The Portable Frank by Jim Woodring

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The Portable Frank
By Jim Woodring
Fantagraphics

Seeing Things, the title of Jim Woodring’s 2005 collection of charcoal drawings was intended as more than a simple descriptor of the artist’s surrealist mode of expression. For most of his life, Woodring has suffered from hallucinations, a fact that he’s discussed openly and often in interviews, over the years. For better or worse, the condition has, of course, played a rather prominent role in the artist’s work.

One of the most beneficial side effects is the remarkable sense of consistency with which Woodring has imbued his art. For all of its predominantly fantastic qualities, the world inhabited by his most beloved character, Frank, possesses a sense of internal reality rarely achieved by even the most stringently autobiographical works that the medium has to offer. It’s a sense of other-worldliness hinted at—but rarely, if ever, fully-realized by the psychedelic musings of underground comics’ early pioneers.

Frank’s greatest achievement, however, is quite probably the universality of its alien subject matter. Woodring presents his character in a family format—the clear, if indirect, descendent of artists like Carl Barks and George Herriman. With a buck-toothed, four-fingered gloved, fuzzy protagonist at its center, Woodring is more than happy to offer up an entrance into his world, a largely wordless place, defined by thick, unforgiving cartoon lines that marry Walt Kelly with Salvador Dali.

At $16.99, The Portable Frank is Fantagraphics’ attempt to further extend that accessibility, offering up 14 cherry-picked black-and-white strips in roughly the same paperback dimensions with which the company has fairly recently reissued the best-loved works of artists like Peter Bagge and the Hernandez brothers. And of course, there’s not a misfire in the lot, the strips beckoning the reader further and further into Frank’s ever deepening universe, until, at page 198, the journey is over much too soon.

However, two criticism of the book are immediately forthcoming. First, it’s truly unfortunate that the budgetary constraints of such a volume couldn’t afford the publisher the opportunity to reprint any of Woodring’s color Frank strips, which offer up yet another fascinating level to the work. Second, is the constant reminder one has, while reading the book, that Woodring’s current output, while stunning in its own right, just can’t duplicate the sense of wonder of his greatest creation.

–Brian Heater

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