Steamboat Willie on an Acid Trip: TFT Review of Congress of the Animals by Jim Woodring
In the early days of the Surrealist movement, members believed that it was literary efforts and techniques—such as automatic writing—that would be the most powerful representations of Surrealism. André Breton even had doubts that the visual arts could be authentically Surrealist. Nevertheless, the visual artists who joined the movement ended up defining Surrealism. Nowadays, Surrealism is associated almost entirely with those paintings and other visual art of artists like Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and Giorgio de Chirico.
For my own tastes, I often find something lacking in the static nature of Surrealist paintings no matter how much I admire them. Surrealists wanted to access the unconscious, the realm of dreams and hidden desires, but dreams are not merely images. Dreams are narratives (or, if you prefer, we force narratives on them). The most impacting surrealist works for me have combined the narrative with the visual: the collage novels of Max Ernst, the collaborative films of Dali and Brunel, the films of David Lynch, and, I would now add, the Frank comics of Jim Woodring.
Jim Woodring has been drawing individual Frank comics since the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2010’s Weathercraft that Woodring completed a full-length story. I have long admired Woodring’s brilliant, hallucinatory, and bizarre Frank comics. But his work has taken a leap forward with last year’s Weathercraft and this year’s Congress of the Animals. The Frank world is one the reader benefits by being immersed in. What might seem a bit incomprehensible in a short strip blossoms into a dark Dionysian dream in these two graphic novels.
To describe the plot of Congress of the Animals feels somewhat pointless, as it must be experienced. I will say that it begins with Frank’s house collapsing in a croquet set accident. His home is rebuilt by a traveling craftsman, but Frank’s apparent ignorance of commerce leads him to wage enslavement in a factory that crushes small birds into paste. Frank and a co-worker stage a proletariat rebellion, fleeing to a bizarre amusement park. After a stormy night, he is washed ashore on a mysterious land and spots a gigantic building shaped like himself. He sets out to discover what lies inside.
Jim Woodring’s surreal Frank comics are borne out of beautifully conflicting forces: beauty and horror, change and permanence, elegance and cartoonishness. The living creatures resemble early Disney cartoons like Steamboat Willie, but the backgrounds recall Victorian woodcuts. Change is the rule of the land—dubbed the Unifactor—and creatures transform and twist into new beings with regularity. At the same time, the forces controlling the Unifactor work to constantly restore balance. Like Dali’s paintings, Woodring’s work is filled with powerful symbols—frogs, jivas, and eyes are some recurring images—yet the symbols meanings seem to change from book to book or page to page.
The Frank comics are almost entirely wordless, and yet the covers and inside flaps of Weathercraft and Congress of the Animals are beautifully written and display a linguistic oddness that matches the art. I might also add here that Fantagraphics has done an impeccable job designing these two books. The covers are as gorgeous as the insides. I really can’t get enough of these two graphic novels. If I keep mentioning them together, it is because I believe they beg to be read together. They show different but complimentary sides of Woodring’s vision. These two books combine to form, I believe, one of the greatest achievements in recent comics. If you are a fan of the strange, the uncanny, the bizarre, the hallucinatory, and the fantastic, I can’t recommend them enough.
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