Frank is a challenging title to try to review. Wilfully defying straightforward explanation, it’s a deceptively simple-looking series of stories about the titular character: a nondescript anthropomorphic mammal of some kind (the book doesn’t tie itself down in this area) who inhabits a strange, surreal world filled with even stranger inhabitants.
Told almost entirely through Jim Woodring’s artwork — there’s no dialogue, and very little text, save for a few occasional explanatory labels — the book’s stories vary widely in length, tone and content, but all of them share a common trait: they demand the reader to engage fully with the material to provide his or her own interpretation of the book’s events, and they require close examination of the artwork to be even semi-comprehensible (you’ll get little out of this book by hastily skimming through the pages).
Happily, Woodring never tries to offer up his own explanations for what transpires in his stories. The closest he gets is some vague, oblique hints in this collection’s afterword, but — like those occasions when David Lynch pretends to try to enlighten viewers about his similarly challenging movies — Woodring’s clues only lead to more questions.
Despite the core meaning of the stories often remaining elusive and ambiguous, however, the visual storytelling is hard to fault. Woodring’s thick linework in a “woodcut” style creates characters and environments with a real sense of solidity and form, despite looking superficially naïve and cartoonish. Even when the creatures and objects depicted are completely outlandish — with many of them often appearing to be constantly-shifting and malleable — there’s still a real tangible quality to them that helps to ground the stories in some kind of reality.
As well as the largely black-and-white Frank tales, this volume contains some color segments that take the form of short stories, often only a few pages long. Having never read Frank in color before, it’s an unsettling experience. What readers might have interpreted as muted and earthy forest tones in the monochrome stories reveal themselves to be psychedelic rainbows of color — including (the usually black) Frank being lent a bright purple hue.
However, for all the dazzling lightness, unbridled dreamlike imagination, and apparent levity of the book (is anything cuter than Pupshaw and Pushpaw?), there are also moments of darkness. In fact, the book is downright disturbing at times, with occasional scenes of grisly violence (albeit softened slightly by the cartoonish stylings) and almost-unbearable inhumanity and immorality.
Other times, Woodring prefers to play around the edges of this darkness with black humor, such as the story involving the party of the dead, a fairly straightforward tale which nonetheless still gives me a chuckle no matter how many times I read it.
(And if you want to see the payoff for that setup, you’ll have to read the book yourself.)
As well as collecting all of the Frank stories up to 2003, this volume contains a wealth of extras including cover images, sketches revealing early iterations of Frank, and a foreword by none other than Francis Ford Coppola (yes, really). There’s also an interesting gallery of character profiles — several of which go some way to explaining the purpose of some of the characters, whilst others reveal hitherto unsuspected gags and implied wordplay.
Whilst a 350+ page volume like this might sound like a daunting way for newcomers to try out a series that you’ve never sampled before, it’s fair to say that a certain degree of immersion in Frank’s world is needed before you’ll really start getting the most out of his misadventures. However, those of us who have tried Frank before will need little convincing that this long out-of-print collection — recently reprinted by Fantagraphics — is well worth your time and money.
A journalist and sometime comics reviewer, Dave Wallace was raised on a traditional European diet of Beano comics, Asterix collections and Tintin books before growing up and discovering that sequential art could — occasionally — be even better than that. He has an unashamed soft spot for time-travel stories, Spider-Man, and anything by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison, and has been known to spend far too much on luxurious hardcover editions of his favorite books when it’s something he really likes. Maybe one day he’ll get around to writing down his own stories that have been knocking around his head for a while now.