In the Unifactor, a picturesque but occasionally sinister world inhabited by alien plantlife and mischievous creatures, dream-logic and unknowable forces propel Jim Woodring’s Frank and supporting characters through unexpected yet inevitable adventures – much as, the artist might suggest, real life does to us all. Frank, who debuted in 1991 in Woodring’s “Jim” anthology of comics and other writings and has in more recent years found a home in Fantagraphics’ “MOME,” is a curious anthropomorphic animal (of some sort), playful yet at times quite grim. He is accompanied by Pushpaw and Pupshaw, lunchpail-shaped godling-pets who often rescue Frank after run-ins with the smiling imp Whim and his abused servant Manhog. Woodring’s comics, rich in allegory and intricate surreal visuals, are a bit difficult to unpack in words – which may be why they contain so few, if any.
Arriving in May from Fantagraphics, “Weathercraft,” Woodring’s first full-length graphic novel, thrusts the perennially persecuted Manhog into the spotlight for a 100-page tale of suffering and redemption. CBR News caught up with the cartoonist to discuss the new book, the protagonist’s enlightenment and the symbolism of frogs.
CBR News: Here we’ve got your first full-length “Frank” graphic novel, and Manhog takes center stage. What made you want to do an extended story with the much-put-upon character?
Jim Woodring: In a lot of ways, Manhog is the most interesting character in the Unifactor. He has the most potential for change and the widest range of dramatic possibilities. Besides, it’s fun to put him in awful circumstances and watch him suffer. There’s something about a big fat guy screaming in terror that’s just naturally funny. Oliver Hardy got a lot of mileage out of that formula.
In “Weathercraft,” Manhog confronts Whim twice, each time leading the devil-like character to a transformation of sorts. Is there any hope of defeating Whim? Is such a thing even desirable?
If Whim were removed from the perennially shifting equation of the Unifactor, things would be radically different there, at least until a new opportunist stepped in to fill the void; and that newcomer could be even worse than Whim, so it’s probably best to leave things as they are. But if you had Whim in your life, you’d want to get rid of him, for sure. Whim is bad news for absolutely everyone but himself.
As you say, Manhog is responsible for Whim’s acquiring a hallucinogenic plant-body; what’s significant in this story is that he feels morally obligated to clean up after himself…a first for him. He passes up a chance to enter paradise in order to do the right thing.
After much suffering, Manhog ends up in a robe, as he had in one of your previous Frank stories. What does this mean for him? Why must his new status be doomed to disaster?
The robe was introduced because I was getting sick of seeing his scarred, abused body and I figured readers would like a break from it also. Besides, it’s an indicator of his evolving status; he acquires the robe by removing his tail. Also, at that point the story veers into historical territory. The things that happen to Manhog on the road to his epiphany have their roots, shallow though they may be, in ancient myths and rites.
The playful FAQ on the jacket copy suggests Manhog deserves everything he gets. That’s hard to imagine! Are you interested in showing his high sins at some point, or do you prefer to leave him as this perpetually punished beast and have us take your word for it (or not!)?
Well, until Manhog is condemned to spend eternity in hell for his transgressions, he’s not suffering worse than certain representatives of humanity are obliged to do. It’s true that his suffering avails him nothing; his liberation in “Weathercraft” could have come at any time. But the fact that he discovers the source of all his troubles after twenty pages of torture is not a coincidence.
The Frank stories, for all their abstraction, have a pretty strong sense of internal logic, the symbols you use seem very consistent. Is this something you had to define early and adhere to, or do these things just seem natural or self-evident to you?
Like Dave Fleischer, I think cartoons are most enjoyable when they depict things you could never see in real life. On the other hand, pure fantasy interests me not at all. Everything in the Frank comics has its basis in reality…or at least in reality as I see it. I guess that could be a significant qualifier.
The stories more or less write themselves, with a minimum of invention on my part. I provide the pacing, page breaks, design of invisible forces and so on, but the stories exist in nature.
Some fairly untoward stuff happens to a frog in this book at the hands of the hags, and later some frogs cheer Manhog with music. Why use frogs in the context you have them here?
It’s tough to beat a frog for animal symbolism. When they’re still, they’re completely motionless, sometimes for hours. When they jump, they fly like greased lightning. They metamorphose, and ultimately live in two worlds. They are weirdly anthropomorphic, and of course they are beautiful to look at and fun to draw. I’ll never tire of or be ambivalent toward frogs.
The frog used as a catalyst by the crones in “Weathercraft” is very old and ill at the outset. Thanks to their efforts his metamorphosis continues and he ends up in a very exalted and enviable position. We should be so lucky.
On the back cover, you nickname the two unnamed Weathercraft hags as “Betty and Veronica,” which you acknowledge is a pretty odd pet name. What led to them taking on the names of Archie’s would-be loves?
Sheer whimsy. I had to call them something. Actually, my wife Mary suggested it, and I immediately agreed. I could have called them Prudence and Patience, I guess. The point is that they don’t have names.
I understand you’re currently doing an artist-in-residence program in Alaska. Who is it with, exactly, and what are you expected to be doing while you’re there?
The Rasmuson Foundation in Anchorage offered the residency, and I was lucky enough to get it. I’m spending the month of March in the little town of Homer, staying at the Mermaid B&B and working the Bunnell Street Gallery, where there is a show of my stuff. My duties consist of teaching classes in cartooning and pen-and-ink, giving talks about my work, and doing my regular work, which in this case is another 100-page Frank story tentatively called “Congress of the Animals.” It’s about 1/3 done at this point and doesn’t feature Manhog at all.
Had you been to Alaska before? Are you having a chance to explore a bit?
No, it’s my first time in Alaska, and it’s been a perfect introduction. For the first two weeks, Homer was in the grip of near-historic blizzards. Six feet of snow in some places. School was canceled for the first time in 20 years. Getting around was incredibly difficult. I’d never experienced anything like that before. Zero degree weather with intense wind-chill. But now the sun is out and most of the snow is melted off the sidewalks and roads.
I’ve explored some, but mostly I’ve been working and hanging out. Today is Sunday, though, and I’m slated to go across the bay to Halibut Cove.
Speaking of exploring and travels, it seems like you’ve got quite a following in Japan, and have a good set-up with your Japanese publisher. Have you done any direct-to-Japan comics or illustration work that American readers might be interested in seeing, or is there anything that hasn’t yet been published here that you’d like to have released?
Presspop has released a few “Frank” collections that are unique, and they published “Pupshaw and Pushpaw,” a children’s picture book, and the original stand-alone edition of “The Lute String,” which was later featured in “MOME.” Besides those things, I’ve done a little illustration and design work that probably stayed in Japan; CD covers for the band Snowkel and designs for toys, fabric and sculpture.
What else has been occupying your time lately? I know you had been focused on your charcoal work and have done a good deal of commercial illustration. Have there been any non-comics projects you’ve been especially pleased with?
I’ve become re-obsessed with pen and ink, and comics are a great outlet for that, so I’m drawing comics until I learn a few things about that medium. Besides, during the time I was doing those charcoal drawings and paintings, new stories were accumulating in my notebooks, so I have a fund of material to work with. My plan is to draw three more 100-page “Frank” comic books. Also, I want to revisit the sort of stuff I did in the “Jim” comics all those years ago, and put that episode to bed with a nightcap.