and strangeness is a large part of what gives the book it’s charm.
Readers will need to be interested in the surreal and willing to suspend any requirement for the story to make much sense. Instead, if you can let the strange and fantastical flow over you, and still cope with the jarring violence, then you’re certain to enjoy the ride.