An Interview with Jim Woodring
For three years, without even knowing it, I lived a few blocks from Jim Woodring. Both of our homes sat on the border of Seattle’s old-growth Ravenna Park, a wooded gorge that has now been immortalized in comic history by Charles Burns’s graphic novel Black Hole. During that period, I spent a lot of time wandering through the park and, coincidentally, discovering Woodring’s surreal comic narratives, which could easily be interpreted as guides for the wandering mind.
His Frank books follow the eponymous main character, a “generic anthropomorph” (not quite a cat, a mouse, or any other kind of animal), as he explores a world that is vaguely similar to early surrealist paintings and Disney cartoons. Since 1980, when Woodring self-published his “illustrated auto-journal,” JIM, he has developed the “Uni-factor” (as he calls it) or “Frank-verse” (as his fans call it) into a fully realized dreamworld that seems to stretch far beyond the page. In the introduction to The Frank Book, Francis Ford Coppola describes this world as “wordless, timeless, placeless.” The cast of characters who inhabit it have also grown, and include Pupshaw (Frank’s pet), Man-hog (a snarling, naked fat man), a vast array of frogs, and all sorts of unnameable phantasmagoric bystanders, each of which serves its own tiny purpose in Woodring’s expansive, ineffable vision.
Woodring’s artwork has never fit into common categories of comics, fine art, or graphic novels. His narratives are slow and silent, with the arc of a calm spiritual quest or an introspective acid trip. Despite the utterly abstract nature of his stories, they seem to follow a consistent visual logic and somehow evoke the menial actions of our everyday lives. In addition to his Frank and Jim books, all released by Fantagraphics, he has collaborated with the jazz guitarist Bill Frisell to make musically inspired images and multimedia performances that have been presented at Carnegie Hall, among other places. He seems to be in a constant state of creating toys, drawings, and paintings, all of which he sells at galleries and on his website, sometimes to private collectors. Recently, he learned to read and write a little Sanskrit.
This interview was conducted in Jim’s home in the summer of ’08. He looked bearded, wild-eyed—a self-described “bear of man.” When I arrived, he was in the middle of the Antonio Gaudí documentary by Hiroshi Teshigahara, an unhurried tour of Gaudí’s otherworldly architecture, released by the Criterion Collection. While we talked, Woodring let it play with the sound off. Sometimes he interjected, pointing at the screen, saying, “Did you see that?” His wife came and left as we talked. We sat in his living room, among his handmade artifacts and his character dolls proudly displayed on a mantel that serves as a shrine to Woodring’s spiritual and artistic heroes.
THE BELIEVER: In your bio it says that you “enjoyed a childhood full of apparitions, hallucinations, and paranoia.” After reading some of the JIM books, I have a vague idea about what these were, but can you talk about what exactly would happen? Would they hit you in the shower? Do you remember them pretty clearly?
JIM WOODRING: I can remember many of the bizarre delusions I experienced as a child very well, because they were big events in my life and I thought about them a lot. Most of them occurred when I was in elementary school. By sixth grade, they were less clamorous and I stopped being so confused by them. When I was four or five, I spent a horrible year convinced my parents were going to come into my room after I went to sleep and kill me. Every night I tried not to fall asleep. I thought I could hear them standing outside my door, plotting. Lying in bed at night, I saw glowing faces and shapes hovering in the air over me, and sometimes an enormous eye. One time I was sure there was a lion in the house—I heard it roar and I could see its shadow. I barricaded myself in my room and cried hysterically. Another time I saw a big party horn with teeth and a tongue and wings flying around in my room. I told my mother about it and she got very upset.
Sometimes I heard voices saying my name. Sometimes they said, “No.” Sometimes they said vaguely parental things, like “Don’t be ridiculous.” Sometimes they seemed to speak about me. I remember being in my second-grade classroom and hearing a voice say, “He’s breaking everything,” and I shouted out, “I am not!” Everyone, including the teacher, seemed to think it was funny, and I remember feeling very pleased at what I perceived as warm, appreciative laughter.
BLVR: So the hallucinations were sort of a good thing?
JW: Good? Who knows. But I came to regard them as not only a part of life but the most interesting part. Consensus reality seemed like a dull, dead-end street compared to the intense, mutable reality of those visions or whatever they were—neurological misfires. I expected life to be full of sudden, inexplicable surprises. When these things didn’t happen for a while, life seemed dull and painful. I loved the strangeness, the mystery they presented, and I searched for more of the same everywhere. If I was going up a staircase in the dark, I would dance with anticipatory excitement, like I did when we went to Disneyland. I called that prevision state a “sticky mood”—that sense that I was approaching knowledge. I loved it.
BLVR: The “big party horn with teeth and a tongue and wings” sounds like something that might fly through one of your drawings. Does much of your imagery or style derive from these hallucinations?
JW: A lot of imagery from those old JIM comics and stories, such as “Dinosaur Cage” and “Screechy Peachy,” came directly from delusional episodes, and the big green frog on the cover of the first Fantagraphics JIM is something I hallucinated in my late teens, which has remained an important presence in my life. I’ve drawn it dozens of times, and it always gives me a wave of pleasure to contemplate it. The first successful drawing I ever made was Barnyard Trouble, when I was twenty-six. It was heavily laden with images from the flying-horn era. One of the best memories of my life is contemplating that first finished drawing and realizing I had cracked the code, that I could make drawings like this whenever I wanted. My ego went supernova. It was one of the strongest highs I ever experienced: a radiant, full-body, full-mind ecstasy.
BLVR: I’m sure many artists are making art from this childhood imagination, but you seem to acknowledge and embrace it in a way that most people don’t.
JW: Yeah,well, I’m sure many people’s childhoods are filled with these neurological misfires and misperceptions, but since they’re not planning on making a career out of examining and exploiting these experiences, they have no reason to keep those memories alive. For me, nothing else seemed even remotely as interesting. There’s a Robinson Jeffers poem about a guy who has made wounds on the back of his hands and keeps them fresh by cutting them over and over again with a sharp piece of clean metal. That always struck me as being akin to what I do. I wouldn’t let those childhood wounds heal. The tunnel kept trying to close behind me, and I kept forcing it open so I could remember those primordial things, the way that the world seemed to me as a child. It’s been a vocation for me to keep that view intact.
BLVR: I imagine, for most people, that kind of thing could be detrimental to their lives.
JW: It certainly has been for me, socially. I’ve sacrificed a lot to maintain that way of seeing things. It’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to appreciate how much I’ve missed by being so focused on the bizarre. If I had learned how to get along in the quotidian world while keeping up the search for the hidden realm, I might have gotten more out of life. But I believed I was doing hugely important work. I was elitist about it. I wanted to be a pariah, because all my heroes were cult artists, people who devoted their lives to poking into very narrow, very deep corners—Erik Satie, Alfred Jarry, Malcolm Lowry—people who suffered in order to express their vision of life.
BLVR: You’ve had some experiences with hallucinogens and, particularly, the plant salvia divinorum. Would you connect any of these experiences to your early hallucinations? Did they affect you in the same artistic way?
JW: Well, salvia divinorum is in a class by itself. I’ve heard it’s the most powerful naturally occurring hallucinogen, and I believe it. The effects of a medium-strong dose are violently disorienting and not fun in the slightest. I never experienced anything in my natural state that was as shocking as its effects. The condensed extract is murder. I’d smoked some plain leaf and experienced a very alien, very physical sensation, like wheels grinding against each other all over my body. Odd, not pleasant, but not overwhelming. Someone sent me some extract, and I took a big lungful, started counting, and before I reached twenty I was suddenly and without preamble in a completely altered state. I’d heard that you shouldn’t take salvia without having a minder, but I figured that was for green kids. Well, that was wrong. There was no transition, just a sudden and total change of reality. I was completely disoriented, couldn’t remember that I had smoked anything, had no idea what was happening to me. I panicked and jumped to my feet. I thought I was dying; I was convinced I was dying. It was familiar, unwelcome, and very heavy. Fortunately, my wife happened to be in the room. She saw me staggering around, totally uncoordinated, and eased me down onto the floor. I couldn’t see her but I could hear her voice, which sounded like thousands of voices. Ten minutes later, it was over. No residue, no hangover, nothing. But the experience stayed with me in a very creepy way. I’ve never had LSD flashbacks, but I have had spontaneous resurgences of that experience. I highly don’t recommend it.
BLVR: Did it have an effect on your work?
JW: It did. Some pictures I’ve drawn, like the big charcoal drawing called Life After Man, express ideas that were influenced by those few minutes. The question of what is happening, things we can’t perceive but which concern and affect us—what the atman is, that sort of thing is of paramount interest to me, and some chemicals do seem to whip the tablecloth off the surface of consensus reality. Whether the insights they provide are valid is another question.