Friday, March 10, 2006

Does Anybody Know This Frank?

Found this article from the P-I which ran originally on January 8th of 2004. It's quite interesting since it involves someone or something else named Frank. I have copied the entire piece for your blog-viewing pleasure. Should I have just provided a link to the original online article? Perhaps, but that's what paralegals are for.


Chewed by his appetites, Jim Woodring's fat, pink stand-in for his devolved species lumbers around on all fours. Treating him with the caution he deserves is a guy misnamed Lucky. Lucky's jaw hangs like a dropped elevator, giving his otherwise handsome face a gruesomely vacant look.

Expect to see more of them in 2004, as the Seattle comic strip in which they appear has taken off like a surface-to-air missile. The strip is lean on text, heavy on hypnotic imagery and familiar locally to those who've followed it in The Stranger or seen the original watercolors and ink drawings at Belltown's Roq La Rue Gallery.

The blank-slate star of the series is Frank, a catlike, generic anthropomorph with no mom and two dads, one real and the other faux, both useless. The landscapes through which they move are pristine in their twisted beauty, which makes the more ungainly figures pop out like pimples.

After decades of working the strip side of culture, Woodring, 51, is finally reaping rich rewards. "The Frank Book" is a deluxe, 344-page version of the underground series, published by Seattle's Fantagraphics Books and selling briskly around the world. It features a foreword by Frank fan Francis Ford Coppola, who describes the book as "wordless, timeless, placeless (and) full of its own unprecedented characters and experience."

The Village Voice ranked Frank's book as one of the top 25 released in 2003, the only comic strip-based pick on the list. (The Voice called it a "hallucinatory mindscape in brilliant candy colors.") On a recent trip to Japan, where toy versions of the strip's characters sell in vending machines for 300 yen (about $2.65), so many fans came to get their books autographed that Woodring had to sneak out the back, his hand cramping from the strain.

The experience of being famous is unsettling for Woodring, a classically low-key guy.

"Frank might be getting famous, but not me," he said in the tone of a man fending off an unjust accusation. He lives in an old house in the University District with his 17-year-old son and his wife, Mary, a Metro bus driver and designer of his Web site,, where, among other things, the toys are for sale.

The previous owner was a pack rat who wrongly considered himself handy in the repairs department. He was the kind of guy who'd brace weight-bearing walls with toothpaste and mend faulty wiring with duct tape.

Although the Woodrings bought the house in the late 1980s, they had so much essential work to do they are only now getting around to decor. Although quick to assure visitors that the old Sears, Roebuck catalog wallpaper isn't there by his design, Woodring said it doesn't bother him much.

The action for Woodring is in his head.

That's where he carried his desire to live in the Northwest when he was a kid growing up in various towns on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Lying in bed late at night and reading under the covers, he was inspired by Betty MacDonald's "The Egg and I."

"She didn't like Indians and made that plain in the story," he said. "It's part of her raunchy and mean-spirited world view, but as a kid I loved her deeply evocative passages about the Olympics. At night I'd stick my head out the window, close my eyes and imagine I was in that country."

By high school that dreamy boy had turned into his parents' idea of a trial. Failing at school, he was at odds with his dad, disdainful of his peers and addicted to drugs and alcohol.

On the other hand, he drew, mostly figures but also landscapes that turned in on themselves, and he read widely in the literature of alienation.

The drawing and the reading saved him, that and meeting his wife, who urged a cleanup in a kind way, and his exposure to art. Seeing a Surrealism retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1968 amazed him, the realization that all these artists had found a form for their inner feelings.

"I wanted to know what made Surrealism tick, to understand why one drawing had a lot of power and another didn't," he said. "What was the ingredient that made these things run? I came to feel a good piece of Surrealism was like something that phosphoresces under ultraviolet light. You can't see the rays, but they make it glow. I knew when that light was shining in my own head, it was just a matter of learning how to capture it."

After high school, he headed up to the Olympic Peninsula, where he could live cheaply and catch work when he needed it, odd jobs like helping farmers get the hay in.

By the 1970s, he'd begun his own comics. In 1980 he was hired at the Ruby Spears animation studio in Southern California, working on what he thinks of as some of the worst cartoons ever made, such as "Mr. T" and "Rubic and the Amazing Cube."

After nine years in the industry, he'd made enough to get out. He tried San Francisco but found the atmosphere cold and insular. Then moved to Seattle; he and his wife felt at home right away.

"I already knew some people up here," he said. "I'd been corresponding with Charlie Krafft, who is in my opinion one of the best artists in the country. When he heard I might be coming up, he wrote and told me not to. I think he felt too many Californians were coming. I wrote him back and said I drive an old car, wear my clothes out and don't get more than two haircuts a year. I promised to blend in."

With the success of Frank, Woodring is moving into the top tier of cartoonists, people who are accepted as artists by galleries, museums and collectors.

Does anything about his success make him uneasy?

"Yes," he said. "I don't like Frank to appear as a tattoo. He does, of course. There are tattoo shops in San Francisco that feature him among their standard flash designs. I wish they wouldn't. I can imagine a bloated body on a slab and a faded little Frank winking at the morgue attendant. Aside from that, I'm open to anything."

That's the end of the article. Interested in The Frank Book or other work by Jim Woodring? Here's the Fantagraphics Link.

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