A Day in the Life of Frank- a review of Jim Woodring's Poochytown

I have this feeling that whatever anyone writes about Jim Woodring’s comics is just wrong. His Frank stories operate on a level so particular and personal that trying to read one of them feels on some level like you’re searching for a Rosetta Stone to unlock the meaning of his own fantastic imagination. Poochytown, his latest Frank book, adds a level of wonder to it as it largely undoes everything from his last two books, Congress of The Animals and Fran. The opening of Poochytown is a straight retelling of the opening of Congress of The Animals with two citizens of Woodring’s The Unifactor, his own playground of the imagination, squabbling over a perceived slight. But where Congress of Animals went off an introduced Fran, a love interest for Frank, Woodring uses the arguing characters this time to propel Frank on a journey of friendship and companionship, not love or romance. The cartoonist has talked before about how Fran was him forcing something on the Unifactor rather than letting it reveal itself to him and inspire him. Poochytown is a course correction where Woodring removes the unnecessary character from the narrative and lets the Unifactor tell the story rather than the cartoonist forcing it into an artificial and false narrative.

So if Woodring is trying to find the story that the Unifactor wants to tell, the story he discovers is one of trial and error. That’s true for Woodring who rightly or wrongly believes that he made an error in the last two books and that’s also true for Frank who, when his companions Pushpaw and Pupshaw go on their own strange adventure without him, has to find companionship in the bloated and generally disgusting Manhog. In Woodring’s wordless comics, his characters wear their hearts on their proverbial sleeves. Woodring doesn’t hide who his characters are but visually personifies who and what they are, whether it’s enigmatic like Pupshaw, gross like Manhog, or even innocent and trusting like Frank. This simplicity in Woodring’s characters allows them to live in a very complicated world. Following the plot of one of Woodring’s story is following Frank discovering something new in his world, trying to figure out what it means for him as he experiences it and then having to deal with the consequences that usually leads to something new in this world.

After saving Manhog from a predatory horse-like creature in this new book, Frank and Manhog begin an adventure that takes them through a cartoonist’s studio, on a carless drive through the Unifactor and finally into a house that transports Frank off into his own solo psychedelic trip. Through these stories of Frank and Manhog, Woodring shows us ways to interact with our own world, ways to experience and react to the mysteries of daily existence. Frank is a creature of experience and each new experience adds something to his life. These experiences lead to knowledge and emotional moments that give him some time of reflection. But on almost each and every page, Woodring is showing something new to his characters and to his readers. The thrill of discovery is at the center of the Unifactor. Nearly everything is something new for the characters and for the readers.

So there are many ways to react to these new things. You could shun them, embrace them, fear them, but Frank always dives into them, pressing buttons, looking through holes, or entering doorways that maybe he shouldn’t be entering. As Woodring is trying to open up how we experience our own world, he’s teaching us how to react when things don’t go the way we expect them to go. It’s a bit like how do you write a new book when you feel like the last two books were not creative successes. In Poochytown, Woodring is reacting to his own creative output and the way it’s changed his own approach to this new comic.

As a land of imagination, the Unifactor gives Woodring a surreal tapestry to draw these adventures in. While wordless, his comics are never silent as his artwork creates its own soundtrack in the mind of the reader. Shading with a variety of wavy line weights, Woodring’s drawings produce every kind of sound from a hum to a screaming cacophony. The rhythm that underlines Frank’s adventures is always present and working on the reader whether they realize it or not.

Frank exists in a world that’s pure communication. Woodring’s Unifactor exists to relay information between the characters and even broadcast it out to the reader and even to the cartoonist. This communication is about all the ways we interact with the people and the world around us. One of the big things that Woodring and the Unifactor encourage us to do is to listen and pay attention to what Frank, Manhog and everyone else is wordlessly saying. They’re constantly talking but we can only imagine what they’re saying. That way, this comic is actually louder than most comics because it actually has something to express. As Frank encounters all of these strange, wonderful, and even scary things within the span of a day, he never succumbs to doubt or despair but the message of the comic is about adaptation, acceptance and a willingness to accept what’s happening with eyes wide open.

And that may all be wrong. In the end, Frank also has to accept that Manhog isn’t a wanted part of this world as Manhog is chased off. Here’s a disgusting character that finally gets to show a bit of his true character but he’s chased off because of who everyone knows him to be and not what he’s just shown himself to be in this book. As the beginning of Poochytown resets everything to a point in time before the previous two books, the end of Poochytown resets itself to a status quo that doesn’t accept one of the main characters of this book. It’s kind of heartbreaking to see the way that the story accepts the fate of Manhog to be a disgusting joke than as a faithful friend.

That's the conundrum of this book.  It's about a new friendship but then that friendship is abandoned in the end.  For everything that happens, in the end, everything is pretty much what it was at the beginning.  Maybe we've changed a bit because of our experience with this book but it's hard to see any development in the characters because they're reset to a status quo in the end.  For everything new that Frank has experienced and discovered, he returns home to his old friends and his old bed.  Even as everything around him in the Unifactor was changing, it returns in final pages to an equilibrium that makes you wonder why Frank just went through everything that he did.  It's this mystery in Jim Woodring comics that makes him a cartoonist that you've got to return to again and again because he doesn't make it easy.

Updated 9/9/18:  A previous version of this review mistakenly identified the character Manhog as "Warthog."

Written and Drawn by Jim Woodring
Published by Fantagraphics