Mr. Thomas Woodruff’s Francis Rothbart!: Not Really a Review

I was idly browsing twitter when I saw the news that Thomas Woodruff’s comic book had been nominated for four (!) Eisner awards, and my first thought was “man, the public relations dept at Fantagraphics have really done their jobs here” — presumably by sending copies of the book to all the Eisner judges, but I see now that that wouldn’t be that expensive:

The 2023 Eisner Awards judging panel consists of librarian Moni Barrette, educator/collector Peter Jones, retailer Jen King, journalist Sean Kleefeld, scholar/comics creator A. David Lewis, and comics instructor/curator TJ Shevlin.

Because the book is not very good. I mean, it’s kinda awful. I guess you could make a case for “it’s so transgressive, dude”, but it’s really just shitty and a waste of time. My main reaction when I read it was “dude, are you OK?”

Which made me read some of the reactions to the announcement… and boy, some of Woodruff’s previous students at the SVA piped up:

As much as I dislike the book, I don’t want to contribute to the intense pileon. But as it turns out, there are no reviews of the book out there on the interwebs. Not even on Goodreads.

So perhaps I’m the only person in the world who was stupid enough to buy a copy? Or willing to admit to it? Because I can definitely see the latter, because the book is… a lot.

Since nobody’s who’s dumping on the book have actually read it, I’m stepping up to do a slightly more detailed non-review of the book, addressing some of the stuff people seem to be… wondering about.

Is the book racist? Well, the book is made by a white man about a boy who’s drawn like he’s from Latin America, but the name “Rothbart” doesn’t sound Latinx.

The boy’s parents are presented this way — looks like the father might be from India? They’re “not well known in the city”, so they’re not from around here, at least. The son is described as “their fair dark heir”.

Perhaps this is all part of the general edgelordiness of the project: When people complain about Woodruff using obvious Native American/Mexican imagery in the book, he can go “but he’s Indian! Huh huh huh. See what I did there?”

One of the four Eisner nominations is for “best lettering”, and I wonder whether the judges just opened the book and went “hey! not computer lettering! let’s nominate it!”, because the lettering is pretty shit. Although my annoyance at the lettering might be due to the prose being this horrendous throughout. (The “poetry” that infests much of the book is even worse — it’s doggerel that seems like it must be a parody of something, but apparently isn’t. It’s got rhyming couplets like “dude perverse / the universe” that just makes you want to scratch your eyes out.)

The book is about this boy being raised by all the wild animals in the desert — yes, that basic, trite fable.

Besides the racism charge, many people on Twitter see that this is a book about a naked boy and then go “er… what…” But as they haven’t read it, they don’t know how bad it gets. In one “comedic” sequence, the boy is being suckled by various animals…

… and on the next page, one of the animals is a male fox (complete with ejaculation). (Not including shots of that because of obvious reasons). Further on in the book we get a couple of very graphic masturbation scenes.

Which gives this book a perfect 10 rating on the “Books You Shouldn’t Leave Lying Around In Case Somebody Else Happens Onto It And Calls The Cops” scale.

(Fantagraphics publishes another edgelord book called Red Room that (falsely) touts itself as being “banned in 34 countries”, but this is a book that probably would be if anybody in those 34 countries took a look at it. You’ve been out-edged, Red Room guy!)

The other descriptions I’ve seen of the book understandably tip-toe around the contents of the book — using slightly vague descriptions like “eroticized child-animal encounters” — because giving more a more straight-forward account of the book seems like prissy pearl-clutching, right? But I just want to be clear here.

Some twitter people think that the book shouldn’t be on the Eisners list at all because it’s more of an illustrated text, but… it’s pretty comic book-like here and there.

Oh, I see that I’ve forgotten to say what this book is about.

Right, a boy is brought up by wild animals in the desert, and has some kind of telepathic connection to the animals (i.e., he controls them (it’s a super-hero comic book!)). As he grows up, he encounters people from the neighbouring city (apparently populated by white people only), and starts putting up “shows” — tableaux, really. He eventually grows frustrated and mad, and starts torturing the animals.

The book ends with a long sequence of drawings of horribly mutilated animals arranged “artistically”. This is from the start of the sequence, where things aren’t that horrible, but I’m not snapping any of the more atrocious bits that follow. Sorry!

And that’s it. It’s a tedious and ugly book.

One of the four nominations is for “Best Painter/Multimedia Artist” — and as you can see from the preceding snaps, the book is mostly drawn, not painted.

But there are some paintings included in the book.

The third nomination is for “Best Publication Design”, and I don’t know what the judges are on about. It’s a big book, but there’s nothing much about the design — it’s pedestrian, from the circus-referencing fonts on the cover, to, well… ok, well, I give up — there’s nothing else worth mentioning.

But it’s a big, heavy book. Perhaps size has a quality all of its own?

I wonder how the Eisner process works — did all the judges actually look at this book, and none of them went “nuh-uh — over my dead body”? I find that hard to believe, frankly, so perhaps that’s not how it works.

I’ve now done my civic duty, and you can go back to your regularly scheduled Woodruff hating session:

Nice burn.

Heh heh.

Oh my GOD. That’s the harshest insult yet.

Although some of these stories make him seem kinda fun, to be honest.

And a lot of the pile-on seems to be because Woodruff isn’t on Team Comics Rah-Rah-Rah? Which is pretty disgusting.


[Edit some hours later]

Now there’s apparently a petition to get this book off of the Eisner list? Uhm uhm I’m against that. I think the Eisner people should do what they want — it’s not like I think that prize is an arbiter of anything much; the books that usually win aren’t books that I’m very interested in, usually.

(That said, A Frog in the Fall (and later on) should win Best Design definitely. OK, OK, I’m inconsistent.)

[Edit some days later]

I just discovered this article, where Mr. Woodruff explains a lot about the book in refreshingly straightforward ways. For instance, the name of the boy is a reference to St. Francis (who talked to the animals) and Rothbart is the sorcerer from Swan Lake (who controls the swans). The boy’s appearance is based on Sabu Dastagir, who starred in a version of The Jungle Book, among other things. It’s an interesting interview, really.

[Edit Jul 12]

I just happened onto the Goodreads page again, and:

Wow! 14 reviews!

Let’s see…

Wow! So many people read this book on June 3rd and decided to post their only reviews, ever. And all five stars. What an amazing coincidence.

Stefano’s two days late, though.

And Andy’s two days later, even, but put in way more effort.

I’m sure all these accounts are real.

But somebody linked a longer youtube review from Goodreads:

the book so bad it might actually be illegal: Francis Rothbart exclamation point

Plot spoiler: She didn’t like it.

6 thoughts on “Mr. Thomas Woodruff’s Francis Rothbart!: Not Really a Review”

  1. What’s with the kid’s feet!? In every pic he has these round things under them as if he’s standing on stones.

    Sorry, I know it’s petty and off topic but that’s all I can think about when I see this discourse and you’re the only person I’ve seen so far who might have a chance of knowing the answer.

    Thank you!!!

    1. The boy’s feet are hit by lightning and that makes them grow to that size. No, it doesn’t make much sense, but I assumed that it’s either a reference to something or just because Mr. Woodruff likes drawing feet that way.

  2. Oh my gosh!! Thank you so much. Given everything else I’ve seen about this book, “hit by lightning” feels like a perfectly sensible explanation, haha.

  3. I’m curious, every single image I’ve seen has almost oppressively expressionless faces. Which sounds like it’s at least partly deliberate or acknowledged given the description of the parents, but also on a later page they’re described as “laughing” but the image didn’t seem to show that.

    Is the whole book like that?

    1. There’s probably less than a handful of drawings where the characters display any kind of expression on their faces.

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