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Portable Frank

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2008
By: Dave Wallace

Jim Woodring
Jim Woodring
Fantagraphics
Frank is a curious yet charming cartoon strip by Jim Woodring that stars a humanoid animal creature (possibly a dog or a cat) in the title role. Woodring depicts Frank’s various adventures and experiences in the bizarre realm that he inhabits.

At first glance, it appears to be little more than a children's strip with a cute central character and an abundance of imagination. However, it soon proves itself to be far more than that as Woodring explores some unconventional (and sometimes disturbing) ideas through his deceptively simple storytelling style.

This volume collects a number of black-and-white stories that vary in length (apparently some Frank stories have been published in colour, too). Some of the stories are just a few pages long, but others are more than fifty.

It's a book that makes the most of its freedom, with Woodring exploring whatever subjects and concepts he chooses without feeling tied to a certain type of story or to an established status quo for the characters. Woodring's stories often don't obey a standard story structure, often feeling like stream-of consciousness musings on life that quickly descend into less-grounded surreality. That said, certain elements and character relationships do remain relatively consistent throughout all of the stories--with some concepts reused in subsequent stories and occasional running gags.

The strip is also entirely free of dialogue, and almost completely wordless--relying on Woodring's illustrations to convey the stories without any written explanations, expository captions, or speech and thought balloons. It's an interesting exercise in purely visual storytelling, and Woodring proves himself a highly talented storyteller throughout.

Despite its simplicity, Woodring's style of illustration proves itself to be incredibly clear and easy to follow. He’s also capable of bringing some fairly complex emotions to his pages without the safety net of explanatory prose to accompany the characters' facial expressions and body language. In this regard, Woodring’s artwork is more effective than that of many of the more “realistic” pencilers that seem to be so popular in comics today--and it shows that you don't need labour-intensive levels of detail or a perfect grasp of anatomy to make comics stimulating and affecting.

Frank is accompanied by his pet, Pupshaw (I won't even hazard a guess at what species he's supposed to be) and, depending on the demands of the story, several other recurring characters that fill various roles. These supporting characters are frequently enigmatic, with motivations that can be inferred from their actions, but which are never made explicit in the stories.

There's the bloated pig-man who seems to be the strip's whipping boy, and who always ends up as the butt of the joke. There's a sinister, bony devil-like character who puts slaves to work in his basement, and who attempts to use mind-control devices on Frank--warping the shape of Frank’s head in the process.

There's also the chicken--a conically-shaped bird who shows up in various guises (and ultimately meets a sticky end in one of Woodring's most thought-provoking stories). Too, there are the psychedelic, floating, tentacled beings who appear to hail from another plane of reality altogether--giving Woodring the opportunity to provide some trippy sequences when Frank ventures into their world (with disturbing consequences).

Although my description makes the book sound whimsical and dreamlike, the stories are sometimes very thoughtful, and occasionally highly touching. One story is particularly memorable, featuring the adoption of the pig-man by a silhouetted human figure who takes in the pig-man and brings him up as a son.

The mysterious character educates his ward and refines his personality before dying and leaving the pig-man alone in the world. Then, in a final twist that undercuts the story that has gone before, Woodring encourages the reader to consider whether human beings might be less sophisticated and enlightened than they like to think. It's smart stuff, but never feels pretentious or overly pleased with itself.

The Portable Frank is a fine collection of stories that won me over with its charm and deceptive simplicity--as well as with its strong sense of character and the imaginative, unique nature of its illustrations. It's also one of the few comics that I could honestly claim has a genuine universal appeal: even my non-comics-reading partner was instantly attracted to the book, and we had a lot of fun reading it together.

Equally, I could imagine children getting a big kick out of the strips (although some of the imagery may be a little violent for very young readers, despite the cartoonish trappings). This is a great package, and one that's worth checking out for anyone who fancies taking a chance on something outside of their usual reading diet.



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