BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2015): Jim Woodring’s (2013) Fran

17 January 2015

Summary (TLDR Version)

Allegory as Fascism: if fascism means a system that maintains itself at the expense of its members, then allegory (as a narrative structure) maintains itself at the expense of its readers.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Jim Woodrings’s (2013)[2] Fran

NOTE: just for clarity in advance, I do not insist in the following that Woodring intends something fascist by his book; rather, the literary form of the allegory embodies a fascist form. Whether or not Woodring desires this remains a separate question not addressed here.

Having found Woodring’s (2011)[3] Congress of the Animals intriguing, it seemed worthwhile to explore more of his graphic novels, i.e., not only this, but his (2010)[4] Weathercraft as well. [5] And though Scott McCloud on the back of Weathercraft declares (with whatever authority he possesses) that “Jim Woodring may be the most important cartoonist of his generation,” while this may simply damn Woodring’s generation, we can also see in the arc from (2010)’s Weathercraft to (2011)’s Congress of the Animals to (2013)’s Fran, the waning of Woodring’s importance. Or simply the decline of the significance of his work.

To see this arc requires looking back at the two books before this. As noted previously, Weathercraft (as a total book, dust jacket and all) seems like a first attempt at a narrative structure that Woodring (or his publishers) got more right in Congress of Animals (and less right all over again with Fran); this, because Woodring (or his publishers) much more cleverly use the dust jacket of Congress to add and subtract meaning to and from the text (and try much less completely on the dust jacket of Fran). In Weathercraft, we have a series of more or less authoritative—or authoritatively evasive—gestures on the dust jacket so that the main impression one gets about how to read Weathercraft makes it merely an esoteric or hermetically sealed puzzle-allegory that one might, in theory, decipher. Congress seems far more shot-through with possibilities more suggestive than merely a one-to-one correspondence of allegory. And with Fran, we return merely to the “secret” allegory.

I do not mean by this that one can’t enjoy deciphering the allegory; the genre of the allegory since its first invention has thriven on its puzzle aspect, and has sometimes served as public, hidden messages to those “in the know” or functioned to protect certain messages or discourses from cultural elites in positions of Power who would attack or exterminate those message-senders; in Europe, a largest body of this type shows in the alchemists, and there certainly seem times in Woodring’s books where alchemy creeps in both visually and thematically.

But what allegory does mean not only boils the text down to a single meaning, it typically seems to assume that texts can only have a single meaning. In one of the most famous Occidental allegories, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, I doubt that he would have received well any alternative interpretation to any point of his “secret” (allegorical) depiction of the (Christian) progress of the soul toward salvation.

In this respect, allegory may provide—or at least give a sense to—an author a ground or guarantee that a reader will have no justification for alternatively reading the meaning of her text. Allegory presumes—some might even say it supports the argument for—any readers’ interpretations of the text that do not agree with the author’s intention count as misreadings.

Of course, the extent to which Power (or an author) can enforce this remains socially contested. If the biblical book of Revelations constitutes an allegory—i.e., a text in which every symbol and image corresponds, more or less, to a single, underlying narrative—then various forces over the years have found ways to decipher that code. Thus, William Miller could invent a means for deciphering Revelations to reveal when the Apocalypse would happen, thus giving birth to several end-times churches in the process.[6]

In this respect, allegory differs explicitly from symbols in a text. Again, whatever meaning the surface story presents, it corresponds, more or less in an explicitly one-to-one way, with an underlying narrative. Mind you, that underlying narrative might have as much ambiguity and potential interpretable contestation as any typical narrative; in Congress of the Animals, Woodring (or his publishers) offer as an interpretation of one image: “obstinate dubiousness personified.”

So the point doesn’t boil down that allegory must point to a simple or unambiguous underlying narrative; rather, it functions more like a software “skin”. Its defining aspect—at least at this point in the discussion—hinges on its unambiguous relationship between the surface story and the underlying one. At least on the face of things, one could object: why bother with all of the folderol of this “skin,” why not just tell the story as is. But if we think about why we would “skin” the appearance of an application, we see one answer boils down to “aesthetic delight”; it looks cool. One may certainly say that Woodring’s work often has this quality of aesthetic delight. But the more principal reason for allegory seems, again, for the sake of Power: either to hide a message from those in Power who might otherwise object to the message, or to hide in plain sight a secret of Power not intended for the masses: just as Jesus claims when he explains that he speaks in parables (riddles) because he has one message for the elite (his disciples) and another message for everyone else (the masses).

Symbols, by contrast—at least as Jung construes them—always have a contradictory or ambivalent character; they never boil down to this one-to-one correspondence that seems essential to allegory. Nichols (1980)[7] summarises it this way.

Jung often stressed the difference between a symbol and a sign. A sign, he said, denotes a specific object or idea which can be translated into words (e.g., a striped pole means barber shop; an X means railroad crossing). A symbol stands for something which can be presented in no other way and whose meaning transcends all specifics and includes many seeming opposites (7).

So the extra layer of “skinning” serves as a gatekeeper to narrative interpretation. Readers will tend to find “symbols” aplenty in the surface text of Woodring’s book(s), precisely because visually he does, in fact, seem to draw symbols in Jung’s sense. But your right, as a reader, to interpret them as you will—or, even more basically, in your confrontation with the literally contradictory aspect that symbols present—gets forestalled by the allegorical intent of the book. In general, you must guess (educated or not—education here consisting as much of general knowledge as of having read other books by Woodring) what a symbol means, and whether you get it right or not depends upon the authoritative sanction or confirmation of “those in the know” (probably, in this case, the author or his friends he has disclosed the whole Unifactor structure to).

Fascism especially means a (socio-political) system that maintains itself at the expense of its members. Allegory, then, crucially deploys and participates in a fascist structure, since the field of its interpretation maintains itself by discounting any non-authorized readings while seeming to reward any authorized readings. Those who read wrong get dismissed; those who read right get praised as members of the “cool kids” club. I say “seeming to reward” because the reward doesn’t go to the individual per se but to his or her willingness to perform a particular interpretive act (i.e., reading the book in a certain way or not). Perhaps they “stumbled across” a correct reading simply by being clever, in which case the “reward” of entering the inner circle of those in the know has a very personal feel to it, but one may also enter the inner circle simply by enacting the proper reading, whether you believe it or not.

So, whether you accidentally or deliberately read the book “correctly,” what remains at stake does not involve you or your intelligence in deciphering the book but, rather, your obedience to the demand of the book to read it in a given way. Of course, those who misread the book enact disobedience, and they may proudly and defiantly stand to the side, denouncing the conceits and presumption of Power, which insists that the books means this, but this gesture of disobedience simply marks the flip side of the obedient gesture.

As such, the identity of the individual (as an interpretive being) disappears from the picture and gets sacrificed to the demand of obedience (or its counter-gesture of disobedience, which the inner circle does not acknowledge as real). Thus, the system of the book (as an interpretive field) maintains itself at the expense of its readers.


[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Woodring, J. (2013). Fran. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, pp. 1–100.

[3] Woodring, J. (2011). The congress of animals, Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, (replied to here, here, and here).

[4] Woodring, J. (2013). Fran. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books.

[5] Replied to here.

[6] Which continue, of course, to knock about, after those end-time predictions proved, more than once, wrong.

[7] Nichols, S. (1980). Jung and Tarot: an archetypal journey. New York: S. Weiser.


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