Nearly 20 years ago, the History Channel released a documentary about the birth of superhero comics and their evolution from the Golden Age into the grim-and-gritty ‘80s. The whole thing is on YouTube and is an absolutely fun watch, even for those overly familiar with the subject matter.
When I first watched it as a kid, there was a line that immediately stuck out. “Reading comics for me,” Neil Gaiman intones at one point, “it was like getting postcards from Oz.”
That is a romantic, brilliant way to think about your first exposure to comics, even if the ascendance of superhero movies has made the notion of comics as some faraway niche almost quaint. When I think of Gaiman’s quote now, I would more readily apply it to something truly bizarre—something much like Jim Woodring’s One Beautiful Spring Day.
There are postcards from Oz and then there are 400 pages of wordless, black-and-white comics featuring a range of deeply strange, if often delightful, characters. At the center of Woodring’s wacky fictional world is Frank, a cheery, bipedal creature who he has described as a “generic anthropomorph.” (That’ll do, but Frank’s distinctive buck teeth gave me the vibe of an off-kilter Bugs Bunny.)
One Beautiful Spring Day combines three previously-published Frank comics—Congress of the Animals, Fran, and Poochytown—along with a new story highlighting Whim, a disturbing Woodring creations who haunts Frank’s world with a crescent-moon-shaped head and ever-present smile.
So much of mainstream comics (and nerd culture writ large) is stridently left-brained in its focus on moving the overarching plot along and obeying the strictures of continuity while injecting just enough originality without rocking the boat. Woodring’s work is an admirable, almost herculean, rejection of that mechanical way of making art.
The Frank stories are surreal and strung together at times with dream logic, but they undoubtedly have a plot and effective characterization. You’ll be surprised how much you come to care about Frank’s canine companions or the various anthropomorphs they encounter along the way.
In the Unifactor, Woodring’s name for his fictional world, brutality and metamorphoses are constant. Characters fall in love, hurt each other, discover strange, new worlds, and start all over again. If you squint, there is way of reading Frank as a funhouse-mirror version of a superhero comic, where the scenery bursts with changes on every panel but the status quo for every character remains the same.
Woodring’s lines are as expressive as you’ll find in a mainstream strip, but without dialogue or narration, the story returns ultimate power to the reader. Some scenes may horrify you or move you, but Woodring almost never tells you how to feel about them.
Take a moment that happens in the first 40 pages or so of the collection. Frank encounters a grumpy lizard-looking creature who gets its eyes gouged out by an aggressive bird. Some while later, Whim has taken the lizard captive and is using it like a mule. What do Frank and his pets (the delightfully-named Pupshaw and Pushpaw) think of this? When this creature returns at the end of the narrative, what does it mean?
Their facial expressions evince some disgust, but more often than not, Woodring treats these scenes of mutilation or bodily transformation as atonal. They are what they are.
What grounds the story in some real pathos is the introduction of Fran, a female companion for Frank who he meets while journeying away from home. When she leaves him, Frank follows her through a Lynchian odyssey of doppelgängers, monsters, and even spaceships.
All throughout the narrative, Frank remains a bit of a cipher, precocious and trusting while often selfish and hurtful. Woodring’s extensive cross-hatching and detailed backgrounds give Frank’s world a surrealist edge that only serves to better help him stand out. In this dreamscape of bizarre monsters and body horror, Frank has the look of a tourist but the attitude of a rogue.
The story moves at a faster pace than you might expect—perfect for completing in an eponymous spring day—and is helped along by some genuinely great comic moments. A personal highlight is when Pupshaw and Pushpaw try to cheer Frank up once Fran leaves.
Francis Ford Coppola – yes, the director of The Godfather – once described Frank as Woodring’s “puzzling gift to a puzzling world.” You don’t come to these comics expecting a sequel, let alone something approximating an explanation, but you do leave them with a deep sense of appreciation. Whatever Woodring is doing, it sure would look good on a postcard from Oz.
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