Finding Frank & His Friend Review

By | Monday, August 02, 2010 2 comments
I saw this book referenced in one of Rich Johnston's videos from Comic-Con last week and was intrigued by not only the idea, but the way Margie Trundleberry (I think; she's not named in the video) sold it. So I did some digging, found out how to get a copy (their online store isn't quite set up yet, so you have to email them for details) and this evening I found a box on my porch.

So the book itself is about a comic strip called Frank and His Friend which was published from 1975 until 1984 when creator Clarence 'Otis' Dooley died. Rather than a full biography or a complete collection of the work, though, this book showcases 52 comics that had never been published before, as well as many of their original layout and concept sketches. The work largely speaks for itself, but author Melvin Goodge does add a short biography of Dooley up front and provides some annotations on the art throughout, often pointing out inspirations and design references.

Even the best comic historians, though, will be scratching their heads because neither Dooley or Frank and His Friend ever existed. It's what Trundleberry called "instant memorabilia from an alternate universe." But, despite the science fiction-y sounding idea, it is in fact rooted in about as mainstream an American ideology as one can imagine.

Imagine that one of Charles Schulz's kids came forward today with a few dozen Peanuts strips no one had ever seen. Stuff he worked on but discarded for no immediately obvious reason. Maybe he didn't like how he inked a page, maybe he didn't think the gag was funny enough, maybe the art just fell behind the couch and remained undiscovered for several years. Nothing that wouldn't seemingly slip unobtrusively right in to the middle of Peanuts' run but just nothing the public ever saw. Think of the clamor that would arise out that. Imagine how gorgeous a special Fantagraphics collection of those strips would be.

That's Finding Frank and His Friend.

The concept of alternate reality non-fiction (or whatever this genre is called) isn't new. Much of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier is along those lines. In fact many books along those lines use the idea as a form of world-building. But the intent of Finding Frank is different. You can discern bits of this other world, certainly -- there are plenty of references to other non-existent comics and family anecdotes that are presented as common legends -- but they don't seem to serve the notion of world-building. At least not in the commonly understood manner. No, the world-building here isn't designed so much to draw a reader into a different world but draw the feelings of a different world to the reader.

Although the inspirations are generally not very obvious, the short annotations provide a reference for how people often read comics like Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes and Little Nemo in Slumberland. Comics that historians and collectors pour over again and again, looking for implied meanings about the creator's life. Looking for what the intent was, what was at work in the subconscious. Schulz famously denied that Peanuts was inspired by his own life, with a few very specific exceptions. But in reading or seeing a biography of the man, it's almost impossible to NOT see the parallels in play. Though the surviving Schulz family, I understand, was somewhat upset by the relatively recent bio penned by David Michaelis -- and I can understand where some exaggerations of tenuous connections may have occurred -- one can scarcely blame Michaelis for seeing the parallels between Schulz's life and Peanuts.

My point, though, is that Finding Frank draws on that same notion. That we -- as outsiders looking back on the life of a beloved creator -- are going to look for connections through his/her works. We use art as a means to understand life, both our own and its creator's. That we use art as our guide to life leads to nostalgia. and this book shows us what that nostalgia looks like from an objective point of view by using as its subject something we couldn't possibly have nostalgia for. One can't get help but feel that Goodge read Frank and His Friend every day, and really admired the work and its creator. One can't help but see how much Goodge got out of the comic, and how he used it as inspiration in his own life. Though he strives for objectivity by citing "either an LH 2170 or an LH 2172" as the model for the lamp in the background of a comic, the reader can easily see the care and attention that was given to creating the book. Goodge loved Frank and His Friend and was absolutely thrilled to find this collection of unpublished work.

In fact, the book itself is gorgeously printed. There's a subtle varnish on the cover and some wonderful end paper designs to entice readers to dig deeper. The interior paper feels exactly right for the type of book this is supposed to be and the printing work is top-notch. Both the sketches and final art are presented in a designerly fashion such that you half-expect to see Chip Kidd's name on the book somewhere. It genuinely feels like it's a lovingly craft book from Fantagraphics in honor of a great comic artist, and there is no hint anywhere in the book that what you're holding is a complete fabrication. It really is a flawless execution of what it was meant to be.

I don't know how much attention this got in San Diego last week, but it's a brilliant work that deserves a lot of attention.
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Matt K said...

"...a designerly fashion such that you half-expect to see Chip Kidd's name on the book somewhere..."

Et tu, Sean?

Hundreds, thousands of designers toil in obscurity for the publishing industry, many of them doing extraordinary work.

Yet 99% of the world seems content with the notion that great book design begins and ends with Chip Kidd.

Which is precisely why I threw his name out there. It's a point of reference most folks reading this will immediately understand. Whoever did the book design here (possibly Trundleberry herself) is a talented designer in her/his own right, but I have to pull out Kidd as a basis for comparison since I'm not writing to a design crowd here. Even if I pulled out a name like Paul Rand (not a book designer, obviously, but probably one of the most recognized names in design) the reference would likely go over most of my readers' heads. Kidd, by contrast, represents a shorthand for a style and quality of design that comic fans are somewhat familiar with.