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Thomas Woodruff Conjures the Life Force of a Feral Child

Seven years in the making, the pictorial opulence of Thomas Woodruff—Chair Emeritus of the Illustration and Cartooning Departments at the School of Visual Arts—pervades the imaginative world of Francis Rothbart: The Life of a Fastidious Feral (Fantagraphics). It is what Woodruff calls a “graphic opera.”

The 300-plus pages of visual delights follow a feral boy raised by magpies and other forest fauna in a bewitched woods. Throughout the course of his adventure, Francis is repeatedly struck by lightning, which leads him to have eccentric otherworldly talents. These talents are carelessly abused, however, “leading to his ultimate destruction by the same natural world that once nurtured him.” Think of it as a Garden of Eden and Evil, perhaps.

The text is entirely composed of hand-drawn type and letters, and written mostly in rhymed verse. The “opera” is exquisitely drawn and painted, alternating between monochrome and color, and recalls a paradise lost that ranges in tone from wonderful to wicked. Since there is not a minimalist artistic bone in the artist’s thoroughly tattooed body, I asked Woodruff to paint as complex and vivid a word picture of Francis’ mystical world as he could.

To give life to Francis’ experience, all of Woodruff’s 300 originals were on view at the Vito Schnabel Gallery in New York (see the installation here). Let’s say it was … intense!