The Formula Is Broken
Congress of the Animals Comes from Where Stories Are Born
Joseph Campbell ruined storytelling for a generation. It's not his fault—Campbell was just trying to compare myths in order to discover common archetypes—but the crimes that have been committed in his name are unforgivable. Because of Campbell's work, the filmmaking industry now treats story as a kind of algebra, a foolproof fill-in-the-blanks system. And thanks to Hollywood's heavy reliance on Campbellian thought, novelists everywhere decided that storytelling is less of an art and more of a science. Based on Campbell's narrow-minded discoveries, they determined that every story is a hero's journey—that assumption is their first mistake—and certain goals have to be met in order to make that journey a satisfying one.
You can find the stink of Campbell's formula everywhere; it's contributed to the biggest flood of generic, pointless stories the world has ever known. Just about every best-selling author you can name has probably been influenced by Campbell, and every mainstream blockbuster film to come out in the last 20 years definitely owes him a screenwriting credit. The problem is that when you accept Campbell's ideas as concrete truth, you are adopting a flawed premise as the platform for your story.
Not every story needs to be a hero's journey. Not every quest needs to mimic a learning process. Hell, not every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. The fact that those assumptions are made for the aspiring author before she even starts writing is a crime against us all. Stories should be experiments that challenge all assumptions—even assumptions of stories.
A long time ago, 2010 Stranger Genius of Literature Jim Woodring worked in a factory in the heart of Campbell's empire; he created art for Saturday morning cartoons like Rubik the Amazing Cube and Mr. T for animation studio Ruby-Spears. All the comics he's made in the time since then have refuted Campbellian formulaic storytelling. His life's work is the story of a hapless cat-faced man (or woman, or neither, or both, but for simplicity's sake, and because Woodring occasionally does, we'll call him a "he") named Frank who lives in a dreamlike world called the Unifactor. Every new Frank story brings a new character into the Unifactor—a new pet for Frank, perhaps, or a moon-headed devil—and the expanding cast of characters interacts in increasingly complex ways.
Out of all Woodring's work, his latest book, Congress of the Animals, most closely resembles a Joseph Campbell–style story. In the opening pages, a deep-in-debt Frank finds himself working in a factory, shoving barrels full of crow parts into a grinding machine. Soon enough, he embarks on a journey, for the first time, outside the Unifactor. He voyages across stormy seas, explores mysterious caverns, visits with clitoris-faced men, is tempted by a powerful swordlike totem, and goes off, besotted, in search of an enormous Frank-shaped building.
Relevant sources that Campbell would catalog here include references to Arthurian legend, folk tales about John Henry, The Odyssey, Dante's Inferno, and probably dozens more. It would be possible for a Jungian critic to pull this book apart into dozens of unexciting pieces. But Woodring operates from an unconscious level, and these references aren't the slavish callbacks you've read everywhere else. Those familiar shapes and story "beats," to use a wretched Hollywood term, may resemble elements we already know, but in Animals they feel different—in part because they're drawn in Woodring's fastidious woodcut style, a dense blanket of ink thrown over Frank's world informing us that everything we see comes from Woodring's singular mind.
Expectations are foiled at every turn precisely because Woodring is digging deep into the rich soil of his own imagination; he's pulling these stories up from the same place that myths and legends come from, and in that way, his books have the weird weight and unmistakable freshness of myth. These are stories that haven't been told before, but they come from the place where stories are born, so they're instantly recognizable to everyone. And because they live in the prelinguistic language of cartoons, almost anyone on the planet can look at a page and immediately understand what is happening. Woodring is too gentle and polite a human being to personally call for a revolution against the lazy stories we tell each other, but every panel of his comics is a refutation of the dumbed-down story mathematics assaulting us every day, and a celebration of the dark caverns of the brain where our stories come from in the first place.