Reading the graphic novel Congress of the Animals by Jim Woodring is like playing a pirated video game that has no menu, no instructions, no map of where you're going, and that gives you no sense of what your objective is. The hero of this game is a furry, hopeful little creature who has to explore a very strange world populated by equally strange creatures. It begins and ends at moments that feel arbitrary, but the adventure in between is at times amusing, surprising, wonderful, pointless, weird, goofy, and creepy.
This protagonist is named Frank. He's appeared in several of Woodring's previous comics, which have been drawn either in lush color or in a dense black and white that evokes woodblock printing. All of these stories have been told without dialogue—instead just gestures and facial expressions, like a silent film.
Congress of the Animals is black and white, silent, and as such brings to mind those early-20th-century wordless novels by illustrators like Lynd Ward or Frans Masereel. But while those artists set their stories in a place somewhat resembling our planet Earth, Woodring's stories are set in a psychedelic wonderland.
Such wordless novels are often described as being “universal”—since they have only images and no language to translate. Unfortunately, one of the few “universals” of human life is communicating with language, and to deprive an audience of a character's voice is to take away a great deal. Granted, the cartoonist Chris Ware has figured out how to show, without much language, what's going on between his characters and within his characters' heads, but that's Chris Ware for you.
Nevertheless, if Woodring's quiet characters lack something, the environment in which they exist makes up for it. The world of Woodring's comics is like that of your dreams and nightmares, where faces are missing or the ground gives way or you go through a passage and the entire scene resets itself. The narrative action of Congress of the Animals is less about what happens to Frank and more about what happens to the place where Frank is. These places are like little you've seen before in other comics and deserve to be explored at least once.
Yet, is Congress of the Animals, a $20 hardbound book, worth buying or at least worth reading? The latter, yes, as you could read the entire strange odyssey for free in about 20 minutes at a bookstore. But if you like owning volumes of nice, black-and-white illustrations, volumes that are fun to peruse every so often, particularly under the influence of this or that intoxicating substance, then Congress of the Animals is worth a purchase.
The Influencing Machine, written by Brooke Gladstone of NPR and illustrated by Josh Neufeld, is a book that purports to explain and critique the media. Perhaps appropriately, I found reading it as spiritually insufferable as watching cable news.
The book is a didactic graphic novel in the style of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics or any of the Introducing books. A tiny avatar of Gladstone is the guide of this book, constantly waving her hands and looking alternately frumpy and pedantic or nerdy and overenthusiastic.
There are some interesting facts and anecdotes brought up in The Influencing Machine, such as the Dantean concept of the Great Refusal, a journalist who refuses to take sides; or the story of Nayirah al-Sabah, a daughter of the Kuwati ambassador to America, who testified about a (false) dead-babies story as justification for the first invasion of Iraq; or the story of the Influencing Machine and the origin of conspiracy theories, as diagnosed by the psychoanalyst Victor Tausk.
And yet the whole book feels like a muddle, only touching on the surface of this history or that theory. McCloud's Understanding Comics—not much longer in page length than this graphic novel—was able to give a coherent, forceful, original argument, support it with historical and logical evidence, and then ruminate on the future implications of that argument. In the final chapters of The Influencing Machine, Gladstone ruminates on the future of the media and technology and society with a stupidly hopeful vagueness that would make her mainstream colleagues David Brooks or Thomas Friedman proud.
I have never listened to Gladstone's NPR broadcasts. Perhaps she's a fine journalist. All I got from reading The Influencing Machine was a very non-sequitur apology for a mainstream media that gets all worked up for the trashiest, most unimportant things, and then gets all frightened when things actually count. Gladstone frequently insists that our media, problematic as it is, keeps our nation and its democracy healthy, and that such health is a good thing. Even though she discusses things like the atom bomb and the Vietnam War, Gladstone doesn't seem to realize, or doesn't want to realize, that the health of our proud democracy and its proud media is paid for with slaughter, torture, and invasion, that our domestic tranquility is ensured with the most technologically advanced methods of making people suffer.
Is that worth it? Is it worth it to invent the Gatling gun, the atom bomb, and napalm, if that also entails inventing the airplane, the Polio vaccine, and the Internet? Does it even make sense to ask if it's “worth it”? As if one could just point a finger and send history marching? Gladstone doesn't get at these questions. The mainstream media doesn't get at these questions. Perhaps it's wrong or foolish of me to expect a public discourse that addresses fundamental questions and problems and ideas, but that's what I find myself most interested in.
Maybe this book would have impressed me when I was in high school, when I didn't know any better. Now, reading this book and moving along with its hopscotch of platitudes and its whirls of conventional wisdom, and with its illustrations that make Barack Obama look like Robert Downey Jr. and Ronald Reagan like Charlie Sheen, it all just made me very nauseous and very depressed.
Jim Woodring's Congress of the Animals will be released on June 15 by Fantagraphics Books. To purchase it, click here.
Brooke Gladstone's The Influencing Machine was released on May 23 by W. W. Norton & Company. To purchase it, click here.