Mute Stories Speak a Universal Language

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Do you remember "Henry," the wordless gag strip about the boy with the chipmunk cheeks? Imagine he has a stubby tail and a triangle nose — that's Frank. Now imagine "Henry"'s simple, "silent" stories taking place in a world of abstract angels, mutated frogs and other Jungian visions of the unconscious, and you have "Frank," the comic by Jim Woodring, published by Fantagraphics Books.

Issue No. 4 has just appeared in what has shaped up as an annual publishing schedule. The wordless plots are simple and archetypal, tapping into primal-process stories of food, fear and friendship. "Frank's High Horse," the lead story that continues across issues, involves Frank's finding a vicious protector called the High Horse (though it looks more like a giant, floating planarian worm). Soon Frank becomes addicted to the power this brings him, desperately following it as it slips through a slit in the sky, back to its own plane of existence.

Frank lives in a tooth-and-claw, pre-civilized world, but with card-playing, geometrically shaped chickens, stick-figure devils that read books, and man-hogs who live in houses. The drawings are cartoony, with fat, soft lines and a minimum of physical detail. But their movement and actions are depicted with expressiveness and drama. Woodring's style combines warmth and fuzziness with sharp teeth.

Woodring keeps the stories wordless, both as a challenge to himself — "like writing a novel without the letter 'e,'" he has said — but, more importantly, as a way of avoiding cultural currency. Not using words keeps the "Frank" stories timeless and universal. If you share "Frank" with your Bushman friends and even your Oxford don friends, everyone will be able to "get it." Wordless, sequential drawings have been the purest form of communication since prehistory. "Frank" continues the tradition.

It's almost a shame these are wordless stories, since Woodring's prose remains one of the most distinctive in comics. His words form a kind of enigmatic poetry, that, like his "Frank" stories, promise meaning if only considered closely enough. Here's a sample line that floats on the inside back cover: "When all these things we have come to love pass by, the world will seem empty and alone. How strange this place will be without my practicing eye. How devoid of charm that residue of foam."

Unlike dream comics, which have always struck me as little more than curiosities, full of symbols meaningful only to the dreamer, the "Frank" stories have a meditative, hallucinatory feel. (The book is dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna, a 19th-century guru/mystic.) They tap into a universal unconsciousness of archetypes. But ultimately "Frank" tells one story, everyone's story, the same story as life: "How Laughably Absurd It All Is."

"Frank" can be purchased at superior comic book stores and through the publisher at There is also a collection of previously published "Frank" stories, and "The Big Book of Jim." Jim Woodring also has a web site: