And now check out these freaks.
I still remember how, as I came up on my first tab of acid, I fretted about the possibility of being pursued by the Mars Bar Man. I had it on fairly good authority that that was the sort of thing I had to expect. That and maybe fairies. But the Mars bar man sounded scarier so I obsessed about him. Animated Mars bars with faces, arms, legs and malicious intent were definitely a hugely bad and strange thing and I’m pleased to say that over the next twelve hours I encountered nothing of the kind. Well, okay, that’s not strictly true.
Because I did come to the attention of a very bizzare pack of Refreshers.
The worst part of the trip involved buying sweets. My friend and fellow psychonaut insisted we pop into a newsagents and buy something sugary, but as soon as the door closed behind me and the little bell TINGED! to signify our arrival I knew I’d made a bad mistake. To begin with the floor was on fire. But more importantly the rows and rows of brightly coloured candy wrappers in front of the till seemed to unspool out of the third dimension, fractal-branching in all directions – through me, the shop-keeper, my chum, the walls, the floor, the ceiling……….. and MY BLOODY SOUL.
I couldn’t take much more of that shit, so I got the hell out of the shop. Only, try as I might to eject it from my awareness, the technicolour yawn of confectionery proved to be unshakable. Especially the brightest, funnest, fizziest confectionary of all: the Refreshers. If I opened my eyes, they were there. If I closed my eyes, they were there. Wherever I went for the rest of the day they would eventually show up, that tangled, twisted, octopoidal mass of rainbowed paper and foil. Forget the Mars bar guy – I’d just met the daddy of all predatory candymen. Actually, please forgive the hyperbole, at this point I have to cop to the fact that after prolonged exposure to this outlandish beast I eventually managed to befriend it. It wasn’t all bad – it looked very pretty and I did love the sweets themselves – but it did come on pretty strong. The thing is, until that moment I had no idea a packet of Refreshers could be so mindwarpingly frightening and beautiful – they were just another tasty treat vying for my attention in the chocolate section. I didn’t know they possessed intelligence. I didn’t know they were alive…..
Damien Hirst articulated the idea brilliantly in his famous piece, The Physical Impossibilty of Death in the Mind of the Living. Not only is the ravening shark of our destruction something we are in deep denial about, but we also find it impossible to approach Hirst’s subject without somehow imbuing it with a sort of awareness. Sure, this could be a trick of its apparent animation, but I would go further and suggest that this is a mental trick we play with nearly everything. What the drokk is God but the summation of the universe with a beard, a couple of thunderbolts and a scowl on his face? This brand of anthropomorphism is alive and well all over the world, and it’s so ubiquitous it’s become invisible. We don’t think about it.
But it really is very weird.
Take America – most Americans, or at least the Americans that do surveys, are Christians. They believe that the universe is essentially a benevolent place and they feel, fundamentally, that it can be their pal. As Grant Morrison [Oh no! Not him again!] put it: ‘trees are your friends, animals are your friends -even atoms are your friends!’. Everything’s on your side. And where does this attitude find its ultimate expression (apart from in church)? What medium does it employ most effectively to reach into the hearts and minds of the young and old alike? The cartoon and its not-so-distant cousin, the comic book.
It’s not called The Magic Kingdom for nothing, folks.
Yes, Disney has a lot to answer for. I’ve got nothing against injecting the world with meaning and invoking the internal radiance of the everyday, etc, etc, blah – see my last post for proof – but like so many others I instinctively rail against the way Mickey Mouse has hijacked our inner shamen and spun a pack of lies to us about a bug-eyed, grinning, simpering universe, where everything is simply a projection of our most inane, idiotic and boring-arse ideas about our children, ourselves and our place in the world.
The Disney brand, and that of other prime movers and shakers like Warner Brothers‘ Loony Tunes, has proven to be not only incredibly enduring, but has also helped to form the template for the modern cartoon and a raft of kid’s comics. They have the money, the visibility and the influence to cement their vision in our collective consciousness the world over, but little do they know that in doing so – in making the cartoon so popular – they have sown the seeds of their negation. I’m not suggesting for one minute that Disney is ready to keel over, just that the territory it explores, the shapes it takes and the forms it chooses to adopt are anarchic by their very nature, and can serve as a jumping off point for a whole world of weirdness. Goofy is so pervasive that he’s become dull as dishwater, but he doesn’t have to be.
He can be the Refreshers’ wrapper. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Jim Woodring‘s creation, Frank, probably owes more to cartoons than it does to comic books and the, albeit small, but devastating sorties it makes into the realm of the four fingered glove, although unlikely to bring the magic kingdom to heel, always bring a smile to this poodle’s face. Woodring’s work exposes the grande-guignolery and strangeness that lies beneath Toon-land’s smiling, dot-eyed mask. Obviously their are other creators working in this tradition – so many cartoons these days revel in the grotesquery and madness of their form and subject matter – but Frank takes it to a whole new level. And, despite the popularity of the more bizzare, exciting cartoons like Sponge Bob Square Pants, it’s still difficult for us to separate out all things Mickey from all things animated. Those of us, at least in the west, who enjoy the form always seem to be mentally positioning the toons we watch either for or against the mouse. Basically, anything that successfully detournes the dream factory’s worth a look, even if the political/ideological impact of the piece is negligible, experienced by a relatively tiny number of readers compared to the audiences for Bees, and ultimately amounts to little more than schadenfreude. It’s just nice to see Minnie put through Woodring’s blazing, luminous, conceptual juicer.
And for all those anti-conflict, synthesis loving guys out there – it’s also nice to see what Minnie-squash tastes like, because it’s not all horrid E numbers, there’s some real yumminess washing around in there too.
‘So what’s it fucking well about, you pouffed, yipping ponce?!?’, I hear you ask. Well, if you haven’t picked Frank up yet – and shame on you if you haven’t (who’s the pouffed ponce now, eh? EH? Fuck you!) – each strip depicts a day in the life of the titular hero; the comings and goings and doings of a generic anthropomorph. No, that wasn’t me reaching for the thesaurus again – that’s exactly how Woodring describes the species Frank belongs to. And that’s it, right there.
Sortie number 1.
Woodring’s classification underlines a series of ideas buried in the cartoon animal: that not only are they are projections of ourselves, but also, by this point in the early 21st century, it’s implied there’s a whole world of these creatures out there. For what exactly is Frank? Is he a cat, a mouse, a squirrel, a gerbil – the bastard child of Bugs, Mickey, Garfield and Chip and Dale? He’s generic, he’s the Everyman – the cartoon equivalent of the-man-on-the-street. Just one of millions. Frank embodies the suggestion that toonland extends beyond the boundaries of the credit-roll, and that cartoon characters, on mass, lead autonomous lives outside of the texts that detail the adventures of the more famous ones. And that these lives can be as banal as ours. Like the teeming masses Frank holds down various jobs, courts the affections of the pretty lady down the street, walks his dog, dreams of striking it rich…. But the word banal used in this context – a world of talking cats and singing trees – has radically different connotations from our daily trips to the supermarket or work. Especially on the outer fringes, where things are less sanitized – where things aren’t intended for mass consumption.
Because Woodring’s making explicit ideas that are implicit within the cartoon – because he is essentially expanding upon stuff that is already making ripples on the surface – he manages to generate a whole new lens through which we can approach the original subject matter, affording us the opportunity to unpack the ur-texts in a way we couldn’t before. He tells us that the world wasn’t all that funny or cute to begin with, or at least it was never solely these things, and that all the horror and wide-eyed wonder his stories instill exist right around the corner from Cinderella’s castle. He doesn’t just critique the genre, he effectively reinvigorates it too.
If Mickey and Bugs and co. are entry-level anthropomorphs, then Frank, Man-hog and the rest represent more or less total immersion within this shuddering, primary-coloured landscape. Populist cartoons serve as a safe and secure vantage point for exploring the fantastical, whereas the mirror Frank holds up to our internal environment reflects a more contorted, but altogether more truthful image of our imagination and its potentialities. The generic anthropomorph is essentially empty – a conduit for our ideas about the way a portal to toonland should look – and, like his more child-friendly cousins, acts as a bridge from here to there…. But let’s get on with it and have a closer look at what there looks like.
Sortie number 2
Out where the buses don’t run, and where deranged cartoon physics are unconstrained by notions of morality, humanity and brand integrity, Frank and his pal Pupshaw roam, going about the day to day business of complete trippy strangeness. It’s just where they live. The place is home. But as for us, we get no Frank 101 and there’s no expository text. We’re expected to be at home too, dropped, right there, in the thick of things. Perhaps Woodring counts on us already knowing this world intimately prior to burying our snouts in it.
And, as I’ve said before, we do. We’ve all seen a million and one cartoons.
Frank, however, doesn’t just stop at cheeky-chappy kettles and dancing monkey-friends. Oh no. Frank goes all the way. Just check out the contents of the rather shoddily thrown together, but utterly bizarre diorama above. Everything – literally everything – in the Frankverse appears as if it might be possessed of intelligence. The Mars bar/Refreshers man army have invaded by stealth and we await their first move. The scenery lurks. It’s not just cartoon mice that gawp, stare, go boss eyed, smile and generally communicate like the (in this case very creepy) bloke opposite you on the tube – it’s the buildings, the fauna, the flora, the weird kite people and individual elements of indoor furnishing.
‘Isn’t it beautiful! The firmament is heaving with loving awareness!’
Only, ummm, not so heavy on the *loving* part.
Just look at that red building up there snarl! And those other two looking on aghast above it! The frowning, peering, waterspout. The gawping foliage…. I’m not sure I’d describe any of this stuff as friendly, and I’m certainly not sure its apparent intelligence is in any way human. We might find something of who we are scattered across the million masks of God that form Frank’s home – this place is anthropoland, afterall – but that doesn’t mean we’ll happen upon ourselves offered back up to us in an easily recognizable form. In Frank the singing trees may possess the operating system of a shark, and the houses all the winning charm of the octopus. We’re out of the comfort zone of simple anthropomophism and entering the realm of primal animism. If the god of Disneyworld is our happy-go-lucky pal, then the god of the Frank books is probably Great Cthulhu. Is the universe happy? Is it sad? Or does it just want to eat? This place’s emotional repertoire consists of more than just a series of ploys to make the child in us go snuggly. It employs the whole spectrum of emotion and It can accommodate every strata of awareness, from the human, to the animal, to the lizard-brain and beyond.
I mean, what is that thing?!?
Woodring levels the playing-field, so that it’s not just our reflection staring back at us out of the page, but a whole world of myriad intelligences – a world that is as sharkopomorphic as it is anthropomorphic as it is morphopomorphic – and it aggressively interrogates the whole process of applying meaning and coherence to an indifferent universe. And these points yield two conclusions: that Frank has the ability to horrify precisely because we are all well trained to seek out the smiling face beaming at us from behind the cartoon universe and instead we’re confronted with a jelly-fish’s (what an unpleasant surprise!), and, also, those weird blobs, dots and squiggles we call a face? Well perhaps we’re really staring at random markings on some kind of carapace?
What if there’s no-one there at all?
We’re a long fucking way from the singing trees. You always knew where you were with those guys. At least they had noses and grins, a sense of fun and self-hood. I think Frank up there could be in severe face-hugging danger if he credits the cute little ‘head’ emerging out of that weird monster-plant thing with a genuine personality.
Frank reminds us we’re not the centre of the universe. It’s scary and, on reflection, humbling.
But what’s Frank’s face made of anyway?
What is this stuff?
Sortie number 3
The cartoon depiction of the body is symbolic as opposed to literal, and the symbolic body is subject to very different laws from the physical. See Wile E Coyote squashed flat as a pancake by a passing boulder, or Tom unspooling out of a blind while Jerry runs for it, if you need further proof. It can be mashed, stretched, twanged and dissecated. It undergoes imposible violations, inaccessible to us, but for Daffy Duck these permutations and contortions are just part of the nine-to-five. He is essentially expressive in nature and, if his creators so will it, his *body* will become a space for the child to explore crushedness or pan-facedness. It cannot be irrevocably changed, but it will be perpetually transformed. And like a child, our cartoons are still testing the limits of the tangible world. ‘What does it feel like to be drawn like a bow?’, ‘How does it feel to blown up?’, it asks, but Frank, goes even further, to posit a body so reactive and polymorphously perverse that it responds not just to physical impacts, but to more abstract impressions too.*
How does that there twisty-turny thing’s operation feel?
Here Frank experiences a-deep-dark-well-with-eyesness,
here he critiques modern art,
and here’s Manhog-looking-at-Frank-but-with-a-brain-injuryness.
The symbol is simply reacting with symbol, but in a more rarefied form. The avalanches and the fizzing bombs of the frankscape are psychological, emotional and ontological, and they map across the flesh of its characters in mind-wrenching ways. The skin, like a toy’s, like imagination, is plastic.
And if Woodring wants it to bleed, or rot, it bleeds and rots as well.
Frank explores every aspect of its character’s potential for mental/physical distortion, including rupturing, blood and breakage. It makes nauseating forays into the secret world of actual pain and disfigurement. The tension between the assumedly indestructible form of the generic anthropomorph and depictions of it suffering or succumbing to age – this recomplexifying of the line, this three-dimensionalisation of the two-dimensional – effectively resensitizes us to violence and makes for a new kind of body horror.
Woodring examines (psycho) physicality in so many ways. He takes his cue from Disney, Hanna Barbera and the rest, but he dares to take the human form to the outer-limits, unencumbered by late 20th/early 21st century conceptions of childhood and what is and is not suitable viewing matter for an 8 year old. So the building blocks of Frank’s world, symbol and imagination, can construct visions of horror, humour and outright aestheticism for our pleasure – everything, from the abject to the awesome, is permitted.
I mean, it has to be remembered that whole UNIVERSES fit in there….
Perhaps we shouldn’t have low expectations regarding our children’s favourite form of entertainment.
So we’ve had a little look at the properties of Frank and his backyard, and now it’s time to have a look at the properties of the stories that tell him.
Sortie number four.
Most American cartoons obey the law of cyclical return. The characters have to show up next week for the next episode, fully intact, so that they can undergo the slings and arrows of outrageous physics anew. Frank is no exception. The undying body encourages a non-linear rather than a progressive story-telling mode. Woodring’s tales are discreet bubbles instead of snap-shots of exciting moments that fit together to inform a larger life-narrative. Unlike a Bugs’ cartoon, Frank’s little skirmishes don’t always work out that well for him. Sure, we’re on Frank’s side, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily outwits his eternal antagonist, Man-hog, week in, week out. Sometimes he finds himself at the wrong end of the narrative-stick, broken or killed by his enemies, and other times it’s business as usual – curtains for the pig-people. We never know. Woodring enjoys the endlessly rotating dynamic of the kid’s cartoon as much as he enjoys subverting it and our expectations. Uncertainty of outcome is suggested by a world whose creator’s finger is ever hovering over the re-set button, but in the Tweety Pie toons the story is constrained by the fact that we’re on his side, that we know he can’t be beaten. There’s an inbuilt morality that privileges the underdog. Normal cartoons can be very cruel, but only at the baddy’s expense.
Not so in Frank.
I think it’s fair to say that most of the Mickey, Goofy, Daffy, Tom and Jerry, Roadrunner and Foghorn Leghorn Saturday afternoon shorts are a lot like long, protracted jokes, where ceaseless conflict eventually resolves itself into a punchline, and that most blockbuster toons obey a similarly predictable structure – the Hollywood narrative. The content doesn’t matter as much as the shape of the thing. A huge amount of the pleasure audiences derive from this stuff is the product of how reassuring it all is. We feel our way around the story’s twists and turns – the exercise is anything but intellectual – but we do not grope around in the dark, because the territory is so well travelled. We feel our way around the frankverse, too, only here we have no idea what to expect. It has the same preference for the aesthetic over the intellectual, the emotional over the cerebral, the imaginal over the physical (there are no words in Frank) and dream logic over Aristotelian as the traditional ‘toon, but, again, untrammelled and allowed free reign. Resonance, not cause and effect, is the prime-mover in Frank. The story tells itself the way it feels it should. We don’t necessarily understand all its contortions – why does Frank collapse after looking through Grim’s telescope? How does he know to build the Cart Blanche? What is that terrible face under the sea? – but they make organic sense. This isn’t work to be empirically read, but to be watered. We watch it grow.
Like a triffid.
Aaand Woodring retreats, drawing his breath….
There’s so much more I could talk about, but I think I’ve probably said enough. I’m sure you get the picture by now. The thrust of this piece is that the Refreshers’ wrapper was already freaky enough to begin with, if only I had eyes to see. The psychedelic experience allows us to experience the outright alienness of the everyday and Frank is, quite literally, although I hate this expression because its so bleedin’ trite, *Disney on acid*. The broader toonverse Frank details is as anarchic as the cartoon promises it could be. It reminds us, through its adoption of familiar forms and tropes, just how outrageous the acme novelty company’s products really are, hopefully foreshadowing and laying the foundations for a more disruptive art form – Mickey Mouse in the World of Tomorrow, a million light-years from the Epcot Centre and its conservative, 1950′s-style visions of our individual pasts and our collective future.
Frank reclaims the spectacle, acting as a cartoon derive, affording us the ability to reimagine and renegotiate the squidgy territory of our childhoods. Children don’t experience the world as an endless reiteration of lovecuddly impressions – the view from their window is as frightening, incandescent and disturbing as our own, if not more so, and the lies we tell to children about winking moons and benevolent suns are lies we tell ourselves. I accept that it’s perfectly natural for us to create the universe in our own image, but *we* are a gazillion times more outlandish and many tentacled than we let on. Woodring knows this, and he steals back the hallucination in order to remind us. No matter how hard we try to package, limit and sanitize the substance of things, both imaginal and otherwise, the universe instinctively tends towards the marvellous, demented, unfathomable and uncaring. The world, the word and the flesh don’t always make sense, there is no intrinsic battle between Good and Evil and the clean and proper body will erupt in deforming cancers without rhyme or reason.
It seems a shame that this excellent medium for befriending The Other is popularly understood as low art – a child’s diversion – because we can learn a great deal from children. If most American cartoons highlight that stage in a child’s development when (s)he is engaged in the process of constructing a bounded self and, necessarily, a nice, equally clearly bounded morality to go with it, then Frank journeys further back still, to an even more mercurial time, where mind and body and outside world have yet to succumb to the weights and measures of space, time, ego and super-ego. Where all the (now) boring, daily toings and froings of flesh and awareness are magical, revolting and impossible. Where a bug can be as pure a role model as good old Dad.
I haven’t taken hallucinogenics much because of a propensity to have bad trips, but just because something’s alarming, it doesn’t mean it has no value. One of my scariest trips involved the discovery that my spine was like a stamen extending towards the sky, and my mind – my brain – was a flower whose petals were endlessly unfolding, conveying the light of awareness to my central nervous system. It sounds like hippy shit to be sure, but, I can assure you, the realization that you are in fact just a short hop-skip-and-a-jump from a plant, at four in the morning, loaded on panic magnifying drugs, is a soul shredding one. Jim’s perfectly at home with this point of view and this revisioning of the body forms the unspoken thematic perspective his comics adopt. So if Disneyland has the quality of a cartoon mouse that takes the reader by the hand and gently guides us around his wibbly but altogether cosy home, then the Frankverse is a hostile invading organism, colonising our awareness and viral replicating, like those seas of eyes and cute cartoon faces that infest its panels. (THE HORROR! THE HORROR!). But don’t worry, that’s just the democratization of reality at work. It’s very hard to accommodate this new understanding, but, like a trip, if we ride it out, it can emerge as pretty bleedin’ beautiful. I mean, we don’t see Frank spending all day freaking out about it. There’s nothing wrong with the idea that we’re not the hub the universe swings around – that the other lies out there – it’s just new information. There’s nothing wrong with the idea that the body doesn’t do as it’s told. We’re just unused to it. In the end, we cannot deny the weasel under the cocktail cabinet forever, and the brave amongst us will voyage out into this dreadful new sphere, perhaps bringing back a trophy or two for us to gawp at along the way.
Jim Woodring is one such pioneer and he forces the Disney crowd to be complicit in his disturbing ontological fun and games.
Long may he continue, the Mars bar man tapping us on the shoulder.
* Okay, cartoon characters do sometimes respond to non-physical stimuli, like sexual attraction, but Frank takes this idea to a far more, err, *mental* place.