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Friday, July 18, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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'The Frank Book': So who's Frank? Is it Seattle artist Jim Woodring?

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's fun to imagine what you'd hear if you left the big book of Frank cartoons in a room with a small child and then stepped outside:

Silence. Giggling. Silence. Sobbing. Then scratching at the door.

Well, "fun" may be the wrong word.

Cute, enigmatic, psychedelic, disturbing, Seattle artist Jim Woodring's "The Frank Book" (Fantagraphics, $39.95) is the perfect coffee-table book. But for this coffee table: in the apartment of the guy you knew in college who always had the Three Stooges on TV with the sound off, a Gil Scott-Heron record playing instead, and a smoldering hookah.

The wordless volume would be an irresistible eye-magnet for assorted friends and food deliverers dropping in at all hours of the day and night. Furrowed brows, mouths open. Discussions of meaning might ensue about the vaguely karmic tales that defy explanation and the Disney-by-way-of-H.P.-Lovecraft drawings that defy description.

And you'd want to know what's in Woodring's medicine cabinet.

"I don't take anything. Anymore," Woodring says over a chicken-tikka lunch not far from his University District home.

Anyone walking past the lunch table wouldn't recognize Woodring, 51, as the shaggy, glowering madman pictured on the book flap. With a goatee and slightly graying hair, he could pass for an average resident of Seattle's space/time continuum. Friendly, genuine, he's even been known to let fans from out of town drop in on him now and then.

The book collects the character he's drawn since 1991, an anthropomorphic buck-toothed animal-guy who lives in a timeless, placeless dream realm. Its other denizens include his protective companion — a kind of walking birdhouse with a cat's tail — as well as a powerful, devilish crescent-moon-headed being, and an adversarial Manhog. Someone else who sat down at the coffee table might describe it all differently.

This is how Francis Ford Coppola (yeah, him) puts it in his introduction to the volume:

"It offers vivid tableaus of tenderness and bloodshed, cruelty and sacrifice, love and betrayal, terror and bliss; and it offers them wrapped like candies from another planet."

An alternate reality

If this seems like a vapid Larry King question, there's no wormhole around it: Where does this beautiful, horrifying stuff come from?

"When I was a kid, I used to see apparitions and have hallucinations, and my entire perception of the world was badly disoriented. And I had kind of a chaotic childhood because of that," Woodring says.

"I've really hung onto it, though. Because I actually like those feelings. They've made everything really interesting to me, and I was usually disappointed when I found out that things were not as I saw them."

Woodring admits to having cultivated — and trying to shed — a persona over the years. One story in his self-lore has an analyst who saw his art refusing to treat him. Actually, it was two analysts. And in his "wastrel" earlier years, he's gone from homelessness to Disney work.

It's not immediately clear which he preferred. He says he still sleeps on the floor, in his clothes.

Living with his wife and a teenage son, Woodring says he was socially inept most of his life and only spent the past few years trying to make himself socially palatable and normal-acting. Acting?

"I'm not a freak. I'm not really crazy or anything," he says. "I don't think I'm really abnormal. It's just, like anybody else, I have interests I cultivate, and one of my interests is not getting too used to things.

"I've sacrificed a lot of things in my life in order to keep that sense of things being unfamiliar."

But more people are growing familiar with him. Woodring's tendril-waving body of work includes "Trosper" for currently struggling Seattle publisher Fantagraphics, comic-book spinoffs of the "Alien" movies and the classic "Freaks" for Dark Horse Comics, and designs for the Seattle Public Library main branch opening next year.

Seattle fans also know Woodring's stop-you-in-your-tracks panel that hovers amid The Stranger's music want-ads every week, each one a bizarre stand-alone with a puzzling caption. Readers weren't wordless when a comics-page shake-up last year left the panel in limbo.

"We got so many letters," says managing art director Kelly O'Neill. "It's their favorite."

She says, "It's just incredible. It leaves something to your own imagination. You can interpret it so many different ways, it's so surreal. It's more toward the fine-art side of things instead of ha-ha."

Complex art, character

Like alternative artist Charles Burns, Woodring has an outwardly simple, clean style whose polish belies a labor-intensive method. For instance, his magnificent painted cover for the summer 2002 Comics Journal — depicting a smiling frog in a tug-of-war for a branch with a nightmare creature from Frank's realm — took three weeks.

"That amount of work carries a message of its own," he explains. "Just the fact that so much work went into the rendering tells readers to take it more seriously somehow. Just gives it a weight and a portentousness that it wouldn't have if it were more simply done."

The Frank stories are written very intuitively, he says. So who is Frank? A curious anti-Mickey?

"I don't even know how to put it into words. He's not exactly naive, but he's not sophisticated either. I don't know. I think I know what his personality is like, but it's hard to describe. He's uneducable. He's curious about being intelligent. If you notice, nothing ever affects him, at least nothing he learns.

"The thing about Frank is he's the recipient of a lot of cosmic benevolence. He lives in this landscape, he doesn't have to work, the world takes care of him. And his job every day is to go out and interact with the universe."

Nor is Frank always a good guy, as the Manhog, sometimes a victim of his endeavors, would attest.

"He's innocent without being noble. I guess if I had to put it into a single phrase, the moral of the Frank stories is that the hammer never really falls."

Spiritually, Woodring's into a form of Hinduism. He says it appeals to him as something hard to bottle and sell but worthwhile if you're willing to put forth the effort. It all ties in with his work.

"Everything I do tries to do the same thing, which is to express things that are hard to express, hidden things."

The pictures are a kind of scratching at some inner door. And he doesn't always know what the hidden things are.

"No, I don't, but I know if there's something there."

There's also irony in his universe. And on his mantle.

Now you can buy a Woodring-designed vinyl "Jiva" figure (a Hindu term for the embodied soul), as well as a Japanese line of Jim Woodring "Crazy Newts" — more petals of his blossoming popularity, along with assorted master's theses and an in-the-works Canadian documentary.

The colorful toplike Jiva toy that sits on his mantle at home is a self-portrait, he says, "a vision from childhood. Now it's like something you could buy at a supermarket."

Mark Rahner: mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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