“He lives where no one ever lived !
He does what no one ever did !
God bless all mankind, all men, all kinds !
Frank struggles while we sleep !”
Eden in spite of it all
Frank lives in a charming universe, relaxes in soft furniture, tends to his peaceful business in a unique little house topped with an Oriental bulb. Everything would go smoothly if this idyllic cartoon world were not breached by the curious Manhog (the only character with visible gender), who acts in compulsive lunges, driven by primal desires, disrupting every routine.
So far, everything seems well ordered : Frank, pleasant, plump, sleek and bewildered, with his harmless hobbies, is regularly swindled and abused by the sinister, envious, wrathful, brutal, Machiavellian, gluttonous quadruped. Are we witnessing yet again the eternal struggle — one more intolerable time — of gentle innocence beset by the forces of evil ?
Almost but not quite, not entirely. Manhog, despite being an unpleasant synthesis of all the villainy of the world, is not a Manichean creature : this walking caricature still suffers, groans and cries.
As for Frank the innocent, he discovers his own alarming capacity for anger, brutality and revenge. Things are amiss in cartoon-land — the cards have been rearranged. There’s no way to stay cushily undisturbed at home ; the unknown and the bizarre are inescapable parts of the surroundings.
Thus, Frank must endure outlandish encounters with a pointy devil, a house[-shaped] dog, marvelous and anguished creatures, death’s-heads, celestial beings, a chicken … fulfilling, willy-nilly, the terms of his apprenticeship to death, serenity, anger, brutality and cruelty.
Reading Woodring, I thought for a moment of Mattioli, who has also created a cartoonish world in order to pulverize, denature, and detour it into a droll, gleeful explosion of sex and violence.
But although their approaches are similar, throwing a simpleton into strange and savage situations, the results have little in common. Mattioli, in Squeek the Mouse, takes his falsely sweet characters and universe and makes them literally explode all over the walls. Woodring works in subtle, sinuous movements ; it’s by infiltration, little by little, that unease sets in.
Stressing the dreamlike qualities of his art and story without explaining anything, Woodring draws out and engages mystery and disquiet with his balanced, accomplished style. His visual universe, full of a strange and playful charm, is the theatre in which Frank’s games are enacted, innocent at first, then turning to tragedy, showing the irrevocable loss of innocence — while, in everything in the surrounding landscape, paradise remains.