Have we ever been asked to actually root for Frank before? As the star attraction in Jim Woodring’s oddball menagerie, the purple-furred, minstrel-gloved naïf is usually just a little shit. Whether he’s stabbing the craven Manhog in the ear or apprenticing himself to the diabolical Whim, Frank is often little more than a dastard, a rogue, a loafer with a blank stare. Despite the occasional glimmer of fellow-feeling, Frank pursues his desires and exacts his revenge with few pangs of conscience and little concern for the future. Strange, then, that with Congress of the Animals, Frank has for once become our hero, our champion, our semblable.
Like last year’s Weathercraft, Congress is an all-original book-length tale of goings-on around Woodring’s distinctive universe, a kind of fussily malevolent Eden. (Congress also shares Weathercraft's trade dress, a consistent design approach which augurs well for more regular doses of Woodring in the future.) Weathercraft, however, tracked the stages in Manhog’s enlightenment, while Woodring’s previous extended outing, 2005’s The Lute String, followed Frank's boon companions Pupshaw and Pushpaw through a dimensional vortex. With Congress, then, Frank returns to the primary role for the first time since 2000-2003’s “High Horse.” But even there he was more villain, victim, and presumptuous prankster than active, adventuring hero.
Here, Frank first appears a few pages into the story, then almost never leaves our sight. Following an ill-fated attempt at croquet, our imprudent merrymaker loses house and home. An itinerant craftsman erects for him a new domicile, but heedless Frank defaults on the payment (echoes of sub-prime mortgage disaster?). In order to settle his bill, he must indenture himself to a factory that seems simply to sqwush birds into paste, but Frank, ever the shirker, revolts at such manual labour. He sabotages the machinery, sprays his employer with vile goo, and hotfoots it to the nearest amusement park, whence he embarks in a pleasure craft on an oneiric odyssey. Before his trek leads homeward once more, Frank will know shipwreck, hallucination, and armed combat. He will encounter (and disrespect) the monuments and talismans of other civilisations, faceless men who venerate entrails, protean dragons who leak ichor on plains of battle. He may even find reward in a hot cup of tea, a sympathetic set of droopy, comely ears, and—dare one wish it?—the comforts of true love, at long last.
Of course, throughout this fantastic voyage, Frank remains something of a shitheel. He cringes away from the pleading gaze of the newly crippled Quacky, his fellow escapee. He points and laughs at the wonky religions of others. He lunges after objects of temptation time and again. Yet our sympathies lie with him as they have rarely done before: his exodus from the factory feels more righteous than ignoble, like a deliverance from injustice; his peregrinations seem less like aimless wanderings than they do explorations, initiations. Woodring's watchword for Frank, on the mellifluous jacket copy here and in Weathercraft, is “ineducability.” What Congress of the Animals proposes instead is the possibility of an educable Frank.
This has been the tragedy of Manhog's existence in Woodring's world: his capability, alone among the artist's creatures, for education, for growth and knowledge in a world that values inertia. So stories such as “Gentlemanhog” or Weathercraft read alternately like parables or curdled bildungsromans. The savage dons some marker of his new civility—a fez, say, or a smoking jacket—as he struggles to live up to the responsibilities his liberal education demands of him. Now, Congress of the Animals proposes a similar experience for Frank, only to see Woodring venturing beyond the realms of parable and into allegory. Here, sure, Frank learns, he grows, he progresses. But he does so in the service of an object lesson, in obedience to a kind of model for living. Frank is no longer simply the prototypical funny-animal; he has now become the everyman, too. It is in this capacity that we root for the rascal: his struggles against the workaday world are our own, as are his temptations, his trials, his longing for home and for some kind of domestic bliss.
Predictably, perhaps, some problems arise with this Frank who learns, who grows, who quests and seeks some goal. In turning his character to this purpose, Woodring verges dangerously close to a precipice his pantomime comics have avoided in the past. Having opted for poetry and parable and mysticism in previous works, Woodring has given a wide berth to certain pitfalls in the allegorical strain of wordless storytelling. This tradition, reaching back to forebears like Frans Masereel and silent cinema, plays host to a brand of romantic idealism, to a thinness of character and event, which smacks of mere sentimentality and runs counter to Woodring's strengths. The mystery, ambivalence, and indecipherability the cartoonist has become so adept at layering into his curious fables is less in evidence here. Instead, Frank launches into a pilgrim's progress, a passionate journey, that sees his story following a template of sorts: there's a voyage to make, obstacles to surmount, a love interest to pursue. Frank's current escapade has a definite arc, a pat linearity, where his other stories simply unravelled in disorienting but marvelous, satisfying swirls.
Not that the swirls and marvels have entirely gone, of course. Woodring's lissome linework and trademark filigrees are everywhere on display, his double-splashes weighty with arcane significance. His character designs, too, remain unsettling, especially on some lumpy faceless men and, more subtly, some shape-shifting “battling monsters.” Maybe, too, such subtlety is what finally matters in Congress of the Animals; maybe the mystery has not disappeared from this Frank story, so much as Woodring must encourage us to look harder for it. So, yes, it's difficult even to discern what those battling monsters are doing when they appear. But like something brought forward out of a Herriman backdrop, we must read each panel carefully to appreciate the minute changes the cartoonist wreaks on the very fabric of his world.
Likewise, the most startling sequence in the book isn't one of Woodring's patented visions or revelations. Rather, it's a simple conversation, held over the course of two climactic pages, played entirely without words, dependent on gesture and body language alone. This is where we should be looking, Woodring seems to say, in the same way he meaningfully directs Frank's gaze in the story's final panel. Fireworks may explode in the sky as Frank returns home, huge flourishes of the type that typically grab his attention and lead him into peril. But he begins to have a care, too, for the small mysteries of companionship and camaraderie, for the momentary as well as the momentous. And surely we can root for that.