Interview with Jim Woodring: The Artist’s Journey
Jim Woodring is a legend in the comics art form with a signature style inspired by MAD magazine, Surrealism, Eastern spiritualism and hallucinations of frogs. His latest book, his first full-length graphic novel, “Weathercraft,” published by Fantagraphics, takes us on a Hero’s Journey with one of the most unlikely of heroes and one of Woodring’s long-running characters, Manhog, an unholy union of man and hog. In this interview, we explore Woodring’s own artist’s journey and some of his own preoccupations, real and otherworldly. I conducted this interview in July, 2010, shortly after the release of “Weathercraft.”
Henry Chamberlain: What would you like most to do if you were teaching a class in comics? In the documentary based on your life, “The Lobster and the Liver,” you demonstrate objects in nature, made up objects and hybrid objects. That looked like the start of an awesome comics course.
Jim Woodring: What I would most like to do if I were teaching would be to have just two or three students at a time. I’ve taught cartooning to large groups and it’s been frustrating. Everyone who wants to cartoon has a different idea of what they want to do and they have lots and lots of questions pertaining to their particular goals. Besides, I just don’t know how to teach manga or superhero cartooning. I can give them information on materials and show them inking techniques, teach storytelling concepts like shot rhythm, camera line and page breaks, and a few other things like that, but when it comes to putting these things into practice everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and it’s difficult to come through for everyone in a large class. Besides, a cartoonist has to find his own unique voice if he is going to do anything good, and that means self-invention.
As for my particular vocabulary, hybrid shapes and all that, I don’t think it would be a good idea to try to teach people to do what I do. Let them discover their own approach, it’s best for them and for the world.
HC: In a Comics Journal interview with Gary Groth, you talk about your desire to create pure comics. You explain that Frank comics are wordless in order to retain a timeless quality. And you go on to express a desire to just focus on the symbols. Isn’t there some intrinsic need to keep a narrative? Or do you foresee moving away from it altogether?
JW: Well, I don’t recall what I said in that interview, but I’m guessing I was referring to the desire to use the symbolic language in pictures rather than comics. Nobody would buy non-narrative comics that were composed entirely of symbols that only meant something to me.
HC: What do you consider to be the natural next step beyond art, beyond being an artist?
JW: What I do believe is that whatever it is that gives art its charge is something that ultimately has to be approached through direct means and not through art. Symbolism alerts you to the existence of something that cannot be reached through symbolism, but needs to be sought directly. Personally I feel the need to go from the symbol to the thing symbolized. That would be true whether I was an artist or not.
HC: There are many references in “Weathercraft” to tears in the fabric of reality. Would you share some of your thoughts on the lofty concept of reality?
JW: The notion that the world is not what it seems to us to be is ancient, and the truth of it can be directly perceived. Everything we experience that has name, form, personality, color, all the attributes of reality, comes from within. A car is not a car until we make it a car with our minds. Until then it is a conglomeration of atoms, a colorless, purposeless, nameless, nearly attributeless drop in the vast ocean of entropic mush.
HC: If you could be a fly on the wall, anywhere and in any time period to witness something, when and where would you be?
JW: I would be in Dakshineswar, India, in 1875, sitting at the feet of Sri Ramakrishna.
HC: I’m attracted to drawing rabbits. For you, frogs come up often in your work. There is the story of you dropping out of college after hallucinating frogs. Is there something you might like to say on the subject of frogs?
JW: Oddly enough, I once heard of a person who had such a phobia of frogs that she would leave a house if she heard one croaking nearby. That’s damn peculiar. I think most people find frogs attractive and some of us find them profoundly attractive. They are small, exquisitely pretty and strangely anthropomorphic. They are biologically interesting, metamorphosing as they do, and they even seem to emulate certain aspects of sadhana, sitting still for an hour at a time and singing at dusk.
HC: You’ve spoken about the Middle Eastern architecture of the Brand Library in Glendale, California. That was your refuge as a teenager and that same architecture can be found in your Frank comics. Can you speak a little more about the importance of having anchors like that library in a young life?
JW: Well, think of that beautiful building, full of books on art, in that park setting, a stone’s throw from the house of a deeply confused but artistically inclined youth. It was an oasis, a refuge, a place where my guardian spirits met. I was a bit anti-social and my life was mostly interior and, in Glendale, I knew not a single adult artist aside from my school’s art teachers, who didn’t like me very much and who weren’t doing work I found at all interesting anyway. Brand Library was like an outpost of heaven. I always walked into that building with the sense of entering a temple where God lived on the shelves.
HC: Cartoonists are something of a unique breed. I mean, a true cartoonist is someone who writes and draws. It takes quite a lot to focus and try to master two such imposing art forms. Could you say a little about that? You’ve talked about how you thought you were going to just do art and then you discovered underground comics.
JW: That’s true of many cartoonists, that they originally wanted to be easel artists and then found that cartooning offered them a better vehicle for their artistic ambitions. Justin Green and Bill Griffith come to mind. As a kid, I loved MAD, the old comic book MAD, and the early magazine format issues. Bill Elder, Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, all those guys were huge heroes of mine. I didn’t even try to copy them, I knew it was impossible. I’d drawn cartoons in my own pitiful way since I was a little shaver but I wasn’t very good and I didn’t make very many strips. I don’t think I actually completed a comic until I was in high school, and the few I did then were dismally bad. I was concentrating more on pictures and paintings, also dismally bad. I drew a few comics for money in my 20′s, still dismally bad, but the opportunities were there so I lunged at them, qualified or not. I didn’t begin to draw comics in earnest until 1986, when Gary Groth saw as copy of my self-published autojournal, JIM, and told me that, if I put comics in it, he’d publish it.
HC: Your comic story, “Too Stupid To Live,” is about an amazing mishap as a youth where you were drunk and fell asleep on some train tracks but were saved just moments before a train would have taken your life. Can you retell it?
JW: It’s a true story. My dear old friend, Ted Miller, now unfortunately gone back into the void, and I would take all-night walks, swilling whiskey, smoking cigarettes and talking trash. Sometimes we’d walk along the train tracks that ran north; sometimes we’d hop off and walk back. Anyhow, one night, we were lying on the tracks, with our heads on one rail and our ankles on the other, talking our big talk and reminding ourselves to keep alert for trains. But we both fell asleep and were awakened by the sound of an approaching whistle. Simple pleasures.
HC: Delicate and enchanting things, like pen nibs, need to be cherished and carried on. Considering your project to create the world’s largest pen nib and holder, what can you tell us about the world of pen nibs and any other time honored gems that come to mind? And how is your pen nib project coming along?
JW: I still have dreams about walking into Broad Stationers, on Brand Boulevard in Glendale, which was an old establishment when I was a youth. The shelves were full of enticing objects: a huge variety of pens, pen holders and different kinds of ink, pencil knives (like wooden pencils with a metal blade running through it instead of lead; you cut away the wood and formed the blade with a file to suit your purpose), huge sticks of red sealing wax that smelled like incense for sealing string-wrapped packages, all kinds of paper in neat packages, such as canary manifold and brass ferrules, pantographs, hektographs, listo pencils, china markers, ink eradicator and a lot more that I can’t even begin to remember. It makes me a little sad to know that the world of the old stationery has vanished.
I’m still waiting for funding for the Giant Pen, but in the meantime, I’m working out various ways to overcome the obvious problems of getting the ink to adhere and flow at that scale. I’m sure I can make it work somehow.
HC: We all wish you well, of course. Anything new on the horizon? Can we expect more gallery shows, toys from Presspop and collaborations with Bill Frisell?
JW: Well, I’m working on a new 100-page book, “The Congress of the Animals.” And, of course, I would love to work with Bill again. Something will happen. I can promise you that.