Creature Discomfort: Jim Woodring

September 7, 2011

Jim Woodring tells an old story in his new graphic novel, “Congress of the Animals”: boy anthropomorphic cat thing meets girl anthropomorphic cat thing. Along the way, the main character, named Frank, encounters all manner of oddities and grotesqueries, including a race of men without faces and other strange creatures.

Rendered in a dense visual style that uses no dialogue, narration or any words at all, “Congress” is certainly an odd read. But there is deep meaning behind every squiggly line and misshapen body. “The things in the story are not just arbitrary weirdness,” Woodring stresses. “They convey something that I’ve thought out and want to say.”

“Congress” is, in fact, a surprisingly moving tale, with a poignant finale that may be one of the finest and most eloquently understated moments the Seattle-based animator has ever inked. It also deals with an uncommon theme in nearly three decades of Woodring’s work: change.

“Frank is ineducable and naive, so he’s been a good entre into interesting situations,” says Woodring. “I’ve been drawing him for 20 years now, and I made a point of introducing a new situation in this book that would take him out of the world into which he was born.”

For readers who’ve been following Frank’s travails since his introduction in the 1980s, that development may be startling. “I’m afraid it might be a little like when Al Capp finally decided to let Li’l Abner get married,” Woodring says with a laugh. “It ruined the franchise.”

If “Congress” is any indication, this enormous change may open up a world of narrative possibilities. “I’m not sure how many of these stories I want to tell, and I don’t want them to end without evolving,” Woodring explains. “I feel like I owe these characters their freedom at some point, so I’m trying to figure out how to liberate them all.”

Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Fri., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
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Fiona Zublin · September 7, 2011