The Frank Book
By Jim Woodring
Published by Fantagraphics Books

Jim Woodring's mind may be the only one on the planet capable of truly understanding all the nuances and implications of these lush, extraordinarily beautiful cartoons. They're the product of a lifetime of dream, imagination and hallucination, and even glimpsed only in this manner, translated from Woodring's mind onto paper with pen, ink, paint and brush, they are a wonder to behold.

Legendary film director Francis Ford Coppola introduces this massive hardcover volume, calling The Frank Book "a puzzling gift for a puzzling world." Some stories are more oblique than others, but they are all, indeed, puzzles; one has the sense that if a lifetime were available and perhaps a team of gifted art critics, psychologists and animation enthusiasts, one might begin to crack the deeper meaning of one or two of the stories.

The book's appendix reprints (among many covers, strips and sketches) a series of Frank trading cards, an enormous gift to the committed would-be interpreter. Names are given to the bizarre denizens of Frank's world -- Pupshaw, Whim, the Jivas...the latter the visual manifestation of an apparent obsession with symmetry, strange and transformative objects that fill and define Frank's world.

Transformation is a key theme over the course of the book, with Frank, Manhog and other members of the cast often undergoing strange physical changes or being encased, distorted or horrified by such events occurring to others. I'd venture to guess that Woodring, as a child at least, found the world a freakish and unknowable place. The role of Whim in the meta-narrative seems to be to joyously introduce chaos into the quiet lives of Frank and others. Perhaps Woodring fantasized these events as a way to explain what would be unknowable to a small child. Perhaps I am totally full of shit, but it's extremely hard to read much of this book without the urge to play armchair psychiatrist. The Fantagraphics website says "Woodring describes his early Californian childhood as one plagued by both schoolmates and 'apparitions' (which he describes as waking nightmares accompanied by "voices" -- a condition which would haunt him through childhood and much of his adult life)."

If this all does, in some way, represent Woodring working out his unusual perceptions thorugh cartooning, he has accomplished this goal in a particularly elegant and delightful manner. It's worth mentioning -- perhaps of paramount importance to this review, in fact -- to point out with great passion that it's impossible to view even one panel of Frank without being stunned into silence by the sublime beauty of Woodring's cartooning. Every image is a world all its own, full of mystery, darkness, humour and imagination.

A master of ink on the level of Alex Toth or or Milton Caniff (yet resembling neither, really), Woodring creates the world of Frank in lines and curves, shadows and light. If I had to suggest a "kinda like" for you, I'd say the look of Frank is kinda like George Herriman inked by Toth or even Terry Austin. The lines are extremely smooth, fat and confident, the shapes -- even the ones that have no analogue to speak of in the "real" world -- are utterly convincing solely because Woodring clearly believes in their existence, depth and weight.

There are many colour stories reproduced here as well, virtually a second style for Woodring that pays homage to the early years of animation -- funny animals for the early 20th century, only intersecting with a particularly mellow and pleasing acid trip.

Startling, gorgeous, alive with a comfortable strangeness -- The Frank Book is also another triumph for Fantagraphics Books, a stunningly beautiful hardcover collection well worth the $39.95 price tag. It's a volume that will endure down generations and leave your great-great grandkids wondering just what kind of good drugs you were on and where the hell can they get some? Ultimately only Jim Woodring knows for sure, and while he probably can't ever really explain what all this means to us, it sure is amazing watching him try. Grade: 5/5

-- Alan David Doane

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