June 19, 2019
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite comic books, comic strips, and graphic novels.
TANTALIZING STORIES PRESENTS FRANK IN THE RIVER
I picked up this unassuming little saddle-stitched one-off in 1992, at a moment when pretty much anything, no matter how outré or abstruse, could show up on the new-arrivals shelves at comic book stores. (Six black-and-white issues of Tantalizing Stories followed it.) I’d say that Jim Woodring’s silent title story, which occupies most of the issue, shook me to my core, but that would imply that it was an unpleasant experience. “Frank in the River” (or “Frank in ‘The River'”? It could be either) is a story about hard, complicated things, but its artistic force comes from how playful and charming and immediate it is.
Frank, the protagonist of most of Woodring’s subsequent comics, is a catlike innocent with a doofy, bucktoothed face. As innocents do, Frank bumbles his way into a small disaster, and has to get a job to make amends. The job, it turns out, is horrible, and so is his boss, a piglike butcher. But Frank’s gig also involves access to one of the sources of creation in the peculiar cosmology in which the story is set; after enduring a series of psychological trials, he cleverly becomes that source’s master, and eventually gains an unexpected reward for his efforts.
If you are thinking “wait, that description got really weird and vague,” you are absolutely right. “Frank in the River” gets mighty metaphysical, but its visual grammar is that of classic Hollywood animation: crystalline moment-to-moment logic in the service of broader absurdity, bright lush colors, nuances of character communicated through outsized body language, animals doing things that are funny because they’re just like what people do. Woodring’s story would be hard to express clearly in language, but a cartoon cat’s pratfalls get it across just fine.
There’s even a lagniappe: “Frank in the River” is followed by a short “Montgomery Wart” story by Mark Martin, a Pogo/Vaughn Bodé-inspired thing about chatty frogs that’s entirely content to be a cute trifle. It’s not as ambitious or haunting as Woodring’s story, but TTPFitR is even more satisfying for its presence. Taken together, the two stories marked me with the understanding that art created to bring delight to its audience could use that delight as a vehicle for other things too, and that it didn’t have to.
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