Grickle is many things and means nothing, so it takes a minute to sum up. It's a book. It's a film collection. It's a daily single-panel cartooning practice for the Instagram age. It's a brand umbrella and two-decade passion project of Portland animator Graham Annable. It's a loose universe influenced by both The Far Side and Twilight Zone.
But perhaps the best tonal indicator of Annable's original horror-comedy world is in the soundscapes of his Grickle films. One audio bin outsizes all others in Annable's personal server: "I could guarantee the type of sound effect I have the most of is screams," he says. "Screams for any occasion. There's nothing like a good scream. Intensity. Sincerity. There are a lot of fakey screams that don't do it for me."
And why do people (or skeletons and ducks, for that matter) scream in Grickle shorts? All the normal reasons. Encroaching vampires. Encroaching murderers with leaf blowers. Encroaching emptiness in the blank, white world their creator has stranded them in.
Annable has a résumé headlined by his roles as co-director of Laika Studios' The Boxtrolls, for which the Canadian received an Oscar nomination, and lead animator at LucasArts during the company's golden age of adventure gaming in the '90s. But the full hour of Grickle films on display at the NW Film Center on Jan. 16 is the most personal expression of his artistry. For that reason, Annable says, it's always a little strange to see Grickle collected for theatrical presentation.
"I've never put this many all together for one big showing," says Annabelle, who's screening work from 2007 through 2019. "My first thought is, 'Jeez, I hope this doesn't tire everybody out,' because I really do hit the old tension note in most of my films. I don't know what that'll do to the human brain when you have a sustained hour of it."
Indeed, protracted tension is the crux of most Grickle shorts. The wordless cartoon humans—with their sausage noses, stick legs and upside-down pentagon heads—are easily duped, dispatched, knocked unconscious, and sometimes just go through hand-drawn life in a state of unconsciousness. Much of the series' black comedy comes from how easily foiled Annable's characters are, which is Grickle's bleaker side.
"I've been going through a lot of old Twilight Zones, Annable says, "and my favorite ones are the episodes where people wake up and everyone's just gone."
But look at it another way, and the animator's feasts of tension are derived from genuine vulnerability. Grickle: A Cartoon World opens with the recurring character Principal Skeleton (who looks exactly what he sounds like) soberly delivering a school announcement. He flips on the PA system and opens his exposed mandible to let out a long, aching groan—some kind of unintelligible testament to a world with no reaction. This pattern repeats throughout the hour of Grickle: Stranger approaches stranger; one shares a song, dance or secret, and waits silently for an unpredictable response.
"I feel like that's the life of an artist," Annable says. "Creating art has been that refuge from a world none of us can control, but you can make your own contribution to it."
Just beneath the stick-figure simplicity, moments of deeper craft aren't difficult to discern. For his short We Sing the Forest Electric, Annable composed an EDM symphony for a choir of woodland animals. In The Smartest Dog in the World, we see a mastery of perspective as Annable invents the "shot" of a horrified cat looking for its master amid lapping flames.
In discussing these choices, Annable is just as likely to note his obsessiveness as his short attention span, which is how you wind up with a world so visually slight and emotionally hefty. Even the name "Grickle" is defined by such a contrast. It's a nonsensical childhood nickname bestowed on Annable by his father: utter meaningless beyond the weight it's given through repetition, association and love.
"It still feels the right word. I don't know why!" Annable says. "Grickle has kinda turned into my version of The Far Side. I realized I'm probably just trying to fill the void Gary Larson left in my life."
SEE IT: Grickle: A Cartoon World by Graham Annable screens at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org, on Thursday, Jan. 16. 7 pm. $5-$10.