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A Weird, And Wonderful, Cartoon 'Congress'

First a bit of background: For years, in works like The Frank Book and Weathercraft, cartoonist Jim Woodring has been producing wordless, surreal, darkly beautiful comic book fables about .... Well, here's where things get tricky. Because Woodring's singular talent lies in creating vast, painstakingly rendered grotesqueries that resist tidy classification. His pen-and-ink landscapes — which look a bit like Rockwell Kent woodcuts had Kent eaten lots of peyote — are festooned with dark caves, scary jungles and mysterious minarets, each peopled with monsters who could be on work-release from Heironymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. Within this dreamscape — a world Woodring calls the Unifactor — he sets his stories.

In previous books, Woodring showed us the Unifactor's hapless residents — Manhog (an aptly named anthropomorphic pig) and Frank (a cartoony cat who looks like he stepped out of a 1930s Disney short) enduring a hellish, unending existence. It turns out the Unifactor is a cruel, closed system that prevents those who live inside it from learning, growing or, in any meaningful sense of the term, changing.

Congress of the Animals finds the catlike Frank losing his home and forced into grueling labor. Just another day in the Unifactor, it would seem — until a series of unlikely events involving a strange amusement park (you'll want to savor the two-page spread Woodring uses to show us the park's gorgeous, terrifying scope) deposits Frank outside the Unifactor, where change — permanent change, for good or ill — awaits him.

Best not to share more of the plot, or my own pet theories about what the Unifactor represents, what that miniature version of Frank's house that we glimpse inside another character's house truly signifies, and why Frank's ultimate fate is so satisfying.

Let it suffice that Congress of the Animals finds twisted fabulist Woodring at the top of his darkly delightful game: Open the book at random and the odds are very good that your gaze will alight upon something that stings, bites, drips, oozes or squelches. Tentacled plant-beasts threaten the unwary, factories powered by crushed blackbirds produce who-knows-what, slimy amphibians enact bizarre rituals and a tribe of naked, faceless men whom the jacket copy refers to as "blind gut-worshippers" — easily the most potent nightmare fuel Woodring has ever produced — drug passersby for mysterious purposes of their own.

You certainly won't want to live inside the covers of Congress of the Animals, but it's a fascinating and thrilling feat of imagination, and one hell of a place to visit.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.