Almost 20 years ago, the History Channel released a documentary about the birth of superhero comics and their evolution from the golden age to the dark 80s. Youtube and is an absolutely fun watch, even for those overly familiar with the subject.
When I first watched it as a kid, there was a line that immediately stood out. “Reading Comics for Me”, Neil Gaiman tones at one point, “it was like getting postcards from Oz.”
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It’s a romantic and brilliant way to think about your first exposure to comics, even if the ancestry of superhero movies has made the notion of comics as a distant niche almost quaint. When I think of Gaiman’s quote now, I’d more easily apply it to something really weird – something like Jim Woodring A beautiful spring day.
There are postcards from Oz, and then there are 400 pages of black-and-white wordless comics featuring a range of deeply bizarre, yet often delightful, characters. At the center of Woodring’s wacky fictional world is Frank, a cheerful, bipedal creature he described as a “generic anthropomorph”. (That’ll do, but Frank’s distinctive horse teeth gave me the vibe of a quirky Bugs Bunny.)
A beautiful spring day combined three previously published Frank comics—Animal Congress, Franceand Poochyville– as well as a new story spotlighting Whim, an unsettling Woodring creation who haunts Frank’s world with a crescent moon-shaped head and an ever-present smile.
Much of mainstream comics (and nerd culture at large) is decidedly left in its focus on pushing the overall plot forward and obeying continuity restrictions while injecting just enough originality without upsetting the boat. Woodring’s work is an admirable, almost Herculean rejection of this mechanical way of making art.
Frank’s stories are surreal and sometimes flow together with dreamy logic, but they definitely have plot and effective characterization. You’ll be surprised how much you care about Frank’s canine companions or the various anthropomorphs they encounter along the way.
In the Unifactor, Woodring’s name for his fictional world, brutality and shapeshifting are constant. Characters fall in love, get hurt, discover strange new worlds and start over. If you squint, there’s a way to read Frank like a funhouse-mirror version of a superhero comic book, where the setting erupts with changes on every panel but the status quo for every character remains the same.
Woodring’s lines are as expressive as you’ll find in a mainstream comic, but with no dialogue or narration, the story gives ultimate power to the reader. Some scenes may horrify or move you, but Woodring almost never tells you what you think.
Take a moment that happens in the first 40 or so pages of the collection. Frank encounters a grumpy lizard-like creature who has his eyes gouged out by an aggressive bird. Sometime later, Whim has captured the lizard and is using it as a mule. What do Frank and his pets (adorably named Pupshaw and Pushpaw) think? When this creature returns at the end of the story, what does it mean?
Their facial expressions show a certain disgust, but more often than not, Woodring treats these scenes of mutilation or bodily transformation as atonal. They are what they are.
What grounds the story in true pathos is the introduction of Fran, a companion of Frank whom he meets on a trip away from home. When she leaves him, Frank follows her through a Lynchian odyssey of doppelgangers, monsters, and even starships.
Throughout the story, Frank remains somewhat of a cipher, precocious and confident while often being selfish and hurtful. Woodring’s extensive cross-hatching and detailed backgrounds give Frank’s world a surreal edge that only serves to better help it stand out. In this dreamscape of bizarre monsters and body horror, Frank looks like a tourist but has the attitude of a thief.
The story unfolds at a faster pace than expected – perfect for ending an eponymous spring day – and is aided by some great comedic moments. A personal highlight is when Pupshaw and Pushpaw try to cheer Frank up once Fran is gone.
Francis Ford Coppola – yes, the director of The Godfather – once described Frank as Woodring’s “puzzling gift to a puzzling world”. You don’t come to these comics expecting a sequel, let alone something close to an explanation, but you leave them with a deep sense of appreciation. Whatever Woodring does would look good on a postcard from Oz.
“One Beautiful Spring Day” is a goofy and heartbreaking masterpiece
A beautiful spring day
Thanks to your lucky stars, they still make comics like this. A masterpiece from front to back.
Lynchian Horror plus Funny Animals plus…romance? What more can you ask for?
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