For all the strange and wondrous adventures Jim Woodring's anthropomorphic hero Frank has undertaken, up until now the laws of balance in the Unifactor -- the surreal world he inhabits -- have kept the character himself unchanged. But in "Congress of the Animals," Woodring's second full-length graphic novel and the first to feature Frank in the leading role, Frank finds himself adrift outside the Unifactor, presenting him with adversaries more sinister than the impish Whim but also the opportunity for meaningful change. CBR News spoke with Woodring about "Congress of the Animals," due in June from Fantagraphics, and also about the difficulties of wielding a seven-foot long steel nib pen.
Beginning our discussion by asking about the massive illustration tool, for which Woodring captured headlines in 2010 when he requested funding for and finally crafted a giant nib pen, dubbed Nibbus Maximus, CBR asked the cartoonist about the particulars of drawing with this instrument. While the project proved fascinating as a concept for both spectators and Woodring himself, the artist told CBR that, in practice, "it's very difficult" to use. "It's long and heavy and after inking with it for about fifteen minutes I begin to get a backache," Woodring said. "Plus, all those minute movements that become second nature with your fingers when using a regular dip pen translate into efforts requiring the use of both arms and the upper torso. And since the paper is typically 40" tall it is very difficult to keep the angle consistent. On top of all that, the lines are very difficult to control. All in all, it's strenuous and frustrating."
As part of the project, Woodring taught himself to use the pen, though for the reasons stated and others he has not acquired the mastery with Nibbus Maximus that he holds with more standard tools of the trade. "It's like learning to draw with a regular dip pen except that it require a lot of setting up, a lot of ink, huge sheets of paper and a certain amount of stamina," he said of actually using the intrument. "It works just like a regular dip pen but is, of course, much harder to control. It makes thick and thin lines, but getting long smooth curves is very difficult because so many muscles are required and they have to contend with the weight of the thing."
Woodring debuted the pen in a demonstration at the Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, to what the artist described as mixed reviews. "For some reason, a reporter from 'The Economist' was there. He actually drew a bit with the pen and wrote the event up," Woodring told CBR. "Comments ranged from appreciative to scathing. Some people thought it was stupid (can't really argue with that), some thought it was a ripoff (even though there was no charge to attend) and a few ignoramuses thought a giant pen was no big deal since there have been giant sumi-e brushes in use for centuries."
Given the impracticality of drawing with the giant pen, it is perhaps unsurprising that no portion of "Congress of the Animals" was illustrated using Nibbus Maximus -- "but I did sign a few copies of 'Weathercraft' in Houston with it," Woodring said. "Drawing a comic with it is out of the question. Way, way too much work and not nearly enough quality of image."
After telling the story of long-suffering supporting character Manhog in "Weathercraft," Woodring's first full-length graphic novel, "Congress of the Animals" returns the focus to Frank. "The story 'Congress of the Animals' is one I've wanted to tell for a long time. In a lot of ways it's the most personal of the Frank stories and it breaks some aspects of the Frank mold," Woodring said. "There's a lot going on that may not be apparent, but I operate on the theory that is, there is something there people will pick up on it even if they don't see it directly. And that if they are sufficiently interested in puzzling it out, the meaning will become apparent. Frank leaves the Unifactor for the first time in this story, and that has a big effect on his life. I'm not sure if the next story will be a chronological follow-up or return to the pre-'Congress' state of things. I'm working out several different storylines at the moment."
As to what it means for Frank to leave the world he knows, Woodring told CBR News, "Mostly it means that he learns, which he never can while he is operating with that closed system where everything must balance in the end."
Frank encounters some pretty horrific characters along his journey outside the Unifactor, and has his physiology tampered with -- not for the first time, but in a considerably more unsettling manner. Woodring noted that, because the creatures and adversaries exist outside the Unifactor, "they don't have any kind of natural, pre-existing relationship to Frank. They are utterly alien and he cannot relate to them in any way."
Woodring has long maintained that, while his comics are silent, Frank as a character is not. In "Congress of the Animals," Frank has an extended (silent) conversation for several pages, a notable departure from the visual shorthand Woodring usually employs for such situations. "This is the scene I most looked forward to drawing," the artist said. "Frank and his new friend talk all night, but you can only infer a little of what they are saying. I thought it was cute." Though "Weathercraft" and "Congress of the Animals" are debuting about one year apart, Woodring said his next book will take a bit longer "because I have to write it first. 'Weathercraft' and 'Congress' were both written and worked out long before I drew them, so they went quickly. I haven't settled on a new story yet, though I have a lot of themes and scenes I want to incorporate in whatever it turns out to be. In the meantime, I have other work to do!"
Jim Woodring's "Congress of the Animals" debuts in June from Fantagraphics